The last taboo

Suzanne Mcfad­den talks to women about the highs and lows of age­ing.

Waikato Times - Your Weekend (Waikato Times) - - Cover Story -

Mi­randa Har­court has never acted her age. For the first half of her ca­reer, the es­teemed New Zealand ac­tor was al­ways cast in the part of an older woman. In her first role out of drama school, a play at The For­tune Theatre in Dunedin, she por­trayed a ma­ture mother of two: “Both of my ‘chil­dren’ were ac­tors who were older than me.

“I just looked older than I was. Then sud­denly I turned 38, and started play­ing people younger than me,” Har­court says. “I’ve got great skin; just a lucky quirk of fate. So now that I’m 54, I don’t look 54.

“I’ve al­ways slid around inside the age thing. I guess it’s a mat­ter of your age on the inside.”

In an in­dus­try where age and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion is rife, and the bat­tle to re­main age­less is mer­ci­less, Har­court is not too proud to dis­close her ma­tu­rity. But at the same time, she chooses not to broad­cast her birthdays.

“I just say how old I am be­cause, firstly, I don’t care. There are age mark­ers in my life: When I say I have a 10-year-old child, people re­act with, ‘Oh gosh, that must have been a late baby.’ So why not be up­front about it?” says Har­court, an act­ing coach whose ex­pe­ri­ence has most re­cently been sought by Ni­cole Kid­man and Steven Spiel­berg.

“I also have no prob­lem with age­ing, but I’m un­usual in that. I know ac­tresses who are fear­ful of re­veal­ing their age in case they’re cut out of po­ten­tial cast­ing decisions.”

Age sup­pres­sion is a se­ri­ous busi­ness. Last year, a bill was passed in Cal­i­for­nia re­quir­ing en­ter­tain­ment web­sites such as IMDB to re­move an ac­tor’s age from the site if they re­quested.

Last month, a fed­eral judge blocked the law, say­ing it al­most cer­tainly vi­o­lated the First Amend­ment, by pre­vent­ing the publication of fac­tual in­for­ma­tion.

“But I think more than that,” Har­court says, “women – and some men too – are ashamed of their age. That sense of shame en­ables them to shave a cou­ple of years off, be a bit mysterious or de­cide not to have a 50th birth­day party. I did that my­self, be­cause I didn’t want people to know I was 50;

I didn’t want to mark it with a mas­sive pub­lic event. ‘Ding dong, now I’m a 50-year-old!’”

With my own half-cen­tury mile­stone rolling to­wards me like a large, grey boul­der this year, I share her re­luc­tance. My 40s have been fab­u­lous. But 50s? Fright­en­ing.

When women have pushed aside so many bar­ri­ers, why is the spec­tre of age­ing still so uni­ver­sally ter­ri­fy­ing? Why are we a so­ci­ety still so ob­sessed by youth, when the num­ber of people older than 60 in the world is ex­pected to dou­ble by 2050? And the ma­jor­ity of them will be women.

Maybe it’s to do with women, par­tic­u­larly those in the pub­lic spot­light, feel­ing con­stantly judged on their ap­pear­ance and their ac­com­plish­ments. Add their age, and the mag­ni­fy­ing in­ten­si­fies.

Or per­haps it’s about women ex­pe­ri­enc­ing job dis­crim­i­na­tion be­cause of gen­der and birth­date. Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­ni­ties Com­mis­sioner Dr Jackie Blue, talks of a woman who was told she wasn’t suit­able for a job be­cause “they were look­ing for young, fresh-out-of-uni types”; and an­other who hon­estly in­di­cated on an ap­pli­ca­tion form that she was over 50 – and missed out on two jobs.

Or it could be sim­ply that the Invisible Older Woman is as real as ever. You won’t see her in magazine ads, un­less she’s pro­mot­ing a re­tire­ment vil­lage or in­con­ti­nence pants. She rarely ap­pears in Amer­i­can sit­coms, un­less she’s Betty White.

Most of the women ques­tioned in a British life­style sur­vey in 2014 said they felt invisible to the op­po­site sex from the age of 51; their hair grey­ing, their con­fi­dence erod­ing.

A friend told me she re­cently sat in an Auck­land bar with two girl­friends, only to be ignored by the bar­tender for 15 min­utes. “I reckon it’s why Amer­i­can women tip – it’s the only way to get good ser­vice af­ter 40,” she says. Best­selling

au­thor Wendy Leigh wrote in the Daily Mail that she hadn’t been truth­ful about her age since she was 30.

