The Surprising Freedom in Being an Irrelevant Woman

Cindy Crawford won some new fans last month when an apparently un-retouched photo of her was posted on various websites and blogs. The photo shows a 47-year-old Crawford in 2013, posing for a Marie Claire photo shoot. What’s newsworthy about that? Well, she looks like no one we’ve seen before–she actually looks like a 47-year-old version of Cindy Crawford. She’s obviously aging, she looks like a mom, and she’s as beautiful as ever, albeit according to a standard of beauty not typically applied to supermodels.

For many, seeing this photo of Crawford made them love her more, as seeing a truer version of someone often does. Although Crawford probably did not pose for this photo with the intention that the world would see it in raw form, and did not post it herself, she did not initially make a public protest over its appearance either (although she and the photographer now claim the image was stolen and re-touched to make her look “aged and haggard”). This lack of freak-out endeared her to women everywhere. Regardless of the truth behind this image, Crawford does have a history of saying things like this: “If women would treat themselves with the same kind of love they give to their friends, that would be such a great gift we could give ourselves…What makes you the most attractive is self-confidence. That’s what people see.”

And women who saw the image applaud Crawford’s apparent willingness to be seen, photographed, and viewed as she is, seemingly comfortable with exposure of the misconception that she still is and always will be the hot young piece of touched-up flesh whose image graced the dorm rooms of many young men in the late 1980s and the 90s.

But the idea that this image may not be retouched isn’t the only thing remarkable about it. Just as shocking is the experience of simply seeing a 47-year-old woman in a context nearly always reserved for younger women. It’s the zone of the beautiful, and women over 40–particularly if they actually look like they’re over 40–don’t appear in that zone very often. Let’s face it, our popular culture does not consider 40-something women beautiful–let alone women over 50, 60, or (gasp) 70.

It’s not that women over 40 are absent from popular media; it’s just that they’re not considered beautiful, sexy, or vibrant. Trustworthy, yes. Nurturing and sometimes wise. Mom-jeans-dorky, human wallpaper, frumpy, definitely. But desirable, attractive, relevant…not much. Visible? Barely. And pop culture isn’t the only place where this happens. Women over 50 have long felt as if they are invisible to men in everyday life. Younger women can have this feeling too. Many women now say this sense of invisibility and irrelevance begins as early as a day over 35.

Now, you might expect me to complain about this. After all, I’m a mom (who definitely looks like a mom) over 40. At my age–even though my life, statistically speaking, is only about half over–I’m increasingly invisible and irrelevant to popular culture. And I feel it.

And I love it.

Here’s the deal. Our popular culture is built around people much younger than I am, and what it values in women I no longer have much of. I can mourn that, or I can accept it, or I can love it. I’m loving it more and more. See, with irrelevance comes a measure of freedom from the twisted expectations so many women try to live up to. I am finding that the older I get, the easier it is to escape the clutches of pop culture’s expectations and fascinations. I live under so much less pressure, and I have so many more opportunities to cut out the noise and focus on what I really believe is important. I no longer feel the world expects my body to look the way it did when I was 17. I’m no longer part of the target market for the really hip clothes and the fickle trends that govern their appeal. And I think society in general would prefer that I not squeeze myself into a bikini or go to Target in yoga pants. Which is great because I’ve never really wanted to.

For those of you who have not yet hit 40, let me tell you this increased sense of security (and its attendant boldness to scorn or ignore popular culture’s standards) is wonderful. As I become less relevant to pop culture, I find I’m less captive to its standards.

In terms of productivity, I can do as much as ever. When it comes to my mind, my soul, and my heart, I have more to offer and more to come. As my skin-deep beauty fades in the eyes of the world around me, I feel as if I’m shedding a skin that I thought would mourn, only to find that the layer underneath is much more comfortable.

  1. Hooray! We are so much more than what people see! Thank you for celebrating this truth!

  2. Maureen says:

    Beautifully said. Great message. Inspiring!

  3. Dan Held says:

    As an aging psychotherapist / pastor with thinning gray hair and a thickening waist line and anything but God’s handsome gift to women, I must say to all the world’s Cindy Crawfords out there: welcome to the wonderful world of reality. It really is a wonderful place to live, as Amy eloquently noted. The beaches of the world await us! A couple months ago while my wife and I were strolling down the boardwalk along Miami’s South Beach, we had to step around assorted paparazzi with their zoom lenses hiding in the shrubbery as the world’s starlets walked the beach unaware of how they would be portrayed on the front of America’s future tabloid issues. How liberating that the rest of us can all walk the world’s beaches freed of such tabloid anxieties or theats to our human identities. Being human is, after all, the best way to be. And it offers us the best possible peace of mind.

  4. Amy,
    Thank you so much for your candid and compelling look at being a woman in her 40’s, 50’s, and above.

    I turned 40 this year. And I wish I could say I crossed the threshold with confidence and self acceptance, however, if I am honest, it was a bit…uncomfortable. It certainly wasn’t tragic, or painful. ‘Uncomfortable’ because it forced me to look inward and challenge my understanding and bias of what I believed a 40 year old woman to be. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that I though all negatively about turing 40. In fact, I most of my favourite people were in the 40+ club and I always enjoyed the wisdom and understanding of those who were ahead of me in years and on the journey. However, there was a dull ache, which, though almost imperceptible, threaten to colour my whole experience as…well…sad. I began to realize that I was grieving. Grieving the loss of my youth (though it was nothing to write home about!), grieving other peoples perceptions of me, but mostly grieving that I was not where I thought I would be at 40. I imagined I would be more like your post – loving letting go of expectations and embracing the freedom of being ‘an irrelevant woman’. So I reached out to others around me who had crossed into middle age and asked for their advice, wisdom, reflection and understanding that they had gained over the years, and I am SO glad that I did. They inspired me, made me weep, but also made me long to become a part of THEIR club, with such rich understanding and acceptance.

    So, I am half way through my 40th year, and so far so good. I still have moments of underlying grief, but then I read a post like this, with someone embracing the inevitable, and just like Ms. Crawford, it makes me like you more 🙂 and ultimately, gives me a reminder of what I have to gain from losing my ‘youth’.

    If your interested, here is my 40th Birthday Post. 🙂 (the ‘F’ word being FORTY )

    THANK YOU for doing the work you are doing!

  5. Colleen Ward says:

    I’m with you! I love simply ‘doing the best I can with what I’ve got’- plus having experience & wisdom to navigate life better than when I was in my 20’s.

© 2015 Amy Simpson.