Even the old dare not put age before beauty

The poster campaign is wrong in a big way - it misses out the real people, worn and wrinkled

Ann Treneman
Sunday 08 February 1998 00:02

AT 56, Pearl Read has had quite a life. She has been the wife of Joe Wilkins, a former business rival of the Kray Twins, and the mistress of David Bulstrode, the multi-millionaire owner of Queens Park Rangers. She has one son and a granddaughter and says she now prefers the quiet life, give or take a bottle of champagne now and then. But this week the only thing we care about is that Pearl has big breasts.

We know because they have been displayed, barely contained in a black satin bra, on billboards across Britain. "The first thing thing some people notice is her age," the Age Concern advertisement says. The idea is to catch us out while we're wondering how an older woman - never mind one of 56 - could look that good. The next stage, Age Concern may have thought, we would quit thinking about Pearl's breasts and go on to ponder the terrible inequities of age discrimination and ask: Why hasn't the Government made it illegal? Time to march on Westminster. Demand grey power!

Except that, days later we are still thinking about Pearl and her boobs. Could it be that an advertisement that was supposed to draw our attention to ageism has actually underlined our obsession with how we look? Or, as the Evening Standard columnist Allison Pearson says, could it be just plain boobist? "Those of us who are a good 20 years younger than Pearl Read may well look on her mighty knockers and despair. Feelings of shrunken self-worth will well up in a million chests which, thanks to the ravages of time and the fierce sucking of infants, have come to resemble the kids' paddling pool as it deflates in winter."

The Daily Mail decided it was high time to investigate the issues involved. Not, as it happens, how age discrimination works in modern day Britain. Nor, it seems, is that newspaper interested in the abuse of early retirement or the state of some old people's homes. "Can you tell a woman's age from her cleavage?" the Mail demanded in huge type. The answer lay underneath in the six pairs of breasts in six black satin bras. The Age Concern poster of Pearl and her fantastic bust posed one burning question: "Does your face age faster than your cleavage?" The Mail had the answer, vis-a-vis interviews with six women, each of whom loves her cleavage. Their breasts are "magnets for men" and are great for "knock 'em dead" outfits. Cherri Gilham, aged 53, is a former page three model, whose 34A bust is now a 36B thanks to HRT. "I love wearing sexy clothes to show off my cleavage but I'm careful not to reveal the tops of my arms, which show ageing more obviously." Carole Goodman is 50 and, at the urging of her husband, has had breast implants. She is a model and was sent to the casting for the Age Concern advert. "I would have liked the job because it would have been nice to show how good older women can look."

For many women, this is the only factor that matters about the ad. "I think it is a thoroughly good thing. In mid-life there is a feeling that women become invisible and that we are expected to veil ourselves discreetly," says the columnist and author Angela Neustatter who, at 54, still enjoys leopardskin tights and what she calls "frisky" clothes. "Never mind if you like your body. Never mind if you like your decolletage. Somehow there is a feeling that this flesh is repulsive because it belongs to an older woman."

This may be true, but Pearl Read hardly looks her age. In fact, I say to the Age Concern spokeswoman, she could be 46. "It's interesting that you should want to try and quantify this. What we are saying here is that people are individuals," she said firmly. "And the thing about Pearl is that she is 56." Has she had any surgery? "No, we have been assured that she has not", and she added: "Old has such negative connotations in our society. Old is seen as the same as grey and invisible. Old is seen as the opposite of new as opposed to young."

But would Age Concern's advertising agency have picked Pearl Read if she looked like most 56-year-old women? If, for instance, she had the face of Britain's oldest mother, 60-year-old Elizabeth Buttle? Or, for that matter, if she had looked similar to most of the people that Age Concern helps? It may be easy to protest that we don't find Pearl Read's flesh repulsive, but would we say the same if that was a picture of your average 56-year-old. Her face would probably be wrinkled, her eyes creased, her breasts lop-sided or sagging.

Melanie Manchot, an artist, knows the answer to that. Last month she featured her 66-year-old mother in her underwear on a poster outside South Kensington Underground station. The underwear is not black or satin. "It's the kind of thing she wears every day," says Melanie, aged 30. She said she did it to "show that there are different ways of defining beauty and to counter the marginalisation of people when they reach a certain age." Her mother, Margaret, who lives in Dusseldorf, agrees. "I believe in my daughter's cause but I'm glad I live in Germany so nobody will recognise my pictures."

Some people applauded the effort, others were appalled. "One girl said it was obscene," says Melanie, who often uses herself and her mother - both unclothed - in her work. "People say to me that I must have an amazing relationship with my mother. Most have said that they have never seen their mothers naked. They thought it was quite a revelation to see how an older woman might look without clothes."

That is the nub of the issue. Age Concern's poster may challenge our ideas about age, but it does not make even a gesture towards taking on our obsession with beauty and perfection. This is relevant to ageing because we see old people as imperfect. Wrinkles are seen as ugly, undesirable. They may show wisdom born of age, but they are hardly sexy, on a woman at least. Our culture has become so obsessed with body shape and air-brushed beauty that there may be no way to challenge ageism without taking on this issue too.

Last week the Mail also brought us the story of Racheal Baughan from Crawley in West Sussex. In an accompanying picture she appeared the embodiment of the teenager who had everything, beauty certainly. However, Racheal thinks otherwise. "I've never really liked the way I look," she said. "All my friends are blonde with blue eyes and I just look at myself and see this horrible, dark hair and ugly face with bad skin. Now I prefer to stay indoors. Or I'll only go out when it starts to get dark. I'm not an unhappy person but I've got this problem of not liking how I look. I can't help it. I can't control it. I want to see about cosmetic surgery as soon as I can. I want to change everything about my face. It doesn't matter how many times people tell me I'm not ugly. As far as I'm concerned I am."

Her condition is known as body dysmorphic disorder. This is extreme, but the attitudes behind it are not. It is not necessary to have to have an eating disorder to be obsessed with your weight, or to be ugly to decide it's time for a new - and younger - look. After all, the actress Julie Christie, beautiful by any standard at 57, has just had a facelift. She said that meeting other Hollywood actresses was depressing because "you know they are older than you and you look like their mother".

Most women do not wait so long. "I see much younger people," says Professor David Sharpe, president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. "Between 35 and 40, they're much less tolerant of wrinkles. The average age has dropped from around 55 to 45 in the last five years."

It would have been far more radical if Age Concern had used a woman who looked a bit more ordinary in the poster. But there was never any chance of that. "That is another issue. That's the name of the advertising game," Angela Neustatter says. We live in a beauty culture and we cannot change that. "We can question it and challenge it, but since we are not able to change it, it is important that we feel good about ourselves. It is like that great poem by Jenny Joseph that starts: 'When I am an old woman I shall wear purple ...' What she's saying is, fuck it, I can be irreverent." Perhaps so, but I'm not sure that Wonderbras come in purple yet.

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