The mass media has many functions, but one of its primary functions is to communicate social expectations or norms. The lack of older people represented in mass media can imply that aging is undesirable. George Gerbner, founder of the cultivation theory, coined the term symbolic annihilation to describe the erasure of certain identities within mass media. The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2015 report indicated that “of all characters, 3% of females and 4% of males were older that 60.”
However, 95-year-old artist and teacher, Ilona Royce Smithkin, resists any notion that there is no beauty in aging or that older people should quietly fade away. In fact, she grows increasingly more bold with each day. We visited Ilona in her tiny New York City West Village apartment where she has lived for over 65 years. Everything about Ilona screams with color. While many older people transition to more subdued, socially appropriate aesthetics, Ilona has become a NYC fashion icon because of her daring color choices and iconic handmade eyelashes. She insists on being seen.
Her example has made many people rethink what growing older looks like. Featured in Seth Cohen’s glorious documentary, Advanced Style, Ilona represents one of the women who is deconstructing ageist ideologies that misrepresent the possibilities of aging and self-expression.
“This is me and nobody has to like it,” Ilona proudly declared. While the Ilona we met was proud of her age and deliberately stood in the proverbial spotlight, she explained that she wasn’t always so forthcoming in sharing her age with others as she didn’t want to be dismissed for being “too old.”
“Everybody thinks they have to be perfect, but perfection is a man-made concept… It’s the imperfections that show your style,” Ilona proclaims. “Perfection doesn’t add to anything. We should not be so uptight.”
In his book, Culture and the Human Body, John Burton describes the body as being like a “cultural mirror.” The choices we make are indicative of the societies that we live in. Whether it cranial shaping, corsets, or bright colors, how we dress and embellish our bodies are shaped by which social group we seek to communicate with. Our choices, however unique they may seem, are contextualized by the larger society. As such, when individuals of a group choose to adopt a look or an aesthetic that is outside of the mainstream, they become deviant. There is a wondrous beauty in those members of society that push the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable to negotiate what may eventually become our new normal.