Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren by Annie Liebovitz
The world I navigate at in my forties is an entirely different one to the one my Grandmothers experienced. Once upon a time, it seemed women had their babies when they were barely adults themselves, so by the time they turned forty, their children had flown out into the world, the nest was empty and all that was left to do, according to a patriarchal society ,was put on a house dress and surrender to being shelved as irrelevant and undesirable. Around the 1960s women began to push back against these archaic expectations as part of what was known as the feminist second wave, sparked by Betty Friedan’s book ‘The Feminine Mystique’. Each generation has a chance to push those boundaries even further. This is new territory, and one we don’t have a map for, so we have to find our way as we go, continuing to push past the social limits the women who came before us challenged and fought so hard to move forward for us. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants, and part of our collective responsibility as both men and women is to pick up their swords and continue that battle.
As my generation hits our forties, the old rules need not apply, and we have the exciting opportunity to rewrite the rulebook on aging and what it means. It’s not that we can, or should want to, stop the process of growing older, but we most certainly can decide how we approach it and how much we let it define us adversely. Even the protocols around treating Menopause, a subject that can’t be ignored when discussing female aging, are undergoing a major shift, with forward thinking Gynaecological Endocrinologists pushing to get GPs to recommend Menopause Hormone Therapy in cases where women lives are disrupted from the shifting hormone levels associated with Menopause. Previous studies showing Hormone Replacement Therapy as being dangerous have since been proven to be severely flawed, leaving women suffering unnecessarily when in many cases the benefits far outweigh the risks, and at times the seemingly innocent red wine they have at dinner could actually be more harmful. It is no exaggeration that the lack of options offered to women for menopause treatment is a woman’s rights issue.
There is a long-held belief that women become invisible as we grow older. Fifty is the age we apparently ‘disappear’. Most of these disheartening beliefs stem from societies very narrow definitions of beauty, and how much youth and beauty are intertwined. Indeed, if we place too much weight on the importance of conventional beauty without developing aspects of our character that have much more longevity, then we will find aging that much more difficult. It is wise not to pin our identities on things that can be taken from us so quickly and easily. The entire beauty industry survives only if women feel bad about themselves, because we only then can we be marketed to for whatever miracle face cream is supposed to make us look 25. That’s not to say we shouldn’t look after to ourselves, but to market to (and even solidify ) our insecurities seems abhorrent. Already there is a movement away from ‘anti-aging’ skincare products, in favour of a marketing language that paints growing older in a better light. However, no matter what skin cream we use, there is no doubt the freshness of youth will fade, but many women are replacing that with something more powerful: the formidable confidence that can only come from having walked through more than a few fires and knowing your worth. A lot of how we deal with aging comes down to attitude. And there is no doubt that along the way we will have to educate those poor, misguided souls who think a women’s worth diminishes with age that they are sorely mistaken. In my early forties, I feel more at ease in my own skin, more confident, and if anything, way more visible than when I was in my twenties and filled with insecurities. I admire the younger women coming up behind me, and I will extend a hand any time to help them up. They are our younger sisters after all. But I do not wish I was back there with them. I wouldn’t trade this kind of fierce self-possession for anything. The women like Helen Mirren who raise the middle finger to the rather vanilla approach of aging gracefully, but instead choose to age with zest, tenacity and poise are setting fire to the rulebook on aging and throwing it out the window with all the other ridiculous rules designed to hold women are back are our new heroes. Let’s write our own rules.