Sleeves for Older Women: Must We Really?

Jane Fonda recently bemoaned her supposed batwings on “Grace and Frankie” by wiggling her underarms back and forth, pretending they actually had fat on them. She’s in her 70s, and they barely moved. I’ll bet that if she actually did have underarm flab, she wouldn’t have been showing it off.

Like gray hair, flabby or wrinkled upper arms are one of the signs of age that women think they have to cover up — but plenty of women who’ve chosen to reveal the gray still hide those arms.

The question is, should we? By covering up, aren’t we buying into someone else’s definition of what’s unattractive — or trying to “pass”?

Some bold older women are all for covering up. Take Iris Apfel, the famous “geriatric” style icon who in 2015 told the Guardian:

“I think when you’re paying $15,000 for a dress you’re entitled to a pair of sleeves. It makes me crazy. Because everybody knows that older women, no matter how much of a jock you are, you look like a horse’s arse in a strappy dress. And that is not appropriate.”

I have never had slim, toned upper arms. Or actually slim, toned anything. As a young woman I made sure to wear at least elbow length sleeves to cover up my marbled biceps. When I hit menopause I got hotter and sweatier, and long sleeves just didn’t cut it on hot days. So I compromised and started wearing short sleeves. Bowing to comfort before modesty, I’ve stuck to short sleeves into my 70s. Not sleeveless, mind you.

The truth is, I am ambivalent about showing any part of my upper arms. I find myself paying close attention to the sleeves of the aging stars on the red carpet. The View’s sleek and fashionable Joy Behar, 73, always wears sleeves. Helen Mirren, 70, finds glamorous low cut gowns that cover her upper arms. Judy Dench, 81, is known for her flowing long-sleeved red carpet gowns. Susan Sarandon, 69, just scandalized the fashion press by wearing a low cut bra with a plunging-necking suit jacket to the SAG awards. She got to be sexy and trendy without baring her arms. Go Susan!!

But what about the rest of us? I admire a Florida friend who is pushing 70, has chubby arms and always goes sleeveless in her fashionable flowing outfits. She has a flamboyant personality, and her bare arms are part of her persona.

And then there’s Aretha!

I wish I were as brave. How about you? Are you brave enough to show your upper arms? Or do you just not agree with the whole bare-it idea?


49 responses to “Sleeves for Older Women: Must We Really?

  1. I’m 81 and just in the past couple of years don’t like my arms in short sleeves. I’ve always used weights and worked out but haven’t in the last few years. I don’t like me in short sleeves but my twin is worst and wears them. She says she doesn’t care. I feel better with 3/4 or long sleeves. That’s my choice.

  2. Speaking as a man, I love womens’ arms, all ages and sizes. To me, the reason for elbow sleeves or short sleeves is not to cover up, it is to accentuate. Just as a short dress or lingerie may be sexier than plain nudity. Arms and especially the elbows are a critical but oft-overlooked aspect of “erotic capital”. Regardless of your flab or plumpness, believe me, some men are finding you extremely desirable. Public service message.

  3. Women who are 60 (or plus) and dress like they are 30 look ridiculous– let’s face it: we’re NOT that age any longer!! I see other females my age (67) or younger wearing shorts that are too short, tights (when it’s clear they are not exercisers!!) , sleeveless tops & dresses and most of these women are not even FIT!! Not bragging but although I’m petite and slim (at 109 lbs. I watch my eating habits, exercise and wear a size 4P) I don’t like to expose all the body parts and that includes low cut tops. Even if you are in shape the skin texture really deteriorates after a certain age.

    A lot of women think men love, love, love seeing women with their breasts practically spilling out or pants so tight they can hardly walk but, quite frankly, if that’s all a guy is interested in then why would you even want to bother with him?? Thank goodness my husband is handsome, funny, articulate and smart as well as savvy. I dress for me and am stylish but he always appreciates how I look. Ladies, start dressing “age appropriate”– your kids don’t think you’re cool dressing like them, they think you’re silly!

    1. I very thin built! I either wear long or 3/4 sleeves! Never the caps sleeves! I wish these company who make all the summers flowers and lace shirts, would at least 3/4 sleeves like the regular ones! There are several brand names at Wal-mart that make these pretty shirts, but no 3/4 ones! Anyway, summer shirts are light laterite long sleeves shirts!

