GREAT news, ladies.
It's OK for 60-year-olds to wear bikinis! Yes, isn't it marvellous? Just think: no more being barred from the beach by the taste police for lacking the regulation billowing orange cover-all. No more tortuous attempts to lever oneself into iron-clad, super-support swimsuits. From now on, expect to see middle-aged ladies frolicking in the surf in two-piece cozzies. Liberation is nigh.
And who do we have to thank for bringing about this transformation? Hard-working former Vogue cover girl Marie Helvin, 59, who has gamely posed in a variety of bikinis for a marketing campaign by the isme Shapewear clothing brand, just to prove it can be done.
Breathed Marie: "Who says women should be denied the right to wear a bikini just because of their age?" Not us, Marie, not us. We just needed the right 5ft 9in Japanese-American supermodel to show us the way.
Lest we be tempted to underestimate the magnitude of the problem Marie has taken on, consider this: a survey by isme revealed that 70% of Britons think women should give up bikinis at 39 (thereafter, presumably, they expect us to hide our sags in swimming costumes, or better still, wetsuits, to spare our fellow beach-goers from having to pack sick-bags with their suncream). Marie, your credentials as a feminist icon have often been sadly overlooked, but surely no more.
What nonsense. Let's stop, rewind and put our sensible heads on, just for a moment.
First of all, we only know what the hopelessly reactionary British public think of older women wearing bikinis because Shapewear asked them. Not a good move. Plenty of women wouldn't have given it a second thought otherwise and nor should they now.
More to the point, though, might the fact that Marie Helvin is a famous beauty and has long been celebrated for looking significantly younger than she is help explain why she's been chosen for this campaign? Trailblazer? Hardly. In fact, far from making other women in their 50s and 60s feel empowered to rush out and buy bikinis, a picture of Helvin's washboard torso is likely to make the average middle-aged female hoot with laughter and decide never again to venture on to hot sand without her heavily engineered M&S one-piece, or better still, a dressing gown.
Encouraging women to feel they can wear bikinis at 60, whatever their body shape, encouraging the world to get over the fact that women's bodies don't look the same at 60 as they do at 30 ... now, that would be striking a blow for older women. What we don't need are yet more subliminal messages reinforcing the idea that youthful appearance and sexual attractiveness are what matter in women, of any age. Heaping praise on older women who look younger than they are simply makes those who do look their age feel hey are failing.
Ms Average, at 59, is a little overweight, with saggy bits, stretch marks and perhaps a muffin-top that has grown over the years because, the lazy trollop, she hasn't managed to fit in triathlon training alongside her job, partner, family, housework, looking after relatives, going to the supermarket, unblocking the kitchen sink and, occasionally, seeing her friends. She has bingo wings and dimply thighs because – shock news – that's part of the ageing process. Although she doesn't like these changes much, the effort involved in fighting them would frankly be far better spent doing things that actually matter, like trying out a new recipe, getting the car serviced or looking after the grandkids.
Helvin, by contrast, weighs 8st 5lb, as she revealed last week. She has the sort of genetic inheritance – long limbs, jutting cheekbones, slender figure – that no amount of exercise alone can achieve, although she works out too. Dear me, does she work out. She gets up at 5.15am and goes to the gym four times a week. She even goes while on holiday.
I have nothing against Helvin per se. For models, preserving their looks and trying to appear youthful is not just about vanity, but also career longevity.
But I'd love it if we could stop pretending that seeing pictures of her in a bikini is so empowering to other women when for many it just makes them feel like a different species.
And while we're at it, can we stop colluding with this idea that being looks-obsessed in your 50s and 60s is something to aspire to? It isn't. Middle-aged women whose self-esteem is engaged with how sexy, glamorous and, above all, young other people think they look are perhaps missing something more meaningful in their lives.
We all want to look our best, whatever our age, and there's nothing wrong with that, but no-one wants to be judged constantly by that yardstick. Many women find their confidence grows as they age because they can finally let go of the body confidence problems that plagued them as younger women. That's why I find the upward creep of physical obsession in this age group so depressing.
Much angst has been expended over the way young girls worry about their looks, but it's time older women recognised that this schoolgirl phenomenon is part of a continuum with their own insecurities. The issues change a bit, from spots and boob size to weight to wrinkles, but the underlying insecurities come from the same root: a sense, as a female, that one's value is heavily dependent on the way one looks. Surely one advantage of reaching 60 should be having the confidence to toss away these pointless, time-wasting worries for once and for all.
Of course women should feel free to wear two-piece swimming costumes at any age, but whether Helvin's bikini shots will encourage them is very doubtful indeed.
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