When did “mature” become “irrelevant?”
Given that 5 of our last 9 boudoir clients have clocked between 48 and 55 years on their personal calendars, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the whole “what is glamour” question. It’s one of the first topics we deal with in Sourcelight Photo Workshops’ glamour and fine-art nude classes, and I’ve come to believe that the question is at the heart of more important issues than whether or not it’s appropriate for Nana to pose for a portrait in her underwear.
Curiously, one of the things we spend the most time on during initial consultations with our more mature boudoir clients is simply reassuring them that they do, indeed, have the right to look and feel sexy “at their age.” Occasionally, even when they love their finished photos, they still need another round of reassurance that feeling good about themselves—about this part of themselves—is okay. Often, they express regret that they “didn’t do this 20 years ago,” not because they looked so much better at 30, but because they wouldn’t have had to explain why they wanted to have photos like this taken at that age.
Lovin’ your look at 29? Celebrate it, and let’s see the pix on Facebook. Feeling foxy at 50? Keep it to yourself. Nobody wants to know. Why is that? Why is the right to experience, enjoy, and express the very core of your identity—your erotic sense of self—essentially forbidden to anyone over the age of 35? Who made up that rule?
In our youth-obsessed culture, glamour is, almost by definition, reserved for the young and slimly beautiful, and the door isn’t open for anybody else to walk through. It hasn’t always been that way.
For most of human history, youth was a relatively short stage that people passed through on their way to the more coveted adulthood. It wasn’t—as it seems to be today—a permanent phase that people aspire to occupy for life. The mid-life crisis that manifests itself in Harley-Davidsons and botox is a relatively new phenomenon, and we all know at least a few desperate middle-aged adults whose self-image and general perspective on life are so mired in their teenage persona that they’re still fantasizing random seductions with all the feverish preoccupation of a high school sophomore. Unable to find a way to grow their adolescent libido into a functional adult version, they’re incapable of reconciling an active sexual life with a wrinkled face. Again, why?
Ironically, researchers report that, apart from the unreliable memory and the creaky joints, most older people are content with their age, a fact that younger people, many of whom are perpetually obsessed with being something they’re not, have a hard time imagining. Even harder for youth to imagine is that many of those older couples are having rich, satisfying sex lives in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, just as they did when they were more “age-appropriate.” There is one significant difference, however; after 40 it’s supposed to be a secret.
Overt sexuality is everywhere in modern media, including the “sexting” transmissions of Congressmen and teenagers over their ironically mislabeled smart phones. It’s hip, it’s marketable, and it’s ubiquitous. References to previously forbidden words like “penis” and “vagina” are now commonplace in primetime sit-coms, as are the less formal terms. It’s good for a laugh, and clearly represents a shift in social attitudes that’s probably, for the most part, good for a society that has historically been too immature to describe in words what it likes doing with the body parts it can’t speak of by name. Strikingly absent from all of this sexual frankness, however, is one key audience: the over-40 demographic.
What you’ll never see on television (other than the occasional gratuitous Cialis or Viagra commercial that only implies dysfunction) is a sensitive representation of a mature couple’s or individual’s sexuality. If you see any reference to older sexual activity (or even interest), it will be for the sole purpose of inviting ridicule.
If you’ve carried a functioning libido into middle age, there’s no place for you in the culture at large. You shouldn’t (still) be having these feelings at your age—it’s creepy, it’s gauche, it’s even shameful. Even worse, it’s laughable. In short, society has decreed that you have no right to experience these feelings and you should stop having them, or, at least, keep them to yourself. No short skirts for you, and cover up that décolletage.
Is that reasonable? It certainly isn’t fair, and over time, it’s definitely not healthy. Listen to this long enough, and you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the constant insinuation that having erotic impulses at your age is clear evidence that there’s something fundamentally, shamefully wrong with you. Unless you’re really an emotional warrior, you’re going to stop having your own feelings and start resigning yourself to remembering what feelings felt like in the past when they were still okay. Inconveniently, the feelings themselves don’t go away—just the joy in having them since they’re now tinged with so much awkwardness and embarrassment.
