Fearless Over 40 in a Youth-Obsessed Culture

June 16th, 2011

by Tinamarie Bernard

“Women over forty have a very clear picture of who they ARE, but a distorted idea of what they actually LOOK like.” – Jillian Todd, photographer

One of the best-kept secrets of women’s lives is that as they age sex gets better. Breasts may sag, tummies may flab, and butts may drag, but none of that really matters in soft candlelight and a warm bed.  With childbirth complete, a woman can finally focus on making love free of the nagging worries of unwanted pregnancy. That release of anxiety often gives way to a great acceptance and exploration of sensual fantasies.

Jillian Todd is one of those women photographers in the business of celebrating and acknowledging the place where women over 40 find themselves: sexually vibrant and ‘fighting’ the clock in our youth-obsessed culture. We’ve emerged victoriously on the other side of the body wars, and want to document that transition, for ourselves, our daughters, even our unborn grandchildren. Because like it or not, women somehow are more scarred by the portrayals and betrayals in the media.

“Many women come to see me when they’re in the middle of a transition: entering or exiting a marriage, after having children, after a weight loss journey, a milestone birthday,” Jillian says. “The biggest gift I can give is to facilitate a change in her view of herself.  Women over forty who come to my studio have a very clear picture of who they ARE, but a distorted idea of what they actually LOOK like.”

That statement struck a cord with me, because many women harbor the most unfavorable version of themselves when they are younger. We become accustomed to comparing ourselves to falsified images of glamour and find ourselves lacking until we learn to forget the lies about our imperfections. What’s worse is that sense of inadequacy has been transmitted to girls as young as preschool age.

Since when did five-year-olds need to worry about a bit of baby fat? Eight-year-olds need botox? Eleven-year-olds need designer vaginas? Recent headlines alerted me to all three of these upsetting developments.

At best, I worry that the current generation will emerge from the body wars far more troubled than my generation. Our scars are mostly internal, but today’s youth will have to deal with mutilated labia, leaking implants and obnoxious medical bills. How can we get the message across that life, love and sensuality ripen like a fine wine, become sweeter and something to savor, when they feel invisible compared to current beauty proportions?

“Changing society’s perception of women in general will only come when we see *ourselves* differently, and we expect and demand different treatment. When we respond–with our buying power–to ads, TV shows and movies, we are telling Madison Avenue what we want to see,” Jillian says.

That’s been suggested many times. Respond with our purchasing power and the magazines will follow. However, our purchasing power feels a bit lackluster these days. Economically, our communities are fried but the ads haven’t changed. Primarily younger audiences buy magazines that tend to target the ones more vulnerable to fashion’s critical lens. Never mind the less savory truth that campaigns aimed at showing us broader visions of beauty garner less attention than anything the media conglomerates concoct.

“An interesting development, to me, is the fact we are seeing more stars releasing unretouched photos of themselves. When more stars follow suit, when more advertisers (like Dove) use ‘real’ women in their ads, and when more girls and women see what has been changed by the “magic” of makeup, lighting and Photoshop, we can see advertising as no more than special effects.”

Along those lines, I think that an interesting development is the work of visionaries like Jillian. “How many guys go to a Sci-fi movie and believe they can fly?  We have to wake up from the group hallucination that what we see in media is real,” she says, and I couldn’t agree more.

Keeping it real – that’s what this is about. We’ve altered our perceptions of reality and have started believing the make-believe. How silly of us, no? No wonder Hollywood starlets get younger and younger, and when youth isn’t good enough, they do what Heidi Montag did – undergo 10 cosmetic surgeries in one day. Media stunts like this abound, and not just on television.

Consider the music industry:  not so very long ago, say in the 1970′s when the feminist movement was growling fiercely, our favorite musicians were talented and mostly mature. Grown-ups sang of love, life and heartbreak; children and teens sang on the Mickey Mouse Club.

How many visionaries find their stride in their youth? Most of the time, it takes decades of accumulated fits and starts to realize our full potential, and the older brain is far better equipped to handle the highs and lows of stardom or success. The older female brain is tuned in to what turns her on too, another reason why sex gets better, if we want to bring this back to the origin of this essay.

The reality is this: life is lovely and rich and full of promise at all ages. The numbers on the scale and your ID do not define who you are or your worth. You are dynamic and amazing at any age. When it comes to sexuality, pleasure finds the most fertile ground in your gray matter, not a perfect pair of breasts, fatless hips or a waxed pubis. It really does get better as we age, but until recently older women tended not to boast to the next generation about their well-satiated libido or comfort within their skin.

Most of the time, they’ve been too gracious to flaunt anything but lingerie, with the exception of posing for artists like Jillian, but does that serve us best? There’s no reason to settle for obscurity or invisibility. It’s time to roar, my cougar friends! Life is good for us, and we must let our cubs know that they too can be fearless, naked or not, at 40 and beyond.

All photos reprinted with permission by Jillian Todd, Photographer

Tinamarie is an occasional poet and writer for several acclaimed websites. You can find her at twitter and Facebook, or send her a private message at modernlovemuse @ yahoo dot com.

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