Female role models over 50? Where are they? Who are they? What criteria do we use to label these women as role models?
When I caught a documentary recently about high fashion models from the 1940s through the 1980s, About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now, I didn’t think I would find myself fascinated by the observations of these beauties. Some of these women were new faces to me. Others, I grew up hoping to emulate. Among the more famous who were interviewed for the film — Carmen Dell’Orifice, Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Dayle Haddon, Bethanne Hardison, Pat Cleveland, and Marisa Berenson.
But what of the other women over 50, over 60, and over 70 who stand as examples to the rest of us?
Our Fashion Icons
For women, whatever our age, do we always think first of role models known for their striking faces and bodies?
I would like to think that isn’t the case, but I readily admit to a lifetime tainted by the tyranny of “thin is in”, though not to the exclusion of my other more robust qualities.
So, let’s start with the documentary that I reference.
Some of these fashion icons were my role models — for American standards of beauty, that is — from the age of 12 or so onward. Like many other young girls, I had my nose stuck in the latest Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.
Now in their fifties, sixties and older, and Carmen Dell’Orifice, a legend at 84, I am intrigued not only by how they looked at the time this film was made (2011), but even more interested in their comments about their careers, and what they have come to understand since.
Our Role Models for Beauty Then and Now?
Expounding on the environments in which they worked, eating disorders, the prevalence of drugs, the importance of developing themselves as a brand, how they “fit” or didn’t, their groundbreaking achievements in some instances and more, a number of remarks struck me as worthy of mention.
Pat Cleveland, a woman who describes herself as “not fitting” – she is one eighth black, Irish, Cherokee, Scottish, German — couldn’t be categorized, making work more challenging. Beverly Johnson, the first African-American woman to make the cover of Vogue (in 1974), also mentions “the age thing” – youth, youth, youth! Likewise, Isabella Rossellini, who started in the modeling business older (at 28).
It’s clear that some of the supermodels profiled have had cosmetic procedures to retain a more youthful appearance. It’s equally clear that others haven’t, and they voice their thoughts on the matter. Isabella Rossellini’s opinions on aging are especially noteworthy given that she was the Lancome spokes model for their anti-aging products, only to be let go at age 40 from that role — because she wasn’t young enough.
Youth: Societal Expectations
China Machado, 81 at the time the film was made, expresses her fear of cosmetic procedures. She notes:
It isn’t that women want to stay young, it’s that the whole society makes us want to stay young… The most important thing we have is our expression… You take out the lines, there’s nothing left of you.
These are provocative remarks, don’t you think? Particularly given our increasing preoccupation with erasing all signs of a life lived on our faces…
Didn’t we find our grandmothers to be elegant even as they matured? I certainly did. Both my grandmothers were strong, capable, intelligent, feminine and stylish women. None of these qualities ceased to exist as they grew older, and nor were they set aside in their maturity.
Of the increasingly routine interventions like Botox, Isabella Rossellini’s words are especially compelling. She says:
… Is this the new foot-binding? Is this the new misogyny?
Gives one pause, don’t you think?
All the more reason that when I come across an ad with Lauren Hutton, I take note. Give us more of these great faces… please!
Where Are the 50+ Female Role Models?
Moving beyond the ideals as presented to us in terms of faces and bodies, what about role models for the substance of other professional, creative, and humanitarian skills and accomplishments?
Role models for women in our fifties and beyond are a challenge to identify, whether we look to business, politics, science, entertainment, the arts or any other field. Sure, we can name Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren as notables in the US and Angela Merkel in Germany. Yes, we have the long tenure and influence of Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. And these days, we have smaller constellations of online style stars who wear their maturity with class, ebullience and confidence, while commanding our attention on Instagram.
But why can’t we count more than this handful of women in our smaller or larger spheres? Don’t we want words and wisdom of visible role models to extend our sense of viability and ongoing worth, our right to hold our heads up high and understand that learning, achieving, and contributing don’t need to have an expiration date?
The Google Says…
Incidentally, a few Google searches offer insight into the paucity of role models for women in middle age and beyond.