“Ly­ing about it is a lib­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially ro­man­ti­cally. As a writer with 16 books to my name, my age doesn’t af­fect my pro­fes­sional am­bi­tions – but, if it were made pub­lic, it would cer­tainly play havoc with my per­sonal ones,” wrote Leigh, who once had a fa­mous af­fair with me­dia mogul Robert Maxwell. “My un­will­ing­ness to come clean isn’t just be­cause I don’t want to be pi­geon-holed or limited ro­man­ti­cally, but be­cause I’d rather not ad­mit my age to my­self.”

When Leigh died last year, af­ter fall­ing from the bal­cony of her Lon­don flat, obit­u­ar­ies re­vealed what she had suc­cess­fully veiled for over three decades – she was 65.

Dr Vivi­enne El­iz­a­beth, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Auck­land who teaches the so­ci­ol­ogy of gen­der, says keep­ing her age to her­self has be­come “a long­stand­ing habit”.

“I’ve joked about my age with people for so long, it’s deeply em­bed­ded in me. For a long time, I looked younger than I was, and it was a com­pli­ment when people would guess my age at quite a lot younger,” she says.

But it’s also about ca­reer. “Even in academia, people are look­ing out for bright young things,” she says.

The trou­ble is, El­iz­a­beth adds, our youth-ori­ented so­ci­ety as­sesses the worth of a woman on her ap­pear­ance and sex­ual at­trac­tive­ness, much more than it does a man.

“The pri­mary en­cour­age­ment for women is to look good. And who do we try to look good for? It’s still for an ap­pre­cia­tive male gaze. That’s cul­ti­vated by so­ci­ety to look to­wards younger women,” she says.

There’s a sense that women can have a use-by date, says El­iz­a­beth, as women in their 50s of­ten find age a bar­rier to re-em­ploy­ment.

“Suc­cess­ful women such as Helen Clark man­age it, but it’s more dif­fi­cult for less high-achiev­ing women. There’s a sense they may be washed up af­ter a cer­tain age,” she says.

“Thank good­ness, most air­lines don’t limit the em­ploy­ment of fe­male stew­ardesses by age any more.” Un­til the late 1960s, Amer­i­can Air­lines set a manda­tory re­tire­ment age for its hostesses at 32; two years ago, English grand­mother Ka­trine Haynes re­alised her dream of be­com­ing a Vir­gin Air­lines flight at­ten­dant at the age of 59.

We all know women who, af­ter hav­ing chil­dren, have found it dif­fi­cult to re­turn to full-time paid em­ploy­ment. In the late 2000s, Auck­land busi­ness­women Sarah Paykel and Kate Ross cre­ated their re­turn2­work cour­ses for “the lost work­force” – mums who leave jobs and don’t re­turn be­cause of what they per­ceive as a lack of op­tions, or a loss of con­fi­dence and skills.

As Paykel closes in on her 50th birth­day, she’s had to make her own work changes and em­brace age­ing. But she ad­mits it’s eas­ier said than done.

“As I’ve got closer to that big num­ber, I’ve been in de­nial. There’s a lot of judg­ment out there. There’s never been a time of so much pres­sure to look good, and per­form bril­liantly; you have to tick so many boxes as a woman now,” she says.

“Ageism is real and it brings per­sonal and pro­fes­sional changes with it. So I’ve made a con­scious ef­fort to do things dif­fer­ently.”

Paykel, 48 next month, has re­duced her pub­lic re­la­tions com­pany to fo­cus on board roles and di­rec­tor­ships, while “manag­ing three very busy

daugh­ters [aged be­tween 12 and 14], a hus­band and the oblig­a­tory dog”.

Re­al­is­ing her body is chang­ing, she’s switched high-im­pact car­dio and boot camps for gen­tler daily ex­er­cise in­clud­ing yoga and walk­ing the dog.

She eats bet­ter, and takes more re­spon­si­bil­ity for her own health, af­ter los­ing four women she was close to, to breast cancer.

“As we age, some women get iso­lated and de­pressed, but you should try to stay con­nected with community. Don’t give up your sense of self.

“One of the great things about age­ing is that it brings ma­tu­rity and wis­dom; I re­ally want to in­flu­ence young women, like my daugh­ters.” “How

to Dress Your Age”; “Ten Items You’re Too Old to Wear” – mag­a­zines and blogs fire haughty fash­ion di­rec­tives at women as soon as they’ve left their teens.

Re­spected New Zealand fash­ion de­signer Liz Mitchell – who, as “a young 61”, still lis­tens to punk and Patti Smith – says there are few rules on age- ap­pro­pri­ate dress­ing. That so-called ex­pert ad­vice is sim­ply to sell prod­ucts.

“The beauty in­dus­try is all about mak­ing people feel un­happy in their skin. Bil­lions of dol­lars go into their ad cam­paigns. But age­ing isn’t ter­ri­ble – our lines are about laugh­ter and per­son­al­ity. We need to cel­e­brate re­al­ness, to be more ac­cept­ing of our chang­ing bod­ies.”

For those of us who still strug­gle to ac­cept our hair fad­ing to grey and our mid­dles thick­en­ing, while we doggedly cling to our old dress sizes, Mitchell’s ad­vice is, “Don’t give up.”

“Un­der­neath it all, we want to feel sexy and beau­ti­ful; we want to be loved. But plas­tic surgery won’t fix any­thing,” she says.

“Clothes that are made well and fit well will make you feel so much bet­ter about your­self. As you get older, you can still do edgy or funky if that’s what suits your per­son­al­ity. No one wants to be bor­ing or dull.”

While young de­sign­ers bring a fresh eye to fash­ion, Mitchell says the se­nior fash­ion­istas – from Vogue vet­er­ans Grace Cod­ding­ton (75) and Anna Win­tour (67), to de­sign­ers Donna Karan, Mi­uc­cia Prada and Vera Wang, now all over 60 – com­mand re­spect for their un­ri­valled knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Last month, at a Con­tem­po­rary Feminism panel dis­cus­sion called Age­ing and Agency, be­fore a full house in Welling­ton’s City Gallery, the sub­ject of Dame Helen Mir­ren (71) be­ing the face of beauty la­bel L’oreal Paris was a hot topic.

Mi­randa Har­court was one of the pan­el­lists, and de­fended Mir­ren, along with oth­ers in her busi­ness of “trans­for­ma­tion”.

“If, within your job, you’re able to move around inside the age bracket you’ve been cast in, then why not cel­e­brate that? I be­lieve we should cre­ate a world where people can rest easy in the way they look, the age they are, the body they have. But at the same time, there are el­e­ments about trans­for­ma­tion we find fas­ci­nat­ing, and we can’t tar them with the same brush,” she says.

Writer and fem­i­nist so­cial com­men­ta­tor Anne Else was among the Age­ing and Agency au­di­ence, and she ap­pre­ci­ates the need to look and feel good in her later years. When she wrote her mem­oir, The Colour of Food, she in­vested in a de­cent stu­dio pho­to­graph: “Most women mak­ing writ­ing head­lines were a lot younger than me,” the 71-year-old says.

“If you’re do­ing any­thing that re­quires a pub­lic per­sona, you’re con­scious of try­ing to look rea­son­able, and no older than you have to.

“But I draw the line at plas­tic surgery or Bo­tox. I’ve been re­ally shocked at what ap­pears to be a con­certed cam­paign to nor­malise what was once seen as ex­treme cos­metic surgery.”

Else doesn’t be­lieve older women are ac­cu­rately por­trayed in the me­dia.

“We see a lot of grey-haired men in the paper – heads of com­pa­nies or politi­cians – car­ry­ing on as nor­mal in work re­garded as valu­able. But there aren’t as many grey-haired women – and that’s not be­cause we’re dye­ing our hair,” she says.

Older women are seen as frail and in­ca­pable, she says, and yet many make valu­able con­tri­bu­tions to so­ci­ety in their re­tire­ment, car­ing for grand­chil­dren and age­ing hus­bands, or do­ing vol­un­teer work.

“It’s an­noy­ing to see the ads aimed at older people al­ways fea­tur­ing the same in­cred­i­bly well­groomed, pretty, Pakeha men and women with no vis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ties, all gadding about in their rest homes,” she says.

“This fear of the el­derly of­ten ex­tends to not show­ing them in their full glo­ri­ous di­ver­sity. Women de­serve to be cel­e­brated for their di­ver­sity.”

It is be­gin­ning to hap­pen, Har­court be­lieves, and women are their own agents of change.

“Older women are be­com­ing more vis­ual and more cel­e­brated. They have more of a choice about how they want to present them­selves – choos­ing to dye their hair or not. They are be­ing asked to stand up and speak – on re­claim­ing our bod­ies, the politi­ci­sa­tion of re­pro­duc­tion or protest­ing against Trump,” she says.

“Maybe I’m an op­ti­mist, but in a very short space of time, I be­lieve things are re­ally chang­ing for women for the bet­ter.”

Ac­tor, act­ing coach and direc­tor, Mi­randa Har­court.

Busi­ness­woman Sarah Paykel. Liz Mitchell says age­ing isn’t ter­ri­ble, but don’t give up car­ing about how you look.

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