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Is Madonna Pushing Us All to the Borderline?

On invisibility, irrelevance, and aging on our terms. The criticism around Madonna's face has us reflecting on double standards

Fun fact. I have never wanted people to look at me, and I always felt it more important to be truly seen and heard vs the object of the male gaze. But invisibility after 50 transcends a gawk or a gaze. It is the apotheosis of ageism, and it’s pervasive.

This week, I was listening to one of my fav podcasts, Kim France’s “Everything is Fine,” which is all about women over 40 from the ultimate Gen X lens (France was the editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine and a former Jane staffer). Her guest was Cindy Gallop, who has been profiled for AGEIST. If you are familiar with Cindy, she is a force on the topics of ageism and sexuality and, for her, being invisible is not an option; and she is out and proud about that. She also noted that nothing is sexier than owning and loving your body for what it is and where it has taken you because there’s nothing hotter than confidence.

This brings us to Madonna and her enormously polarizing look of late.

If you’ve been on social media you’ve undoubtedly seen her transformation, and her Grammy appearance to introduce Sam Smith was shrouded in unscrupulous criticism. With her riding crop and faceful of fillers, at 64, she looked nothing like the Material Girl, but just imagine if her face wasn’t full of Lord knows what and she came out “looking her age” with wrinkles and age spots? Never one to shy away from controversy, Madonna is once again having a moment, but to what end? 

From her earlier Material Girl phase.

“I can’t see how she is breaking ground for the women following her; this is vanity and attention-getting entertainment. Which is fine; I have no problem with it,” says AGEIST founder David Harry Stewart. “The public fuss around her interventions is obvious for all to see. Whereas a Hollywood actress, Sandra Bullock, who is maybe in her late fifties and looks late twenties, is told she looks great. It is the same process and privileged access to expert interventions, but Madonna is rubbing our face in it. There is also a whiff of sexism. Someone like Bryan Johnson, with his Blueprint, is doing something similar, and he gets applause for advancing science. It is vanity, which I am fine with, but since he is a guy, he gets a pass.” 

So why do so many of us feel troubled by Madonna’s face and current vibe?

As someone who grew up with Madge, I have always admired her trendsetting superpowers. Whether spraying a wall with graffiti in that oversized leather jacket in “Borderline” or partnering with Q-Tip for a hip-hop-flavored classic album like Bedtime Stories or the folktronica genius of American Life, Madonna always kept us on our toes and challenged us with glorious provocation. And on that note, not a single woman among us does not owe her a debt for owning her sexuality the way she always did and continues to do. And maybe that’s the problem.

Perhaps Madonna’s plumped-up face brings up our fears about aging and what’s considered attractive. And maybe Madonna’s choice to inject and surgically alter her appearance is not how we view a healthy approach to aging, and perhaps it reveals some fear from deep within our psyches as time marches on. And most of all, it makes us look at ourselves.

In a response posted on Instagram, Madonna says, “Once again, I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny. That permeates the world we live in. A world that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45 and feels the need to punish her if she continues to be strong-willed, hard-working, and adventurous.”

Point taken. But going deeper, why are women expected to “age gracefully” (a term that makes me want to throw a tomahawk at whoever says it)? Did we expect Madonna to become a coastal grandmom and suddenly move to Cape Cod in linen palazzo pants? So why do we have such archaic ideas of how women should age, and why are men not held to the same standard? 

On the other hand, there’s Rihanna’s Super Bowl half-time show. At 34, she is a billionaire and one of the biggest pop stars of all time. I have always loved her music and was looking forward to a big performance. But I got something far more blasé, self-promoting, and, omg, is she pregnant? At first blush, this performance was perplexing to a gal who remembers Prince’s SB show and many other heavy-hitting halftime hoo-has. But as recent studies show, Girl Boss fatigue is setting in, and Rihanna brilliantly played us all with a performance that was “just enough” for a pregnant woman in her prime who has nothing to prove to any of us. Not a lot of bells and whistles. No big dance moves. And best of all, super covered up, except for a peep of pregnant belly through an undone jumpsuit. If that’s not a bird flip to the patriarchy, I’m not sure what is.

But more than invisibility, what about relevance?

