I feel I should preface this post by saying there is a lot of rage driving this. It is fair to say I am feeling a little bit prickly, having turned (gasp, arggh, !?!?!) FIFTY two weeks ago and I cannot avoid the fact that I am now, officially, an ‘Older Woman.’
So I’ve had to think carefully about why I am writing this. Is it from a belligerent defensiveness? There’s still life in the old dog! I want to protest. Am I approaching this out of self-interest? Did I just blithely buy into this dismissive attitude towards older woman until I became one myself? Only then thinking, ‘hang on a minute…’
No. To be honest, I think there’s a bit of that here, but it’s not the whole truth. Since my twenties I have been conscious that women seem to become invisible at 50. I have lost count of the number of films I have watched where the hero is well into his fifties but the woman in his life is played by an actress half his age. This article, from the Guardian, discusses Maggie Gyllenhaal’s news that she was ‘passed over for a role opposite a 55-year-old actor because she was too old – at 37. ‘ I mean… what? Another article shows how female actor’s role start drying up when they hit 30, whereas their male counterparts continue to get strong offers well into their late 40’s.
I’ve always hated stylists dictating what you should or shouldn’t wear depending on your age. I would endlessly discuss, when younger, why there were few roles for older women in the cinema or on TV – though that has changed somewhat. I have always been conscious that if you view our world through the lens of our culture, women are only feted and celebrated as long as they are young.
On the other hand, grizzled older men are venerated. Grey hair = silver fox. Wrinkles = character.
So as a feminist this awareness isn’t new, but I suppose it’s a hell of a lot more painful when that ‘Older Woman’ is you.
I was determined not to celebrate turning 50. I wanted the day just to pass without comment – nothing to see here – nobody needed to know how old I was.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at work a dear friend had blown up hundreds of balloons with ’50’ scrawled all over them with an indelible sharpie (it was definitely permanent, I couldn’t wipe any of those damn numbers off). I felt my brain literally boggle whenever I saw the number. My lovely brother face timed me to say Happy Birthday and when he saw all the cards with ’50’ on them I heard him say, ‘I can’t believe you’re 50!’
How on EARTH can I be 50? And, more importantly, why is my overriding feeling SHAME for God’s sake?
As if being this old is a bad thing, not something to consider a joy because I have survived this far and lived a good life. There are certainly many who haven’t been lucky enough to live this long. All my cards and presents show I have made friends along the way – something which should inspire gratitude, not a desire to hide away in a cupboard with my old face and a large bag of snacks.
These last two weeks haven’t been great as since turning the big 5 0 I managed to contract conjunctivitis, a UTI (which was the worst I ever had in my life), and as I sit here I am coughing my way through a nasty bout of bronchitis. So physically things are not going well. Looking down, I can see my stomach swelling gently over the table – a plump roundness as friendly as a cat but not as attractive; it serves as a reminder I I haven’t been able to go to the gym since contracting three or four different leurgys.
Bloody hell! This is all I need. I hate being sick, I don’t usually get sick. Is this the beginning of my old body falling apart?
I have been beset by dreams in which I tell random people over and over again I’ve just turned fifty and not one, NOT ONE, says ‘ooh you don’t look it.’ Why is it so important to me that it’s OK to be 50 as long as I don’t look it? Why am I ashamed of being 50?
Of course the reason I feel shame is because I have assimilated into myself the lessons presented by the world around me. After a certain age, women – unless you look as good as Jennifer Aniston does at 50 – are useless. Oh, you can be bigger and less ‘beautiful’ if you are funny (Jo Brand, Mirian Margolyes) but hit 50 and it’s all over as far as society is concerned.
Recently, the wonderful author Harriet Evans wrote this tweet…
This makes my blood boil. WHY are the women’s ages given and not the men’s? What possibly reason is there for this except sexism? Is it not necessary to know the men’s ages? If so – why do we need to know how old the women are?
Women’s relationship with age is made a complex and difficult thing. Of course, I know there are jokes about men who have mid-life crises, and of course men worry about getting older, but I don’t think there’s quite the same sense of shame about it.
Why do we despise older women?
I am so sick and tired of the casual, dismissive, and contemptuous way older women are treated in the media and so much popular literature. I have heard countless stories from friends of every day sexism and ageism.
