The Issue with Age

“Of course it's no fun getting old and sick and dying.We all know that's coming and it's a bore. But people are living longer, they’re healthier longer, they have sex longer. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to age and why shouldn’t we be respected for it? When I turned 50 I felt a sense of achievement. I’ve lived 50 years! I made it. I think there’s something to be said for that and to be celebrated”, (Rowley, 2012).



Jerry Hall, who was a supermodel from the 70s and 80s, talks about ageing in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' documentary About Face: Supermodels then and now. The director interviewed twelve supermodels from that time period for his documentary, because he was “fascinated by how one reinvents oneself as one gets old in a society that’s so youth oriented”, (Rowley, 2012).

These women, whose beauty was their main capital, are probably affected the most by the ageism of our society. 

Youth serves as ideology, and constantly seeks its emphasis in the exhibition and worship of young bodies. Mainly those bodies are female, as they are considered to be “the universal consumer image of desirability”, (Featherstone & Wernick, 1995: 7).  It can be suggested that one of the driving forces behind this particular attitude is the emergence of mass production and consumption, while the accumulation of experience and knowledge are losing relevance, (Featherstone & Wernick, 1995).

The media in its various forms is contributing to reinforcing this image. Research, in the United States for example, shows that elderly people are underrepresented in the media context, according to their numbers in the actual population, (Robinson & Callister & Magoffin, 2009).

Primarily, it should be taken into account that “like class, ethnicity, and gender, age is a social category through which people define and identify individuals and groups within society. Age is both an important part of how we see ourselves and how others see us”, as it “acts as an important basis for the distribution of social prestige (…) access to power, material resources, and citizenship”, (Pilcher, 1995: 1).

The current idea of ageing goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, as the impacts of industrialisation were exploring the boundaries between useful and useless, and efficient and inefficient regarding the employment of a person for its job. The psychologist George Beard was seeking for the age, at which ‘the best work of the world’ would be done, (Beard, 1874). The result of his studies was, that the period between 30-45 years in a person’s life was the optimal one.

In the late nineteenth century, it was the time as the “American society passed from an acceptance of ageing as a natural process to a view of it as a distinct period of life characterised by decline, weakness, and obsolescence”,  (Hareven, 1995: 120).

With the rise of the consumer culture the dominance of the visual media arose, which concentrated on portraying exciting images of lifestyle, to be closely linked to goods. “Certain themes, infinitely revisable, infinitely combinable, recur within advertising and consumer culture imagery: youth, beauty, energy, fitness, movement freedom, romance, exotica, luxury, enjoyment, fun. Yet whatever the promise in the imagery, consumer culture demands from its recipients a wide-awake, energetic, calculating, maximising approach to life – it has no place for the settled, the habitual or the humdrum”, (Featherstone, 2001: 174).

Hollywood, too, was more than eager to present and promote the images of youth. Beauty was coded in young and slim bodies, “signs of ageing, such as flabbiness and wrinkles, were emblems of ugliness”, (Blaikie, 1999: 93).

This particular concentration on presence and self-presence becomes an even more problematic matter for ageing women, as our representations of women a priori are constructed in terms of physical appearance. This very issue is what Susan Sontag calls ‘double jeopardy’, (Sontag, 1978). She argues that ageing women face a combination of ageism and sexism, as they are expected to keep up with the ideal adolescent, regardless their age.

It seems that in our society “[a]geing is a woman’s issue”, (Cohen, 2002: 600). As the representation of the white ageing man differs immensely to the one of the woman, since they are considered to be wise through their life experience and are highly respected for their contribution to society. Women by contrast seem no longer to achieve any contribution to the society, and are facing devaluation through it. Frueh argues that nowadays “the old(er) woman is doubly different, doubly degraded, and doubly injured by exterior identity: she is visibly female, different from men, and visibly aging, even when cosmetically altered, different from young”, (Frueh, 1997: 202). Thus, they are better “ignored or treated with embarrassment”, (Church-Gibson, 2000: 79).

Harriet Cohen (2002) suggests that there are three main examples, of how the status of the older women is lowered. Firstly, older woman are being made invisible, “so that we do not have to confront our patriarchal myths about what makes life valuable or dying painful”, (Garner & Mercer, 1999: 3). Secondly, through the society’s obsession with beauty and youth, women do not seem attractive anymore, once they achieve certain age. As it is the looks the women are cherished for, whereas men are cherished for what they do. Finally, older women are considered to lose interest in sexuality, despite of being heterosexual. Thus, they fail to be seen as sexual beings.

Repeatedly these ideas of women are propagated in all parts of the society, and so we suffer a “lack of proactive and effective inventions at a societal or institutional level, including family, religious institutions, and media to interrupt and reconstruct these messages”, (Cohen, 2002: 601).


- Beard, George (1874) Legal Responsibility in Old Age, Based on Researches into the Relationship of Age to Work, New York: Russels.

- Blaikie, Andrew (1999) Ageing and Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press. 

- Church-Gibson, Pamela (2000) “’No-one Expects Me Anywhere’ – Invisible women, ageing and the fashion industry”, In Fashion Cultures - Theories, Explorations and Analysis, edt. Church-Gibson, Pamela & Bruzzi, Stella. London: Routledge.

 - Cohen, Harriet L. (2002) “Developing Media Literacy Skills to Challenge Television’s Portrayal of Older Woman”, In Educational Gerontology. Vol. 28: 599-620. New York: Rotledge.

- Featherstone, Mike (2001) “The Body in Consumer Culture”, In The Body – Social Process and Cultural Theory, edt. Featherstone, Mike & Hepworth, Mike & Turner, Bryan S.. London: Sage Publications.

- Featherstone, Mike & Wernick, Andrew (1995) Images of Ageing – Cultural Representations of Later Life, London: Routledge.

- Frueh, Joanna (1997) “Visible Difference: Women Artists and Aging”, In The Other Within Us: Feminist Exploration of Women and Aging, edt. Pearsall, Marilyn. Boulder, CO: Westview.

- Hareven, Tamara K. (1995) “Changing Images of Aging and the Social Construction of the Life Course”, In Images of Ageing – Cultural Representations of Later Life, edt. Featherstone, Mike & Wernick, Andrew. London: Routledge.

- Pilcher, Jane (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press.

 - Robinson, Tom & Callister, Mark & Magoffin Dawn (2009) “Older Characters in Teen Movies from 1980-2006”, In Educational Gerontology. Vol. 35: 687-711. New York: Rotledge.

 - Rowley, Laura (2012) “'About Face': Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' Film Focuses On Aging Supermodels“, in Huffington Post (online). , Accessed on 08/07/2013.

- Sontag, Susan (1978) “The double Standard of Ageing”, In An Ageing Population edt. Carver, Vida & Liddiard, Penny. London: Hodder & Stoughton.