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Here's Why Older Women Need to Celebrate Their Sexuality

And why they shouldn't be shamed.

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photo collage of famous females that celebrate their sexuality , madonna, jennifer lopez, halle berry, mary j blige, Elizabeth Hurley
Elena Scotti
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Whether you like her music or not, Madonna has never been anything but an unabashedly and unapologetically sexual woman. She has strutted in a Gaultier cone bra onstage, posed full-frontal nude in her book, Sex, and had a make-out session with Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards.

So, presumably no one should have been surprised when the pop star recently posted a few images of herself on Instagram in flimsy lingerie, fishnet stockings and stilettos, with one breast exposed.

Yet, she was slammed, even though her poses were completely on brand. Nothing had changed, except her age. Madonna is 63. A spate of high-profile women who are around Madonna’s age — Halle Berry, Elizabeth Hurley, Paulina Porizkova and Jennifer Lopez, among others — have also recently been judged and shamed. This, for openly expressing their sexuality even though they, like Madonna, were celebrated for their hot bodies, and selves, when they were younger.

What is it that sets people on edge about seeing women in their 50s and beyond looking and acting like the vibrant women they are, especially when having sex is medically endorsed as good for our health and general well-being as we age? Why is it OK for a woman to be sexually active later in life as long as she does not actually look like she’s getting it on?

On Instagram, Porizkova, 56, observed that throughout her 20s, 30s and even 40s, the less she wore, the more popular she was. Everything changed when she hit 50, as she described when sharing this thorny feedback: “‘Put on your clothes, grandma. Hungry for attention, are you? A little desperate here? You’re pathetic.’”

The ageless beauty added: “Why is sexiness and nudity applauded in a woman’s youth and reviled in her maturity? Because of men.”

My Eastern European grandmother looked very much like the babushka she was. But when my mother became a grandmother at age 61, she was rocking jeans (OK, elastic-waist “mom jeans,” but still). Today there is nothing in the way my 60-something girlfriends and I dress, look, act or live that even whispers “grandma”— even though some of us are.

It’s the old double standard that saddles women throughout our lives, but amps up in our later years, according to Julia Twigg, a professor of social policy and sociology at the University of Kent in England, who has studied the role of clothing and fashion in aging identities. “We have long middle years in a way that wasn’t quite the case in the past, when women past child-bearing took on a much more matronly sort of look. So, things have changed,” Twigg told me. “But it’s also true that these things haven’t changed as much as we think. … We’re a long way away from when women aren’t judged by their appearances.”

And it’s not just men who are doing the judging. Women themselves can be critical of older women who “flaunt” their sexuality. As Daily Mail columnist and former editor in chief of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman observed in a 2019 column: “When women’s bodies no longer serve any child-bearing purpose, we find flaunting them disturbing and slightly tragic. I don’t claim that this is fair. But it’s true.”

Older women could even be seen as a threat, Wendy Walsh told me. Walsh is the host of Mating Matters, a podcast that explores the often-unconscious evolutionary motivations for many human behaviors. “Since we have many, many, many generations of well-established roles of what grandmothers should be doing, this idea that Grandma could be taking our potential mates instead of taking care of our kids, it’s an unconscious anxiety,” Walsh said.

Not that all older women are grandmothers or even mothers. Still, science has looked to the granny hypothesis to explain why women live so many years past menopause — to help raise the next generation of children. An older woman who would rather pose half naked in fishnet stockings and stilettos would not seem to be playing by those rules.

“These norms, this punishing discourse, are articulated very strongly by women about other women,” Professor Twigg added. “Women internalize this and are often some of the sharpest critics of other women’s appearance.”

That was certainly the case when Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, then ages 50 and 43, respectively, turned the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show into a proud display of female sexuality. It seemed to be too much for best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, who wrote that she felt “personally judged by the tanned, taut terrain” of J. Lo’s body in a New York Times opinion piece.

When she turned 50, Weiner imagined, she could finally be “done,” moving on in life to “a point at which you were no longer expected to perform what sometimes feels like a woman’s major duty in life — looking good for men. You could ... throw away your Spanx and your food scale and enjoy your accomplishments, your grandchildren, your free time."

Except not all women want to look good for men. Some want to look good for other women, either because they’re sexually interested in them or because they’re in some sort of competition with them. And some just want to — stay with me here — look good for themselves.

“There is a deluge of reminders, from ads in magazines to clothing store displays, that women my age are not supposed to be allowed to dress the way we feel,” wrote Michele Weldon, 63, in an NBC.com article. Weldon is the author of Act Like You’re Having a Good Time, a book of essays on aging.

“I am dressing for me, and I intend to express how I feel about myself (which is that I am actually about 37),” she added. “I am not age-defying or ageless, as the cosmetics industry demands I be; I am age-authentic.”

In her early 60s, Madonna does not want to be “done.” Neither do a lot of other women, including me. I love being a sexual woman, and I love looking like a sexual woman at age 65. And I don’t know when, or if, that will change.

Madonna dared to be an openly sexual woman in her youth, and now she is daring to be an openly sexual woman in her 60s. As she puts it, “People say that I’m so controversial, but I think the most controversial thing that I’ve done is to stick around.”

Lots of women are sticking around. The world will soon be populated with more people 65 and older than those the ages of their children and grandchildren. Most of them will be women because we live longer than men. Many will be single, by choice or chance, and many will still want love and companionship and, yes, sex.

And if that is what women want, you better believe we are going to dress and act like we want it — expressing how we feel about ourselves and aging authentically.

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