women of un­cer­tain age

Over 50 and past it? Not the new breed of se­nior su­per­mod­els

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - CONTENTS - S t o ry ANNA MAXTED

Ican’t be the only woman who opened a birth­day card read­ing, “You’re 40!” and dropped it like a vam­pire re­ceiv­ing a bou­quet of gar­lic. It wasn’t a happy day. I hur­ried to my favourite sa­lon – to erad­i­cate the emerg­ing strands of grey – and the stylist ig­nored me. So it’s true, I thought mis­er­ably. I am past it. I am now un­de­tectable to the naked eye. I asked, huffily, when I might ex­pect to be seen. “You’re 20 min­utes early!” the poor man replied.

No-one en­joys age­ing. We fear its con­no­ta­tions, be they real or imag­ined: in­vis­i­bil­ity, in­fir­mity, ir­rel­e­vance in a world that wor­ships youth. And yet half of the sixty-some­things I know – en­joy­ing ca­reers, cock­tails, their kids, kun­dalini yoga and Ed Sheeran gigs – are forcibly re­defin­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of the older woman. Signs of age­ing are briskly fought and their life­style is that of “mid­dle youth”, only less stressed and with more me-time.

It feels ap­po­site that we’re fi­nally at a point where there seems to be a seis­mic shift through­out so­ci­ety, in fash­ion, mu­sic, pol­i­tics, with an in­creased visibility of older women, the re­spect they are ac­corded, the roles they se­cure. Hil­lary Clin­ton, 67, is ex­pected not only to run for US pres­i­dent but to win. Iris Apfel, 93, is hailed as a se­nior su­per­model and is the new face of Kate Spade. Writer Joan Did­ion, 80, mod­els for Cé­line; mu­si­cian/ artist Joni Mitchell, 71, who was taken ill last week, is a face of Saint Lau­rent. In 2013, ac­tor Tilda Swin­ton, now 54, was named the face of Chanel. Kate Bush, 56, sold out a 22-date con­cert res­i­dency in min­utes last year, and in Fe­bru­ary, An­nie Len­nox, 60, stormed the Gram­mys. But is this gen­uine change? Or is this progress af­fect­ing only a for­tu­nate few?

Louisa, 59, a psy­chother­a­pist, em­bod­ies th­ese hard-won ad­vances. She is “hor­ri­fied” at the thought of re­tir­ing. “I’m at the peak of my ca­reer,” she says. She ar­rived at par­ent­hood post-40, in her case hav­ing adopted just be­fore she turned 48. Jug­gling ca­reer and moth­er­hood “is so hard. But I go to the gym, I travel. At my age, my mother had a blue rinse. There’s lib­er­a­tion but also pres­sure. I’m con­scious of not want­ing to be vis­i­bly as old as I am.”

While Louisa would not con­tem­plate Botox or a facelift, the mere fact that many women do cre­ates ten­sion. Ac­cord­ing to Bri­tish char­ity Nuffield Health, the num­ber of over-65s seek­ing sur­gi­cal en­hance­ment has risen by nearly 50 per cent in the past seven years. Looks re­main an ugly is­sue. Last month, four years af­ter for­mer TV host Miriam O’Reilly, now 58, won a land­mark ageism case against the BBC, a House

of Lords com­mit­tee con­cluded the cor­po­ra­tion had an “in­for­mal pol­icy” of dis­crim­i­nat­ing against older women. But while a ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion takes fright at the menopause, Bri­tish mu­sic mag­a­zine NME – cham­pion of all that’s cool – nom­i­nates Kate Bush for its Hero of the Year 2015 along­side Tay­lor Swift.

