WISE WORDS

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - ILLUSTRATION BY TANYA COOPER

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.

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