A woman many decades older than I am once told me she felt invisible.
Not when it came to her family, her friends, her bridge teammates, or the helper that came twice a week. No, those interactions were all as they should be.
It was the tenuous triangle between her identity, the media and society as whole that made her feel that way.
The women in magazines, films and on television suddenly seemed mind-bogglingly young, she said. Teenagers whizzed by in a haze of cellphones and laughter, looking straight through her. Men of all ages – who might once have held her gaze just a little bit longer than necessary – now ignored her completely. Few advertisements aimed for her dollar, or featured anyone like her.
It made her feel uneasy and despondent. And that was one of the saddest, most alarming things I’d ever heard.
Which is why, when I read about people like fashion student Olivia Ann May, I want to jump inside the internet and tell her GOOD FOR YOU, OLIVIA ANN MAY.
The 22-year-old Middlesex University fashion student was so horrified by ageism in the media, and in the fashion industry in particular, she decided to improve the situation recently in a very real way, instead of just whinging (or blogging) about it.
She designed a collection for women over 60, and (unlike her classmates, who picked the industry standard to flaunt their wears,) hired models 83-year-old Daphne Selfe, 68-year-old Jan de Villeneuve, and 62-year-old Pam Lucas to model it for her.
You might have seen Daphne Selfe in the press a bit lately. She’s been in the news for appearing in Vogue and Marie Claire, photographed by various obnoxious French photographers I should recognise the names of but don’t.
(Although she’ll never get a cover, apparently. Selfe says,”I met Nicholas Coleridge not long ago. I asked him, ‘Will I ever get on the cover of Vogue?’ And he said, ‘Darling, you just won’t sell.'”)
She’s also been involved in Oxfam’s Big Bra Hunt, a campaign to ferry bras over to West Africa, where women “just flop around”, according to Sarah Farquhar, head of Oxfam Trading, and Inappropriate Sentences. Selfe has been photographed for the cause in a replica of the iconical bra Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna.
She says, “I’m doing more high fashion now than I did as a young woman, I think because at last I’ve lost the puppy fat. You can see the bones in my face. I’ve worked with Mario Testino, he was so kind, and Rankin – I knew his parents, both dead now – and Dolce & Gabbana.”
Aside from lovely Olivia Ann May’s project, it could all be accused of being very slightly token. But Selfe is genuinely striking and powerful in the pictures. And anything that challenges tedious stereotypes is probably worth it, in my eyes. Because nothing’s more demoralising than feeling invisible, than feeling misrepresented.
Like seniors in films, TV and advertisements. Overwhelmingly depicted as daft and decrepit – and cast in roles of little value to the narrative – if media is a reflection of society, then the ageing have nothing to add.
Which is obviously 100 per cent untrue, but we all know mass media does weird stuff to our brains. Even Disney films and cartoons, it turns out, portray older people in an predominantly negative light. (Especially females. Older male characters tended to fill authority roles.)
Why is any of this rant important? If you really need further confirmation, how about the research that’s shown seniors’ life expectancy can be shortened by the negative attitudes they face.
So here’s a question: in a future media landscape that will (presumably) be even more pixel-driven than today’s, will you find representations of you?
I’d personally like to think that when I’m 83 and surrounded by yoof – too busy jabbing at their iPhone 8000s to notice me scowling around on my SpaceScooter 300 – I might tune in to some form of media and see me. Or some inoffensive version of it.
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By Rebecca Kamm
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