In a recent research study by AGEIST, irrelevance ranked higher than mortality in terms of things most feared. That’s what gives me pause about Madonna. In a perceived attempt to stay relevant, women feel they have to make themselves unrecognizable to be seen, and that’s tragic. After all, actresses like Jennifer Coolidge and Jean Smart enjoy their moments in the sun and, somehow, they seem to be loving themselves just the way they are. I’d be lying if I didn’t feel like Madonna is perpetuating ageism even further by altering her face to this extent, but I also have work to do regarding my perceptions and judgments.

Unfortunately, being an image maker puts you under a tremendous amount of scrutiny, particularly in the age of TikTok-ya-don’t-stop. After all, nobody is commenting on Jane Goodall’s appearance. But who’s to say that an “age positive” approach is one-size-fits-all or looks the same across the board?  

Or,  we can make like RiRi and stop trying so hard because we are already enough. We older women can learn a few things from the youngins who are truly helping to redefine traditional notions of just about everything. Here’s hoping that terms like “aging gracefully” lose relevance and that there’s room for many more ways to age on our terms without disappearing into the ether.

“I don’t think the real question about Madonna is how she wants to present herself. If she didn’t do anything to her face, I’m sure she’d get shit for that too”, says Stacy London.  “People are angry that she doesn’t follow prescribed cultural rules about aging and relevancy. She has always, ALWAYS been a provocateur; why would she change just because she’s older? However, I don’t believe she is revolutionizing the way to age. She isn’t paving the way. The revolution will be in women making choices in whatever way they want without judgment or simply for attention but for their happiness and fulfillment”.

Cheers to challenging ourselves to age however we want.

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

34 COMMENTS

  1. At some point, altering yourself surgically, male or female, Madonna or Michael Jackson, becomes a pathology. Everyone ages, and dealing with it is part of growing with life. For a real story of ageism, I would refer all to a story out of Dallas about a man convicted of murdering several older women. The signs were obvious that foul play was involved, but the police didn’t investigate because, you know, old people ‘just die’ and an 80 year old dead women isn’t a tragedy. The families had to do the investigating until the pattern was revealed but 8 murders had occurred. Madonna’s ills or mistreatment is self-inflicted and she’ll survive. Celebrities are hard to feel sorry for, her in particular. She traded on youth and beauty, sometimes you just gotta move on.

  2. sorry, but what exactly are the prescribed rules? and who is forced to follow them?
    sadly, the only statement that madonna is making is that she has body
    dysmorphia. i have always been a fan, but this reincarnation does not check her usual boxes of brave and forward provocatuer. and sadly, everyone seems to feel that they are free to judge. it’s rude and cruel (and i’m as guilty as the next person in her case). agism and misogyny are far from over. but i don’t think they apply here, and are a bad excuse for how madonna is presenting herself. i’m sad for her…

  3. Both examples, Rihanna, and Madonna, must have issues. By being dubbed “Madge,” Madonna is already seen in an insulting light-Madge was a commercial icon used to sell dish soap. Someone with little self esteem is always pushing the envelope in terms of too much plastic surgery and too little clothing. Neither of these women is a role model for anyone.

  4. We often speculate and make assumptions about others motives or actions taken surrounding their choices to appear young, or at least, not OLD. But, let us agree, whether you are the grandmom Cape Cod baggy pants lady or an aging pop star or the person next door, of any ilk, we mostly DO all care what other people think and feel about us, so there is no use changing the notion. We do believe some people age ‘better’ than others physically AND emotionally, and we all want that for ourselves.

    Yet isn’t proof of aging well merely being comfortable and satisfied in your own skin, and the only evidence needed? Not caring so much about others beliefs about you, but more about your own beliefs sure seems an ideal we could mentor in ourselves and others.

  5. Such a complicated subject for older women. If we did nothing to change our appearance, many of us would have goatees by now – and I only know one woman who sports one. If we criticize other women for dying our grey hair, why don’t we criticize younger women who dye theirs? On the other hand, there has to be a limit somewhere to the alteration of the female body in search of social acceptance (Foot binding, anyone? How about neck extension rings? Genital mutilation?). Great that Madonna has sparked this conversation. And does her appearance please her? I hope so.

  6. Thank you for this very interesting dance about ageism … when you just live and cultivate your appearance in the way of feeling good and living in the moment…
    That is probably the only way: I live therefore I am

  7. There is no big statement here in my opinion. Really what all this pearl clutching is about is we are shocked about how terrible Madonna looks… freakish really. It’s not provocative or really even interesting… it’s sad.

  8. Dear Sheri —As a member of the Hollywood Community and a fan of Madonna’s in the past for decades. I respectfully think you have missed a MAJOR point here.

