Age of Enlightenment: The Evolving Ideals of Beauty, Sexuality and Vitality in Aging
Dame Helen Mirren at the screening for "Shazam! Fury of the Gods," London, March 2023. Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Social Media, climate change, politics, pandemics — the world has certainly reinvented itself since Zoomer launched 15 years ago, for better and worse. But one realm in particular has seen a far more positive evolution over the past 15 years: our more expansive perspective on aging.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
So goes the opening stanza of Warning, by Jenny Joseph. Penned when the author was 29, it would become one of the world’s most popular poems. But her joyous ode to aging with panache was more wishful thinking than reality when she wrote it in 1961.
The idea that any years past 60 were ripe for indulgence, pleasure, sass and flashy clothes would have been viewed as eccentric at best, and improper by most. Yet in the short lifetime of anyone who is 60 today, we’ve advanced from women settling in for their blue-rinse grandparent years to a lasting yen for models in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, alongside a phalanx of equally august lifestyle gurus, style icons, soigné cultural avatars, political powerhouses, leading ladies and avant-garde art stars.
Not that we always ace the messaging these days. Last month, Vogue’s prestige September issue was heralded as a tribute to ’90s supermodels — Linda, Cindy, Christy, and Naomi, all well into their 50s, gracing the cover.
“The inspiration was showing the girls as they are now. They’re not supposed to be who they were when they were 21. It’s who they are now,” Edward Enninful, OBE, former British Vogue editor and newly appointed Global Creative and Cultural Advisor for Vogue, proclaimed earnestly — before releasing the magazine that airbrushed them to a degree that refuted the point of the endeavour, with the New York Times calling Vogue out for “egregious age erasing.”
“The promotion of women aged 58 (Linda Evangelista), 57 (Cindy Crawford), 54 (Christy Turlington) and 53 (Naomi Campbell) as paragons of mature beauty whose years have been smoothed from their face … doesn’t serve the women on the cover. And it doesn’t serve the women who look to them as role models,” scolded the Times. Irritating and unnecessary as Vogue’s over-retouching was, it’s actually the swift rebuke from one of the world’s most venerated newspaper that reflects the modern view.
And speaking of models and modern views, in recent years Paulina Porizkova, 58, initiated the viral hashtag #OldAndUgly on Instagram to push back against ageist comments she received when she shared a photo of herself in a bikini; supermodels Beverly Johnson and Kelly Emberg — ages 69 and 62 respectively — graced the cover of Genlux magazine for their “Age Is Just A Number” issue; and Iris Apfel, at age 97, scored a modelling contract.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an equally outdated reading of the zeitgeist with a 2023 essay that contended: “From anti-aging face creams to wisecracking birthday cards about getting older, the message is clear: Being old is something to avoid.”
Someone tell Martha Stewart. The once OCD Domestic Goddess has flowered into a wry dame who cracks jokes about her stint in jail, does Sports Illustrated swimsuit spreads at 81 for kicks — the oldest model in the magazine’s history — and counts Snoop Dog among her closest chums. In fact, she faux tattooed his face on her arm in 2023 for one of their endless joint ventures, which include cooking shows and crime-inspired wine to “munchies-inspired” ice cream. Anyone see that coming back in 2008?
Fifteen years ago, a late 60s Stewart was promoting her Home Depot homewares collaboration. In her 80s, she’s launching CBD goodies while laughing about how “fabulous” she feels thanks to the bonfire-level pot smoke she absorbs hanging out with the OG rap star.
Then there’s Marina Abramović, the renowned modern conceptual artist, who this month, at 76, will become the first woman in the 255-year history of London’s Royal Academy to be honoured with a career retrospective. While at it, she’ll also be performing her opera, The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas, at the London Coliseum — and promoting two new books.
Had she considered not tackling all of these projects at once, inquired The Guardian.
“Are you crazy?” laughed Abramović. “I’m 77 in November. What am I going to do? Sit home and wait for my pension?”
Taking yourself less seriously is among the more sterling advantages of aging. The APA’s sourpuss critique widely misses the mark in an era where women dye their grey hair bright pink, take Around the World in 80 Days adventures with their octogenarian besties, enjoy extreme sports in record numbers, blithely beguile men half their age, score multiple brand deals at 101, and inspire coffee table books devoted to athletes decathlon-ing into their 90s.
Using skin cream and having a laugh about your supposedly “advanced” years perfectly sums up the contemporary view. There’s no ignominy in keeping up a polished façade if that’s your thing. Vanity is not unique to older people. But it’s your attitude about aging that counts most.
“Sometimes when I say I’m 86, I don’t believe it. I feel 20,” screen legend Sophia Loren remarked in 2021. “When I look in the mirror, I cheer for myself. I don’t ask, ‘Are you great?’ or ‘Are you beautiful?’ No! It’s how I feel inside, how secure I am, how happy I am. That’s what matters.”
That we’re as young — or as old — as we feel is more than just a maxim. The greatest leap forward we’ve made in how we feel about aging in the last decade-and-a-half is, literally, how we feel about aging.
In her 2022 book, Breaking the Age Code, How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live, Becca Levy, PhD, reveals the concrete health benefits of age-positive beliefs.
“People who’ve taken in a negative message about aging have elevated cortisol levels and higher physiological stress levels,” Levy said in a 2022 interview with NPR about her research, which found that people over 60 with a poor view of aging run a 40 per cent higher risk for a cardiovascular event and live about 7.5 fewer years than those with a positive attitude about getting older.
A Harvard grad, Yale Professor and leading authority on aging and longevity, Levy’s graduate school studies saw her travel to Japan on a National Science Foundation fellowship to analyze why the Japanese have the world’s longest lifespans.
“What I noticed was that older people were really celebrated and integrated into society and treated with a lot of respect and admiration. They have a national holiday that celebrates older people. On television and in comic books, there are these super centenarians, 110 and older, who are celebrated like rock stars and celebrities. That sparked a number of the studies I describe in the book. Cross-cultural differences really matter — and show us how we can shift them. If they’re not intrinsic to one culture, we can adopt the best practices of different places into our own lives.”
“Other people call it growing older. I call it growing up,” says Dame Helen Mirren, 77, who — between 2008 bikini photos that went viral and her insouciant stance as a L’Oréal beauty ambassador since 2014 — helped kickstart a conversation about beauty and sexuality in aging that’s still ongoing today.
“Most of us are not beautiful. We have other stuff, which is just as powerful as beauty, and I would like to see us celebrate those things. I love the word swagger because it means I’m confident, I’m presenting myself to the world, I’m enjoying the world around me.”
So, in this lust for life, this embrace of a more dashing maturity, we find the realization of Jenny Joseph’s poem. Decades ago, with its brandy, red hats, purple clothes and satin sandals, the poem wished that our oldest years might also be our boldest.
“The most important thing I can tell you about aging is this,” said another poet, the late Maya Angelou. “If you really feel that you want to have an off-the-shoulder blouse and some big beads and thong sandals and a dirndl skirt and a magnolia in your hair, do it.”
No surprise there. Angelou’s own ode to the march of time, On Aging, included the line, “Don’t bring me no rocking chair.”
Old has always been an attitude. The only thing new is that the world has finally caught up.