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3. Mutton Dressed as Lamb:

Two articles relating to the issue of older women stimulated my interest in the importance of the hourglass silhouette as a subject: A jaunty parody of male lechery: 'Look at her lobes: men now prefer brains to curves’  was the title of an article by science editor Jonathan Leake in the Sunday times 9th September.


In the same issue India Knight’s regular column had the title: 'Frolic away, Carol, and all you other muttonkins':  


Leake's article looks at a new study which suggests that in societies where men and women have increasingly equal rights (i.e. in the West) 'men’s traditional obsession with women’s appearance is in sharp decline,' and men are placing more value on other qualities, such as intelligence, in their search for partners. By the same token with their increasing financial independence women in the west now seem more and more concerned with looks and less with the breadwinability of their partners. This research has the potential to undermine the consensus that the influences on choice of sexual partners are fundamentally fixed, biologically rather than socially determined.

India Knight’s article is a commentary on the media interest in Carol Vorderman as a SWOFTY (Single Woman Over Fifty):  specifically on her recent change of hair to a big haired tousled blonde and her penchant for arguably age ‘inappropriate’ Roland Mouret and Mouret inspired hourglass dresses. As Knight writes , ‘the media’s subtext is very much: behold the perimenopausal woman. She has heels! mane-like hair! A bottom! My God, I think the minx might be sexually active!’

The tone of these articles suggests that as far as the media is concerned Western women, and older Western women in particular, haven’t been let off the hotness hook despite the fact that their prospective partners are supposed to be less driven by the visual cortex. The examples that Leake and Knight use show that emphasis on a particular kind of appearance in the public’s view of womanhood, hasn’t actually shifted a great deal.  Leake’s chosen example of the new breed of woman is the entrepreneur and Jimmy Choo moguless, Tamara Mellon:  at 45 her high glamour and fashion conscious image is part and parcel of her personal and professional success. Recent images of Mellon show that her public persona has in fact become more ‘worked’ with time and level of professional success, rather than less.

India Knight is all gung ho for the freedom of the SWOFTY or ‘Muttonkin’ to enjoy the performance of a particular version of female  potency. . . at least at the outset. The issue (on the surface of it) is about any older woman’s right to have FUN – to enjoy her looks, her sexuality, her financial independence as well as her power to attract attention and plenty of it:  ‘It’s just a bit of fun isn’t it?’ remarked 51 year old Vorderman on her achievement as ‘Rear of the Year’ getting up from her Loose Women anchor seat and shaking her pencil-skirted derrière for the camera . . .  ‘it’s followed me around for 50 years’.

Mellon and Vorderman are unapologetically what would traditionally have been known as mutton-dressed-as-lamb. I feel I need to show my hand here . . . lest we forget . . .  mutton is meat and by implication something degrading for a woman to be identified with; apart from anything else because it robs her (and her flesh) of the agency of the sentient being.  Perhaps the ‘new woman’s’ privileged entitlement to demand greater efforts in their men-folk only comes as a result of hard work invested in their own image. Clearly both these women are willing and able to pay for and display what Knight calls ‘youth at any price’. But from the title of her article this is exactly the attitude that India Knight is celebrating, re-appropriating the term in defence of a woman’s right to choose NOT to give in to invisibility.  . . to be fully and flamboyantly embodied.

No wonder Leake writes with a certain sense of intimidation and India Knight cheers her muttonkin on to ‘frolic away’ in her devil may care power-play. This is a form of pleasurable woman’s liberation in action. You really can burn your bra when you have synthetic boning and high tech fabric holding you in and up in all the right places.  Because of course one has to remind oneself (especially if one has never worn one) that the exaggerated curves of the ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Octavia’ dress’ are not a representation of actual female flesh, they are a silhouette created from tamed flesh, a graphic drawing out (and drawing in both literally and optically) of the supposed lines of the female body with the help of sophisticated cutting, high-tech fabrics, colour blocking and hidden corsetry. . As one stylist puts it in her fulsome praise of the Octavia dress ‘It’s like a stylish scuba suit’ it ‘keeps your meat neat’ and there are of course few things popular visual culture is more squeamish about than unruly, mutable and aging female flesh.

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