    It isn’t that she has involved herself in these “Youth -en-ing techniques” — and changed her face … it is the fact that the face she has changed it to, is so unnervingly UN-attractive!

    If she had had a great facelift like Elizabeth Taylor did in her 60’s, for instance, people would be saying ( as they did with Liz) how extraordinary beautiful she was . There was no “Backlash “. She looked stunning and was praised in the press and the public for it .

    As horrible harsh as it sounds , the truth is that one cannot but help think of a plastic faced robot —in Madonna’s case . It is an “aesthetic” that no longer relates as human.

    I know of what I speak, because I have really good friends and colleagues who have done the same… and I want to say to them STOP !

    But unfortunately , like Madonna —they have lost sight of any real self perspective re what makes a face refreshed and “their best selves ” instead of a frozen, bloated one. These filled faces act a mockery of their true selves. And this lack of self-awareness translates as —desperation!

    It is very saddening to me —to see Celebrities and friends be drawn into this.

    Their faces are so distracting unreal that is is difficult to relate to them. ( And so it is with Madonna her fans cannot connect).

    It has been said that human communication is more about facial and body language, than actual words. And so –these procedures interfere with that, as well .

    When I talk to my good friend in person who has had similar work done as Madonna ,I find myself working so hard to connect with the human I know and love who is underneath all that manipulation. I miss my good friend’s beautiful, expressive, face that never had a large amount of wrinkles or sags or anything else that warranted such drastic procedures at age ….50! And another friend at 30!? and another friend at 28…and so it goes at this time LA—-hopefully something better with more natural looking results will knock this fad out soon —-here’s hoping for a more human looking future!

  9. As a woman who is living sixty two years, the term “aging gracefully”:appeals to me.

    It seems as if women in their fourties dislike this term ~ talk to me when you are in your sixties.

  10. YWhen I finally made the decision to lift my face – something I “knew” to be an unfair response to the agism & sexism that judges women in a very specific way – I had to first make piece with my “shame.” Shame that I judged my aging face; shame that I wasn’t “feminist-enough” to age gracefully; & shame that after decades of proclaiming that age-is-just-a-number, I was still not immune to the crisis of self-worth that often accompanies the visual evidence of age. Like Madonna, I was born in August of 1958; like Madonna, I was an active player in breaking boundaries in that first generation of American women to benefit from birth control, affirmative action, & the revolutionary shift in social & government restrictions on being born female. One thing I learned on the journey is that the “choices” that women make about their bodies will always be subject to scrutiny & judgement. That once again, the price paid to be human in a female body, is to be subject to the rules-made-just-for-girls. And importantly – that all-girls-must-follow-the-same-rules. In other words – same shit, different day. I ultimately made my face-altering decision based on my unique, personal, biological, and political value system: biological processes will change my face. If I did nothing- my face would change. If I did something, my face would change. Not changing was never an option. So, in opposition to many of today’s regulations regarding self-presentation as a denial of aging – I embraced the reality of appearance change that comes with age. I decided to participate in that change. In fact, I intervened with agency. I did not opt-in because I felt there was something inferior about me – I opted-in because I wanted to bring input to my changing face. Shocking as it sounds to many, my facelift, at 54, was born from both female shame & from my feminist values. Ten years on, 64 years old (and wiser) When I read the negative reactions to Madonna’s journey, I am reminded that the most strident – and potent – and most painful policing of women’s bodies still comes from other women. Enough, Sisters. Let’s be curious about one another. Let’s hold space for diverse responses to the weight we were born with. Let’s stop projecting our biases & our truths – about inhabiting female bodies – to every-single-one-of-us.

    • Vicki, this was a thought provoking response. You are so right that either way our face/body changes no matter. I find it interesting that we are trying to get back to the way we looked when we are younger, which is unachievable even through surgery. We can enhance our faces/body to look better, not younger. As our bone structure changes, etc. I will be 54 in six weeks. I have done little tweaks along the way that have made me feel good and positive about myself for myself.

      It is sad that the biggest judgement comes from other women. Instead of lifting each other up, we still are asking our friends, what are you wearing tonight.. Of course we want you to look good, but I want to look better mentality.

      I am continuing looking for smart engaging women to be part of my circle, I don’t need you to agree with me.. I need you to enhance my life for who you are..

      Thanks Sheri for this post.. it does challenge the borderline!

