Madonna and the middle-aged body

Madonna released her latest album MDNA this week and, as usual, the iconic performer’s drawing controversy—not for her music however, but for her image.

The singer’s 12th studio album is an electronic-based collection of bombastic dance tracks, chill trance mixes and straight-up pop songs. But although the record, her first new collection since 2008’s Hard Candy, is being touted as a deeply personal “divorce album,” it seems as more people are interested in what Madonna’s wearing rather that what she’s singing in this aural kiss-off to ex-husband Guy Ritchie.

To be honest, MDNA is hardly Madonna’s strongest album—the songs here are largely repetitive, derivative or silly. The album’s first track, “Girl Gone Wild,” for example, is chock-full of inane, tone-deaf, revenge-oriented lyrics while, “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” even with its trendy Nicki Minaj cameo, is little more than a Gwen Stefani rip-off. (Sorry Madge, but it’s true.)

But most people aren’t paying attention to Madonna’s music because they’re too busy criticizing her clothing, or lack thereof. Apparently, at 53, the singer is too old to flaunt it—even if she’s still got it.

During Madonna’s February Super Bowl performance, for example, her choice of costume—the latest in haute couture Viking-wear—garnered plenty of derision and mockery among media critics and casual viewers alike.

“For goodness sakes, start to act your age,” griped one online commenter on the OMG! celebrity blog.

“For her age, she looks amazing, but Madonna is still old enough to be the mother of the oldest player in Super Bowl XLVI,” mused a Yahoo! Sports writer.

Funny, but I don’t remember anyone pointing out the age difference between performer and athlete when, say, the Who headlined the half-time show. Or Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Prince, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen, for that matter.

Seriously, what exactly does Madonna’s age have to do with her music or the clothing she wears—at the Super Bowl or anywhere? I thought we were long past the era when society pressured women to adjust their wardrobe choices to their age bracket.

Should Madonna cut her hair into a bob and don capri pants and Crocs? Maybe a pastel sweater set paired with a prim knee-grazing skirt? How about a long-sleeved turtleneck worn with mom jeans?

Anything to cover up that middle-aged body, right?

Sorry, but after decades of exhausting dance routines and intense yoga, the singer is more physically fit than most men and women half her age. If she wants to wear nothing more than a leotard—as she did in the video for 2005’s “Hung Up” video—then why not?

But in a world where there’s even a Facebook page—clumsily called Madonna, You’re So Far Past Your Prime So Put Some Clothes On—devoted to the subject, it really shouldn’t surprise me that some people are uncomfortable with a menopausal woman unafraid to show a little skin.

Certainly, Madonna’s not the first female performer to face such criticisms. Cher, for example, has long earned public scorn for refusing to hang up those ass-bearing chaps.

That discomfort, however, says more about the viewer’s sexist and ageist beliefs than it does the performer.

Perhaps my defense of Madonna is largely sentimental—I grew up listening to her music and watching her identity morph. And while the performer’s song catalog isn’t always defendable, I’ve long admired Madonna’s fearless attitude toward self-image and public perception.

Whereas she once caused a stir dolled up in wedding dresses and bondage accoutrements, now all it takes for Madonna to push boundaries is to refuse to be ashamed of—or bow to pressure to hide—her perfectly toned, ageless body.