Much like every other –ism that exists, ageism is one of those topics that’s so uncomfortable, we’d rather acknowledge it from a distance, if not completely ignore it, than address how it’s pervaded almost every facet of our lives and in nearly every profession, most notably, the fashion and entertainment sectors. And much like every other –ism, it’s become increasingly vital to confront these prejudices head-on.
“Ageism exists for a lot of the reasons other –isms exist: buying into stereotypes of other groups of people and discriminating them for it,” says Dr. Holly Parker, associate director of training at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Hospital and lecturer in the department of psychology at Harvard University. “But ageism is unique in that it tends to be the one where we’re all going to find ourselves in the same boat at one time or another. It’s also one of those –isms that’s tricky because it doesn’t look like a stereotype; it’s masqueraded as a fact of life and it’s somehow accepted.”
And while yes, ageism happens in both directions, the majority of the time, it’s the old who are discriminated against, cast aside, or dismissed, in favor of the young. Factor in gender, and it’s ageism intertwined with sexism, resulting in societal pressures that demand people, women especially, to retain youth for as long as possible, because for women, youth = beauty.
But you already know all this. Why we’re bringing it up now is because—at a time where inclusivity is championed—some of today’s most powerful female musicians are celebrated, regardless of their age.
Madonna, for one, is just as popular (and as sexually provocative) as the day she launched her career. Same with Jennifer Lopez. And Celine Dion has had such an epic style revolution, in large part due to her stylist Law Roach, that over the course of this summer alone, her outfits have made headlines every time she’s stepped foot outdoors, like the time she was outfitted in head-to-toe python, or channeled Bianca Jagger in couture, or redefined sleepwear in a Louis Vuitton x Supreme pajama set, or finished her look with a cross-body bag by Off-White, aka one of the buzziest streetwear labels right now.
“She can, and will, want to wear a little bit of everything, and it really just depends on what her mood is in the morning. Or what my mood is in the morning,” Roach tells The Cut about their sartorial approach. “When I tell you she’s the true embodiment of a fashion girl…She will make it work for the look. She’s just the quintessential diva. She’ll sacrifice her body and endure pain for a beautiful look.” (See her Billboard Music Awards gown that received rave reviews thanks to the exceedingly high heels and massive, wing-like sleeves.)
“I think Celine Dion is a great example of how female musicians can alter their style as they get older,” says Avigail Collins, celebrity stylist who has dressed Rihanna, Cara Delevingne, and more. “She really showed us how it can be done without looking younger than her years by keeping it classy, but current with brands that are really relevant to now.”
In Dion’s case, she uses fashion—and successfully, might we add—as a tool to generate buzz on top of being the legendary singer that she is. But it doesn’t always work for every musician. Take Madonna, for instance. When she flashed her behind in a see-through lace creation by Givenchy at the 2016 Met Gala, it was met with both praise (for her risk-taking, unapologetically badass attitude) and criticism (because of her age).
“Older people are expected to be less sexual even though they’re not—there’s an emotional discomfort that comes up and I think it fuels biases in the media,” Parker says. “With Madonna, I read people were calling her desperate for showing her butt, for exposing her body. If this were someone in her 20s, would anybody be calling her desperate? Or would they be calling her a sex symbol?”
And that, dear friends, is proof that ageism is alive and well.
Even though there are older female musicians who are embraced and admired, the fact that age plays a factor in how someone should dress is indicative that perhaps we haven’t progressed as much as we thought. Collins, as a stylist, takes age into consideration, too, when she outfits her clients: “When dressing musicians who are older, I really try and bring out their personality in the clothes and also make sure they’re 100 percent comfortable in what they’re wearing, while still making a statement.”
Another metric of progress, Parker says, would be a rise in emerging musicians who are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s versus their teens or 20s. Because while Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and countless others are in their 30s, they rose to fame when they were much younger.
So what can we do? How can we spark change?
“Pay attention to your own biases in everyday speech, do your research, and support older emerging musicians whenever you can,” Parker says. “There’s this belief that only a certain way of being is acceptable, so it’s worth asking ourselves if that’s the kind of society we want to live in. We never stop wanting to embrace life as we get older, so ageism shouldn’t stop us from doing that.”
But perhaps Dita Von Teese said it best in an article on ageism in the September issue of InStyle: “Anytime I question myself, like, ‘Should I really be on tour, doing my burlesque show again in my 40s?’ I recall Mamie [Van Doren] and her wonderful spirit. Or I’ll see a video of J.Lo doing backflips in a G-string onstage in Vegas and think about how she’s a few years older than me and up there in lingerie, looking amazing. I truly do believe that we need to see and experience beauty and sensuality at all phases of life. I hate it when people say, ‘You look good for your age.’ It should be, ‘You look good.’ Period. Getting older is a good thing.”