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It's a Gray Area

Updated: Apr 16

Women, typically, try their hardest to not think about aging (cue the shudders). The art of not aging has been shared with us since we were in our teens. Moisturize, do not frown so much, color your hair, stop smiling so hard or you will get lines. From magazines to commercials to seven-second Instagram reels telling us how to reduce fine wrinkles, get rid of cellulite, find your perfect 20-step skincare routine, and more, we cannot seem to escape the message “do not let them see you age.” Instead of enjoying the process and living our lives, we start to think and have been thinking about aging as a negative experience.


Woman wearing orange pantsuit

I had the pleasure of talking with Stephanie O’Dell, founder of Celebrate the Gray about age representation in media. Stephanie saw a need in the media for representation of all ages and showing age. Being in the fashion industry as a stylist for fifteen years, she saw firsthand how underrepresented women “of a certain age” were. She reminisced, “My older clients were saying to me that the fashion industry has forgotten me. I feel invisible.” She also noticed in her own life the shift in messaging from her to her daughter. She no longer noticed the media talking to her or showing other women who looked like her.


She knew other women must be feeling this same way – lost, forgotten, and invisible.


And this was what led her to create “Celebrate the Gray.”


Celebrate the Gray is an agency for and about 50+ year-old women. Currently, they have a host of about three hundred women who are models or influencers nationwide they are championing. While Stephanie and her team are mostly still pitching to cast their models in campaigns, she is also trying to empower these women to be vocal and visible about who they are, what they are doing, and how old they are. She said, “… like if there’s a brand you use and you don’t see yourself represented, let them know. You have got to drive your own bus. I can find opportunity for you, but it is so much more powerful when it is a group of women speaking versus me just being the voice.” She’s found that once they reach out, it opens a lot more doors to other jobs that are looking to hire models and influencers that will reach their 50+ consumers.


Pitching and reaching out to brands is important because there are so many that still only hire “youthful” looking models. A few brands she has noticed doing well in age representation are Target, Knix, and Universal Standard. She always points to Target when showcasing representation because, “you walk in their stores, you see a commercial, you see a print ad and you don’t notice. I always say, ‘when you don’t notice, they have normalized it to the point where it feels normal.’ They have size inclusion, age inclusion, and race inclusion.”


Stephanie has noticed quite a few brands that have these moments of doing a good job representing different ages, but then potentially do not see the increase of sales by doing age inclusion and revert to what they were doing before, thinking an “older” customer is just not “their” consumer. But “the older customers are very savvy, and they see the one-offs and are like ‘well, they do not really understand me as a consumer’” and therefore, continue with their old shopping habits or shop elsewhere. 



Three women jumping

The impact of seeing someone who looks like you in film, in advertising, and scrolling through your feed is huge. “You can’t be what you don’t see.


So, if you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t give yourself permission to think about the possibilities of aging.

To see someone that looks like you and sounds like you opens a door that you have closed for yourself…” When Sports Illustrated put Martha Stewart on the cover, at 80 years old and in a swimsuit, it felt incredibly revolutionary. How many times have we seen those covers with women in their twenties, maybe early thirties? Every other cover has featured the tried-and-true model, but having Martha on the coveted Swimsuit Edition cover changed the conversation of aging. “Anytime a woman sees another woman that’s older, it gives her this permission to think ‘oh, that’s possible.’” With Martha on the cover, women in their twenties, fifties, and eighties were given a different visual of what an older woman could look like and how she could act. The box that “women of a certain age” have been placed in started opening. Dame Maggie Smith at eighty-nine in the Loewe ads, Viola Davis as a leading lady at fifty-eight, and Iris Apfel gracing your Instagram feeds at 102-years old are just a few more examples of the age representation we have been craving to see. 


As I have aged, I have often questioned what does thirty, or forty, or fifty even look like? When I was younger, I thought I had a very definite answer to that question. Now, it does not seem that simple. I would not say anyone in my life “looks their age.” Stephanie shared that this is a common phenomenon. She said, “I say I am sixty-one and they will say ‘you don’t look sixty-one’. But what picture are you comparing me to? Is it your aunt? Is it your grandmother? Is it your mother? Who is it? We come in all shapes and sizes and that’s the power of the visual. It gives you an idea of what the spectrum of sixty can look like or the spectrum of what thirty can look like. And that even opening that spectrum by showing different visuals gives you freedom to think about doing different things.” The perception and reality of how we view age does not match. “Everybody’s perception of age is based on their own journey and their friends, their family, and where they get their information.” Age is actually just a number.


Five women posing together

Conversations around aging are starting to go from “How can I change this” to “How can I accept this.” While some people are shouting out how done they are with trying to reverse the aging process (hi, Pamela Anderson!), most are still whispering and trying to figure out how to get the voice inside their head to stop telling them not to let people see them age. As we start seeing women in every stage of life, who look like us or who look like the people we know, we will start believing it is okay and beautiful to let our hair gray and to earn our laugh lines. As we start seeing women of all ages living their lives and letting go of expectations and wearing the damn bikini, we will be able to do the same.


It is past time we stop listening to “them” and start letting ourselves age.

 

Stephanie O’Dell of Celebrate the Gray interviewed and written by Hannah Jordan. Photography courtesy of Celebrate the Gray.

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