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