The above photo is an image I took recently of Joyce, aged 74. Isn’t she beautiful?
Mainstream media can have a quite narrow view of beauty. As a photographer, of course I seek beauty, and I want more than anything to produce a good picture. But throughout my work I aim to ‘widen the lens’ and show the diverse ways and contexts in which people (and places) are beautiful and photogenic.
I have taken photographs of a range of subjects, including people with HIV, people who sport beautiful tattoos and their skilled tattooists, London scenes and many more. My latest project focuses on Beauty In Older Women.
The subject of older women is currently a topical one. In the UK and in many places across the world the population is ageing, and at quite a dramatic rate. The implications for public policy are significant. Questions are being asked about the connected issues of pensions, healthcare, retirement age and housing, as older people grow in number.
But as a photographer I am of course concerned mainly with the image. I am intrigued by women getting older and losing their “sexy” status in their eyes and in others. As the number of older people increases though, will older women (and men) become more visible? Are our views of age, attractiveness and body image changing with the times?
There are quite a few recent examples of older women being treated as beautiful and sexy. Fabulous Fashionistas, a recent documentary on channel four, featured six women from their 60s to their 80s, and showcased their beauty, love of style, and their joie de vivre. Also fashion retailers and designers, known for prioritising young, conventionally attractive models, have begun to feature older women in their adverts and catalogues. An example that immediately springs to mind is Marks and Spencer, who employ Twiggy, the British model, actress and singer now aged 64 as well as some other older – and beautiful – women models. Smaller fashion houses such as the one run by Swedish Designer Gudrun Sjoden also have some great older women wearing and promoting their clothes. As the fashion blogger ‘That’s Not My Age‘ says: ‘you don’t have to have youth to have style’! And even in the world of pop music, which is dominated by young, lythe teenyboppers, older artists such as the amazing 80 year old Petula Clark are still recording and performing.
I think these positive stories need telling – it’s not all doom and gloom! However there is still a long way to go for older women (and men) to be accepted and celebrated fully in our media and society. Advertising in particular is still very much about selling idealised images of youth and beauty. As Dr Sharron Hinchliff, a specialist in the study of ageing, gender and sexuality has written:
‘Advertisements that show images of ageing tend to reflect and reinforce social attitudes about getting old, including sexuality, and thus they can play a key role in shaping our expectations of what it means to be an older woman (or man). They raise questions about age prejudice in the societies which do not censor them. And while we may be bound by the values and ideas of the society within which we live, there are so many other ways of attracting attention to sell a product than by being controversial, offensive or out-and-out ageist.’
It is not easy to get it right. There are tensions for example between problems (as identified by feminism) around the objectification of women, and calls for wider representation of diverse body types, ages and ethnicities in the media. Could the move to bring more older women into the limelight just lead to more objectification?
I don’t know. And as a photographer I accept that all images ‘objectify’ in a sense. The still photograph is an object, not a living human being. But in my project celebrating beauty in older women, and in my work as a whole, I try to show as much as possible the life behind the picture. This is why I am also interviewing the women participants and encouraging them to write or talk a little about themselves, why they took part, and how they see themselves as they get older. The longer we live the more experience and insights we gain, and I am excited to hear their stories. I will be exhibiting the photographs in a London gallery, and am making a short documentary film about the project, to be launched at an independent London cinema.
If you are a woman aged 65 or above and would like to chat about taking part in this project, or if you just want more information, please contact me, Edo Zollo. I would love to hear from you!
Edo Zollo, Beauty In Older Women Project