Opinion: our views on who constitutes a healthy role model tends to evolve as people and society change

Role models are those we believe to be somewhat similar to ourselves in terms of attitudes, behaviours, goals, or status, but who crucially already have the skills or attributes that we admire or strive after. We are motivated to mirror these individuals through observation, learning and emulation, helping us to better understand ourselves and our environments.

But do we need role models - and are they good for us? Only as far as we allow them to impact our own lives. If we deem them to be stratospherically out of our reach, they become more like invisible friends who we check in with every now and then for an inspirational chat. However, if we believe ourselves to be a mere weekend acting/singing/dancing/cooking/business course away from being just like them, then we could be setting ourselves up for continuous disappointment and failure, as can be witnessed weekly in the proliferation of reality competition TV shows.

Clearly not everyone is destined to become the new kid on the block, so what happens when you feel you can no longer become your role model? And what service is the unattainable celebrity role model providing? One photographic exhibition of "successful businesswomen" in the cosmetics industry portrayed Helena Rubinstein, Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden as being ambivalent role models, with their success having been achieved from an arguably flawed limitation of feminine beauty.

A "pseudo-nubile" role model for teens: Ariana Grande

But what is the job spec for a healthy role model? Views are temporal and tend to evolve as we do, and as society does. A young girl may equally view her schoolteacher or mother as the most important role model in her micro world. Teenage girls tend to imitate role models a little older than themselves, who could be family members, but are just as likely to be celebrities who remain "pseudo-nubile" (think Ariana Grande).

Like food choices, some role models are healthier than others. Beauty has always been equated with youth, and in western societies which are currently experiencing an explosion in obesity, youth and thinness remain the "ideal", regrettably leading to countless cases of poor self-esteem amongst females.

In her twenties, a young woman’s cognitive and social net may be cast wider, trawling in bigger fish, possibly a sporting hero such as Katie Taylor or young female political activist like Malala Yousafzai. A decade or so on from that, and juggling work commitments and childcare, our woman may cite those "inspirational" women who seem to have it all, do it all, say it all, and look good too (hello Amal Alamuddin-Clooney) as role models.

Katie Taylor

Leaping forward to middle age (a nebulous "anywhere" from 45 to 65 years) and we may hear mid-life women, who currently form almost a quarter of Ireland’s population, take a deep exhalation of breath as they seize the first opportunity to review their lives to date and assess what they really want before they hit the ever-ascending retirement age. So who might be the role models be for these older women? Do women at mid-life turn off the computer, the telly, the boss, the partner, the children, and leg it to the nearest spiritual retreat in the hope of divine inspiration?

Or do they take a closer look at their own environments to see what’s going on, who’s making it happen and ask if there is anything to be learned here? When it’s a case of "nothing to see here, move on", today’s mid-life woman may well seek her role models outside of her own social environment (for instance, from celebrity stars of the big and small screens.

The visibility of youthful older people in celebrity culture and the profligate notion that old age can be held at bay indefinitely by technologies and the right attitude has resulted in new and alarming "realities". Botox, steroids, and cosmetic surgery appear to point the way to a brave new world where mature adulthood is seen primarily in chronological, biological and medical terms.

A healthy role model for the Connemara mid-life woman is as likely to be found in the back field as the West Wing

It’s not hard to understand how any of us would be inspired by queen bees like Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey as examples of lightning rods for societal change. But for many women at the pivotal mid-lifecourse stage, it’s often the "drones", the ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things, who flame our creative thought and become our role models.

A recent study of mid-life rural women in Ireland reports positive role models to be mostly mothers, grandmothers, older employers and fellow community members. The role model status was attained as a result of diverse, but somewhat prosaic activities: feeding, clothing, and educating children; turning jaded communities into vibrant villages and carrying out heavy manual work every day, despite diminishing health.

These role models were admired for their resilience and ability to carry out tasks that enhanced the lives of others rather than for how they looked. Rural mid-life women often display great resilience in the face of cumulative disadvantage resulting from the maldistribution of socio-economic resources. When you are living with limited employment and training opportunities, pared-back gendered-health support services and coping with skeleton public transport, diminishing social amenities and temperamental technological connectivity, a healthy role model for the Connemara mid-life woman is as likely to be found in the back field as the West Wing.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