Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

Just when can women let ourselves go?

Expectations can be just as oppressive as we age

Artillery Row

In 2017, Vogue ran a piece by Kate Branch explaining “Why Joan Didion, at 82, Is Still a Beauty Icon”. If you want the short answer, it’s because she was thin. 

“Didion’s delicate 5-foot frame is made up of 80-something pounds,” gushed Branch, “a result of her diet of Coca-Cola, salted almonds, soup, and cigarettes”:

It’s a frame that got more delicate as time dragged on, a type of petiteness that proved to be her secret superpower in the fight to depict the times. She said before that, if it weren’t for her unassuming size which allowed her to drift in and out of some of the most disordered scenes with ease, she likely would not have been able to become who she is today: one of the best American writers.

Just in case this seems a tad implausible — want to be a great writer, ladies? Get so wraith-like no one even notices you’re there! — we also learn that Didion’s “body of work is not unlike her physical frame: elegant, vulnerable, unexpected, and unmanufactured”. Slouching Towards Bethlehem could not have been written by a fan of Jaffa Cakes. 

It’s one of those articles I’ve occasionally thought I must have imagined, so much does it seem to say the quiet part out loud. “When legitimating the patriarchy,” writes Katrine Marçal, “one is almost always referred back to the body”:

To be human is to subordinate the body to the intellect, and women was not thought capable of doing this [ … ] Woman became “body” so man could be “soul”. She was bound more and more tightly to a corporeal reality so he could be freed from it.

Female intellectual inferiority is located in the flesh: the hips, the breasts, the belly. To be lean and liberated, to aspire to the man’s world of the mind, one must starve the flesh away. That’s certainly how I used to romanticise my own dedication to self-imposed starvation. I’d imagine myself subsisting on black coffee, too immersed in thought — pure thought! — to do anything so base as eat and grow. Yet somehow that never happened. Nowadays I know that if I lived on the same diet as Didion did, I wouldn’t be producing another White Album. I’d just be thinking about chips all the time. 

I was reminded of this false association between female liberation and lightness when reading about Martha Stewart, who at the age of 81 has become Sports Illustrated’s oldest ever cover star. This has, inevitably, triggered one of those “debates” in which feminists consider whether sexy self-objectification is in fact empowering, providing everyone’s allowed a go. Or does it just mean that we’re never, ever off the hook? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I veer towards the latter viewpoint. If one older woman can, at a pinch, be included in a value system which is geared towards the exclusion of older women in general, it does not strike me as a win so much as a fig leaf. Youth is still being celebrated; we are invited to admire Martha Stewart because she does not look her age. 

In her 1972 essay “The Double Standard of Aging”, Susan Sontag argued that for women, “aging is much more a social judgment than a biological eventuality”:

 … women’s concern with their appearance is not simply geared to arousing desire in men [ … ] In effect, people take character in men to be different from what constitutes character in women. A woman’s character is thought to be innate, static — not the product of her experience, her years, her actions [ … ] Ideally, it is supposed to be a mask — immutable, unmarked.

There is a moral dimension to visibly ageing whilst female. Jane Caro describes the woman who is deemed to have “let herself go” as the object not just of pity, but blame: “To age and get ugly is seen as a moral failing rather than as a misfortune, or better yet, an irrelevance. To get fat (something that also often accompanies ageing) means you are treated in much the same way.”

The expectation is there whether you choose to style yourself as intellect or object

I’ve increasingly started to feel they are bound together, the triple stigma of ageing, female embodiment and fatness. As a middle-aged woman who once had an eating disorder, I can’t help feeling so many images of menopausal women fighting the ageing process and living their best lives are images of women who are thin (and there is evidence to suggest that past eating disorders can return in middle age). If, as Naomi Wolf wrote, “the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance”, to be a shrinking older woman is to try not to offend. You know that your body is, potentially, an affront and you are making a visible attempt at mitigation. 

Reporting on Stewart’s photo shoot, Page Six notes that “whilst the domestic doyenne often shares snaps of her lavish means on Instagram [ … ] she got serious about her diet and exercise routine ahead of her shoot”: “I didn’t starve myself, but I didn’t eat any bread or pasta for a couple of months”. Whilst I suppose that isn’t strictly starving oneself, it stills sounds grim to me. Would I want to be doing that in my eighties (especially given that my main plan has been to take up cigarettes and alcohol again, on the basis that it can’t hurt by that point)? To be hungry is not empowering. I often think this when I see emaciated actresses, skinny models: people underestimate how mentally all-consuming — and how boring — going without food can be. 

We should admire older women — we need to admire them more — but the concept of the older woman who hasn’t “let herself go” is oppressive, not least because the expectation is there whether you choose to style yourself as intellect or object. I do not want to have to pay for some retention of status in meals not eaten. Joan Didion’s writing was not dependent on eternal thinness; Martha Stewart’s bathing-suit acceptability should not be reliant on carb-avoidance. As the journalist Linda Weltner asked in 1993, “do I have to stay thin until I die? Am I supposed to look forty when I’m sixty? … Is there food in the afterlife?”

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