A search on “female role models over 50” brings a significant number of search results that highlight fitness and beauty. (Are we really surprised?) Others focus on fashion and family.
However, a search on “female role models in business” yields this interesting piece from Lifehack: The 12 Best Female Role Models. Note that selection ranges from poet Sylvia Plath to the two Hepburns to Maya Angelou to Emma Thompson. Michelle Obama makes this list as well, and I like that some of these women are (or were) trailblazers in their own way. And yes, a number of the individuals included are now over age 50 or lived beyond middle age.
However, the article does point out:
… female role models are both in plentiful supply and yet hard to pin down as ‘role models.’
Why is that? Because it’s easier to find someone in that inspirational role who is close to us in “real life” — a hard-working mother of three or the entrepreneurial woman building a small business and brand? Is part of the problem the double standards we see (even now) with Hillary Clinton — the need not only for qualifications, experience, credentials (that are “proven” rather than assumed) — and the “likability” factor?
Lifehack’s list are largely entertainment personalities or in the arts, despite my explicit search string. What about business, science, politics?
Let’s look a little deeper…
Role Models in Business
This UK article from Aspire on women business leaders dates to 2009, but it certainly reflects the ambivalence that we typically experience when looking to (the few?) notables in key corporate or entrepreneurial positions — whatever their age.
At Aspire, we recently conducted a study of 600 female business managers, directors and executives around the globe, asking them to name their top female role models. Amazingly, “No Idea” (representing 40% of respondents) came in at number one, leaving Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and Angela Merkel as the distant, top three named choices (each with 6% or less of responses).
More sources? More thoughts?
This 2012 article at Forbes addresses the importance of female role models in business. Referring to studies of female leadership and the results achieved, specifically data from the West Bengal region of India with female politicians (required by quota):
The results were astounding. In areas with long-serving female leaders in local government, the gender gap in teen education goals disappeared due to the fact that girls had set higher goals for themselves. Parents were also 25% more likely to report having more ambitious education goals for their daughters, significantly narrowing the gender gap.
Using these findings, the article concludes that “the under-representation of female leadership is hurting young women.”
And the 50+ Women? Still Searching…
When Googling female role models over age 50 in the sciences, I came across this interesting Australian initiative intended to inspire young women in the sciences and technology. After all, isn’t part of what we (who are at, approaching, or over 50) hope to accomplish not only ongoing roles for ourselves, but the ability to encourage and motivate those who are younger?
Still… no list, no relevant content, nothing to sink my teeth into. There are other observations like my own (as I try a few other search alternatives), and this: “What’s Wrong With Middle Aged Women?“, noting some of the reasons for this absence that persists:
Current middle-aged women came of age at a time when many of us didn’t have full-time working mothers as role models, but our choices about what we could do had expanded so dramatically that it was tantamount to sacrilegious not to take advantage of them. As a result, I had mixed messages at home about why my own mother sacrificed her journalistic career to have and raise children, a set of in-laws who were openly critical of my decision to work at all, and then a peer group that was highly educated, determined to put that education to good professional use, but unclear about how to make it all work together at the same time.
Bingo! And there’s more in that article that is worthy of a look-see.
Who Are Your Role Models?
Are your role models in the public eye? Who are they? Are they 45 or 55 or 75?
In the meantime, are we role models for our daughters, our sons, our nieces and nephews, our grandchildren? Or are we so worn out from the conflicting demands and expectations from all corners (including our own inner voices), that we aren’t projecting role models of achievement and self-assurance that the next generations need from us? Are we presenting more than our struggling with success, however we define it? Are we illustrating options, solutions, good directions?
Can we become the role models we didn’t have? From government to entrepreneurship, from technology to humanitarianism, from style to the arts, in our burgs and our boardrooms — can we make that difference?
These questions that I frequently ask myself are essential to the ongoing Midlife Makeover Series, intended to address more than fitness, beauty or style though these topics remain important to millions of us. And yet, aren’t we best served, whether 45 or 75, by continuing to live fully, seeking to enjoy and contribute, supporting each other in our goals, and eliminating self-limiting obstacles?
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