“At 69! Wow!” is how the general reaction to Southern film actor Rajini Chandy’s photoshoot should have sounded. But a scroll through her social media feed, where pictures from the said shoot are adorned, gives the impression that the response is largely, “At 69? Why?” The ever-censuring online audience has not been kind to the elderly actor’s shoot with photographer Athira Joy, in which she can be seen sporting “young” outfits like denim dresses and ripped jeans. Her photos are drawing harsh flak for being “too sexy.” Or rather too sexy for her age.
In India, we love taking offence at how women behave and what they do at which age, laying down ground rules for every step they take. But we have reserved a special corner of propriety for older women with instructions to the best way for them to be beyond a certain age. Upon what basis are these arbitrary notions of supposed morality grounded? Who decides these restrictive norms of dividing young women from old women? Why does it outrage us so when an older woman breaks through them to feel beautiful the way she wants?
What Offends Us About Older Women Feeling Good?
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“Ageing is just numbers and magic of maturity is wearing what makes you comfortable, proud and happy.” This is how Joy captioned the photos from Chandy’s shoot. It neatly sums up the crux of why the talk around women expected to “act their age” is painfully unnecessary. A woman beyond 50 is supposed to be aged, look aged, act aged; assume the stereotyped personality of a withdrawn, wizened woman of past glory that people are assured by.
When she ditches her saree for a dress, it shocks us, for she has dared to step a toe out of line. But should dated societal norms of ageism guide women’s understanding of self-love? Should a 69-year-old woman not wear ripped jeans – the pinnacle of youthful rebellion – only because it doesn’t fit the bill of a demure, graceful lady?
Chandy, who made her debut in Malayalam films at 65 and then appearing on the controversial reality show Bigg Boss, told BBC that, “I’m just doing what brings me pleasure. I’m learning to play the drum, I’m not aiming for perfection, I’m just having fun… I believe it’s okay to do whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.” And really, should there be anything more to the discussion than that?
Older Women Breaking Barriers Must Be Held Up, Not Slammed
Consider the reverence our yesteryear actors like Waheeda Rehman, Shabana Azmi, and Rekha command in the public eye. They twirled through their youth in blingy outfits that showed skin, replacing them with sombre, “mature” clothes as they aged. This is considered the ideal (at least for women in the films). Even in the west, this concept is not alien. Jennifer Lopez, for her recent nude song cover art at age 51, was called an “old hag” by many.
In society’s myopic estimation of women, an increase in age is expected to trigger an increase in what is understood as “morality.” Which is why when Chandy slipped out of her traditional wear and into outfits of the youth, keyboard warriors angrily reminded her of the modesty that was expected from women of her age group.
Everywhere, the idea of an older woman well in her sixties has largely been guided by how our grandmothers and mothers look and are portrayed on screen. But should all older women have to be alike? Don’t some don trousers and some salwars? What if tomorrow, they decided to have some fun with a dress that ran only till their knees or further up? Would it outrage our false sense of propriety or embarrass us in anticipation of how others would react? Should it not, instead, elicit compliments for their drive towards life? The biggest question is, in fact, do we even get to have a say in their choices?
Views expressed are the author’s own.
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