Survival strategies for women in a youth-centric world

January 15, 2018

The idea of ageing well assumes that a mature individual remains active, healthy, and attractive. Society places this demand on women in particular. Researchers from the Higher School of Economics have published an article in Ageing & Society that looks at the strategies women over 50 choose.

HSE researchers carried out a series of qualitative interviews with middle-aged Muscovites. One of the main themes to emerge during the interviews related to ageing. The interviewees were female Muscovites aged 50-60 who work and have tertiary education.

'In this research we focus on one of the elements of active ageing - working on your body, creating an 'ageless' image through consumption patterns,' said the article's author, Maria Davidenko, from the International College of Economics and Finance at HSE.

Ageing is often a problematic issue for women. Even when discussing 'ageing well' interviewees focused on the negative emotions, wrinkles, and bodily changes.

Mature female residents of the Russian capital perceive ageing as linked to a loss both of physical attractiveness and social status. 'When I went to an interview recently, the CEO said he chose me because he wanted to see a women with significant professional experience in the office but that all the other candidates looked Soviet. I was being complimented and got the job offer.' (Alina, 52, financial director).

The price of staying attractive in middle age is high in all senses. For example, regular cosmetic procedures that young people don't need are seen as essential when you're pushing 50. Women who 'look Soviet' often lack the desire, means, or opportunities to conform to these new capitalist requirements. While those who can conform complain about the effort and resources that go into maintaining this level of attractiveness. 'I have to have cosmetic procedures once a week, if you miss one you lose the effect of the previous one,' said 52 year old Alina, who succeeded in getting a job thanks to her image.

Most women, this study shows, do not always understand how to handle the processes associated with ageing. 'You shouldn't struggle with it, because it's a natural process, nobody escapes it... It is just that when we were 30 or 40 we didn't think about ageing, and now I am starting to think about it, I don't want to grow old.' (Eva, 59, pensioner).

As for what women do regularly to look after themselves, 7 out of 12 women who gave individual interviews emphasized their attempts at losing weight. Dieting was the most common tool to lose weight. Only a very small number of interviewees combined dieting with exercise. The hope is that eating less will deliver a slimmer figure, but that doesn't always work out.

As with the need for regular self-care, women feel social pressure to fight to stay slim. The message 'be slim' is everywhere - including in the gym, where plump women find it particularly difficult. Losing weight means not only working hard but also facing and overcoming complexes.

'On the one hand, the interviewees' testimony indicates that people feel personally responsible for their health and appearance, which as they see it have become valuable resources in the labor market,' Maria Davidenko said. 'But on the other hand, they dream of social pressure becoming less severe regarding their figure and appearance. What they see as imperfections in their bodies are seen as due to factors outside their control (heredity, a figure that seems larger due to a large bust size that they can't do anything about) or other factors that mean they struggle to accept their bodies as they are (e.g. men still prefer plump women).'

As they age, women seek a new image, and this is where contradictions emerge. In business, on the one hand, standards regarding image are high and 'Soviet-ness' is not welcomed. On the other hand, a mature woman in a mini-skirt may find herself a laughing stock, including among her peers.

Scared of seeming inappropriate, interviewees say they do not wear certain clothes or accessories. 'There are times when, at our age, you want to wear something fashionable, not necessarily made for our age group, something youthful, and that immediately stands out. You know immediately something's wrong, like you're trying to pass yourself off as someone young.' (Eva, 59, pensioner).

Analyzing the interviews showed that some Soviet views regarding ageing 'appropriately' and the correct image for women 45-50 and above are still going strong. Consequently, women today in major cities try to follow the latest trends in fashion, look after their skin, etc, in order not to look 'Soviet' while also not trying to keep up with the youth. 'The ideal of ageing is an illusion,' Maria Davidenko said. 'Women have to constantly maintain a balance between criticism for being a poor imitation of youth and criticism for not looking after themselves enough.'

National Research University Higher School of Economics

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