Margaret Morganroth Gullette(WOMENSENEWS)–What makes particular bodies or activities "ugly" and "disgusting"?

One way is to put a label on them that says so. Ageism in America has done just that to the bodies of midlife and older women. For a symptom of this, check out the powerful new documentary called "Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women over Sixty-Five," directed by Deirdre Fishel.

There you will find a 75-year-old man named Bill, who apparently feels fine about about his own appearance. Bill admits: "There is an embedded prejudice against women who look old," but to him older women are just "a challenge to look at."

Positive aging, however, says that times have changed.

And here comes Dove with a new ad campaign that features a woman named Irene, aged 95, of London, with bare shoulders and a bright silk turban.

On its Web site, Dove’s "Campaign for Beauty" asks site visitors to vote on Irene’s looks. "Wrinkled?" or "Wonderful?" it asks us to choose.

Gray or Gorgeous?

The next photo is of Merlin, aged 45, with long silvery hair. "Gray?" or "Gorgeous?" is the choice they give us this time.

The Dove people are obviously tickled pink about how anti-ageist and countercultural the campaign must prove they are. They’ve discovered women don’t like the beauty myths! They trumpet a study they conducted that found only 2 percent of women around the world believe they are beautiful. What a vast potential market for products!

I want to give Dove some credit for the photos of Irene and Merlin. They’re as well lit and carefully posed as those of the young models who otherwise dominate the site. But one viewer saw right through the labels. "I’m really ticked off that I couldn’t vote for both ‘wrinkled’ and ‘beautiful,’" she wrote.

And that’s the point. Why not gray and gorgeous? Why not wrinkled and beautiful? Why the antithesis?

Women willing to judge Irene Sinclair’s looks at 95 had voted 7,800 for "wrinkled" and 23,000 for "wonderful." Those writing in to the site say what we are supposed to say at older ages. "I’m just 50, but I take pride in my gray hair and lines–I’ve earned them."

Internalizing Ageism

Such positive-aging pronouncements notwithstanding, women all too often internalize Bill’s sexist ageism, turning the knife against themselves. Take Ruth, a subject of "Still Doing It," a woman in her 60s in a happy new relationship with a same-age man.

In one scene shortly after Bill talks about the "challenge" of looking at an older woman’s body, we see Ruth showering and toweling off her compact, athletic body. A younger woman in the audience said to me later that during that scene she had been thinking, "I could look that good when I get to be 60-plus." Another said, reflectively, "I’m about her age and have the same nice build. I could look good in a movie too."

But Ruth herself believes what the culture tells her.

When she thinks of beauty, "The visions in my mind . . . are not of a woman 65," she says. "An attractive, sexy woman [in my mind] is young." Does she think Harry’s body is unappealing, or only her own?

In fact, the only person in Fishel’s fascinating movie who speaks as if he has been undoing his ageism is a 30-ish man named Eric who is having a love affair with a woman 40 years his senior, the voluptuous Betty Dodson. He doesn’t want to hear Betty talk about her body as "older" or "aging," as if that were a tragedy. "It would start to wear, I would get tired of hearing it."

Esthetics Matters in Sex

Esthetics matters in sex. Magazines, full of Photo-Shopped perfection, and films, similarly skewed, make people feel ashamed of their bodies. Even at very young ages.

In a British interview study by sociologist Melissa Tyler published in Sexualities, a young woman named Stephanie said of magazine advertising, "It probably makes people feel that they don’t have a very good sex life . . . or life in general really . . . Because their body isn’t the way it should be then their sex life [cannot] be any good . . .They can’t be any good at it."

Sex surveys indicate that everyone–gay, lesbian, or straight–is doing some variation of "it" regardless of age–if they can find a partner. (The notion that people choose to become celibate after some undisclosed age is simply false.) Presumably older people find their older partners’ bodies appetizing, but how sad it would be if they couldn’t.

What painful confusion Americans must be in, between the warping of our minds by the cult of youth and misinformation about the sex lives of midlife and old people.

By their college years, many women and men anticipate becoming unattractive and asexual as they get older–and "older" to them means 30. Our commerce in aging, with its billions of dollars reminding us daily that we need expensive surgeries and pills more and more with every passing year, makes aging-past-youth a curse in America.

How could we correct our vision, and see normal everyday bodies, with some age on them, as magical, fleshy, individual and desirable to some beloved partner?

For me, all this began to happen in the steam room at my mother’s Florida condo 20 years ago, when I was a shy pale New Englander surrounded by hefty European-Americans who had been hanging out nude in steam rooms for 50 or 60 or 70 years, eschewing towels and sighing with happiness. There wasn’t much conversation. I just got a big radiant eyeful of pulchritude in later life.

Unlike Ruth, these women were zaftig.

Women who try for the Nancy Reagan look as they age so they can get into a size 2, often seem emaciated, brittle. Not so the denizens of the white-tiled chamber. Naked and unself-conscious, my sisters in steam looked utterly comfortable in their filled-out, rosy, soft, glistening skins. The chiaroscuro of roundnesses was an esthetic pleasure. I thought, "Renoir would have loved them."

We have a long way to go before we can look at ourselves and others at any age appreciatively. But if we want to improve self-esteem, sex and romance across the life course, liking what we see in our sisters is one good place to start.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author, most recently, of "Aged by Culture" (University of Chicago Press, 2004). An earlier book, "Declining to Decline," won the Emily Toth Award as the "best feminist book on American popular culture." She is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis.



For more information:

Margaret Morganroth Gullette:

Deirdre Fishel’s "Still Doing It":

Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: