The seven ages of woman: Irish stars on the joys and challenges that each decade brings
From a woman’s teens to her 70s and beyond, the joys and the challenges of her life shift. Liadan Hynes spoke to seven stylish women in different decades about the unique experiences of life’s different stages
BEER facials. Leech facials. Vampire facials, using your own blood. Organically fed snail facials, sheep placenta facials (Victoria Beckham and J-Lo are fans, apparently); diamond; bird poo; urine, and ruby facials. It seems we will put anything on our faces in the quest to stop the progress of age.
At-home coffee enemas; vaginal steaming; gut cleanses; juice diets; internal-organ massages; acid-based facial injections; caviar creams; fascial stretch therapy; cryotherapy (standing in a deep-freeze tank); infrared saunas; geisha facials, using nightingale droppings; bull-semen treatments to strengthen hair; lymphatic drainage with facial cupping; staring into the sun for an hour daily; eating clay (Shailene Woodley); drinking nothing but lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper (Beyonce); ingesting pills of frozen human faecal matter; Botox; fillers; lasers; peels; cupping; acupuncture; thread lifts; rose-quartz facial rollers; face creams made from blood; lip plumping; eyebrow tattooing; light-therapy masks - all of these, and more, are treatments or products currently available if you wish to try and stop the march of time.
Is ageing really that terrible? Physically, obviously yes, for many of us, if we're willing to make faeces, animal or otherwise, a part of our beauty regime. But getting older involves a personal stocktaking that many of us would rather avoid. Birthdays might ostensibly be a cause for celebration, but ringing in a new decade isn't just an occasion to break out the bubbly. A big birthday means measuring where one is at in life.
Are the generally accepted expectations of that age being met, the boxes ticked? Have you got a place in college/good job/boyfriend/fiance/house/baby/high-achieving children? Are you in shape; out with friends; enjoying regular date nights amid domestic bliss; keeping your figure; losing your 'mum tum'; taking up yoga? Have you achieved enough, for whatever your given age; hit the appropriate milestones?
On the following pages, seven women, aged between 17 and 78, spoke about the unique challenges and unexpected benefits of their age. From the pressures of growing up on Instagram, to coping with empty-nest syndrome, to the secret joys of old age, they reveal, honestly, how they feel about age. Anyone who fears getting older should read on.
Emily Callan 17
I've just turned 17. Obviously, this age is nice, as I don't have to pay bills and, to a certain extent, I can do what I want without having any major responsibilities. The pressure of school has increased now I'm studying for my Leaving Cert. It feels like such a young age to have to make such a huge decision, something that could decide what I will do for the rest of my life.
And I know people say, 'Well, you can change it', but you kind of feel then that you would have wasted a lot of time. I've been lucky enough to get a lot of work experience in the fashion world in the last few years - as well as working in Callan and Co, where I'm training to be a hairdresser. It has really opened up my eyes to possible career paths I might never have thought of.
Everyone my age is on social media, and everyone is constantly putting up stuff. For some people, it could be a stressful thing, especially as bullying has become so much easier - people can say anything. Personally, I would have a very thick skin, and I think that means people tend not to say anything to me. But if somebody was vulnerable, and without a support system, it could really hurt them.
I am excited to get into my 20s. I can have a bit more freedom then. At this age you have some freedom, but very little. You still answer to parents and teachers. I've always been pretty confident, but getting older, working, and talking to people in that kind of situation, has definitely helped that. Being with my family is what makes me happy, going for family days out; or being around my friends and laughing over the weirdest things. Or when my mam takes a detour for coffee in the morning!
Doireann Garrihy 25
The best thing about my current age is that I feel like I'm independent, but I don't have to worry about mortgages, or big stuff like that. I haven't felt that pressure yet. I'm just focusing on myself and my work.
I did four years in Trinity, studying drama and theatre studies. I wanted to act straight after college, and I was very unsure of what was ahead. I signed with Teri Hayden, the agent. I was delighted, and I thought, 'This is great, this is going to happen, I'm going to be really busy'. And then I auditioned for maybe six months, and nothing was happening.
And I just started to really question whether acting was something I should be doing. I became a bit insecure about it - the way I looked; whether I was talented enough. Whereas now I can't believe the change in the last year, and especially in recent weeks, with The Doireann Project, my comedy sketch show on the RTE Player. It's been mad. You could get very wrapped up in it, and kind of dependent on it. I'm just trying to ride the wave of the social-media stuff, but still my eye is on the prize of TV and radio.
