Leyla Sanai

Sorry Alexandra Shulman but Helena Christensen can wear what she wants

Sorry Alexandra Shulman but Helena Christensen can wear what she wants
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Is 50-year-old model Helena Christensen too old to wear a bustier to a party? The ex-editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, thinks so. ‘There comes that point in every woman’s life,’ Shulman wrote with finger-wagging admonishment at the start of her column in the Mail on Sunday, ‘when, however reluctantly, you have to hand over the fleshpot-at-the-party baton to the next generation.’ 

Shulman then proceeded to castigate Christensen for turning up, ‘at the age of 50’, to her friend Gigi Hadid’s birthday party wearing ‘a tacky, black lace bustier.’ She continued: ‘surely you should call time on Ann Summers style, a look, incidentally, that no stylish young woman would dream of wearing.’ Miaow!

Unsurprisingly, Shulman’s judgement caused an uproar. Christensen was vehemently defended by friends and strangers alike. Actress Julianne Moore and models Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell piled in to support their friend. Tellingly, Shulman’s replacement at Vogue, Edward Enninful, stood with Christensen.

Quite apart from the fact that Christensen looks better at 50 than most women do at 18, this kind of age-shaming says more about the critic than the criticised. Men don’t tend to go in for bitching about each others’ appearance. This isn’t because men are inherently more kind or compassionate than women, it’s all about power.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, men have been judged for what they say and do rather than on their appearances. A woman’s role has traditionally been decorative and demure; sit there and be a pretty piece of background. When women have veered off course – dressing unconventionally, not bothering to groom or dress themselves to the satisfaction of men – they have been dunked as witches, incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals or even lobotomised.

In the West, we now think we have come beyond that and shudder at the misogyny still present in other parts of the world where women can be stoned for kissing the wrong man or held down and have their genitals mutilated to prevent them ever obtaining the same enjoyment from sex that men derive.

And yet, although The Enlightenment and Women’s Rights have brought us huge freedoms, some sexist attitudes persist. Beneath the faux concern of ‘It’s for her own good! Mutton dressed as lamb is a *laughing* stock, darling’, women who bitch about the appearance of other women are perpetuating the archaic female role as decorative object. Did anyone sneer at Einstein’s ruffled hair and scruffy clothing? Did people whisper that Stephen Hawking had ‘let himself go’ when he went grey? Why exactly is it that we see salt-and-pepper hair and laughter lines as being sexy in men but a need for an urgent salon or clinic visit for women? 

Shulman’s response to the outrage her column precipitated was to argue that her column is supposed to be 'controversial'. But there are so many genuine injustices in the world to nail your colours to; so many pompous and egotistical egos to prick. So why pick on a woman who has worked hard her entire life and made a success of two careers, modelling and photography?

In any event, the ‘I just couldn’t say no to those in charge’ excuse is weak. We are all autonomous individuals. I remember being invited onto the Kilroy-Silk show in my previous incarnation as an NHS consultant doctor, to talk about the ‘superinfection’ MRSA. I arrived five hours early, and made myself known to the team. No one had anything to say to me until the lights were being dimmed for filming to start in ten seconds. At this point, Kilroy-Silk’s PA rushed up to me and told me that the programme would start with me railing against the hospital cleaners for not doing their job properly. I said I wasn’t going to do it: the rise of MRSA in hospitals was a systemic failure due to multiple factors. I wasn’t going to pretend it was the fault of harassed and poorly equipped, low-paid workers. ‘But you have to’, the PA urged. ‘Robert’s then going to pan to the cleaners having their say.’ I refused, and Kilroy-Silk was not happy. But being an adult comes with responsibilities. 

Our society now rightly gives women the same opportunities that it has long afforded men. It’s been a long time coming. Let’s embrace all aspects of this new equality by ditching the insecure bitching, the one-upmanship based on shallow criteria, and, most of all, the pretence that ripping down other women on the basis of their appearance is ‘doing them a favour.’