I’ve come across some pretty inspiring women since I launched Studio10. Ashton Applewhite is one of them. This writer and activist, based in New York, has made me think differently about ageism on so many levels. Her brilliantly incisive TED Talk Let’s End Ageism – which has been watched by 1,638,700 people, and counting, since it launched – shares so many ideas with our online exhibition Beauty That Comes With Age that I couldn’t not talk about it this month.
Applewhite calls out ageism as the last acceptable prejudice. It’s not something most of us ever think about – but what’s the one thing the majority of us have in common? We’re going to get old. And for many of us, that’s scary. Yet research shows that people are happiest at the beginning and end of their lives – the so-called u-shaped happiness curve is a function of the way ageing itself affects the brain. Why don’t we know that? Applewhite’s answer is simple: ageism. And the reasons behind it are sinister.
Think about it in relation to our own lives. Yes, we experience ageism any time someone assumes we’re too old for something (look at all the fuss surrounding Davina McCall in that Retrofête frock), instead of finding out who we are or what we’re capable of. But we do it to ourselves, too: have you ever rejected a haircut, or a relationship, or a dress because it’s not age-appropriate? And what does age-appropriate even mean?
As Applewhite points out, we can’t challenge ageism unless we’re aware of it. And raising awareness is what she’s all about. All “isms” – racism, sexism, homophobia – are social constructs: we create them. None of us is born ageist, but from the get-go, we’re bombarded by negative messages about late life: “Old people are pathetic. It’s grim to be old. Wrinkles are ugly.” I hate to underline it, but who says wrinkles are ugly? The multibillion-pound skincare industry. You just can’t make that kind of money off satisfaction – it’s shame and fear that create markets, and capitalism always needs new markets.
As midlife women, we’re exposed to the two-pronged attack of both ageism and sexism. There’s a double standard at work: the notion that ageing enhances men and devalues women. And yet we reinforce this double standard when we compete to stay young. We need to accept our age, own it, grow older with grace – whatever that means to you. Just don’t be bullied into believing you are less – less interesting, less valuable, less beautiful – than the woman you were five years ago. That’s what Beauty That Comes With Age is all about.
It is not having a vagina that makes life harder for women. It’s sexism. And it’s not the passage of time that makes getting older more difficult than it has to be. It’s ageism. Why do we stop celebrating the ability to adapt and grow as we move through life? Why should ageing well mean struggling to look like a younger version of ourselves? It’s not healthy to go through life dreading our future. We’ve got so much to look forward to.
Applewhite is so good at unpicking those notions we all take for granted that by the end of this TED Talk, you’ll feel like she’s ripped off your blinkers and pushed you out into the light. These are ideas we all need to be aware of – because the longer we wait to challenge them, the more damage they do to us and our place in the world.
Share this Ted Talk with your friends. It really is inspirational. And together, let’s make ageism old news.