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Angela Bassett’s Allure cover shows that we still focus too much on women’s ages

“You look great for your age” is very much a backhanded compliment.

Angela Bassett on the cover of the November 2018 issue of Allure magazine.
Sharif Hamza/Allure

Allure, the magazine devoted to all things beauty, revealed its November cover this week. It features Angela Bassett looking glorious and powerful in a plaid suit and giant gold hoop earrings, standing high above the city of Los Angeles. The interview with the actress, who is 60, is titled: “Stop Asking Angela Bassett Why She Looks ‘So Young’ For Her Age.”

Ah yes, that well-worn backhanded compliment, “You look great for your age!” In the cover interview, Christian L. Wright starts the piece by recounting how an Instagram shot of the actress in a bathing suit was picked up by the celebrity press, incredulously highlighting that she was 59 at the time.

“That was surprising,” Bassett said. She then followed it up by admitting, “It feels good that they wonder” about her secrets for apparent eternal youth. When a stranger in a grocery store lobbed that stock praise her, Bassett reports that she replied: “Hearing that is a wonderful thing — seeing as I’m 80!”

This cover and its star are part of a themed issue to draw attention to an initiative Allure announced about a year ago banning the term “anti-aging” from its pages and website. Editor in chief Michelle Lee wrote in her editor’s letter at the time, “Changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging.” But because this particular magazine issue is framed around anti-anti-aging, what ends up inadvertently being the focus is ... Bassett’s age. We need to get to a place where age is besides the point.

Everyone who hears this knows what “you look so good for your age!” means: “You look as fine as can be expected for someone of your advanced years. I’m so impressed that decaying flesh isn’t hanging off your cheekbones. Good job!”

The qualifier “for your age” is wielded with the tacit understanding that anyone over the age of, say, 36, is precluded from looking great, because we all know that baseline “great” means “young.” As we age, our appearance automatically moves one or two standard deviations away from “great,” at least in the eyes of society. However, if you somehow manage to appear younger or skinnier than society’s expectations of what 40 or 50 or 60 should look like, that is something to be lauded and inquired about and celebrated. Because looking old is bad!

We saw this play out recently with Jennifer Lopez, who just celebrated her 49th birthday. The celebrity media posted several shots of her working out, abs on display. Whenever sites publish stories about an older woman’s appearance, you can bet her age will be in the headline, like this one: “Jennifer Lopez Flaunts Her ‘Birthday Week’ Body As She Nears 50.”

While all female celebrities undergo scrutiny of their faces and bodies, you won’t often see the age mentioned for younger women. A recent headline about Emily Ratajkowski reads: “Emily Ratajkowski flaunts her model figure wearing only a floral jacket with nothing else underneath;” it doesn’t say, “Emily Ratajkowski flaunts her model figure wearing only a floral jacket with nothing else underneath as she nears 28.”

Highlighting age in a headline is just shorthand for “Can you believe how good she looks for her age?”

In her new editor’s letter, Lee writes: “Our point has always been about removing the shame. It’s about reclaiming our own agency versus feeling forced to take actions because we’ve been made to feel ‘less than’ by society. You do you. That may mean going au naturel for life, or that may be a 10-step daily skin-care routine with Botox and fillers every three months, weekly cryo facials, and a neck lift at 70.”

A lot of women have internalized this shame, me included. I want to look younger. I get Botox. I slather a lot of questionable things on my face. I look wistfully at the confident women featured in the Grombre Instagram account embracing their gray hair, even as I am getting my roots dyed.

Even beauty doesn’t actually seem to blunt the stress of aging. 53-year-old Paulina Porizkova was a prominent model in the ’80s and early ’90s, and later, a judge on America’s Next Top Model. She is stunningly beautiful. This week she told NewBeauty magazine that aging publicly “sucks.”

“Aging erases me as a person because my identity is so tied to what I look like,” Porizkova said. “It’s not fun — I don’t want to have to go to war with my looks. And I don’t want to start trying to look 20 years younger.”

Her honesty is refreshing, but it can be utterly depressing to hear her self-doubt. If someone who looks like that feels so terrible, what chance do I ever have at peace and self-acceptance? When a person who looks objectively great — not merely great for her age — has that level of angst about her appearance, it can’t help but trickle down to us normies. It indicates a societal problem.

Which brings us back to Allure. Putting Angela Bassett, sexagenarian extraordinaire, on a magazine cover is fantastic. But putting her on the cover of an age-themed issue means we have work to do. Aging and older people need to be represented in media much more frequently — and when they are represented, age can’t be the driving contextual force. Let’s talk about them as people, not old people.

The reality is that the oldest person featured on Allure’s previous 2018 covers was 35-year-old Lupita Nyong’o. Allure is not alone in this, and there is definitely financial pressure on publications to portray young, attractive, skinny people in its pages. Advertisers want to showcase their products in proximity to people they think are aspirational to readers.

A few years ago I interviewed Lesley Jane Seymour, the former editor in chief of the now-defunct More magazine. She told me it was a constant fight to get older women on the cover — and More was a magazine that was dedicated to older women. “If [older] women knew how these companies talk about them behind their backs, they would be booted faster than Debbie Schultz at the DNC,” she said. “It is appalling how these executives treat older women.”

The older women that are booked for covers or as the faces of makeup companies are usually those who look, yes, great for their age — something that is, more often than not, referenced in a headline or advertising copy.

But there are tons of women who don’t want to look younger or don’t have the means for the upkeep required or simply don’t have the genetics, and the result is that they don’t see themselves represented anywhere in popular culture. It perpetuates the cycle of not feeling good enough or attractive enough, because not only do you think you do not look as good as a 27-year-old, you don’t even think you look as good as someone your own age.

Shooting Bassett for the cover highlights that women are still vibrant, productive, and attractive when they’re not young. Talking about and celebrating a 60-year-old woman is a good thing, especially in a medium — women’s magazines — that bears responsibility for making women feel ashamed about growing older in the first place. But only when we finally start talking about women of a certain age without talking about their age will we have made real progress.