Aging Supermodels Are Not Healthy Role Models for Aging

5 min read

Women are accustomed to seeing youthful faces and bodies grace the covers of magazines, but the tide has begun to turn in recent years, from Martha Stewart as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model to Isabella Rossellini on the cover of Italian Vogue. But none of these have captured as much attention as the return of the original, or OG, 1990s “supermodels.” It was hard to miss the supermodels back then: Cindy, Naomi, Christy, and Linda became household names, appearing in countless ads and commercials, and who could forget the iconic George Michael “Freedom” video?

These models reunited as 50-somethings on the cover of American Vogue in September 2023, an event which was met with polarizing reactions. Some applauded the cover as evidence that we are finally embracing the beauty of aging. Others criticized the cover, expressing disappointment that the women were airbrushed far away from their natural beauty. But whichever way you see that debate, a critical point missing from the conversation is that aging supermodels are simply not healthy role models for aging.

On the surface, this cover and others like it don’t seem like such a big deal. After all, what’s the harm in viewing these images and using them for inspiration, or simply enjoying the nostalgia? Let’s unpack it.

Supermodels, then or now, have never represented the average woman or our everyday lives. And truth be told, these images have little to do with how the supermodels themselves look in real life. Cindy Crawford famously acknowledged that “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford,” and much has been made in recent years about the extent to which photographic images are so misleading that they should come with disclaimers. Sadly, research suggests that disclaimers on these images are ineffective at mitigating the damage to women’s body image (Tiggemann, 2022). These images initiate a social comparison response, in which women compare themselves to unrealistic body ideals; this happens automatically and without effort (Bocage-Barthelemy et al., 2018). And plenty of research demonstrates that social comparison is a major driver of girls’ and women’s body discontent (Myers & Crowther, 2009). At best, these images are irrelevant. At worst, they are downright harmful.

For the sake of our own health and well-being and living up to our own potential as multifaceted women, it is important to understand that the beauty and fashion industries are not our friends. Rather than truly embracing the enrichment that age and experience can bring to women’s lives, these covers, and cover stories, continue to perpetuate the culture’s relentless focus on appearance. The Vogue feature emphasized that these icons are still relevant based on how they look but spent relatively little space focusing on the richness of other aspects of their lives or capturing these aspects photographically. This implies that, for older women, staying relevant means prioritizing blatantly false and unachievable ideals of beauty. Failure to comply with these cultural prescriptions risks the dreaded “invisibility” of older women in society.

If aging is a positive thing—as boldly proclaimed in many of these articles—why are we suggesting that women should adhere to body image ideals from youth that were not even realistic then? And why must the media qualify beauty as “ageless” rather than just calling it beauty? The term does not make sense, is potentially damaging, and clearly takes an ageist rather than a pro-aging stance. The impacts are not just psychologically damaging. Focusing on these images may impact your physical health negatively. A youthful appearance is associated with health, so a focus on appearance can create a false impression that this is what matters, rather than what truly counts, which is health behavior (Cameron et al., 2018). But also, any tension between how you feel and how you look can be exacerbated by seeing these images. Science indicates that a healthier perspective is to invest in and celebrate our bodies’ functionality rather than their appearance (Alleva & Tylka, 2021); to invest in our relationships and life experiences rather than efforts to manage others’ perceptions of our age; and to realize that these kinds of images are not connected with our lives—in fact, they are irrelevant to our lives.

How often do we see a magazine cover with an older woman on it that does not in some way focus on maintaining beauty with age? How many covers with older women are only for “special issues”? And is it ever the case that an 80-year-old can be photographed in a swimsuit without it being heralded as “historic”? Until we can see women of all ages represented in culture without fanfare or focusing on aging and beauty, science suggests that we should tune out unrealistic media images (Rodgers et al., 2021). We may not have control over how the media presents women, but we do have the agency to decide that our own time is better spent elsewhere.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours