American fashion designer Vera Wang recently celebrated her 71st birthday with a series of age-defying photos that made the internet lose its mind. Wearing a teeny-weeny pair of yellow shorts and sporting a manicure for Pride Month, the designer looks astonishingly, preternaturally young.
Wang doesn't look like she's in her 70s or her 60s, or even her 50s for that matter. Frankly, she looks younger than I do (and there's 30-odd years between us).
Wang's photos quickly went viral and people wanted answers. What does her workout routine involve? How can a 71-year-old look 17? Like everyone else, I wondered if she had been bathing in a fountain of youth or just experimenting with next-level filters.
Truth be told, I googled her diet and vowed to eat sashimi and brown rice (her go-to lunch, apparently) forever more. But there was another burning question that went beyond the aesthetics of these photos. Sure, I wanted to know what lotions and potions she uses, but I also wanted to know how a woman who runs a fashion empire worth $420m - a woman who clearly has the spirit of a twenty-something-year-old - felt when she was advised to shelter in place back in March.
Did she experience the loneliness and vulnerability, the lack of agency and autonomy, that other septuagenarians reported? Or did she make a conscious decision to defy senior stereotypes and break the age barrier? (A cursory browse of the photos she posted during lockdown would suggest the latter.) Granted, Wang's boundary-breaking fashion choices aren't for everyone. Some of us put the hot pants and stilettos into retirement after a certain age and have no real interest in returning to them.
Yet even those who aren't particularly impressed by Wang's ageless interpretation of fashion would have to agree that she's shook up some of the age-based stereotypes that have been reinforced over the last few months.
In the days before Covid, the positive ageing movement was beginning to gain ground. Ageism was still rife, of course, but we were at last starting to see more positive representations of older people in the media and a more considered use of language when describing this age cohort.
We were beginning to accept that chronological and biological age are not one and the same thing, just as we were beginning to understand that a 70-something adult can have more vim and vigour than a 50-something adult.
Positive ageing is a matter of vitality. Or at least that's what we were beginning to realise before this crisis reminded all adults over the age of 65 of their vulnerability and mortality.
Old age has been positioned as a pre-existing health condition, right up there with chronic lung disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, and the idea of age being just a number no longer seems to count. People who were leading full, healthy, independent lives were suddenly told that they needed to be sheltered, cocooned and swaddled with cotton wool.
People who just a few months ago were contributing to society were depending on friends and family to get their groceries for them.
People of varying ages, with varying needs, were lumped together into one group and represented by the enduring image of a frail hand pressed against a window pane. And this leaves an imprint. After months of being told that you're vulnerable, at risk and in need of assistance, well, there's a chance that you might start to behave accordingly.
I can't be the only person to notice that some of the people coming out of cocooning are less confident, more indecisive and slower on their feet.
Cocooning saved lives - that much is inarguable - but it has also taken a toll on older adults' self-esteem. And while this is largely down to enforced isolation, it also has to do with cultural messaging.
Our cultural beliefs around ageing are proven to influence the ageing process, and these beliefs have taken a negative, and ultimately detrimental, turn over the last few months.
We've taken one step forward and two steps back and it's time we examined the consequences of a strategy that promotes age stereotypes. At the very least, it's time we saw more positive representations of older people in the media.
Vera Wang will do for now.