Is any­one sur­prised? “There are more fe­male voices at the BBC than there were,” says Josie Edel­man, 49, a for­mer pro­ducer, “but start look­ing a bit ragged round the edges and you won’t last. When I worked there it was like some weird dystopian fu­ture. They’d all dis­ap­pear when they hit 50, as if they’d been taken into a field and shot. You think, where did all th­ese 25-year-olds come from? Where are all the women with ex­pe­ri­ence? There are loads of old blokes with pot bel­lies. Noth­ing’s changed.” Like many mid­dle-class women over 40, Edel­man is re­train­ing, as a ther­a­pist. “If you’re a mag­is­trate or reg­is­trar, peo­ple re­spect you re­gard­less of looks. It’s a re­lief to be an older woman who has a pro­fes­sion.”

Tal­ent is su­per­sed­ing age in un­ex­pected places. The ap­peal to fash­ion de­sign­ers and cos­met­ics com­pa­nies of Did­ion, Mitchell and oth­ers such as the new L’Oréal sign­ings He­len Mir­ren, 69, and Twiggy, 65, says one fash­ion in­sider, is less about their ad­vanced years “than be­ing an icon”. Still, th­ese choices mark a shift to­wards court­ing an older clien­tele. The New York Times noted this “longevity revo­lu­tion”, but called it fash­ion’s “two-faced re­la­tion­ship with age”. As Eloise, 44, a fash­ion writer (who chose not to state her sur­name along with her age as “no-one’s ever sure it wouldn’t harm”) told me, “Canny de­sign­ers know that th­ese women can af­ford to buy their clothes, and need to.” No co­in­ci­dence, then, that the first, now forty-some­thing gen­er­a­tion of su­per­mod­els – Am­ber Val­letta, Christy Turling­ton, Naomi Camp­bell – are spoilt for work. Or that Givenchy chose Ju­lia Roberts, 47, “to rep­re­sent the woman who is more ma­ture, beau­ti­ful, tal­ented”. Eloise be­lieves the trend is heart­felt. “You never see such a bunch of revered older women as you do in fash­ion. A lot of pow­er­ful women in the in­dus­try – ed­i­tors, de­sign­ers – have reached a cer­tain age.”

Need­less to say, Hol­ly­wood re­mains in the Stone Age. Although Ju­lianne Moore, 54, won ev­ery award go­ing this year, she is in the mi­nor­ity. As Isabella Ros­sellini, 62, re­cently told an in­ter­viewer: “I re­ally don’t work any more as an actress. I am old, and there are no roles for older peo­ple [she now works in per­for­mance art].” When Rus­sell Crowe scoffed at “women who at 40, 45, 48, still want to play the in­génue”, Meryl Streep – of­fered three parts as a witch on turn­ing 40 – de­fended him. “It’s good to live in the place where you are.” In fact, now 65, she has just played a witch in Into the Woods. “I felt it was time,” she said un­nerv­ingly. As Tina Fey, 44, joked at the Golden Globes, “There are still great parts in Hol­ly­wood for Meryl Streeps over 60.” Lower in the ranks, the idea of age­ing re­mains hor­ri­fy­ing, as ex­em­pli­fied by the grow­ing num­bers of ac­tresses chang­ing their faces be­yond recog­ni­tion. Only if you have power and sta­tus can you take a stand.

As solic­i­tor Jo, 43, says, even in sub­ur­bia it is ex­pected that “if you have the money to look af­ter your­self”, you ex­tend your youth. “I haven’t put my face in the sun since my twen­ties – and, my god, the hair main­te­nance. Every­body I know within a cer­tain so­cial bracket ex­er­cises and eats well.”

Style mat­ters, too, but con­fi­dence is key to sar­to­rial el­e­gance, Eloise be­lieves. “If you’re look­ing good post-40, it’s be­cause you can’t wear ev­ery trend, so you’re wear­ing a look that’s be­come yours. Don’t spend money on your kids’ clothes, spend it on yours. They’ll look good in any­thing. You

women to seek work, but they suf­fer dis­crim­i­na­tion. Many set­tle for low-paid, un­skilled “piece work” to fit around fam­ily obligations. “The eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion for women over 40 is bleak,” Trenow says.

