As much as I enjoy writing in coffee shops, I don’t always have the best of luck with them. Even when I’m wearing my big fuck-off headphones and a fake engagement ring, people—almost all of them men—will come up and talk to me. I’ve had some real doozies, including one time when I was solicited for prostitution in a Starbucks, but the latest one stuck with me.
A middle-aged man came up to me, wanting to know what I was writing, and how old I was. “You’re like twenty-three, right?” he asked me.
As a matter of fact, I am not twenty-three, not that this is an appropriate question to ask. So I told him with great relish: “No. I’m almost thirty!”
See, I’m excited to turn thirty. Maybe this makes me weird, but I hear my thirties are going to be great. And from seeing friends that are currently there, or have already experienced them, I have to agree.
So I was a little surprised when the man flinched and looked slightly disgusted. “Oh. Uh, you look younger than that,” he said, wrinkling his nose and walking away.
At first, I was ecstatic. Being thirty scares off creepy guys in coffee shops? Thirty really was going to be great!
But then I started thinking about it more. This man was at least twenty years my senior, but as soon as he found out that I was older than he expected, I was undesirable.
Of course, it made me think of modeling.
Freelance traveling modeling in particular is a relatively young profession. Although there have been models for as long as there has been figurative art, the ability to travel around the world and make a living posing for photographers without an agency is pretty new. It required the birth of the internet—and online portfolio sites where models could network with enough photographers to cobble together financially successful tours. The rise of the DSLR didn’t hurt either, since it made photography available as an art form to a wider audience.
Now, some of the biggest models in the industry are in their mid-thirties, and still posing with no plans to stop. I think this is absolutely fantastic. It shows that modeling doesn’t have to be the realm of teenagers and twenty-somethings. It shows that women can still be attractive and beautiful at any age.
But there are still some problems with age in the freelance modeling industry. You know those websites that made the entire industry possible? They also have search functions, where a photographer can look for a model that matches the stats they want to work with. They can filter by location, look (hair color, height, etc.), genre, and age. So many photographers put thirty as their age cut off by default that many models stay twenty-nine for years, rather than lose out on those bookings. Otherwise a photographer won’t even see them because of a number on their profile, regardless of how they look. Don’t even get me started on the number of casting calls I’ve seen that say “under twenty-five only.”
There’s a second problem beyond the number on a model’s profile. Those amazing women modeling into their thirties and beyond? A lot of them are like me. Just like I apparently look twenty-three (no wonder I get carded so frequently), they don’t look like our society expects a thirty-something woman to appear. They “look young.” Which means they look young in photos. Which means the images reinforce the idea that beauty is solely the realm of youth.
I’ve noticed this is particularly bad in glamour photography, which is one of the reasons I shy away from it. It seems like a model has to be just the right mix of young, skinny, long-haired and big-boobed (and often white) to be a successful glamour model. I’m excited to say this isn’t always the case—we’ve got some really awesome models and photographers breaking these norms. But sadly, they seem to be the exception to the rule rather than not. Heck, even in the lingerie industry, it’s considered revolutionary to employ a model with grey hair, as if older women aren’t allowed to be sexual beings too.
At least with art nude modeling, the point is the human form in all its variations—young, old, different sizes and appearances. But even there I see a lot more focus on traditionally attractive, youthful women. Part of this may be professional models often have to work in multiple genres to make ends meet, so they’re more likely to fit glamour norms. But even art nude models who don’t work in glamour have to lie about their age online to avoid being filtered out.
Now, I often avoid talking about this topic, because let’s face it: I am that young, skinny, long-haired, big-boobed white model and therefore get to avoid many of these problems. But I see the patterns. I see them in my industry, and I see them in the men that approach me at coffee shops. And, although I’m not old, I’m apparently now old enough to be bumping up against “undesirable” in our society’s eyes—be that through search filters or conversations with strangers.
This is why I plan on modeling for the rest of my life, even though it won’t always be my full-time profession. I want to show the human body as it ages. I want to make art and beauty with my body, no matter how society views it. I think that’s partly the point of art nude photography.
If you’re in the modeling industry, you can help out with this too. Let’s expand our ideas of beauty. Let’s take pictures of women of all ages (and appearances too)! Lets show that women, no matter how young or old they look, can create beauty and be celebrated. Consider booking diverse models for your work—or trying out modeling for yourself.
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In contrast to a certain man at my favorite coffee shop, I was recently visiting a modeling friend of mine. She’s in her thirties, and we’ve been working together for the past half a decade. This visit I noticed she had started getting crow’s feet. And she—and they—looked fantastic. I can’t wait to get my own. I think they’ll add amazing texture to portraits and photographs.
My thirties really are going to be great.