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Dolly Parton, 77, was shamed over her Dallas Cowboys outfit. Here's why critics are 'ageist'

"There’s this traditional idea that once a woman gets older, they should become invisible."

Dolly Parton was subject to some criticism after wearing a dazzling cheerleader outfit to a halftime show performance. (Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images; Graphics: Canva)
Dolly Parton was subject to some criticism after wearing a dazzling cheerleader outfit to a halftime show performance. (Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images; Graphics: Canva)

After Dolly Parton performed at a Dallas Cowboys football game last week wearing the team's cheerleader outfit — white shorts and a blue crop top — the country star faced some scrutiny for the sexy outfit.

While many loved the country icon's costume, saying she's "killing it," some were hesitant.

One X (formerly Twitter) account said a "77-year-old woman shouldn't be on stage pretending they're 20… We need to stop normalizing this behaviour." Another asked X users if they were "OK" with her outfit.

"Yes, and why not, look at her, 77 looks great!" one person replied to the post.

"No woman gives a flying s—- what your opinion is of their outfit choices," another added.

Why do people go out of their way to share an opinion on Parton's outfit? We asked two Canadian experts, who say it's all about ageism.

Here's what you need to know.


What is ageism?

Ageism "refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age," the World Health Organization (WHO) explained.

Deborah van den Hoonaard, a sociologist and professor at St. Thomas University, told Yahoo Canada there's a "traditional idea" that "once a woman gets older, they should become invisible. They should just bow out and not be obvious.

An older woman certainly shouldn't be flamboyant — that's the cultural norm... It's ageist.Deborah van den Hoonaard

In Parton's case, it wasn't just a "beautiful outfit" she was wearing, but it was flamboyant. "And an older woman certainly shouldn't be flamboyant — that's the cultural norm... It's ageist," Van den Hoonaard added.

According to Van den Hoonaard, women are "harshly judged" for what they wear, regardless of age just like how in 2009, Michelle Obama was criticized for showing off her toned arms in her first official photo as first lady.

"For women, it's almost never the right age to do anything," said Van den Hoonaard.

'Half of the world's population is ageist'

Ageism is alive and well despite seniors being the fastest growing demographic. (Getty)
Ageism is alive and well despite seniors being the fastest growing demographic. (Getty)

Founder and CEO of Top Sixty Over Sixty, Helen Hirsh Spence, explained ageism tends to be socially acceptable, unchallenged and undetected to a large extent. That's despite the aging population being the fastest growing demographic in Canada and around the world.

Seniors are projected to make up a quarter of the Canadian population by 2068 according to Universities Canada, with almost 20 per cent of the population being over 65 years old as of 2022.

But this hasn't changed that fact that "half of the world’s population is ageist against older people," according to WHO.

Hirsh Spence said people are living longer and healthier lives than ever before in history, but most of society has not adapted to the new norms. "Most of the world still thinks in terms of the old norms, such as retirement being the end of life, which at 65 — a date that was established in the 1930s when the average lifespan was 62," said Spence. Today, the average lifespan in Canada is 82.

"There are more older people now than ever before who want to work… because they are living that much longer. Who can go on a 40-year vacation to play golf or tennis in their hundreds? They can't," she added.

How is ageism harmful?

WHO stated "among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and premature death."

An estimated 6.3 million cases of depression globally are linked to ageism, WHO added, which Van den Hoonaard echoed. "Loneliness is one of the big issues all around the world. And as you get older, it becomes more extreme."

We have to see everybody in the world as fully human.Deborah van den Hoonaard

Psychologist Becca Levy, in her book called "Breaking the Age Code," found through research that "health problems that have been thought to be entirely due to aging, such as memory loss, hearing decline, and cardiovascular events, are instead influenced by negative age beliefs."

A Yale paper quoted, "Positive age beliefs, on the other hand, lead to better health and even longer life – 7.5 years on average, in fact."

People who shame older people, especially women, reveal the "ageism, discrimination and prejudice against their future selves," Van den Hoonaard explained.

"That's one large group that we can make jokes about all the time," she said.

How to combat ageism?

FRISCO, TEXAS - MAY 11: Dolly Parton attends the 58th Academy Of Country Music Awards at The Ford Center at The Star on May 11, 2023 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)
Parton is just one of many older celebrities subject to ageist comments. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)

Expert Hirsh Spence added everybody has a role to play to challenge ageism and it starts by educating themselves and becoming aware of how prevalent ageism is in the workplace, on social media and in everyday life.

"If you see an older person at a checkout counter and you hear the cashier say, 'dear' or 'sweetie' or 'honey' — that's a put down. I'm not your dear, I'm not your sweetie. Start recognizing it, becoming alert and speaking up," she added.

Spence said the "Jolene" singer looked great in her Dallas Cowboys costume, and that she probably anticipated the shaming. Spence speculated Parton is likely not taking it to heart — a sentiment echoed by Van den Hoonaard.

There's so much pressure on women to continue to look young.Deborah van den Hoonaard

She added Parton, despite having a big impact, isn't necessarily challenging ageism by wearing this outfit.

"She's a celebrity and celebrities are not normal people… There's a whole range of how people look. Older people are very diverse — it's the most diverse part of the population," Van den Hoonaard said. "But there's so much pressure on women to continue to look young, to not 'let yourself go,' which is a phrase that drives me crazy."

She claimed as people get older, others stop seeing them as fully human and that's what needs to change. "We have to see everybody in the world as fully human."

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