While younger women are now sur­pass­ing men – ac­cord­ing to Bri­tain’s Of­fice for Na­tional Statis­tics, those aged 22 to 29 are now paid one per cent more than men in the same age bracket, and 0.2 per cent more be­tween 30 and 39 – a 2014 Char­tered Man­age­ment In­sti­tute sur­vey found that women aged 40-plus suf­fer a “midlife pay cri­sis”, earn­ing 35 per cent less than men.

And it’s not just in equal­ity of earn­ings that women are lag­ging. It is also in se­nior­ity. The ONS re­ports that a pif­fling 8.5 per cent of ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors at Bri­tain’s largest 100 com­pa­nies are fe­male. Gre­gory Hard­cas­tle, 50, a man­age­ment con­sul­tant (whose wife likens his of­fice to “the first se­ries of Mad Men”), be­lieves the ma­ter­nity ca­reer break struc­ture “needs im­prov­ing across the board. We’ve got 20 part­ners. Two are women,” he says. In Jane Austen’s novel

Emma, pub­lished 200 years ago. Har­riet, the hero­ine’s twit of a pro­tégée, is aghast that Emma doesn’t fancy mar­riage and is happy to age alone. Emma, an heiress, con­soles her. “A sin­gle woman, with a very nar­row in­come, must be a ridicu­lous, dis­agree­able, old maid … but a sin­gle woman, of good for­tune, is al­ways re­spectable.” It is true that many women en­joy free­doms that even 50 years ago would have seemed as­ton­ish­ing. But that lib­er­a­tion isn’t uni­ver­sal. In 1815, wealth and so­cial stand­ing made a stark dif­fer­ence to an older woman’s ex­pe­ri­ence. Can it be con­fi­dently stated that this is no longer the case? won’t.” Many women, she says, do them­selves no favours. “‘I’m 40, I must get a short hair­cut and a sen­si­ble coat!’ No! You mustn’t! Women de­sex­u­alise them­selves – or, at the other ex­treme, wear skin-tight dresses to show they’ve still got a good fig­ure. A lot of women don’t know how to place them­selves. I want to tell the world I feel good about my­self.”

If you live in an af­flu­ent bub­ble, you might imag­ine this new re­al­ity is uni­ver­sal. Not so. With a work­ing-class up­bring­ing that em­pha­sised self­less­ness, Ber­nice, 64, quit teach­ing to look af­ter her grand­son as her daugh­ter couldn’t af­ford child­care. “A lot of women feel anony­mous and in­vis­i­ble as they age. There’s huge dis­ap­point­ment when you don’t man­age all of it: the fig­ure, the fit­ness. I’ve sep­a­rated my­self from the ‘book club’ women. Some are dis­mis­sive of me for giv­ing up my ca­reer. Many, in their fifties and six­ties, who’ve stayed work­ing, have a great life be­cause they’re fit and fi­nan­cially se­cure. Some are start­ing sec­ond lives, new re­la­tion­ships. They feel enor­mously lib­er­ated and pow­er­ful.”

But power has lim­its, right across the board. Polly Trenow, of the Fawcett So­ci­ety, which cam­paigns for equal­ity, says that while older women ap­pear to be suc­ceed­ing more in pol­i­tics, it is mainly one type: white, mid­dle- or up­per­class. “It’s so ex­pen­sive to be­come a politi­cian,” she says. “At a lo­cal level, coun­cil­lor ex­penses rarely cover the cost of child­care, so un­less you’re in­de­pen­dently wealthy or have a part­ner do­ing child­care, bal­anc­ing care work, a full-time job and po­lit­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties is nigh-on im­pos­si­ble.”

Mean­while, in wider so­ci­ety, living costs have forced many older

Photography: get t y images TE X T: © ANNA MA X TE D / TE LEGRA PH ME DIA GRO UP LTD

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