We live in a culture that celebrates youth and which sets up such an unrealistic standard of beauty as to generate constant anxiety and insecurity in women (and increasingly men) of all ages about their appearance, with a consequent negative effect on their self-esteem and sense of worth. This is particularly true for older women, for whom this 'unworthiness' grows exponentially: they may have never been beautiful as young women, by our culture's unattainable standards, or they may have been beauty queens, but as they reach their forties, fifties and over, they are automatically regarded as ugly and over the hill and become totally invisible. There is of course a whole industry that profits on this insecurity, with creams and treatments that are meant to make you look younger, but the truth is that clocks cannot be turned back. Ageing is a natural process, why not accept it as such? Easier said than done.
Worrying about appearance may seem a very shallow concern, but appearance does matter in our society and being perceived as ugly and not worthy of attention does affect one's own overall sense of well being and work performance. This can be especially damaging at a time when as older women, we are still asked to hold down demanding jobs well past the age of sixty: there is a contradiction here, in the way we are being perceived.
What is particularly mind numbing is the cape of invisibility that older women seem to be wearing all the time. In the film Late Bloomers (2011) this is beautifully portrayed. There is a scene in which Isabella Rossellini, who plays the role of an ageing middle class wife and mother, and who never lacked in the beauty department, enters a room full of men, young and old, and is suddenly aware that whereas in the past she would have been immediately noticed, this is no longer the case: she is totally invisible, even when she tries, as a test, to be seductive in the way she sits and moves. When I watched that scene I immediately recognised the feeling of dismay Rossellini's character experiences in realising that she is an old woman and that her age defines her.
But no, it does not have to be this way. Older women are reacting to stereotyping. A recent article in the Daily Mail and a TV programme , The One Show featured a group of women, one of whom 68 year old, who have taken up life modelling to shake off their invisibility and reinvent themselves as beautiful.
As a life model one automatically becomes an object of beauty as through the model an art work is created. It is also the case that those very features of one's body that are regarded as a mark of ugliness - deep wrinkles, scars, sagging breasts or even proportions that are not classically beautiful, such as large hips and plump, short legs - are of interest to artists, whether very experienced or just starting out. Think of Rubens here and his models, who embody the beauty of a very large and voluptuous body, often called Rubenesque after the painter!
It is wonderful to see that life modelling can be turned into a way to enhance women's self esteem and thus be empowering.
Do you feel inspired? Would you like to have a go?
There are a few steps to take before getting started. Here I turn to Rachel McCarthy, director of RAM, the Register of Artists' Models, which is a country wide directory of models and also acts as a notice board for life modelling jobs: "You can join RAM with absolutely no experience but we have auditions in London which are like a very basic training. Our whole ethos is about keeping up standards and quality, and ensuring model safety is also paramount". But don't be scared: passing the audition is easy, you just have to demonstrate you can sit still. As Rachel says: "people don't believe you but physically it's exhausting. Mentally you have to really concentrate. Some models love the more contorted poses but I was always more keen on the graceful, elegant ones".
When all eyes are on you and when you know that a beautiful drawing is being made thanks to you, you feel beautiful. And if you feel beautiful, you are beautiful!