From fashion to feminism, inspirational women share their life advice.
We’re living longer, getting louder and indulging our passions like never before. Women are a force to be reckoned with, and those with decades of experience under their belts and a seasoned self-awareness are simply formidable. Forget everything you know about ageing. Your best years lie ahead
So said New York fashion icon Barbara Flood. As a search term, her date of birth must be one of few that stump Google, but counting on from her days modelling for Oscar De La Renta, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, let’s say she’s somewhere in her seventies – flame-haired, silk- and featherwearing, glitter-shod. “If you say, ‘I’m 65’ or ‘94’, people calculate the time,” she added. “They immediately think, ‘Oh, senior citizen.’”
Or they did. The popular perception of older people, women especially, is changing and catching up with the fact that a grey perm, elasticated waist, cats and gin are no longer the universal hallmarks of age. “The broad stereotype used to fit the majority,” says Hal Kendig, emeritus professor in demography at the Australian National University. “There was a sense that, this is what grandmas are like.” And although, he says, the stereotypes are “overwhelmingly positive, that kind of expectation becomes very limiting for people who fall outside of it. Now, there’s more variability around age.”
That is to say, age doesn’t look like it used to, and pulling examples from the public sphere is easy work. Models like Carmen Dell’orefice, 86, Daphne Selfe, 89, Gitte Lee, 83. Miuccia Prada and Vivienne Westwood still dominating fashion, at 68 and 77 respectively. Margaret Atwood, the 78-year-old author of The Handmaid’s Tale, which broke television last year. Helen Mirren, 72, downing tequila shots on the Oscars red carpet in $4 million worth of diamonds. And, the most high-profile woman in the world last year? Hillary Clinton, 70. These are the women we’re watching – or should be if we’re not – yet we’re prone to saying we “don’t know what we’re doing”, how to succeed, juggle, use our influence, realise ambition. But learning how to live takes a lifetime. And these women are ahead.
While Mirren, Prada et al are exceptional, they’re not exceptions. Our mothers, grandmothers and older female friends are doing just as much to overhaul ageing on the ground, and modelling new ways to be. Whatever our subconscious idea of 70 is, our own private baby boomers, the ones borrowing our clothes, taking our magazines and tagging us on social media, are not it.
Still, the idea that to turn 50 is to become invisible is one that women have had to contend with for what feels like all of human history, and even as perception evolves, a majority would say they still do. But more and more they’re challenging that social construct, in word and action. “Society has little to do with it,” wrote Abigail Thomas, an American memoirist loved by Oprah. “You throw your own self away. You decide that you’re irrelevant.”
For the one older woman who wants to disappear into her largeprint romance, there are 10 more who’d rather climb a mountain, produce a film, write a novel, eat a hot dog in split-up-to-here Versace (hail, 50-year-old Céline Dion) or acquire 500,000 Instagram followers on the back of a fashion blog, as is the case of Dr Lyn Slater, a New York-based social work professor who, at 64, has suddenly become a fashion icon. “For me, age is not an important category when I’m asked to define myself,” Slater says. “It’s more important what I’m doing. My internal sense of self is very fluid – I see myself as a woman. Categories like ‘older’ and ‘younger’ reinforce stereotypes, so I don’t find them useful.”
The concept of being age-fluid puts Slater and women like her squarely in the centre of the zeitgeist. In 2018, no aspect of identity is fixed. Like gender and sexuality, age is a self-defined thing. “I do not see what is happening in society right now to be about age but rather identity generally,” agrees Slater. “All identity positions and constructions are being resisted and redefined by the younger generation, who are demanding choice over how they define themselves. [That] is the work I see myself situated in.”
Ours has also been described as the “Age of offence and offendedness”, and since stereotypes live in language – the way we talk about groups we don’t belong to – older people rejecting negative tags like “elderly” and “senior” and “aged’ is less about managing personal irritation than demolishing the status quo. (Check the privilege of youth before describing an older woman as still working, still driving, still active.) “Language matters...” wrote UK columnist Alyson Walsh. “With older models trending and ageshaming terminology being questioned, it feels like things are improving for women over 50, if only a little.”
They’re also having sex, more and better, according to marriage and sex therapist Gerlinde Spencer, who herself is 82 and only gave up private practice (and skiing) at 75. She says our understanding of female sexuality, “is changing for the better”. Unlike in previous generations, older women aren’t giving it up (but millennials are, according to a 2016 piece from The Washington Post, which found that those born after 1990 are twice as likely to be accidentally abstinent in their twenties than generations before them).
“I used to be shocked by the fact that clients who were not even 50 would say, ‘I’ve been there, done that, sex is too much like hard work,’” Spencer says. “But they were women who never really had a chance to develop their sexuality properly – whether that was due to family attitudes, the fact it wasn’t spoken about, that they couldn’t read anything. Now, women are better informed. And there’s research around the idea that sex makes a difference to body chemistry.” If sex prevents premature ageing and loss of self-esteem, older women are deploying it to maximum effect.
But this embrace of sex, fashion, culture, self and politics isn’t “cute”. Women of age don’t need our smiling approval, a pat on the head because they do yoga and know how to work Netflix and Net-a-porter. They’re not sweet and full of wonderful stories, and don’t need to be “celebrated” for being 80, if we don’t also celebrate being 27. They are us, born earlier.
Writing about age and the benign stereotypes we’re being called out on, author Ceridwen Dovey concluded that old people are just regular people who happen to be old. “An old person can be just as trying as any other person, just as messy, just as unthankful.” Except they have an advantage, insofar as age means getting over guilt, accepting the body, ordering priorities, forgiving yourself, stepping into your power and embracing ambition. The revolution in age happening now won’t make 90 the new 19. It’s not trying to. Only to make age better, different, something entirely new. And it is.
“I REALLY DON’T DOAGE ”
WORDS BY MEG MASON In Australia, a lady boomer will live an average of 84 years, 30 years longer than her grandmother, and life expectancy is still increasing at such a clip that every day adds another three hours on that average. How those hours, days, years will look depends so much on relative commitment to diet, exercise, fish oil tablets and brain fitness. One person’s 90 can easily look like another person’s 60.