From an 88-year-old Instagram star to a 16-year-old choreographer: how women are breaking down age barriers

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There’s a radical shift taking place. Now, no-one can tell us we’re too young or too old for anything – just ask 88-year-old Instagram star Baddie Winkle. Stylist investigates how the boundaries of age are tumbling away

Words: Lizzie Pook
Photography: Tom Van Schelven

Our cover star Baddie Winkle is a modern-day heroine. Not because she looks great in Jeremy Scott – though, she undoubtedly does – or because the 88-year-old great-grandmother has nearly three million followers on Instagram (bio: “stealing yo man since 1928”). It’s because she has committed the ultimate radical act for any woman in 2017: she has lived life agelessly. She has come up against society’s age rules and prejudices, she has weighed them up, and she has given a massive ‘meh, not for me’ shrug. All while wearing a knitted bikini, her signature pout, and taking a selfie.

Many of us will know that gut-punch feeling of being told that you can’t possibly know what you’re talking about because of your age. As women, we have long been defined by the number of candles on our last birthday cake. We are told we are ‘too young’ for things – too young to care about political events, too young to hold a senior position at work. But then, the pendulum swings the other way and we’re suddenly ‘too old’ – too old to have a child or start a business or take on new physical challenges. Funnily enough, men rarely seem to be constrained by the same age labels.

However, a revolution – pioneered by women just like Baddie – is happening. For what feels like the first time in history, we are breaking free from the age-based trajectory we’ve been expected to follow. “This blurring of boundaries is really exciting,” says Dr Jane Prince, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of South Wales. “It is a lot to do with self theory: how we are guided by people we would like to become. We need to have plausible images of these desired selves (ie role models) to motivate us. These didn’t exist until recently, but now they are all over the place. We see women travelling the world at 80 or setting up businesses at 15.” Indeed, age simply does not define women in the same way it did for previous generations.

The fact is, we no longer want to be boxed in. ‘Millennial’, ‘Gen X’ and ‘Gen Z’ all feel like ridiculously limited confines in a world where a growing number of people don’t even want to conform to a specific gender. We now want to bend time to fit with our lives, rather than the other way round. This is not a question of never growing up, rather a case of growing up, out, and in many different directions.

It’s no coincidence, either. A series of social phenomena have conspired to make this happen – not least the fact that we are hitting our so-called ‘key’ life markers much later than our parents did: getting married later, buying houses later (if ever) and starting families at a more advanced age. But also, it is just because we can. ONS figures show that the fertility rate of women aged 40 and over has surpassed that of women aged under 20 for the first time since 1947.

It’s not just about babies, we’re now physically and mentally much younger in our old age. Researchers at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that 75-year-olds today show higher levels of cognitive functioning, happiness and wellbeing than 75-year-olds did 20 years ago. So it’s no surprise women are setting themselves challenges and making their mark on society long into their ‘twilight years’. Change is afoot at the other end of the scale too. From the number of scarily accomplished young women turning over millions in their start-ups, to humanitarians such as Malala Yousafzai, 19, and 14-year-old education activist Zuriel Oduwole, who former US secretary of state John Kerry recently called “the world’s most powerful girl”.

Life is no longer a case of school, work, retirement. Experts are now speaking of a ‘multi-stage life’ with transitions and breaks – mid-life career changes, taking time out to travel, or going back to school. “This all started with the abolition of the formal retirement age in 2011,” says Prince. “A lot of women who were made to retire at 60 felt they were being told, ‘You’re no longer of value.’ That marker opened up a wide range of possible selves for women, at any age.”

And, of course, the more time we have on the planet, the more we want to do with it. Over the past 200 years, life expectancy has increased at an almost constant rate of more than two years every decade. Some scientists even believe that, due to significant advancements in healthcare, we might eventually be able to increase the longevity of our lives to over 140 years. Frankly, that’s a lot of time to fill.

Soon, the traditional notion of ‘winding down’ in our 60s and 70s will be completely shot out of the water as we start new careers at 72 or run our first marathons at 80.

Here, we speak to the inspiring women saying ‘no thanks’ to the boundaries of age.

The 88-year-old Instagram star

Baddie Winkle, 88, became a social media star at the age of 85. She now has 2.8 million followers on Instagram and is the face of Missguided.

“I remember being at school and being told to write an essay entitled, ‘When we are 80’. I had no idea what to write – I couldn’t imagine being that old. It was a pretty short essay...” In a makeshift studio at the Marriott Hotel, downtown Knoxville, where Stylist is shooting our cover, 88-year-old Instagram star Baddie Winkle (aka Helen Ruth van Winkle) titters with laughter. “Now I feel like I’ve done about everything there is to do in the world.”

