What should a woman over 50 look like?
The original question comes from the iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz. She was discussing her Vanity Fair cover shot of Caitlin Jenner. Of course, Annie’s original question was, “what should a woman look like?”
But the more I thought about Leibovitz's question, the more I thought about why so many women are afraid to have portraits done as they age.
A list of their concerns includes:
- I don’t feel stylish anymore.
- I don’t want my wrinkles to be what people see first.
- I’m too heavy.
- Who wants to see a picture of an old woman?
- I don’t look like I did ten years ago. I was younger and better looking then.
- I’m invisible.
- People only want to see sexy, young women in portraits.
Let’s be bold enough to parse these comments, Raise your hands, how many of you think these concerns are a response to what advertising agencies and ubiquitous selfies of nubile young women want us to believe about women of any age over 50?
These concerns are all about the “should”; “what should a woman look like” decreed by someone else. The chasm between the way a woman sees herself and the way society views women of a certain age can be vast and profound.
Let’s talk about the power of mature women.
Reasons women over 50 can choose portraits
You there! Yes, you...the woman over 50.
Did you know you are a dominant market force? You belong to the largest demographic that makes spending decisions. Older, experienced women control the majority of money decisions. (We can thank all those consumer studies for this bit of information.) You can purchase, or direct your money to the causes and items that make your world easier and happier.
As an experienced woman, you are a reckoning force. You know what is important and what is not. And you possess a maturity and self-awareness that is a different sexy. Your acquired wisdom carries you in a way society “doesn’t expect” from women of a certain age. And you're willing to show the world who you are.
“ A seasoned woman is spicy; marinated in life” - Gail Sheehy, in her book, Passages
You may find yourself feeling freer at age 50 and onward. You can reinvent yourself as you choose. You can get new hair or new clothes to match who you want to be. You can have silver locks one week and lavender ombre hair the next. You can start new businesses, travel the world, take your grandkids rock climbing or march along with millions of others who value what science brings to our daily lives.
As the older woman, you have the monetary power, the intellectual and emotional power, and the wisdom to step outside "limiting shoulds" and choose for yourself. You can choose to tell your story in a way most true to your inner life.
A portrait story of three sisters
Let’s go back to those concerns often held by older women; the reasons they give for not having portraits made.
This past February, I attended a photography workshop with a master photographer. On the wall of his studio hung the most breath-taking image. The subjects in the portrait were three sisters, true Southern Women. The sisters ranged in age from 92 to 101!
They sat for the portrait with the most regal of bearings. The photographer told us how after the sitting, the “power” sister came to him and said, “We know there is this Photoshop thing that lets you take out our wrinkles and our liver spots. We have lived a very long time and earned every one of these wrinkles and spots. They are part of who we are. We want you to keep them in our picture.”
And so, indeed, the portrait contained all their wrinkles and their “liver spots,” but that is NOT what stayed with me. What impressed me was the absolutely noble bearing of the sisters and the enormous, irreplaceable gift each family member was about to receive. And as happens, one of the sisters passed away before the week finished. (Oh geeze, my eyes are watering.)
Three sisters, all mature, wise, older women who weren’t afraid of “the shoulds.” They let their experience and wisdom guide them. They chose to document their "sisters autobiography" for all the generations of their family. They held great pride about how their wrinkles and spots marked chapters in their very long lives.
And, they certainly had an impact on one long-storied woman photographer. In my mind, the portrait of the three sisters is a rebuke to the false beliefs and false expectations that attempt to diminish older women in our society.
Truly, the sisters proved that no one really cares about the wrinkles, spots, weight, or age. They had a story to tell about themselves; a story that will be brought to mind with every viewing of their portrait.
These women knew the value of their lives and their stories. They honored their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren with a legacy of grace, wit, and wisdom. And all these gifts were contained in 40 inches x 60 inches of canvas and a gilded frame.
What should a woman over 50 look like?
Any glorious way she chooses.
When you're ready to show the world the real you, I'll be right here. Together, we'll tell your story in pictures.