When does an incident become a trend?
At what point do a couple of pebbles rolling down the mountain start an avalanche?
How do we know when the atmospherics of the day suddenly suit seismic shifts?
When the two pebbles plop purposelessly into the pond below just so often – are we right to conclude that they signal nothing save a barely troubled equilibrium?
Or, when and how do today’s news headlines really matter to the forecaster?
This is a story here about the shifting dimensions of ageing. We toss out the following pebbly-titbits:
- In late 2018, the US lingerie chain Victoria’s Secret is subjected to a bruising assault by an alternative and self-consciously feminist underwear brand called ThirdLove. Other commentators join the virtual demo. The core complaint is that VS exists to respond to the male gaze at its grubbiest, elevating only perma-shapely young women as fantasy objects for Dickie H. Bloke. For being so anti-inclusivist, VS does not deserve its commercial primacy. The ThirdLove leadership, for its part, prides itself on “building a brand for every woman regardless of her shape, size, age, ethnicity, gender identity of sexual orientation”. (As quoted in Forbes November 2018)
- Around the same time, the Royal College of Nursing in the UK publishes a guidance document for its members entitled : “Elder People in Care Homes – Sex, Sexuality and Intimate Relationships”. Attracting a dose of sad ridicule in the downstream press, the report acknowledges the right of older and perhaps slightly infirm residents to pursue intimacy as fun – and be helped, by nursing staff, to do so. The language of the report is deliciously and sometimes wincingly frank about what happens (and what does not happen) to bodies as they age. Even some quite nonagenarian pebbles will just not stop rolling over the mounds. Care home residents should, if they so desire, be assisted, in fact, to wear nothing at all if it gives them and their mates a thrill. Life is there to be lubricated. You do not have to spend the afternoon watching TV shows about, meta-symbolically enough, antiques.
Is there ever an appropriate way to view beauty?
Now, we interrupt this broadcast to think back into the modern history of the complaint that the female form is threateningly reified in so much commercial expression. This buzz is so much looped cultural muzak now, ubiquitous and unavoidable. For proof, no Fashion Week in London or Paris or Milan will pass without some controversy about the use of catwalk models who are themselves so impossibly thin that destructive messages must be being imparted to those girls still uncertain, perhaps by virtue of their age, about the optimal definition of beauty. The perhaps most noticeable (but often under-remarked) aspect of this story is just how evanescent it is not. We look back down the years:
– In 2016, Gigi Hadid is criticised on Instagram for looking unhealthily thin and thus setting a poor example; Cassi Van Den Dungen, to take just one other example, was similarly criticised for looking dangerously gaunt on the catwalk in 2014; Amanda Hendrick faced a similar charge in 2011.
– In 2015, the French Health Minister pronounces herself very concerned at the fashion-show use of top modeIs en état de dénutrition and an initiative is taken in the Assemblée Nationale to interdict their use in public display by insisting on a minimum BMI standard (to be imposed on model recruitment agencies).
– In 2011, Condé Nast announces that, such is the controversy, subsequent editions of Vogue across the world will no longer present images of uber-svelte models.
– In 2006, Letizia Moratti, the then mayor of Milan, announces that she would like to follow the example of other local leaders elsewhere in Europe and try to ban from the city’s fashion events any model who, again, looks unhealthily thin.
– In 2005, the UK’s Secretary of State for Culture lobbies the British Fashion Council to discourage the employment of zero-size models during London Fashion Week; once again, the argument in the air is that the appearance thereof can define beauty in the minds of impressionable girls who want to know whom to imitate.
– Once more in the UK, in 2000 (sic), the British Medical Association pleads for more realistic, more everyday body shapes to be displayed by fashion houses in order to stem the rise in eating disorders among young women.
In the midst of this story, a story which has a not-going-to-end-soon feel to it, one will have no trouble finding spokespeople for the fashion trades who complain about political interference in their art and who insist that if Western society has a problem with, say, the incidence of anorexia then that is hardly the doing of people who make dresses, swimwear, pyjamas, etc. The argument pings and pongs back and forth over the years and one has to take the suspicion that the fashion industry sometimes rather enjoys the controversy – for the focus it brings and the media it creates.
More importantly, one might well conclude that for all the initiatives taken, both politically and commercially, to restrict access to images of sometimes invisibly thin catwalk women, little progress towards the favouring of more balanced, realistic images is to be expected. In a sense, this is a phenomenon which feels locked, ie fat-free is the default definition of female beauty. One may well deprecate this. But…
Is the male gaze, at its most unpleasant, permanently divertible?
Now some will say that this is too harsh, that a lot of progress has been made, that feminism has accumulated many cultural victories. TV comedians no longer make dire jokes about rebarbative mothers-in-law. Jack Vettriano has long since replaced the saucy seaside postcard. The definition of optimal masculinity has been softened away from laconic machismo. Workplace exploitation of women in the Western world has, eventually, brought down its own landslide of online contempt and repudiation.
But to our tale. What happens when the ageing process no longer blanches out desire and attraction? (See : http://www.rinklifunstaz.com/topicality/vivat-olay-regenerist-why-we-should-not-be-against-anti-ageing-and-all-its-works/ )
What gives when the market-place for septuagenarian partners starts to get noticeably well-populated and seriously competitive as a result?
Is sexism to be revivified as the needs of the crepuscular sensualist demand expression? The quick and crude answer is : probably yes.
Around 11,000 people (and rising) over-65 get married each year in England. The majority are men marrying (and marrying not for the first time) themselves to women under-65; only 22% of female brides aged 65+ took their vows with men under-65. (Source : ONS 2017). Figures showing total contemporary cohabitation behaviour are not easy to establish but from what facts there are to hand it would be fair to assume that thousands and soon millions of grey people are now realising, once more with every un-arthritic new morning, that they can be as active and as selective in their personal theatres as ever they once were (or never were).
Parsing 1967, the Winter of Love is upon us.
Once upon a Woodstock, a young generation tuned in and turned itself on. Reproduction was bought under chemical control and new patterns of partner-experimentation, cohabitation and divorce altered suburbia forever. According to a Pew study (14th December 2011), at the opening of this decade (2010) only 20% of 18-29 year olds in the USA were married; the equivalent figure for the year Jack Kennedy became President was 59%. So what is to become of us now when the over-65s sense all the possibilities of cultural liberation – the shedding of geriatric behavioural norms – with the same energy that so many of their grandparents once found? The Sixties, let’s recall, changed forever the language of female-male relations; it was, after all, the decade which coined the term Male Chauvinist Pig. The crudest forms of sexism became – we accept that this was ultimately a slow and is a still troubled process – outlawed. As all soixante-huitards know, the revolutionary potential borne on mass demographic change is often very unevenly, often messily applied. A generation after the Summer of Love, Naomi Wolf still had to write The Beauty Myth – once a fresh propulsion towards the de-objectification of women, sadly barely remembered now.
What is appropriate to wear, how it is appropriate to look (as in gaze), what standards of personal comportment should apply, how desire and attractiveness are to be brokered…. are primary questions now for a Third Age that has the best skin and the tightest abs in history?
Like an excitable hippo rolling over an endless acre of bubble-wrap, the grey future is going pop, pop, pop. And the old sexisms will rear anew. The freedoms will be good but they will bring their pains, their moral recidivisims. The real demographic time-bomb is at hand.