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How women are redefining beauty

Throughout history, when people have defined female beauty they’ve consistently used restricted ideas of youthful appearances. But in recent years there’s been a growing appreciation for timeless beauty that’s not limited by age.

Recently, US-based entrepreneur, Gina Pell, who’s 49, coined the term perennials, which she uses to describe people who have a no-age mindset. But why it’s taken so long for us to progress as a society and revise ideas of what makes people beautiful is complex.

Why have ideas about beauty and ageing remained unchanged?

According to Dr Michelle Smith, Senior Lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts, ‘There is a long history of dismissing older women as unimportant, powerless, and past their use, particularly once they were no longer able to bear children.’ She explains that while it’s likely this always existed, the very clear ideas of female beauty were defined in black and white in the late 19th Century when women’s magazines became popular.

‘These magazines began to include a large number of advertisements and advice about beauty products, and beauty guidebooks also began to published. In these books and magazines, the rules about women and ageing begin to be laid out publicly,’ Dr Smith explains. The ‘rules’ persisted and consistently featured: make up to cover wrinkles, dying grey hair and using products to reverse any sign of ageing.

'There is a long history of dismissing older women as unimportant, powerless, and past their use, particularly once they were no longer able to bear children.'

Dr Michelle Smith,
Deakin University

Why women can’t win

Although women have repeatedly been told to do everything they can to maintain youthful looks, they’re also criticised when they don’t transition to a more mature appearance after middle age. ‘Women such as Madonna who have tried to maintain a sexy image throughout their 50s are frequently called disgusting because we still have conservative views about female sexuality,’ Dr Smith points out.

She adds that as a society, we’re yet to accept the idea that it’s normal for older women to be interested in sex and being attractive. ‘The root cause is double standards in views about sex and sexual desirability.’

Dr Smith highlights Hollywood, where leading men in their 50s, 60s and even 70s are cast, whereas female leads are more likely to be in their 30s. ‘Maggie Gyllenhaal, for instance, was told that she was “too old” at 37 to play the romantic interest of an actor who was 55.’

She explains that while there was once a biological imperative for men to be attracted to younger, fertile women, today that’s not the case. So when the inconsistency occurs, it is reflective of a gendered power imbalance.

The war on beauty

Although it’s an ongoing battle, women are beginning to push back against historic beauty ideals. Take Australian jewellery designer Sarah Jane Adams, for example. In an effort to fight notions of what an ageing woman should look like, she started an Instagram profile in her late 50s.

Her posts highlight her vibrant style and unapologetic attitude towards ageing. She argues, ‘my wrinkles are my stripes,’ and her attitude has struck a chord. She has 150,000 followers and the numbers continue to climb.

Dr Smith argues there are some significant societal shifts that need to occur if we want to change perceptions towards women’s beauty and ageing. ‘We need to stop judging women on their appearance in ways that we don’t do for men. Think of the endless criticism of the clothing, hair and body shapes of female political leaders such as Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton,’ she suggests.

She adds that the fundamental change should be a response to gender imbalances. ‘We need to recognise the sexism and power imbalance involved in our cultural belief that it is standard for older men to pair with younger women but for the reverse situation to be bizarre or grotesque,’ she concludes.

Interested in issues concerning women? Check out why we need to stop making assumptions about attraction and Should women should have to wear heels to work? 

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Dr Michelle Smith
Dr Michelle Smith

Senior Lecturer, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University

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