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A beginner’s guide to ageism

Dr. Susan Douglas is a University of Michigan professor, columnist, and the award-winning author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead. At the 2023 Be Bold Healthy Aging Summit, she addressed the basics of ageism, its presence in the media, and how we can defy it. Interested in learning more about ageism? Here’s a great place to start:

What’s ageism?

According to Dr. Susan Douglas, “ageism is a bias and discrimination against older people, simply because they are old.” It was coined in 1969, and often involves belittling and stereotyping older people. Ageism has been portrayed in the media for decades, and continues to remind older generations of how they “should” look, feel, or wear. Dr. Douglas explains that anti-aging ads are very common in industries that include skin and hair care products, spa fees, cosmetic procedures, and prescription drugs.

Aspirational ageism

Aspirational ageism is a media phenomenon that presents aging in an idyllic rather than realistic way, and illustrates standards of what one should look like that are impossible to achieve. Dr. Douglas draws from over a decade of market research, and finds that aspirational ageism occurs commonly in ads on “outlets like Oprah and TV commercials.” These ads commonly portray women in their 50s or 60s with characteristics like flawless skin and no wrinkles, and tell other women that is what they should look like. Aspirational ageism, however, ignores the possible side effects or downsides of aging, and fails to portray it in a realistic light.

Gendered ageism

According to Dr. Douglas, ageism is “pronounced and harder for women.” Women tend to live longer than men in the U.S., and also face double standards about aging and appearance. Dr. Douglas explains that in 2016, “nearly 79% of the older characters in film were male, 73% of the older characters on broadcast TV were male, and 70% of the older characters on cable were male.” In the news industry, women in their 50s and 60s often get moved to radio, and are replaced by women in their 20s and 30s who look younger and are therefore more desirable.

How to defy ageism:

  • Although it can be difficult to avoid, everyday women and celebrities have begun to shift the conversation on aging in recent years. Here are 3 things you can do to combat ageism:
  • Participate in intergenerational relationships.
  • Consider how you internalize ageist messages, and speak up against them in your daily life.
  • Check out Dr. Susan Douglas’ book, In Our Prime: How Older Women are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

To hear all of Dr. Susan Douglas’ talk, visit the Bold Explore page.