By Anne Karpf
Older women certainly seem to be having a media moment, what with 70+ Catherine Deneuve fronting the latest Louis Vuitton campaign, 60+ Jacky O'Shaughnessy being the recent face (and body) of American Apparel, and even Harry Potter's Emma Watson - 20+ - declaring that she's looking forward to getting older.
I don't want to poop the party but I can't help thinking that some of this 'grey is the new black' isn't making things better for older women and may even be making them worse. Of course I relish many of the celebratory, playful images in Ari Seth Cohen's Advanced Style blog and the way that the women pictured aren't prepared to slink away into invisibility, consumed by Age Shame, or be de-sexed, as so many women are by our culture.
But let's not delude ourselves that all or even most women can attain this decree of stylishness - at any age. Cohen's cohort are a small band of (mostly) slim, white, wealthy Manhattan older women, whose chief project is themselves. They have more in common with slim, white, wealthy Manhattan younger women than older working-class women. For, as all the research demonstrates, we become more diverse as we age and not less, and what shapes this more than anything else is social class. Forget dressing beautifully: cuts in social services mean that 250,000 older people now need - and don't get - help even dressing.
Images of beautiful older women may give hope to some beautiful younger women who fear that, the moment they hit 40, 50 or 60, they'll be exiled from the world of fashion, but for many others they present a new and oppressive norm. It can hardly be coincidental that we're witnessing a significant growth in eating disorders among older women - a trend recently noted in Austria, Spain, Canada, South Korea, Brazil and among African-Americans. The cultural ideal of thinness is even harder to maintain post-menopausally, when waists traditional thicken and the body shape changes.
For many women one of the pleasures of ageing is that it frees them from the need to continually monitor and police their appearance. What a relief: bring on the elasticated waistbands and sensible shoes, they cry! But if 50 is the new 30, 60 the new 40, etc etc, they're doomed to eternal self-scrutiny. How to look hot at 100? The very prospect gives them a migraine.
There's also a new stereotype of ageing emerging: the eccentric older person. Why do older people have to become 'characters'? Is this much of an improvement on being 'folk'? In my book, 'How to Age', I suggest that we live increasingly in an era of age-apartheid, immured with our own age cohort. This, as much as anything else, fosters a fear of ageing, one that can be dispelled to some extent by close, daily interaction with people of all ages. Inter-generational projects and cross-age friendships do more to help us understand the life cycle and accept the arc of life than photographs of gorgeous older women in (admittedly) fabulous hats, or cordoning off older people in their own special physical and virtual spaces.
That's why I'll be sounding a note of dissent at this evening's Intelligence Squared debate on How to look hot at 100, which is taking place as part of The Beauty Project at Selfridges. While I doubt that I'll ever lose my interest in fashion (my mother maintained hers until 96), the real question we should be asking ourselves is how to remain vital and engaged until one's final breath. The answer, according to those I interviewed for my book, is that, while pride in one's appearance and an interest in clothes can be an expression of vitality, it's curiosity, openness to new ideas and an interest in others that are the most important signs of life.
Anne Karpf is a journalist, Reader in Professional Writing and Cultural Inquiry at London Metropolitan University, and author of 'How to Age' (Pan Macmillan)
Anne will be speaking tonight at the Intelligence Squared debate, 'How to look hot at 100', which is part of The Beauty Project at Selfridges. Follow the discussion on Twitter with #beautyproject and for more information visit www.selfridges.com/beautyproject