Beyond Beauty (and the Wolf)
Looking for a new language to talk about ageing and the childless woman
I spent last week making a series of training videos for a work project which involved hours and hours of staring at myself, either during the making of them on my computer and even more so during the painfully tedious editing process: slowing myself down frame-by-frame to edit out a stray word and watching the awkward snarl my mouth makes at certain points; seeing the number of times I push my glasses up my nose like an absent-minded professor; becoming more conscious of my chipped front tooth (is that the source of that annoyingly aspirated lisp?); dealing with the daily bore of washing and blow-drying my hair to give the illusion of just a tiny bit of lift to my menopausal hair having lost around 75% of it during the last five years.
It was a relief to get away from the computer and head out alone for a walk with the dog. The light outside was translucent and full of the promise of Spring and, having been indoors in front of the computer screen for days, I was inspired to take a few selfies before sharing one I liked on my Instagram feed. I typed the caption on my phone and headed off for my walk.
#ApprenticeCrone here - beginning to understand that the changes within are beginning to manifest in a new comfort with the changes without. Some of the selfies in this series shocked me with how “old” I looked at 56 and then I sat with that internalised ageism and thought “fuck it!”- the journey to becoming a happy childless woman on the cusp of cronehood has been the hardest dark night of the soul of my life - no way am I going to regret that this passage has left its marks! I may grieve the passing of youth but I refuse to shy from it.
When I got back, I was surprised to see the ‘likes’ come rolling in much faster than for other things I post and so I flattered myself that the ‘authenticity’ of my post was having an impact. It’d been the same when I shared a previous #oldsie just a couple of weeks previously.
But quite a few of the comments made me squirm, so many of them a variant on, ‘You’re still beautiful.’
What made me uncomfortable about this was two-fold: number one, I didn’t post this photo in order to be told I was still attractive (although if I’m honest, maybe I did a little? There were definitely a few other photos in the series that I deleted from my phone as if I’d seem a ghost - mostly the ghost of my still-living mother with whom I have a complex relationship, as all good psychotherapists do.)
Being reassured about my looks annoys me (even as it flatters me) because it’s not the conversation I want to start. I want to talk about what it is to grow old as a childless woman. About what it means to inhabit a body that is fading from the ‘male gaze’ and from the ‘pronatalist gaze’ too.
The second theme that bothered me arose from those comments from women who felt that my post was me being a ‘role model’ or ‘being brave’ and I found myself thinking, ‘Why is this brave for fuck’s sake?’ I mean, if I’d shared some of the less flattering #oldsies maybe, but even then, “56-year-old passable-looking white woman shares self-portrait on Instagram.” Brave? Really! What does that even mean?
It means I’m not pretending to be young anymore. And apparently, that’s a little bit radical. Which shows me just how deep the rabbit hole of ageism + sexism is…
I think I posted this photo because I’m learning to like my new-old face that is starting to peek through the rounded puppy-fat cheeks I’ve had all my life and I wanted to start a conversation about that process, about growing into my older face.
My favourite comments, interestingly, both came from photographers I admire. One of them described my self-portrait as being ‘beyond beauty’ and I found myself thinking, “Yes! Beyond beauty! Let’s talk about that!”
And then I realised that sadly I had no language to do so. That the concept of being a woman ‘beyond beauty’ has been so silenced in our culture that the words have withered along with her.
Excited, I googled ‘beyond beauty’ to see if others had gone ahead into that thicket; I don’t recommend it as it appears to be the name-of-choice of a thousand beauticians and beauty salons around the world. Of those who make their living policing the perimeters of beauty and those who stray beyond it; who specialise in making women look other than they are.
Thirty years ago, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth1 named so much that I had no words for and set me free from women’s magazines. But like pretty well much every other feminist (with the exception of Gayle Letherby2), Wolf misses how different the experience of ageing is for women without children, and even harder for those without partners too.
In a 2011 Washington Post piece on the book’s 20th anniversary Wolf, who was in her forties at the time, writes that “the archetype of the Evil Queen and Sleeping Beauty has been laid to rest”, entirely failing to notice that the pronatalist archetype of the dangerous older woman without children in both of these fairytales is alive and well in popular culture - you only have to start noticing that if there’s a deviant, deranged or just slightly odd woman in a TV drama, she nearly always turns out to be the childless one. So Wolf’s middle-aged ‘wisdom’ in the same piece misses the mark for me:
“To anxious young women, I want to say what I wish more older women had said to my generation: Relax, enjoy the journey and do not worry about the future. There are no wicked witches. It is all good. Really, really good. And it only gets better.”
In 2019, almost the book’s 30th anniversary, Wolf was interviewed again in ‘Dazed and Confused’ and was asked to reflect on how things have changed. She spoke of how “things have gotten so much better in thirty years and I think the LGBTQ+ movement is one reason things have gotten better. I don't think that my daughter’s generation of young women feels enslaved to femininity and if my son’s generation dresses beautifully, they don’t feel like they are traitors to their gender.”
Sadly, but characteristically of every mother-feminist I’ve so far read, she entirely fails to check her #AsAMother privilege enough to notice that she has a layer of protection from what ageing means compared to the 1 in 5 of us without cute youngsters to help us feel ‘hip’. In fact, she continues from her bubble to say that, “actually, among the older women I meet, who have been busy with their lives, I don’t know any of them who are not really thrilled to be their age (as long as they are healthy) and are really happy with where they are at, physically and in every other way.”
#AsAChidlessWoman what can I say apart from that perhaps she might need to start meeting a wider range of ‘older women’ including some of us who don’t have children?
But then again, perhaps it’s not surprising that it appears she knows so little of the experience of the 1 in 5 women around her. After all the pronatalist confirmation bias of motherhood is truly shocking. This is something Yael Wolfe’s 2020 piece Why Even Feminists Don’t Want to Talk About Childlessness explores - and in which she reported the total lack of interest from publications when she pitched anything about childlessness and so,
“I realized I might need to try another strategy, so I started doing some research. I would visit women’s magazines and search their archives for articles on motherhood and then do a second search on childlessness. If you’re a childless woman, you won’t be surprised to find that the numbers were something like this: 695 about motherhood, 1 about childlessness in one publication; 1,233 about motherhood, 0 about childlessness in another; 2,478 about motherhood, 3 about childlessness in a third. I’m sure you see the trend here.”
This is yet more evidence that childless women are, to use Gaye Tuchman’s term ‘symbolically annihilated’3 in our culture. I mention it in my book4 but few people who aren’t childless take me seriously. We’ve been invisibled.
And so that’s why I’m here, stirring the word-cauldron. Seeing if I can catch a glimpse of the thought fox that lies silent in the thicket of ageism, pronatalism and sexism. And taking #Oldsies.
Naomi Wolf (1991). The Beauty Myth. UK:Chatto & Windus.
Professor Gayle Letherby is Visiting Specialist in the School of Health Professions (Faculty of Health) at Plymouth University, UK. She is involuntarily childless herself, something she has explored from a feminist angle. See her list of publications here.
Gaye Tuchman (2000). ‘The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media’. In: Crothers, L., Lockhart C. (eds) Culture and Politics. NY: Palgrave Macmillan https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-62397-6_9