NO SHAME ABOUT OLDER FEMALE BODIES!
Constructions, representations and perceptions of the (older) female body
The module provides an overview of how gender roles and gender identity are constructed, and how they influence representations of older women in the media and possibly their self-perception. Cultural constructions of age and gender may impact the perception of body. As a cultural tool, media play an important role in conveying and amplifying images that may influence the perceptions of the older body. Accordingly, this module looks at the multiple ways that the media marginalises older women and subjects them to visual ageism.
Module in a nutshell
The module consists of three units followed by Check Your Understanding and References.
Unit 1. Social and cultural construction of (female) gender
As already discussed in other chapters, society assigns certain social roles to genders, based on one’s biological sex. In most societies, this is a binary system of male and female. Individuals who do not identify with their assigned gender, or fail to fit into these categories are described as ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender-queer’.
Gender roles imply certain expectations of what is appropriate and acceptable behaviour for a man or a woman. Or, as the European Institute for Gender Equality puts it, gender roles are “social and behavioural norms which, within a specific culture, are widely considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex” (Gender Roles, 2021). Examples of how gender or gender roles influence behaviour are clothing, professional occupations, and childcare duties.
Gender identity, on the other hand, describes how individuals identify themselves in terms of gender. This, ‘Femininity’ offers a cultural description of what it means to be a woman, which may vary widely from an individual’s own conceptions and ideas. However, cultural gender roles may also influence a person subconsciously so that they are not necessarily aware of them. Depictions of women in the media, both fictional and non-fictional, are not only influenced by these cultural conceptions, but in turn may also influence them to a large degree. Therefore, visibility matters: Visual representations of female diversity are a critical step towards gender equality.
Unit 2. Body image and (Self-) Perception
Gender roles are intrinsically linked to representations and perceptions of the body. Social norms not only dictate behaviour but also what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ body. Generally, in Western societies, youth is preferred to old age—for both men and women. However, there is the double standard of ageing: Researchers found that across all age groups, both men and women are seen as less attractive as they advance in age, but not to the same degree. Women are also seen as less feminine as they get older, while there is no perceived change in older men’s masculinity (Deuisch et al.). Also, women are seen as older earlier than men. However, depending on the context, older women might actually be perceived more favourably than older men concerning traditional gender roles of caretakers, nurturers, or generally in social contexts that require a certain emotional warmth (Kornadt et al., 2013, p. np.).
Cultural constructions of age and gender may influence the individual body image, the way one sees and perceives their own body. As ageing in many regards is seen as a negative process (i.e. women become less attractive with age but should be attractive—and therefore young—according to their stereotypical gender role), the body image may change negatively for older women. An extreme form of this is gerontophobia, a strong fear of growing old. But even if one does not experience gerontophobia, many people are subjected to ageism. While ageism may take many forms and manifest on various levels, regarding body image, it often appears as pressure to comply with (impossible) beauty standards in old age and stereotypes about older people (Rocha & Terra, 2014, pp. 258–259).
While men and women alike have to deal with the challenges of growing older and changing bodies, this pressure particularly affects women. This is important because a negative image of one’s body can have a negative impact on one’s mental and physical health as well as one’s well-being. A more diverse visual representation of women of all ages could help.
Unit 3. Representations of the (older) female body in the media: Visual ageism and the double-marginalization of older women
Generally speaking, media more often feature men than women. In films, for example, men have bigger and more significant roles, more speaking time at their disposal. Less focus is put on their physical appearance. Even after the onset of the Me Too movement, surprisingly few films pass the Bechdel Test, which asks whether a movie features at least two women with a name who talk to each other about something other than a man.
When it comes to the representation of older women, the situation is even more problematic. Firstly, there is an age gap in casting: While male actors may be cast well into their 40s and 50s in attractive main roles, women over 40 are rarely seen in major roles or on-screen at all (Butter, 2015). Bodies of younger women are represented as attractive, while older female bodies basically become invisible. This results in the impression that older people and especially older women are not worthy or interesting enough to appear on-screen. The Swedish media researcher Maria Edström calls this a “symbolic annihilation” of older women.
Generally speaking, age is portrayed as negative in the media. Older people are represented as a burden on society. Their health is deteriorating; their competences are diminishing. Edström argues that in TV advertising, positive portrayals, such as ‘the perfect grandparent,’ ‘the adventurous golden ager,’ or ‘the productive golden ager’ appear. However, he adds, these “ideas of ‘successful ageing’ and more positive portrayals can be problematic” as well as resulting in even more pressure to comply with society’s expectations.
Both men and women are under cultural pressure to conform to gender roles from a young age. However, as age increases, the limitations of these gender roles increase alongside the invisibility of older women in the media: Older women are marginalized in the media because they are female and because they are old(er). Women who belong to other marginalized groups as well, (PoC, disabled, religious minorities, etc.) are even less visible. Representation in the media—not only in films but also on TV, in advertisements, literature, and art—has a major influence on how a person is perceived and how a person perceives themselves.
If represented, older women are often stereotyped as the overbearing and controlling mother, the good housewife, or the oversexed “bitch-witch older woman” who seeks to be forever young. These stereotypes reinforce the impression that older women are of less value to society because they have become less productive or hurt the stability of the (young or male) system. Although there are several older female characters on screen who are depicted as independent, successful, sexually active women, rarely do these depictions actually transcend these stereotypes: Women are still mostly relevant in the private sphere as matriarchs, subject to the male gaze as sexually attractive despite their age, or in the professional world seen as threatening to the male-dominated establishment (Chrisler 2007, 170–71).
But why is this relevant? Representation in the media (film TV, advertising, literature, and art) has a major influence on a person’s perception and self-perception. Rendering older women invisible, unlikeable, and undesirable on-screen will influence how older women are (not) seen off-screen. Therefore, it is important to engage with representations of older women critically and encourage a more diverse depiction of age, gender roles, and femininity. If you want to improve your own body image and self-perception, you can make a conscious effort to shed stereotypes. Try to find more realistic depictions of older people and question mainstream media’s way of representing older women. Keep in mind that what you are presented with is not what you should understand as ‘normal’: Ageing is as individual as our bodies and personalities.
Butter, S. (2015, Nov. 12). Mind the movie age gap: Hollywood has a habit of casting leading older men with 20-something women“. Evening Standard.
Chrisler, J. C. (2007). Body Image Issues of Women Over 50. In V. Muhlbauer & J. C. Chrisler (Eds.), Women Over 50: Psychological Perspectives (pp. 6–25). Springer US. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-387-46341-4_2
Deuisch, F. M., et al. (1986). Is There a Double Standard of Aging? 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 16(9), 771–785. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1986.tb01167.x
Edström, M. (2018). Visibility Patterns of Gendered Ageism in the Media Buzz: A Study of the Representation of Gender and Age over Three Decades. Feminist Media Studies, 18(1), 77–93. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14680777.2018.1409989
European Institute for Gender Equality. (2013). Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in the EU Member States: Women and the Media: Advancing Gender Equality in Decision Making in Media Organisations: Report. Publications Office. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/b2197e33-02dc-4c92-80bc-917417dc7b31/language-en
Kornadt, A. E., et al. (2013). Multiple Standards of Aging: Gender-specific Age Stereotypes in Different Life Domains. European Journal of Ageing, 10(4), 335–344. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10433-013-0281-9
Rocha, L. M., Terra, N. (2014). Body Image in Older Adults: A Review. Scientia Medica, 23(4), 255. https://revistaseletronicas.pucrs.br/ojs/index.php/scientiamedica/article/view/1980-6108.2013.4.15357