Women can’t avoid media’s portrayal of the horror of aging


DANBUIRY — Get rid of my laugh lines. Don’t let my hands show my age.

That’s how Beth Hoolehan, 51, of Newtown, feels after flipping through a typical women’s magazine geared to her age group.

“There’s a bombardment of pressure being geared towards women starting in their 40s that we need to look like we did in our 20s,” Hoolehan said.

American culture does not value seniors, said Heidi Rankin, prevention educator at the Greater Danbury Women’s Center. And until recently, older women were almost invisible in media and advertising.

“There is a sense that there is no place for me, and that can be a very isolating kind of feeling,” Rankin said.

But as female baby boomers continued to age, media and advertisers realized they had to stop denying what their audience was, she said.

“They realized they should stop ignoring them. That’s the good news,” said Bill Petkanas, Western Connecticut State University professor of communication. “The bad news is that the media is going to do to them what it did to younger women, which is making them idealize the idea of perfection.”

Twenty years ago, women of a certain age had the expectation they could retire from media pressure, Petkanas said. After 50, women were portrayed as comic relief — goofy, cute, but hardly sexy.

“The Golden Girls,” Angela Lansbury, and Edith Bunker defined the older generation.

“People grew out of the idea that they’re supposed to be perfect,” Petkanas said. “They said, now we can be clever and intelligent, and not focus on youth.”

But now, he said, older women are increasingly portrayed as sexy. For example, Italian actress Sophia Loren, 76, created a buzz at the Golden Globe Awards at the beginning of the year when she showed up without a wrinkle on her face.

As a spokesperson for L’Oreal Paris anti-aging products, Diane Keaton, 64, glowed in an all-white suit as she spoke about the benefits of L’Oreal’s anti-aging products.

“I noticed a new ad with Diane Keaton,” said Eleanor Pianforini, 86, of Brookfield. “It was a wrinkle cream of some sort. Diane Keaton is in shooting distance of my age, so I might be persuaded to use that product.”

Linda Graff, 67, of Brookfield, said she resents erectile dysfunction drug commercials that show women desiring sex while the male can’t perform.

“For me it works the opposite,” Graff said. “A lot of women after they hit 55, they don’t need sex that often. But there’s this misconception that women are craving it.”

Graff referred to a drug commercial that shows a woman approaching a man in the kitchen and being rejected. After he takes the drug, the kitchen turns into a forest.

“I don’t like it,” Graff said. “It’s a fantasy thing. It’s a drug-pushing thing.”

Petkanas said he wouldn’t be surprised if diseases like anorexia and bulimia, which typically afflict young women, start plaguing older populations as well.

Debbie Chasen, executive vice president of Norwalk-based Johnson Talent Agency, said her older models are getting a lot of work.

“They do a lot of work with hospitals and for new products coming out for older people,” Chasen said. “Some of our 60-year-old women will be doing beauty. I think that’s because people are so much healthier these days.”

American advertising thrives by making people feel unhappy with them and that buying a product will make them feel better, Petkanas said.

Most Americans have taken that message to heart, he said. “In America, we fear aging more than we fear death. But this concept of anti-aging, its absurdity.”

And it’s not just looking youthful — there’s pressure to act youthful, too, Rankin said.

The AARP recently highlighted a 75-year-old who biked across the U.S. in one of its publications. Although meant to inspire, this could also make women of limited ability feel even more inadequate.

Media literacy and critical analysis is essential at any age, Rankin said. When looking at an ad, women should ask themselves, is it true? Is it realistic? Is it harmful?

Even though she’s media savvy, Rankin, a 56-year-old, admitted feeling less beautiful when she bought an age-appropriate bathing suit at the beginning of the season instead of a bikini.

“I deal with it with a sense of humor and tell myself that youthful expectations are unrealistic,” Rankin said. “But it’s hard not to buy into those messages, because there’s no alternative message to grab on to.”