The Harbinger of Doom, or NOT!

This is where we were at in my last post:

“Now, I hate to be the harbinger of doom (I’m talking to all you younger ladies out there as well), but all women, every single one of us, must face this scenario sooner or later. As we age the popular media gradually villainizes and de-sexualizes us, and eventually completely removes us from view. By eliminating our visibility they take away our voice. Without a voice we have no power. Our problem is stated.”Should we wait to do something about this until it reaches crisis point? No. Come on ladies, we need to look at it now!”

How then, do we, as women, address this impending pandemic postmodern crisis, especially when it is rooted so deeply in the foundations of our patriarchal/consumer capitalist culture?

Well, I think we’ll have to look a bit closer at why the media depicts women in such a disempowering way, to understand it. Maybe then we’ll be able to envisage a workable solution.

We’ll start with patriarchy, which has commodified the female body. Luce Irigaray outlines the process in her book This Sex Which Is Not One, where she explains that society constructs men as producer-subjects and women as the objects of exchange. The more attractive the woman is, the greater her value in the sexual economy.

Then, how is attractiveness defined and who decides this? Well, I’ve got my eye on the consumer-capitalist hegemony (corporations, adverting agencies etc.). They have set up a template for female attractiveness that consists of a set of attributes which disempower most women to some extent, but it has had the most serious effect on post-menopausal women, who have been relegated to the margins of our visual field.

Consumerism is driven by desire, and we all know that desire is a response to the feeling of perceived lack. Advertisers have long known that in order to create desire for their products, they need only generate a feeling of deficiency in people and then position their products to alleviate the mass mirage of inadequacy (which they set up). Professor Mike Featherstone explains that in consumer culture the body is the quintessential expression of self and, for a woman in particular, the physical state of her body acts as visible proof of her worth. Disturbing? Yeah, at least, but I think the most distressing part of this distortion is the current narrowly-defined template for female beauty.

Susan Sontag asserts that men are judged by two standards of physical attractiveness, the boy and the man, whereas women are judged by only one, the girl. You’ll probably agree with me that the prototype of the ideal postmodern female is a tall, skinny teenager with a smooth, unblemished complexion, long luxurious hair, curly-long eyelashes and pouty lips. We are constantly barraged with images of these sexy child-women. These are the devices advertisers employ to keep us in a constant state of anxiety about our physical appearance, so that we ‘need’ to purchase more and more products to restore our flawed bodies to an imagined state of perfection. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf claims that this rigid model of female beauty is like an ‘iron maiden’ torture device, spawned as a backlash to feminism in order to limit women’s power by disrupting their internal sense of themselves.  Wolf asserts that this male-controlled ‘beauty myth’ acts to silence women. But we will not be silenced!

Regardless of their age, women in the West are compelled to measure themselves against this artificial representation of femininity that is, in its rare embodiment, extraordinarily ephemeral. But when our reproductive years are over, it seems that our femininity licence expires and our graduated exile from the sexual economy begins. Menopause is frequently experienced as a descent into loneliness, isolation and abject self-loathing.

“There is some sort of culturally pervasive idea that post-menopausal women are no longer female.” (Sociology of Later Life)

Almost everywhere we, post-menopausal, women look we are slapped in the face by images of svelte, statuesque child-women castigating us for not being a facsimile of their photoshopped perfection. Every glance in the mirror reminds us of how far we have strayed from the ideal image of femininity; the femininity that previously defined us and told us who we were and how we were to be. Is it any wonder that so many post-menopausal women suffer from a loss of identity? Seriously, how can we help being indoctrinated by these images, when they are ubiquitous and endlessly revolving around us?

The age of forty seems to be the demarcation point for our decline; at least that’s when I began to notice time and its insidious effects. In our thirties we are still fertile, and we feel as young as we always did, only sexier, but virtually as soon as we hit the peri-menopausal years, we are confronted with rejection. The first and most ruthless rejection is the censure we perform every day when we look in the mirror. If we see a wrinkle, we try to pat it away with deep action day cream with nanosomes of pro-retinol A. If we feel a slight bulge over the top of our pants, we run down to the gym and fork out eight hundred bucks for a membership. If we spy some grey hairs in our still-luxuriant mop, off to the pharmacy we trot, for a packet of hair dye, or if we can afford it, to that funky hair salon downtown, where we could be up to four hundred dollars out of pocket, for one hair-do. We will go to almost any lengths to stave off the aging scourge, because if we don’t make an attempt to meet the ideal beauty standard, the ‘other’ rejection (I am referring to our rejection by other parties) might be more than we are able to bare.

Then, some time after fifty, when we’re absolutely post-menopausal, ‘other’ rejection is almost inevitable and although the degree of ‘other’ rejection we are to expect varies according to circumstances, it forms a multifarious array of humiliations, ranging from being ignored and talked down to by sales people, to being derided and ridiculed on the radio by punky little DJs, to being ostracized from cool third wave feminist sites, because we’re not “young feminists,” to being physically abused or attacked, because we look like the weakest target.