  11. Truthfully I never gave it much thought after her brief and clumsy appearance. I saw much worse facial work in Whole Foods yesterday and inCVS earlier in the week. Each of us have a reflection we want to see in the mirror and let’s face it, PHYSICAL aging is harder than we thought whether it be our aching back, hips, shoulders or face. We can resist until the end but it’s not like the beginning or middle. And I wish men would take a good hard look in the mirror before they judge a woman’s appearance. I have dated some men that must not even own mirrors or ones that have been their college picture glued to them. Women should do what feels right and btw I have an appointment for filler on Tuesday. I do it for me , not others, but for me. Everyone should age as they wish and be sure and research your plastic surgeon if you go that route.

  12. That last line “Cheers to challenging ourselves to age however we want” says it all. Plastic Surgery, injections, linen pants, white hair, colored hair, baggy overalls – who cares? I was joyful yesterday when my oncologist said that I looked good and said that I was done with him for the time being.
    We can be and do whatever we like as long as we hurt no one.
    Madonna can do what ever she wants – who flipping cares?
    age healthfully and happily

  13. Agree with Stacy London. It is what it is with Madge. She came out of the gate firing on all cylinders. Like her, don’t like her – warts and all, she has remained iconic…and gives zero F- – – ks. Look how much were all still talking about her!

  14. What is sad, is the oversite of what it truly means to have lived. The images we see of people who are older, their faces show the decisions of their lives, and the outcome. While I have no judgement on Madonna, I grew up with her in my dorm room blaring. I can’t help but wonder if we are missing the point. The beauty that lays and respect that should come with those that age. Everything seems to be overwhelming and loud and violent these days. The world feels and seems like a toddler to me, throwing a big tantrum. But alas, I am coming upon a birthday that leads me closer to the end. Let’s stop looking at our bellybuttons and looking to where we can be recognized for our age, while being of service to those who are coming up behind us, for we are truly stewards at this point of the journey the mirror should be inside us by now.

  15. Are the comments really only coming from women? My husband showed me a photo of Madonna from the Grammys and said guess who this is? I had no idea it was Madonna. She looks like Pete Burns did later in his life. Madonna was born beautiful and I wonder if she needs a helpful therapist versus another injection to make her feel beautiful to herself.

  16. Kelly & Vicki-
    For all those women out there it’s women who are our worst enemies- unfortunately.
    For those that choose plastic surgery & have the xtra cha Ching- outside of a disastrous accident or congenital disease & are looking for youth in an injection , a bottle , a cream, a surgery & it looks good on you ….. carry on!
    Truly for Madonna as a beautiful woman her plastic surgeon needs to be fired. He or she did a sucky job & a witness to the world at large.
    Madonna in her brain has lost perspective. Mirror mirror on the wall beauty inside trumps them all. Even with wrinkles & sagging skin – no one cares it’s inside that wins.
    Ps I’m 62 , born with a congenital disease called icthyosis manifested all over than gradually disappeared to a few places over time. Learning to love yourself from the inside out no matter what age is key.
    I’m married 31 years , 3 adult children having one at 40. I thought I’d never even get married. I stayed true to my inner beauty & still do as I take care of the very aged over 80, teach movement and see no one cares bout your wrinkles, your sags & bags- it’s your mind & staying in good health finding love, joy, giving & laughter , learning every single day.
    Focusing on the outside destroys one on the inside. Women are more judgements than men.
    We are a world of lonely, judge-mental, isolated swipe left, status envy, society that looks on the outside for everything.
    If more people looked for the things you couldn’t see maybe they would find what they are really looking for.
    Every 7 seconds someone turns “ 65” . In 2030 more than 20% of the population will be over 65. Get a grip. Take care of your health find, some love & laughter cuz life is more than skin deep.

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

Sheri Radel Rosenberghttps://unapologeticstyle.substack.com/
Sheri Radel Rosenberg is a Philly-born, Brooklyn-based writer who explores style, beauty, culture, and midlife with wit, warmth, and wisdom. Her story includes successful forays in the worlds of trend forecasting, ad agency photo production, ghostwriting, and strategic messaging development for fashion and beauty brands - all while amassing a slip dress collection that would make any Gen Xer proud. At the dawn of social media, Sheri launched her personal blog–which combines her passion for writing with her style obsession–and she hasn’t looked back. As Style Editor for the AGEIST, she’s inspired by the styles of the 70s and the 90s, along with all the beautiful people she sees daily in NYC.

 

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