    2. You can only speak for yourself. If an older woman likes to wear sleeveless tops and tight pants etc, that’s her prerogative. It’s what she thinks about her looks, not what you or others try to make her feel. If you feel that you have a monopoly on how women should dress, keep it to yourself, we don’t care to hear about it.

    3. Believe it or not, some women (increasing in numbers all the time) do not dress for the male gaze. You say you “dress for yourself’, but you actually look at yourself through the male gaze, it’s a filter so embedded in you that you aren’t even aware of it.

      Some of us do not identify ourself in such a base, reductive way, to hide or display our bodies depending on what “men” think. I for one don’t care at all if you’re petite and dress “appropriately” and have sexy husband, or if you are fat and single.

      A husband, or any man, cannot add or detract from a woman, nor can her physical body, she is whole and complete and wonderful, no matter what size or fitness level or if her skin has age spots or wrinkles, or who she is romantically attached to.

      To believe otherwise is to reduce yourself to a level no woman should ever desire, even if other people would rather you look at yourself so reductively, if only because they feel so much more comfortable when you realize your place.

      My god, if 67 is not an age to put that nonsense down, when is it??? I’m far younger than you and I put it down years ago, it’s fantastic!!!

    4. age appropiate i am shocked that this is still so common in australia now in 2023 this age appropoate thing. It sounds like school we are young girls back at school sorry but the kind of styles here directed to women over 65 are frumpy floppy tops to elbows
      is pregnant women are now ‘permitted’ to wear tight over babe to be and larger women in their twenties and thirties do likewise it seems to me that older women should have that privilegewhat happened to simple elegance

  4. You know what’s funny? Thinking other people don’t want to see our crinkly upper arms! I never minded seeing them on other people, did you? Ever, in your whole life? I still don’t. I have always NOTICED wrinkles and sags etc. on people but I guess I just don’t mind. It is just a part of life.

    I am 73 and my age is obvious even if I have long sleeves on. When hot weather comes, I go sleeveless and I go swimming. Thank God I still can. I can’t cover up ALL the signs of old age….why make jiggly upper arms such a big deal?

    I bet not one single woman on her deathbed ever said “Well at least I never exposed my crinkly upper arms to anyone.”

    1. My question is, “Why don’t men wear sleeveless?” Answer: Same reason they don’t wear Speedos. Society does not equate a man’s worth with his waist size or the firmness of his arms, unlike women. Unfortunately we live in a double standard. So until we start appreciating women for the content of their character, we will continue judging them by the firmness of their arms and the ratio of their waist size in relation to their hips.

  5. I’ve always had a poor body image and this discussion makes me sad even though so many of you have expressed wonderfully the idea of freedom to wear what one wants and encouraged bravery in others. I’m 64 and just lost 15 pounds so have my slim waist back (sort of.) But my arms have wings, crepe and assorted other non-toned issues. Nonetheless, I just bought a mess-o- sleeveless dresses and have been wearing them confidently until reading some of the comments here. It’s o easy to revert to old patterns of thought. Another part of me – the evolved, wise part – says as others here have. I don’t wear a bag over my head to hide my grays or wrinkles, so why should I hide my arms in summer? I’m not an air-brushed beauty but I have a lot to offer. Why not go out with a bang instead of a whimper?

  6. Dear Erica, as to:

    “Like gray hair, flabby or wrinkled upper arms are one of the signs of age that women think they have to cover up — but plenty of women who’ve chosen to reveal the gray still hide those arms. The question is, should we? By covering up, aren’t we buying into someone else’s definition of what’s unattractive — or trying to “pass”?”

    I’d say, we don’t have to show it ALL and be against ALL age old conventions of modesty! lol! There are probably many of us who don’t mind certain things but just cannot live with certain others. And, if there’s something we can do to fix or improve, why not? Many of us (and yours truly) may feel extremely self conscience by making ourselves live with an “attitude” which we don’t entirely feel…

    I admire both kinds of women – those who have the courage of showing it ALL and those who have the courage of covering it ALL. Is it a matter for us old women to live comfortable and happy? Or to FORCE ourselves to “show”? Just wondering…. :o)

  7. AND…worse than just the hanging underarm which I also suffer from… is the abundant superfluous skin blurting out from the bathing suit on the upper back just below the shoulders!!! I take water aerobics 3 and 4 times a week and only noticed it a year ago (I’m 80s!). I tried a larger size bathing suit but didn’t help, it was worse as the garment hanged at the bottom!!! lol!

