World Social Media Day | Zeenat Aman isn’t going gently into the night

Age is everywhere, all at once, except on social media. On World Social Media Day, senior ladies who are ruling the platform. The ’70s Bollywood superstar is the latest among a few 60-plus Indian women who have inadvertently become anti-ageism champs.

A certain cyborgian kind of face is ubiquitous on Instagram. Mostly millennials or below, they are ageless, all of them have a dazed, dewy sheen on their faces. FaceTunes and plastic surgery perhaps, but the glowy youth they flaunt, they say, is because of the self-care — oh, the Insta-fabled self-care pantheon!

Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron might be gleeful about the cyborgian. She wrote with her signature self-deprecating, satirical funny bone in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (2006, Rs 1,671), that she had to resort to costly, time-consuming beauty rituals through her middle ages rigorously, just so that she could continue looking like a reasonable facsimile of herself. But what of the neck, she asked. If you know Nora you know that she was going for the sardonic. The book’s still valid as a bible for middle-aged women’s quandaries. The copy I have has a tub of face cream on the cover, and it looks nothing like the mineral sunscreen tubes of today. Today’s self-care and beauty evangelists wouldn’t even agree with her about the inevitability of the neck sag — another pea-sized pump of Tretinoin on the décolletage at bedtime, and the neck obeys, they’d proffer. This week, the Internet has been spotlighting one of its favourite subjects, post-50 Jennifer Lopez, exposing her claims that self-care and fitness keep her flawless and tight to be false, and that the actress and singer do, in fact, have a few wrinkles.

Zeenat Aman’s Vogue shoot.

How else would an anti-ageing stance go on Metaverse, or, just good old Instagram? Zeenat Aman, who joined the Gram in February this year, shows how. At 71, she has some unavoidable subjects for contemplation: age, loss and vanity. None are automatically delightful. So far she has spoken about stardom, beauty, fame, youth, pressures of youth, pressures of being a sex symbol, the need to embrace the LGBTQIA+ among us — essentially, what she couldn’t speak when she was at the peak of her stardom. But her tone is stoic and honest, her views inclusive and generous — the cyborgian’s very sexy antidote.

Neena Gupta is ruling social media, too.

Last month, Aman wrote in a piece for Vogue, “Over the years, I’ve worn it all (and nearly bared it all) and had great fun doing it. I realised early on that the world desired youth and beauty from women in the film industry. So I leveraged my looks, but I also chose roles that pushed the envelope. Still, there was far more interest in my face and figure than there ever was in my intellect. This is one reason that I have loved ageing — it has evened the scales.” There are more such assuredly wise gems on her Instagram feed. On the pages of Vogue, the actress channelled a very 2023 zeitgeist — in Amit Agarwal, Dhruv Kapoor, Sabyasachi, Tarun Tahiliani as well as Raw Mango — in a spiffy photoshoot.

The Bollywood ivory towers are stubborn strangleholds of ageism. Except for a few actresses, the pioneer being Neena Gupta, who is bustling through the second spell of her career as an actor,  Bollywood has traditionally cast women older than 40 in primarily two roles: distressed mother or crazy mother-in-law. Gupta has changed that paradigm, because a revolution of sorts happened to Bollywood screenwriting when she got the lead role of a character who got pregnant at 52 and went through the nine months, fighting shame and repudiation with aplomb. Now, of course, the pigeonholing is beginning to show: Why else would she play a sex educator peddling the most trite of sex advice to her to-be-married granddaughter in Lust Stories 2? Madhuri Dixit thriving on the screen as well as on social media— in her signature vanilla style — is an anomaly. Shefalee Shah’s new prolificacy and the boundaries she is pushing as an actor is another outlier.

Asha Parekh on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

On Instagram, I have been curating a few accounts to follow regularly: the late Padmavati Dua, known as Chinna Dua, for all things saree; Ravi Bala Sharma, the “dancing dadi” in her 60s for cheap thrills; Rajini Chandy, who made her debut in a Malayalam film at 65 and stormed Instagram in ripped jeans and shorts, just for her never-say-old spirit; Poonam Sapra, the mummy with a sign and a deadpan face who holds up placards and looks into the camera either haughtily or with a ‘I’ve-had-enough’ frown, never an asinine smile: “Round rotis don’t decide whether you get married or not. You do”; “God help anyone who disturbs my afternoon nap.” Actress Waheeda Rehman at 83 posts photos of her snorkelling adventures with her daughter. Asha Parekh’s feed is busy too, its highlight being her cover girl shoot for Harper’s Bazaar this year. I make sure I look at the feed of Dr Seema Anand at least once a week, for more private pursuits. A mythologist, storyteller, and a Kama Sutra expert in her 60s, Anand has convinced me why sex is so crucial after middle-age.

Hollywood has been a light. This year, the awards season was heavy on women above 50 including Best Actor Female for Michelle Yeoh, who has just turned 60. Andie McDowell rocked all the red carpets — the glow through wrinkles and bouncy grey hair, perhaps, requires a bit of a leisured gaze — as well as roles in which a woman isn’t on the binary corners of evil and good. Isabella Rossellini returned as the Lancome face in 2018 at 63. Viola Davis is at the peak of her acting prowess and is headlining conversations around race.

Dr Seema Anand, a social media health influencer

Age is everywhere, all at once, except on social media. While money and privilege can temporarily buy reprieve from ageing, no one is immune to it. Until a decade ago, conversations around ageism were simply about acknowledging that it exists. Now there are glimpses of how it can be dismantled. We are too used to being told that the bulk of your successes will only be in your 20s and 30s — and this applies somewhat to men above 50, too — and that if we haven’t peaked by 40, we are doomed to oblivion. At one year from 50, having survived cancer and thrown into early menopause at 43, seeing older women thrive pats me. It helps me not snuff out my own spark, and keep going.

Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha tells us repeatedly that we are bad with technology, that like them, the entire world and everything in it are not our competition. We still praise people when they “don’t look their age” rather than simply saying they look good. Certain women get jealous of how thin you are, no matter what causes the thinness — my post-chemotherapy muscle loss and narrowness got me many compliments. Workplace discrimination against older women continue everywhere in the world in varying degrees. Some of us absorb all this messaging unconsciously, until we reach a mind-space that convinces us we simply can’t do the hustle anymore.

Around the time the grey hairs start showing, no matter the age, there is a code switch to the way people talk to us. The neighbourhood bhaaji-wala starts calling us “aunty” instead of “didi” or “madam”.  You enter the stage where simply by being well-preserved and not obese would pass for pretty.

Zeenat Aman’s Vogue shoot.

So, thank you, Zeenat Aman. I aspire to a future that looks a lot like you on Instagram: Generous, wise, and radiant.

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