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