When writer and performer Sandra Shamas scanned a magazine rack at a major chain bookstore a few years ago, she didn’t see many faces that looked like hers.

“There were no 50-, 60-, 70-year-old women on the front cover,” Shamas, 59, said. “Except Oprah, because she owns the f—ing magazine.”

This revelation became a bit in her new one-woman show, TheBig ‘What Now?’ which just closed an extended run at the Harbourfront Centre.

Shamas, who has made a career of sharply honest observations, an unwillingness to do anything as suspect as “acting her age,” and a liberal use of profanity, tells audiences to push back against the sexist cultural norms that have long dictated women’s behaviour and appearance at any age.

The magazine rack was “extremely sobering,” she said. During her younger years, she felt at least somewhat represented in the media.

“I was getting hints, but now I was … invisible,” she said. The academic term for this lack of representation, she tells the audience, is “symbolic annihilation.”

But if Shamas was cruising for magazines today, she’d notice at least one non-Oprah woman on the cover of a major publication. At 63, Christie Brinkley returned to Sports Illustrated, likely the oldest woman ever to carry their swimsuit issue.

“My first thought was, ‘At my age? No way!’ ” Brinkley told People magazine. The former supermodel later posted on Instagram that women “do not come with an expiration date!”

Brinkley is the latest in a long-ish line of famous, older-ish women who have returned to the public eye despite reaching an age when they were once expected to gracefully disappear, or who have been featured because of their fine lines, not despite them.

The most recent of the famed Pirelli calendars — launched in 1964 by a tire company, the first editions featured sexy pin-up girls destined to become wall decorations for auto mechanics — showcased actresses Uma Thurman (46), Nicole Kidman (49), Julianne Moore (56), Charlotte Rampling (71) and Helen Mirren (71). They weren’t wearing makeup; any crow’s feet remained unairbrushed.

“As an artist, I feel I have a responsibility to free women from the idea of eternal youth and perfection. Society’s ideal of perfection is impossible to achieve,” photographer Peter Lindbergh told reporters at the calendar’s launch in late 2016.

TV producers also appear to be embracing aging as a normal, not to mention inevitable, process.

Over the past year, several shows have undergone a “reboot,” in which the original cast returns for a victory lap. In many cases, the female stars first appeared in their 20s or early 30s and now, visibly, approach middle age: Lori Loughlin, 52, as Aunt Becky from Fuller House; Gillian Anderson, 48, as Special Agent Dana Scully from X-Files; Lauren Graham, 49, as Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls.

Famous women no doubt have genetic, economic and possibly surgical advantages the average middle-aged Canadian can’t claim. But willingness among older women to embrace aging is backed up by a 2016 study in the Journal of Women & Aging that looked at the impact of getting older on women’s well-being and found younger women face greater anxiety around their looks.

Richmond Hill resident Mara Shapiro, 48, understands that well.

“Women’s beauty doesn’t diminish as we get older,” she said. “I look at my face in the mirror and I actually think I look better than when I was 30. I’m more interesting. My eyes have more knowledge. I have more to offer and to share.”

Shapiro and her friend Randi Chapnik Myers run BrazenWoman.com, a lifestyle website for women over 35. She often hears the complaint that women don’t see themselves represented authentically.

“I think the biggest thing is to change the conception of what a woman ‘my age’ looks like. Women at 48 look all different ways,” Shapiro said.

When this demographic isn’t seen, women lose out because they are less likely to encounter genuine role models and others are less likely to see beyond stereotypes, said University of Toronto psychology professor Alison Chasteen, who has studied the effects of negative perceptions of aging on individuals.

Successful role models can help bust stereotypes, she said. Those include the tennis-playing retiree, the nurturing but asexual grandparent, the shrew curmudgeon, the recluse, the physically frail or cognitively impaired elderly. And women are more negatively affected than men, Chasteen said.

Hillary Clinton coming so close to the U.S. presidency may, for example, change the perception that only men can lead at the highest levels, she said.

Toronto cultural critic Candace Shaw said mainstream media, movies and TV have a long way to go.

“We’re seeing some movement, but it’s on the back of nostalgia,” she said, pointing to shows starring familiar faces Jane Fonda and Betty White, and adding most of the roles remain conventional “mom”-type characters.

There’s also a financial imperative for production companies to cater to baby boomer women and audiences looking for more diverse casting generally, Shaw said.

And while this new visibility is a move in the right direction, it’s still a narrow view, said Jill Andrew, co-founder of Body Confidence Canada and doctoral researcher with a focus on body image.

“I’d ask us to step back and take a look at the women who are being lauded,” she said. “We need to start celebrating beauty and womanhood and women’s achievements beyond the age of 25, but it’s still a move that’s playing it pretty safe within the status quo.”

Most of the recently celebrated women are white, thin, conventionally feminine and attractive, and able-bodied, Andrew noted. Many also appear much younger than their biological age, “not Barbie but Older Barbie,” said co-founder and diversity consultant Aisha Fairclough.

“It’s a check-mark, but there’s nothing behind it. So they’re older, but they all look one way. Diversity doesn’t mean one thing,” Fairclough said.

An exception is black actress Jasmine Guy, 54, who starred as Whitley on A Different World in the late ’80s but endured “what happened to her face?” criticism when she reappeared as a grandmother on The Vampire Diaries and now as a professor on BET’s The Quad.

There’s massive pressure to age the “right way,” Fairclough said.

As for Shamas, whose show closes Feb. 19, she is heartened by the emergence of more women her age and older. These women are, like her, “coming into their own,” and are deciding what a modern, middle-aged woman can look like and act like, as well as how long they remain publicly active.

“We’re writing the instruction manual right now by living our lives,” she said. “Our culture thinks we’re outdated. We’re now deconstructing that culture, just by being who we are.”

The Toronto Star and thestar.com, each property of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited, One Yonge Street, 4th Floor, Toronto, ON, M5E 1E6. You can unsubscribe at any time. Please contact us or see our privacy policy for more information.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.