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Harsh norms control women's looks

An older woman dressing provocatively is ‘pathetic’, as if she were trying to look younger than she is. On the other hand, it’s a positive thing if she looks younger naturally. The norms are harsh and controlling.

We’ve all felt this instinctively – now we have the support of research. The pressure on women to adapt their clothing and appearance to their biological age is great. Those that break noticeably with the norms are condemned.

“I’m shaken by how severely we view this,” says Therése Persson. In her dissertation at Linköping University, she studied how women at different ages perceive their bodies and their appearances in relation to their ages.

“The expectations are severe for girls and women at various ages. Both in what they should be interested in and occupy themselves with, how they ought to look and dress, and even in their relations to other people. And it never stops. It’s not like you find your style once and for all, you have to adapt it to your age all the time.”

“But it also struck me how clever women are at managing these many, sometimes conflicting, norms.”

Therése Persson interviewed 25 women from ages six to 99. She has, she says, taken great pains to find women with different attitudes to the physical, from models and football players to transsexuals.

An elderly woman, and an elderly woman’s body, are consistently viewed as something negative. No one wants to be associated with the epithets ‘frumpy’ and ‘old’. But one’s own ageing is also described as becoming stronger, more secure, more experienced, and independent.

The requirements are contradictory. It’s a question of striking a balance. Age and appearance should agree. At the same time, a woman should look young and fresh. Healthy, youthful, and active is the ideal. Everyone wants to appear younger, except the youngest. They look forward to getting into the teen years and being an adult.

The norms are strong and act as limitations on people’s space for behaviour. Everyone is aware of them. But there are women who choose to swim against the current, just in the hope of changing the norms.

Therése Persson also shows how we all relate to what she calls life’s schedule, or life’s manuscript. Certain things should happen at certain ages, otherwise there is the risk of failure.

“People I interviewed often used words like ‘late’, ‘early’, and ‘yet’. Words that reveal there is a perception of when in life it is normal to marry and have children, for example.

‘I became a mother late,’ or ‘I don’t have any grandchildren yet’, are the kind of expressions she means.

Age in and of itself is somewhat relative. How young or old you are depends on whom you’re talking to and what you’re comparing to. A child thinks a person is old at 40, while an 80-year-old thinks that 60 is quite young. The perception that womanhood diminishes with increasing age is, however, pervasive.

“This is something to think about in feminist research,” Persson says. “There isn’t just one type of womanhood, there are many. Womanhood is created in relation to age.

‘Young girl’, ‘grown woman’, and ‘old lady’ are three different types of women. Not only our gender, but our age, has great significance for our perception of ourselves and of others,” she states.

Therése Persson defended her thesis September 23rd at NISAL, the National Institute for the Studies of Ageing and Later Life. The dissertation is called “Ladylike for her age” and is published by Bullfinch Publishing.

Therése Persson can be reached at +46 8-845994, and via e-mail at therese.p@home.se.

Therese Winder 2010-10-14

Page manager: therese.winder@liu.se
Last updated: 2010-10-29