Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow: it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can't stand people who say things like this.Nora Ephron, "I Feel Bad About My Neck"
When I was sixteen I used to go to a nightclub every Tuesday night. A woman called Carol went too. She was in her early thirties. She wore designer clothes (which we couldn't afford), had expensively cut and dyed blonde hair (nothing like our cheap South London bubble perms) and the latest high-top 'British Knight' trainers (versus our plonky Reebok classics). My best friend and I observed Carol with a mixture of dread and awe. Yes she looked amazing, was a great dancer and never wore a pair of shorts stitched together by her Mum but she was so OLD. How did she move like that? What was she even doing here? Most of our teachers (who were in their thirties) had traded in the trappings of youth and were sporting corduroy. They had kids, drove boring, sensible cars and watched Newsnight. They had dandruff and wore bad shoes. At thirty life was over. But here was Carol clubbing! Why wasn't she behaving like all the other old farts?
Now the discourse around ageing has shifted dramatically. Back in the late eighties it was unusual to see thirty year olds dancing and now it's pretty much the norm. It's also normal to be living in shared accommodation and eating cereal out of a mug. We all wear trainers so it's difficult to guess a person's age looking at their shoes. You can only tell if you look at someone's eyes. Eyes always tell the truth - no matter how much cream you slather on them at night.
Ageing has become like the 1969 Jane Fonda film, They Shoot Horses Don't They? where people dance for hours and hours until they eventually fall over and collapse from pure exhaustion. It's a dance marathon that offers no respite. Nobody wears corduroy anymore (unless it's navy and from J. Crew). Thirty is the new twenty, forty the new thirty, fifty the new forty etc. Isn't it great that we can dance into infinity? Isn't it ace that we can push beyond our biology and age has become irrelevant?
But when you look more closely you realise the balance has tipped too far the other way. It's not liberating to stay in the fast lane. Maybe you want to sit this dance out thank you. Maybe you want to look like a real forty year old rather than one in camouflage. Maybe the fact that you can be young forever is just a tyranny to keep you oppressed and miserable. Maybe you fantasise about sitting at home with a cat on your lap reading Good Housekeeping.
And there are signs of a counter movement, a sign that age is on the agenda and women (and men) are taking pride in looking and acting their age rather than trying to stay young forever- fashion blogs like 'That's Not My Age,' and India Knight's recent book 'In Your Prime: Older, Happier, Wiser,' are two great examples. Both give inspiration and tips to older women (with no mention of tweed and 'Yardley's Lavender Water').
There's also been the odd nod to older women in fashion advertising (Joan Didion for Céline and Joni Mitchell for YSL). By the way I think someone's making a lot of money out of silver -haired models at the moment. Their phone is literally ringing off the hook. A silver-haired model in a fashion spread shouts - 'We're not ageist! Look this woman is in her nineties and sporting a jumpsuit!' But what about the women in their forties and fifties? What about the ones who aren't quite ready to be 'dames' just yet?
On the one hand I feel good about being a woman in her forties (confident, less tolerant of nonsense, more sure of what I want) but on the other hand I don't want to look forty. I want to look thirty. Or more accurately twenty-five. Sometimes I catch myself leaning in to study the faces of older women when they're talking. If they catch me doing it I sniff the air and ask them what perfume they're wearing. I'm aware this isn't healthy. That I desperately need to re-programme my brain and expose it to real images of what a forty-year-old women looks like. But where do I find those images? Where are the images of women who haven't plumped everything up or smoothed it out or been airbrushed into oblivion?
Maybe the next generation will be more comfortable in accepting their age. I hope that when my daughter reaches forty she'll be happy. That she won't feel like she's taking part in a dance marathon. I hope she won't be rubbing ludicrously expensive potions into her skin late at night or having a beauty sales assistant make her feel bad because she has 'smile lines'. I hope she'll buy into the idea that wisdom, life experience and confidence are things to embrace (we all say this but we don't really believe it yet do we?) But something tells me it will be a while before we feel comfortable in our (albeit ageing) skin.
As older women we need to take collective responsibility, talk ourselves up and stop chasing unrealistic ideals. We need to believe it's okay to look and act our age and it's not that horrifying.
We need to get off the dance floor and sit this one out.