To her ever-growing legion of followers, Baddie is a rainbow- hued celebration of living agelessly. In one post she’s pictured grinning widely in a lace-up miniskirt and T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Be a slut. Do whatever you want!’ In another (captioned ‘F*** BEING AGE APPROPRIATE’), she wears head-to-toe pink latex and casts a coquettish look at the camera.

It is, without doubt, an account and a persona dedicated to fun. It is also a savvy business model: the great-grandmother (today dressed in Jeremy Scott, standing on a skateboard and throwing peace signs) has expertly brokered her particularly kitsch brand of joie de vivre, turning what started out as a ‘just-for-fun’ Instagram account into a one-woman empire.

As well as partnering with brands including Missguided, Smirnoff and streetwear label Dimepiece, the day after our shoot Baddie is scheduled to film an ad for American TV channel Hulu. Her first book – Baddiewinkle’s Guide To Life – is due to publish in July and later in the year she has what she calls her biggest booking to the 88-year-old instagram star date – “But I can’t talk about that,” she says coyly.

Ever the professional, she arrives half an hour early, greeting the crew in her soft southern drawl. She enters as a mild- mannered lady and slowly adopts the Baddie persona, thanks to her preferred soundtrack of Drake and Justin Bieber.

“I’ve always been a bold dresser,” she says. “But this all started with my great- granddaughter, Kennedy. She came home from school one day and took a photo of me in my cut-off shorts, tie-dye shirt and marijuana leaf socks – I didn’t even know what they were,” she laughs. “Anyhow, she put it on Twitter. Within a week, the photo had gone viral and my life had changed. After that I became ‘Baddie’ – short for ‘Badass’.”

Nowadays, her success spans more than just red carpet appearances at the MTV Video Awards or the kudos of being able to claim Rihanna and Miley Cyrus as fans (“Oh, Miley is a wild child,” says Baddie, dotingly. “But also very down to earth. You would think she had no values, but she does. I found her to be a very good human being.”) She employs most of her family to work on the brand and has two attorneys who are dedicated to handling her varied business affairs.

“I’m going to carry on doing this for as long as I’m able,” she says. “The truth is I’m not 20 any more and I do get tired, but I never consider myself old. I just think you should always do things that keep you excited. My new career means I’m excited every day.”

The 23-year-old politician

Binita Mehta-Parmar, now 26, was a Conservative Party councillor by the age of 23 and became the youngest council group leader in the country at the age of 24. She is now director of Modern Britain, a centre-right think tank which works to improve the lives of black and minority ethnic communities in the UK.

“When I first became a local councillor in Watford – winning by just 33 votes – I knew my age was an issue for many people. My opponents were telling people I wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to do the job, which was hugely irritating. But if you want to make a difference, you have to have the strength to deal with people challenging your beliefs, age and actions.

It is so important for young people’s voices to be heard in politics – we bring a fresh perspective. Given the ‘male, pale and stale’ stereotype, I definitely caused a bit of a stir at meetings. I remember my first one in particular because of all the startled faces I saw when I walked in the room. I guess I was a rarity – I was on average less than half the age of everyone else, and a vocal, young, Asian woman at that!

Even my friends were surprised that I was doing this – on a Thursday night they were down the pub whereas I was choosing to spend my time in a room surrounded by political pensioners. Some of the members were quite open about their doubts that I had the experience, despite the fact that I already had far more than many of them. But focusing on these prejudices will just give you another excuse not to put yourself forward or fulfil your potential. You have to be the role model you never had.”

The 72-year-old backpacker

Grandmother-of-four Geraldine Forster, 72, has been on a solo global backpacking trip for the past seven years.

“I will not sit at home and gather dust. When I retired aged 65, I wanted to spend the time I have left backpacking around the world by myself – now I’ve visited more than 50 countries and I’m still going.

I love staying in hostels because, unlike five-star hotels, you actually meet people in them. I like walking into a dorm and meeting characters who soon become friends, like the 20-year-old with ADHD who ended up travelling around Cambodia with me, and Susie, the sex worker who I met in a hostel in Bangkok who told us scandalous stories about her clients. I now have loads of friends half my age from my travels. In the evenings we’ll grab dinner together from one of the street vendors, or share a drink on the roof of the hostel under the stars.

I love the independence. I’ve not had any romances on my travels – I have met people who have been interested, but I don’t want them in my knickers! I think many women are nervous about embarking on a solo journey, but fear is something I have lived with my whole life and I have always overcome it. Why should that change now I’m over 70?