    At first I thought “OMG I’m fat!” but no, no such excuse, I’m not fat, I’m filled with superfluous skin coming out of the bathing suit as a sausage! Now, THIS, is more aesthetically serious than just a hanging arm….no? I read about surgery to remove such skin from both my “sausage” AND the hanging arm all at one slice! (sorry for graphic description…)

    1. I’m pushing 80 and first of all, major “kudos” to you for doing water aerobics. I haven’t appeared in a bathing suit for at least 10 years and won’t be doing so anytime soon (read: ever again). At about 95 lbs. I’m not fat, but everything on my body has “gone south” and since I don’t find bare sags/bags particularly aesthetically pleasing myself, I’ll assume that others don’t either. I walk and use resistance bands for exercise, both of which I can do fully clothed, thank goodness.

      This is just my personal opinion about my own clothing predilections–to each her own.

  8. Would I cover my face because my skin is no longer taut? Nope. My neck? Nope.

    I work out to have the best body possible at my age (72), and as for the parts I can’t change, I try to put my worries elsewhere.

    So yes, I do bare my arms. Some people comment that I have nice biceps (thanks, I worked at that), and if other people think, “Yeuww, extra skin with wrinkles,” they don’t say it out loud. Let’s concentrate on lifestyle habits that give us our best bodies possible — healthiest, not just visually appealing. As for what we can’t change, let’s shout a big “So what?”

  9. I am not ashamed to say I cover my arms because I am vain. I do not want to see my arms begin to flap around as I get older. I color my hair, use lotions and potions in order to be satispied with the me in the mirror, who sure as heck does not look like the me I still see in my mind’s eye.

    Shopping frustrates me because fashion is sleeveless. Yes, l live in Florida but I don’t want sleeveless. Can’t the designers not think of us? Baby boomers have disposable income and we want to look nice.common, add a sleeve to those sheath dresses. How about a stylish, short sleeve shell, or bottom down shirt I am tired of covering up with those lose fitting sweater tops.

    1. Has anyone noticed? Most female news anchors belong to “Club Sleeveless”. There they are, dressed in lightweight sleeveless tops while at work in (likely) chilly newsrooms during the middle of winter. I wonder if it’s their choice. If it is, no problem, although I still shiver for them. The male anchors are usually wearing long sleeved shirts and jackets which would seem to make much more sense when they’re reporting a blizzard and below-freezing temperatures in their area. If media execs (often still male) are decreeing what female on-air staff must wear, how “1950s” is that!

      The current round of sleevelessness–a style that I’ve seen come and go–may have started with Michelle Obama, an attractive and exceptionally fit middle-aged woman who looks terrific in sleeveless garments. I don’t! I’d rather be warm in winter and my own semi-sleeved self in summer.

  10. I’m about to turn 60, and I do what pleases me. If it pleases me to cover something, or reveal it, I do it. Enough worry over the opinions of anyone else. I wasted enough of my one wild and precious life on that mindset. My life is my own, my body is my own. There are no rules.

    1. Excellently said Carla! Sensible attitude! As young we are pressured to follow the latest fashion mishigazes to enhance our youth, then as old we are suggested to uncover what once we enhanced…Why not continue to enhance whatever we CAN enhance…IF we feel like it… :o)

    2. I like your attitude. I am 62 and due to my mindset wanted to wear a sleeveless dress to an afternoon outdoor reception in which it will be near 100 degrees today, but was quickly nixing the idea due to my usual mindset of being too old to wear it. I have worn the dress in Costa Rica only once because I didn’t know anyone. I thought it would rot in my closet before letting anyone see me in it again. I love the dress, which is my coolest comfortable option for this day, and after reading your comment, have decided to wear it! I am tired of suffering when I have the option to be cool and comfortable, and I am sure others have more to gossip about than my flabby arms.

  11. Absolutely. I wear sleeveless all the time :) My arms are slim and toned but i have loose skin like all women my age (69) My Grandmother always elegant bared her arms she said ” If folk are offended by my ageing flesh that is their problem” she was way before her time. I have also let my hair silver and have it long and wear it up. I wear bright Colours and do not care a jot for others opinion. I also wear shorts Not short short but above the knee. Go Girls defy the critics

    1. Nope … not me … no scale either! I am comfortable with my average two children body. I have some good parts and some ‘used’ parts. Please, let’s not be the kind of woman who tell other women what to do … we should celebrate our uniqueness … as I do yours … I always give second chances.