Obviously appearance is everything in our Western culture, and the older we get, the less attractive we become, and the less love we deserve. I know this because Nike told me so. Remember that TV commercial for Nike and Foot Locker that proclaimed boldly, “You’ve got to be young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”  Is there any wonder, we women are terrified of aging? Although you may be one of the awesome few who are steely enough to have not succumbed to the multitude of constant and relentless messages like Nike’s, there are millions of women in the West who have, and are now afraid enough of aging to outlay money, and loads of it:

“Innumerable ads reinforce-and prey on-women’s fear of aging…

Seeking to forestall the inevitable, women spend an estimated $20 billion worldwide every year on skin-care products that promise to eliminate wrinkles and retard aging.”  ~Michael Jacobson               

I really hate to think that as long as there is capitalism, there will be images of willowy child-women hurled at us by advertisers and the media, harassing us into a state of distress about how we look, causing our men (and ourselves) to compare us to that impossibly perfect, almost inhuman stereotype. Should we just ignore it and hope it will go away? Hell no! We need to actively work on resolving this problem, ladies.

Okay, so we’re going to instigate change. Where do we start?

Well, we need to work on helping older women to reject their imposed invisibility and to step back into the public sphere. We also need to re-feminise the image of the older woman, which will instil it with power, and finally, we need to re-invest the public sphere (particularly the popular media), with these images.

Cheryl Dolby is a Virginia artist who has embraced her aging. She gives this advice to women:

“Think about allowing your wrinkles to act as a voice to proclaim and reclaim your power. What if our image of beauty changed and we revered wrinkles? What an interesting new world this would be.” 

Now, as much as I love this notion, I just can’t see anything like it happening in the near future. Men are turned on by smooth, firm skin, and I have noticed that the older men get, the less discerning they are about who is in the skin, as long as it’s young and supple. I am also aware that any and all of the older women in the public eye have been artificially de-aged to some extent. This being said, how can we achieve the wonderful state of cultural maturity that Cheryl Dolby proposes?

Well, artists have already brought this major social injustice into the public eye, but has there been any significant change? The answer to that question is an obvious and resounding, No! What options do we, women have, then? I suppose we could force ourselves to stop caring about being sexually desirable, but is that fair? A lot of women love sex and we want to feel that we are sexy to our men; I know I do, after all, it’s as natural as breathing.

The only answer I can see is to elicit a change in the aesthetic for physical beauty, by attempting to amalgamate the spiritual, the emotional, the mental and the historical with the physical, for a beauty that is all of what a woman is, not just the shallowness of her exterior form.  

Joanna Frueh suggests that we can achieve this through art, and I would agree that artists, theorists and producers of cultural critique are our all important advance guard, shouting the message out to the trend-setters and progressives, which is the indispensable first step in social action. However, this social injustice emerged from the proliferation of images in our society, and not just in the public sphere, either. These images are truly ubiquitous, they are in newspapers, magazines, on television, in films, on billboards, stickers, signs, brochures, children’s toys, books, phone aps, all over the internet and they’re even plastered over busses and other public vehicles. Advertising in all forms, fashion, news, film, photography, games, and art; these are the images that we must change. Take away the privileged position of the willowy child-woman in our popular media and put her back where she belongs, in her niche demographic! We older women have power in numbers, we must populate the popular media. We must dazzle the popular media with our myriad of appearances; our beauty must shine from every shape, size, color, contour and curve. We must believe that we are sexy and we must show the world that we are sexy, and that we are HERE! We must not let them relegate us to the margins of society for another minute!

Now, it sounds awesome, and it is, but it’s not going to be easy. To do this we must take our fair share of control in the production and dissemination of images. We must use our power in numbers and take control of our share of the massive social media networks. We must take media jobs, and work on changing policy. We must educate our girls to understand that this is all important for them as well, because youth is fleeting and we are living longer, so being an older woman is something they will have to live with for a long time. We must write it in articles, blogs, letters to editors, petitions, short stories, novels, plays, scripts, academic papers. We must take pictures, make films, paint, draw, sew, sculpt, fabricate, build. We must talk about it with our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our friends, our acquaintances, our bosses, our subordinates. Shout it out loud and clear to the world. We are here and we are gorgeous! We will not be invisible any longer!

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Somewhere in the wild foothills of Mt Baldy (outside Los Angeles), lives an Australian/American person named Cat Fleming. She is one of those curious creatures who writes things down, she has done that her whole life, she even has a degree in Creative Writing. Cat is in also in blissful contentment when reading others' writing too. She became and English teacher so that she could spread the joy of the written word in all its soul-exposing forms. As a writer she is compelled to cut through facades and reveal truths. Being a mother, a teacher and a writer have somehow coalesced in her life to form a passion for writing MG and YA novels, which is what she does now. Cat has written in several other genres and forms, an array of which have been published in the online journals, Mung Being, Sitelines, Right Hand Pointing, The Short Humour Site and Connotation Press, and has been printed in Mundaring Sharing Magazine and the MLM anthology, Winter Canons.

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