We create these arbitrary categories of acceptable behavior all the time, and sometimes it’s even reasonable. Small children dressing up like adults is charming; 14-year olds “sexting” provocative snapshots of themselves is not. Wishing you were 18 when you’ve just been grounded at 16 for breaking curfew is understandable; wishing you were 18 when you’re 40, however, is lamentable. It’s also unnecessary.
The Boomer Generation has never been very good at accepting arbitrary limitations, and now that they’re entering the 3rd trimester of life, Boomers are standing most of what we always thought we knew about aging on its head. What we’re discovering in one area after another is that a lot of the deterioration that we assumed was inevitably linked to aging really isn’t. Diet, exercise, and, above all, mental habits and attitudes have an incredible influence on the quality—and esthestics—of our lives as we age.
Exercise, for example, has always been prescribed past a certain age as maintenance only, based on the assumption that old joints and circulatory systems could only manage limited stress. What we’re increasingly learning is that these limitations are often unnecessary and self-imposed. In fact, if older athletes train, not merely for physical maintenance, but for competitive activity, their bodies respond to the stress by getting stronger, not by breaking down. You can still run a marathon at 70 if you train for a marathon, but not if you settle for walking around the block 3 times a week. You have to think—and train—like a marathoner, not like an old person just trying to buy a couple extra years of walking without a cane. While your aging body may impose some limitations on your activity, it’s your attitude that’s making you old. Change your mind, change your life.
In fact, research into brain function is confirming that the neural network that we assumed was mostly fixed by genetics and early experience is in fact almost infinitely malleable. Our brains are constantly being rewired into shifting patterns of feelings, beliefs, and behavior as a result of our experiences, both physical and mental, and contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t have to change as we age. You don’t get cranky, inflexible, and unhip because you’re old; you turn into a mental lump because you stopped allowing yourself to have new experiences that would require your brain to continue rewiring itself. If you’re not going to think outside the box anymore, the brain will happily nail the box shut and your world will contract to fit inside the confines.
Literally, you are what you think you are, and if you accept the culture’s insidious proclamation that your self-image, your feelings, and your expressiveness are irrelevant past a certain age, you will become irrelevant, and the biggest limiter of your potential will be your own adopted feelings of inappropriateness. To bring this back to point, if you buy into the discriminatory notion that still having—much less displaying—your sexual identity in middle age is something you should feel guilty about, you might as well get out the shuffle board and the Mah Jong tiles.
Okay, so we can exercise ourselves into a 10K run and even think ourselves into a good frame of mind. But what about these wrinkles? This stocky midsection and the varicose veins? How are we supposed to overlook the fact that, as one of our clients put it, “gravity has had its way” with us? You’re not going to try and tell me that that’s glamorous, are you?
Well, actually, I am. The real beauty of the mature glamour-photography client isn’t in denying your age—it’s in embracing it.
Ironically, during our pre-shoot consultations, older clients often confide that the reason they’ve come in for a boudoir or even a fine-art nude photography session is that they’ve never felt more comfortable with themselves. The broader perspective of their extra years has allowed them to refine their priorities, and they’ve realized that they’re tired of being stuck in “acceptable” roles that don’t fit a mature understanding. Sometimes the motivation is a change of circumstances—shedding a bad relationship (or a few pounds) or gaining a good one—and sometimes it’s just realizing that this crippling fear of expressing their middle-aged joy in their own bodies isn’t really all that different from the self-imposed censorship they’ve lived under their entire lives.
They realize that the mature glamour photo session isn’t just about titillating the spouse or the boyfriend with a sexy picture; it’s about asserting their right to experience their own sensuality on their own terms. It’s about taking control of their own image and confidently expressing it, perhaps for the first time, however they damn please.
That’s sexy. And good luck figuring that out at 18.