      1. I’m with you Carole, we should celebrate our uniqueness. I am in my 70’s, I know what looks good
        on me and what doesn’t. However, if I want to wear sleeveless I will wear sleeveless. Others opinion
        means nothing to me! I am 5’2″ & 113 lbs the same size as middle school. Why should I or anyone care
        what one thinks of your arms, or wrinkle neck or??? Being happy goes beyond wrinkles & saggy skin!!!
        One of my favorite things to say to ladies complaining about their arms. “There are MANY ladies with NO
        arms that would gladly trade with you!” Be thankful !!!!!

  12. I attended the plus sized fashion shows at Lord and Taylor, and Macy’s several years ago. The complaint form women at both shows was that none of the outfits had sleeves! When we asked the designers why they did this they said, “all you have to do is wear the dresses with a jacket or a shawl”. We replied there was no sense in spending our money on a beautiful outfit and putting on “something” on it to cover our arms–destroying the look of the garment. They could not understand our complaints, and the group became very frustrated and angry.

  13. Does my husband worry about such things? Are you kidding? He goes to his closet and wears the same damn thing he wore when he was 20 — including shorts and sandals — with socks! Underlying the notion that this doesn’t look good on a woman of a certain age or that doesn’t look good is the “what will HE think looks good” paradigm. And of course, men like “young women?” But why? Well, because it’s in their DNA, that’s why. They can’t help it. Let’s just call it Darwinism and leave it at that. It has absolutely nothing to do with what really actually looks good. Because you know why? Anything can look good. Just go to an art museum. Anything can be art, including pieces of poop, Including my flabby upper arms and my flabby hangy down ass and even my flabby boobs. I absolutely do not like the cover it all up with a $15,000.00 dress (is she kidding?) concept. I say take the canvas and decorate it. However you want! I am a work of art. I am not a product, nor even that egg producer that the male of the species once saw me as and that I pandered to in a mutual attempt to keep the species going. In fact, I enjoy my beauty more now. Why? Because it’s a reflection of years of practice, of years of working with the medium that is just the right one for me, of years of becoming comfortable in my own skin and of years of finally having grown out of the “what will He think” paradigm. When I look in the mirror I don’t compare myself to anyone or anything, including my former self. I look at who I am now and what I have to work with now. It is the ultimate liberation and it all started inside my own head. There’s lots to this article to disagree with — the first thing being the premise on which it is based.

    1. You go, girl! Seriously, I wish I had your—or Aretha’s—courage because sometimes it’s just too hot to cover up my huge, flabby underarms. All my life, and it has been a long one, I have been amazed at the arrogant ability of men to be completely blind to how they look with their flabby arms and knobby knees and man tits and stomachs hanging over their belts. But, gentlemen, I am not blind and you are not getting away with it.

  14. Covering up or enhancing any feature you don’t personally find pleasing about yourself — whether it’s gray hair, wispy eyelashes, or underarm flesh — is a personal grooming choice, not a denial of your age. Feeling well-groomed is an essential element of well-being and confidence.

    1. I am 78 and slim but self conscious about crepy arms. I notice that the worst crinkling is on the inside of forearms. But I’ve also noticed that that problem is accentuated by wearing elbow length sleeves. Sleeveless actually draws the eye away from the problem. My upper arms are crepy two but look better with sleeveless.

  15. i really hate your trick questions you posted.
    How about one saying:

    Yes, I’m older, and yes I have underarm flab … but, I have always liked sleeves as
    my fashion statement and I really don’t care what anyone thinks.
    Of course, all of these stars have their gowns made for them and them can do what ever the hell they want … You just try being a 73 year old woman who wants to buy exciting clothing but because the powers that be decided we should all wear open necked shirts/dresses because it’s ‘CHEAPER’ to make and sell at a low price point … rather than anything with a collar … costs way too much to produce …
    I wish I could afford my own dressmaker.

  16. Go bare armed, bare assed, bare what ever!!! I’m 65 and tired of being told what is appropriate and what is not!!!! Everyone at any age should not be judge by their body image. We are much more than our bodies.

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