I want to inspire other women my age to do what I’m doing. We can do incredible things once we realise that our only boundaries are the ones that we set mentally. I’ve yet to let mine hold me back.”

The 13-year-old Olympian

Swimmer Gaurika Singh, now 14, represented her home country of Nepal at the Olympic Games in Rio.

“I didn’t realise I was the youngest competitor in Rio last year. It was only when a journalist asked me about it that I found out. That’s when I felt intimidated. At first, I was just there to compete like all the others, but suddenly there was a lot of media attention on me.

I was nervous – I’m quite superstitious and I accidentally split my costume just before the race so I had to change last minute from my lucky blue swimsuit to a black one. With time, I’m learning to handle stressful situations better, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the pressure of racing.

It might sound extraordinary, but I’m just a normal 14-year-old girl trying to balance school with a really demanding training schedule. Most people were really supportive about my age – I imagine there were haters out there, because there always are, but it didn’t affect me. Instead I prefer to focus on my mantra: ‘Get better every day’.”

The newly out 47-year-old lesbian

Niki Best, 47, was married to a man for 12 years before she came out three years ago.

“I was always interested in women, but I thought everyone had fantasies about other girls as they were growing up. It was only when my marriage to John* started to crumble that I realised something might have been missing in my life.

I met Laura* through work. She was so interesting, larger-than-life and just magnetic. The more I saw her, I realised I was falling in love. It was confusing at first – I had two children, was going through a divorce, I had to be straight. But when I was around her I was like a giddy schoolgirl, something I’d never felt with any man.

Telling my children I was gay was difficult, but they accepted it straight away. John found it harder – he said he felt lied to, which I think is understandable. But what I hadn’t expected was criticism from the lesbian community for ‘leaving it so late’ to come out. For me, age is irrelevant – I had my youngest child at the age of 42 so I’ve never conformed to ‘normal’ age barriers – but some women felt I shouldn’t have ‘hidden’ my sexuality for so long.

There have been some ups and downs. I remember being on the bus with Laura and the kids once. We were holding hands and Laura overheard a couple saying how disgusting it was that we were ‘doing all this’ in front of the children. But ultimately coming out in my late 40s has been liberating. Now, I can finally look in the mirror and feel happy about the woman peering back at me.”

The 16-year-old choreographer

Charlotte Edmonds, now 20, is the first participant in The Royal Ballet’s Young Choreographer Programme. She had her first professional commission aged 16.

“I distinctly remember a workshop I went to run by award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor when I was 16. We all had to introduce ourselves, and while everyone else described themselves as composers and choreographers, I blurted out that I was a dancer. Afterwards, Wayne asked me why I’d done this. I said I wasn’t confident enough to announce to everyone that I was a choreographer yet. After all, when do you officially get to call yourself one? He replied: ‘When you feel ready.’ From then on, I only called myself a choreographer.

That’s when I realised that people invest in you, not in a number, and we shouldn’t be labelled by age, just like we shouldn’t be labelled by gender. When it comes to creativity, I believe age isn’t relevant.

Having said that, I do feel I have to prove myself, especially when I’m working alongside choreographers twice my age with 20 years of experience. It means I end up working twice as hard to prove I’m just as capable. People were surprised when I turned up to teach my first commission at 16, but no-one questioned my right to be there: like me, they believed that anyone has the ability to create art whatever their age.”

Charlotte is choreographing a new piece for The Royal Ballet’s Draft Works in April;

The 33-year-old student

Last year, Joanna McGarry, 33, made the decision to leave her full-time job as associate beauty editor at Stylist and go back to university to study Chinese medicine.

“I’d always fantasised about going back to school, but wrestled with thoughts of it being reckless, financially unviable and well, pretty terrifying. Not only that, but societal norms dictated that it’s now that I should be settling down, taking fewer risks and starting a family. However – and it might have been different had I been born a couple of decades ago – only a third of my closest friends, who are in their 30s and 40s, have children. Had I been surrounded by couples with 2.4 children, expensive cars and holiday homes, I might not have gone back to school, but I’m so glad I did.

I felt free to make a change and I think that’s an upshot of changing attitudes to marriage and motherhood. We are the first generation for whom being married with children by 30 is no longer an obligation. For years, men have been celebrated for having played the field and lived their lives as they chose, either marrying late or not at all, and now women are demanding to have that prerogative too.

Whether we know it or not, as women, we’re all engaged in a collective shift of consciousness; a rejection of a fixed blueprint of what our lives should look like and when. Soon we’ll look back on this era as an age of enlightenment and remember that we were all a part of it.”

*Names have been changed