A friend told me of a talented Jazz singer mate – who just happens to be 60 – who applied to do a bit of pub singing. The manager wouldn’t even let her audition as she was ‘too old’. I’ve just discovered a wonderful podcast ‘Older and Wider‘ featuring Jenny Eclair and Judith Holder. It’s very funny, and I would highly recommend it. In one episode Jenny Eclair comments on how few TV offers she gets now she is older. Has she got less funny? Less caustic and clever than she was? Judging by her hilarious podcast, no. So why is she less in demand? I see plenty of male comics in their 50’s and 60’s appearing regularly on TV. Not so many female ones. You can find a full rant on that topic here.
I have read three or four novels recently (written by women!) who write such cruel and judgmental words about older women it makes me fume. One describes sunshine sitting ‘squarely on the shoulders of young men and mercilessly on the bat wings of middle aged women wearing ill-advised straps tops’.
Ill-Advised?? Ill-advised!!?? Why ill-advised? Oh My God is it because they’ve got a bit of fat on their upper arms? That they haven’t spent time pumping iron to build the muscle? Screech! Hide those foul things! Avert your eyes, everybody, from the horror of an older woman’s body.
The same author also mentioned a character – a woman in her 60’s – wearing a lipstick ‘far too red for a woman of her age’.
Arrggh. Now you know me, I love a red lippy, and I’m going to wear it whenever I can be bothered and got up early enough to put it on. I won’t let anyone tell me different. NOBODY should be able to tell me I can’t, and we should all try being a bit less judgmental. Does it really matter if you can see a flabby arm? Or notice that a 70 old has smeared on a bit of Chanel Rouge?
The book I’m reading at the moment features a rather unpleasant (male) literary agent. He is supposed to be a slimy character, but I found this line to be troubling as I have found this sentiment echoed many times; this particular sentence haunted me for days afterwards. The character is searching for the ‘next best thing in publishing’ and the line that follows is now seared into my brain…
‘He had plenty of crap from middle-aged women with empty nest syndrome who thought they could write a best seller’
Oh look at the contempt in that line. The stereotype of the ’empty nester’ who thinks (poor deluded cow!) that she has a best selling novel in her. Of course, as an older woman who is working very hard on trying to get her book published, this has struck a chord with me quite powerfully. It seems so awful and condemning to dismiss an entire group of women in this way.
If these women have empty nests it means they have brought up a family. They’ve lived a life, much of which would have involved making huge sacrifices for others. They may have looked after elderly parents, coped with illness, death, difficult pregnancies, stroppy teenagers, recalcitrant doge. The list is endless. Many of them would have brought up families single-handed AND held down full time jobs. I don’t know about you, but I’d quite like to hear the stories of how those women got out alive.
So why are they so often seen in the media as something to be laughed at? Looked down upon? It takes a hell of a lot of work to write a book and I bloody take my hat off to anyone who manages to complete a novel and find the courage to send it in to an agent. Bravo! You are my warriors. Not sad, lonely, pitied, old women who embarrass us because they have no role in our society any more. Their child rearing is done so back in your box, lady.
I really, really hope that when my daughter is old, men and women will be able to wear their years, their scars, and their experience with pride. That won’t happen until we move beyond the idea that women only have value based on their fuckability. Men can be old, fat, hairy and yet still respected. What is wrong with us that we can’t afford the same tolerance and generosity to our woman?
The thing I really hate is I know I’ve bought into that judgmental expectation of what women should look like. ‘Ooh she hasn’t got the legs for those jeans,’ I’ll snigger to Rob. Or ‘God did you see her going braless today? At 45 What’s the matter with her? She looked ridiculous!’
What the hell am I doing? Who am I to pass that kind of judgement? Who is anyone? If she wants to swing her knockers around like a juggler of lively puppies, who am I to stop her? Let your arse hang out of your jeans. Show off your best, brightest lipstick – or don’t wear any make-up – dye your hair blue – or let it go grey – but don’t bow down to the tyranny of other’s judgement.
When going through family photos, not just mine but those of friends, I notice the mother, the older woman, is usually absent. Because she’s the one taking the picture. Well no more! From now on I’m standing front and centre and smiling my head off. I want my children to see and know who I was when I’m gone.
I hope I have many more happy years left in me, but I’m going to try very hard not to feel ashamed for being 50 but chuffed I’ve survived this far. And I’m going to tell everyone how old I am and won’t get upset when they don’t say, ‘ooh you don’t look it!’