Shul­man’s photo is a sigh of post-Vogue re­lief

Sunday Herald - - WEEK IN PERSPECTIVE - Val Burns Psy­chol­ogy Val Burns is a psy­chother­a­pist, liv­ing and work­ing in Glas­gow email: val­brns@ya­hoo.co.uk

FORMER Vogue ed­i­tor Alexan­dra Shul­man’s bikini selfie, which she posted on I nst agram while on hol­i­day in Greece, has been mak­ing waves. Not the big, swollen, “rightin-your-face” kind of waves so beloved by the Kar­dashian school. Shul­man’s of­fer­ing is less self-ob­ses­sion, more self-lib­er­a­tion. It is not framed in nar­cis­sism.

Pic­ture it. The 59-yearold pho­tographs her re­flec­tion in the mirror of a sparse ho­tel bed­room. The light comes in from the win­dows and il­lu­mi­nates one side of her body. Her body is ab­so­lutely fine. It’s the only one she’s got and, in the pic­ture, she in­hab­its it fairly com­fort­ably. There is a hint of an al­most-wry smile and thought­ful de­ter­mi­na­tion (or de­fi­ance) in the eyes. She ap­pears to be say­ing some­thing more than her “Time for the Boat Trip” photo-cap­tion sug­gests. An al­ter­na­tive “what’s she re­ally think­ing?” cap­tion, might read some­thing like: “Go fig­ure, suck­ers!” Maybe that’s too an­gry? Per­haps she’s sim­ply sigh­ing with re­lief and think­ing: “After all this time ... I’ve made peace with my body.” Un­til June this year, Shul­man was ed­i­tor-in-chief at Vogue fash­ion mag­a­zine where she’d grafted for the last 25 years. By all ac­counts, she is no pushover or peo­ple-pleaser. I can’t help think­ing she will be unim­pressed (but not sur­prised) by the pre­dictable tsunami of over­the-top re­ac­tions to her selfie. She has been much praised for dar­ing to show her real body, in real time, in real space. Le­gions of Twit­ter­ers and fans think such body brav­ery de­serves a medal or, at least, an OBE (she al­ready has one). There are oth­ers – ad­mit­tedly fewer in num­ber – who ac­cuse Shul­man of “too lit­tle, too late” hypocrisy by show­ing us what a woman in her 60th year ac­tu­ally looks like in a bikini. “Why now?” they ask. “After a quar­ter-cen­tury of fly­ing cel­ery-stick-thin mod­els from the iconic masts of Vogue, why didn’t you ‘come out’ sooner?” Good ques­tion. Maybe Shul­man

her­self can throw the most light on this. Asked about her rea­sons for leav­ing Vogue, she replied: “It has been very hard to find a ra­tio­nal rea­son to leave … but I re­alise that I very much want to ex­plore a dif­fer­ent life and look for­ward to a fu­ture sep­a­rate to Vogue.”

Maybe the dif­fer­ent life she longs for is, well, just real life: not touched up, not sub­ju­gated by our ob­ses­sion with ex­clu­siv­ity, youth, thin­ness and a nar­rowed-down no­tion of beauty. I’m sur­prised she en­dured it for 25 years.

WOMEN are still the pri­mary vic­tims of our so­ci­ety’s ram­pantly neg­a­tive views on age­ing. They in­ter­nalise these views and this, in turn, makes them ter­ri­fied and ashamed of grow­ing older. The fear sets in early these day with more young women us­ing Bo­tox and other cos­metic pro­ce­dures in their early twen­ties as a kind of pre­ven­ta­tive medicine (be­cause age­ing is per­ceived as a dis­ease). We don’t buy it that age­ing has its own kind of won­der and free­dom. Yes, bi­ol­ogy sets lim­i­ta­tions on the body but not so on the mind.

The mind can ex­pand as we ag­gre­gate more lived ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge with the pass­ing of time. As we un­der­stand more about the na­ture of ex­is­tence, we de­velop more em­pa­thy for self and oth­ers. This, para­dox­i­cally, can re­gen­er­ate our cu­rios­ity, our won­der and joy in the world, and in na­ture. Age­ing does not make us in­com­pe­tent, dither­ing ob­jects only fit for the shad­ows but at­ti­tudes to age­ing can and do threaten our po­ten­tial and our mo­bil­ity as we get older.

Ageism has a wholly neg­a­tive im­pact on our prospects and qual­ity of life. It af­fects our wealth, em­ploy­ment, men­tal and phys­i­cal health, our so­cial life and op­por­tu­ni­ties. The only thing our bias about age­ing can guar­an­tee is a rather bleak, un­event­ful, older age.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing old is, quite lit­er­ally, a once-in-a-life­time opportunity to make sense of our lives and live not just con­tem­pla­tively but ac­tively by be­ing in the present and con­nected to the world around us.

We are mostly liv­ing longer, but if turn­ing 50 or 60 her­alds the be­gin­ning of the end (par­tic­u­larly if you hap­pen to be fe­male) so that your fran­chise on the world con­tracts be­fore your very eyes, we have to won­der about the kind of re­la­tion­ship we have be­tween our bod­ies and our iden­ti­ties, and how these shape our val­ues.

If we only see beauty and value in youth and per­fec­tion and as more and more peo­ple live into their eight­ies and nineties, there are going to be a lot of un­happy older peo­ple around. Time for change.

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