Age before beauty and pearls before swine: the best put-downs if anyone says ‘you’re too old’

How to tackle everyday ageism, from Madonna’s bottom-flashing to jokes about catheters

When Madonna’s cape dragged her off the stage at the 2015 BRIT Awards, she was met with a raft of ageist comments on social media. So the next time she went out, she wore a leather cut-out bodysuit, lifting up her barely-there skirt to expose her backside.

While this might not be everyone’s chosen way of tackling insults about getting older, it surely sent a strong message about what is ‘age appropriate’ behaviour. Here are our favourite responses to those tired old remarks.

 Read Anne Karpf’s How to Age for the wonderful line: “Ageism is a prejudice against your future self.” It’s full of intelligent thoughts on getting older, and would make a compact stocking-filler for anyone with an age hang-up about someone else (or themselves). Karpf also talks about how to think about people of any age, advocating that we… “greet our ageing self with both pleasure and realism, and without the need to either idealise or deride its younger incarnation.” Here’s to that.

Break the ‘rules’. “This is what a 56-year-old ass looks like, motherfuckers!” Madonna told Rolling Stone magazine in February last year, explaining her bottom-bearing response to Twitter trolling about her age. She continued: “If I have to be the person who opens the door for women to believe and understand and embrace the idea that they can be sexual and look good and be as relevant in their fifties or their sixties or whatever as they were in their twenties, then so be it.”

Channel the feminist Gloria Steinem, 82, and tell people you love your age. I seriously loved ageing,” she said, looking back at her 60th and 70th birthdays. Steinem has famously got older in public, telling one reporter, “This is what 40 looks like” and having a ‘This is what 50 looks like’ party for her half-century. She also relishes not having to deal with sexual urges, saying ahead of her 80th birthday: “The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things.”

Be inspired by Canadian politician Pierre Trudeau, on hearing that Richard Nixon had called him an asshole. “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” he said. While not a retort against being called ‘old’, this makes for a brilliant catch-all response.

Remember writer Dorothy Parker’s classic whip-sharp retort to an ageist comment. When a younger woman opened a door for her with the words: “Age before beauty.” Parker’s reply? “And pearls before swine.”

Use shock tactics if someone comments on your appearance. “I can’t wear yellow anymore. It’s too matchy-matchy with my catheter,” said comedian Joan Rivers, in the bitingly humorous way that only she could. Making people feel uncomfortable with a funny retort that also sends you up might make them think twice next time.

Make jokes about other people. “[The film] Gravity is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age,” said American actor Tina Fey, presenting the 2014 Golden Globes awards. This became part of a series of pranks between the two, and is a witty way to gently poke fun at others.

Bat the comment away. “I am the peer of whoever I am talking to,” said Hollywood producer Norman Lear, 93, when asked how old he felt at a conference in February. This is a great way to make people realise that age is often irrelevant.



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Lucy Handley

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