I definitely have got more comfortable in my own skin. In my family, I'm the only one who is single now. They kind of slag me about it, and I used to be very touchy about it, and be like, 'It will happen, and it will be fine'. Don't get me wrong, I've had three long-term boyfriends, they just haven't worked out. And I don't panic about it now.
I think the fact that I'm so busy and the fact that everything is going so well for me workwise, that's a massive confidence boost that allows me not to worry about that other stuff.
I've definitely noticed in the last year-and-a-half or so, I can't tuck into a load of chocolate every night without noticing it a week or two later. In the past year, I'd say I've gone to the gym more than ever before, but for me, it's actually more of a mental-health thing. Even if it's only twice or three times a week, it's two or three hours a week where I'm not on my phone. It's a switch-off for my head, more than anything.
There are definitely days when I go, 'Oh god, am I doing the right thing?' Of course you question yourself. But for the most part, I'm delighted with where I'm at. And I'm probably the happiest I've been in a long time. But I definitely do have days where I go, 'Hang on now'. And especially because things are kind of happening for me at the moment, every decision has to be right. I don't want to make the wrong decision, and go on a different path that I'm not meant to go on, or whatever.
Louise Duffy 33
I'm more accepting of myself at this age. I don't question myself the way I did when I was in my 20s. I don't doubt myself in the same way. I suppose a little bit of maturity comes along in your 30s; finally, thankfully.
In the best sense of the word, I feel quite settled. I'm quite enjoying my life now; there's nothing I would change; nothing I would rather I had more of or less of. I think in my 20s I probably wished I was a different way; I second-guessed myself; probably had more doubts about myself.
I certainly don't feel like that any more, and that's a much happier place to be. That just comes down to age. You know who you are and you know your own mind a little bit better, the older you get. At this stage, I've been in the workplace for well over a decade, so experience just lends itself to you being a little bit more confident in your working life. You know what you want, and what you stand for.
Marriage and my friendships are so important to me now. I have the same friends that I had since I was in school, and there is just a sense of comfort.
I'm very happy with where I am in my life. I'm also more aware of what lends itself to my happiness. Work is very important to me, and I'm very driven in my working life, but I also know that it isn't the key to my happiness. I know that my family, my husband, my good friends, and myself are what will provide that.
I think, in your 20s, you have more of an experimental approach to your working life. I think I was a bit more carefree. Although that's a bit of a paradox, because successes in work meant so much to me. They meant everything to me.
Whereas now, I'm probably more driven, but I also know the place that work has in my life. I'm very keen to succeed. I've got a mortgage, and my family life is very important to me, and I've got to support that and look after that. So I'm more driven in my work life, and I know the direction I need to go in, but I also separate it from my personal life, and I know that whatever comes and goes, and whatever happens, that [work] isn't really the key to making me happy.
Vivienne Connolly 45
I’m in the process of putting together workshops for women over 40. We will have demonstrations covering make-up, skincare, hair, lifestyle tips, training, nutrition, and fashion. I’ve never had a problem with age;
I feel it’s a privilege to be the age we are.
I’m not going to say it’s easy when you look at yourself in your 40s. You’ve less collagen in your skin; it’s completely different than when you’re in you’re 30s. But I’m accepting of it, and try to enjoy every stage of life — it’s a waste of time wishing you were younger.
I’ve two kids, I’m in a comfortable position, and I’ve had a great career. I think when you come into your 40s, you’re not in the rat race as much. You know who you are, what you want, and you’re just more comfortable and content. And you use all the experience you’ve gained over the last 20 years.
For me, it’s the second phase of my life. I’m getting a bit more freedom — my kids are 13 and 11, so I’ve a little bit more time on my hands for me. I’m preparing myself for the time when my children need me far less.
I remember reading an interview with Miriam O’Callaghan in this magazine, and she said our job is to teach our children to fly. I truly believe in that. It’s possible to hold on to them too much, for fear of having no identity beyond being a mother. Empty-nest syndrome. Every stage is hard — creche, school — this is just another one. It’s really about embracing the whole thing, and thinking, this is going to happen, whether I like it or not. So I can either watch soaps and cry for the rest of my life, or go out there and see what’s left for me, or what can I do to help others.
Your emotional resilience definitely increases as you get older. Because I’m separated and went through a divorce, I learnt from that. You get so many knocks, and life throws so many curveballs, and you go through so many storms, but they’re all good — if you learn from them.
For me, I’m so at peace and I’m content.
In your 20s and 30s, you’re striving and you’re ambitious, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly normal. But what you learn in your 40s is that life really doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would. But that’s not a negative thing. Even if you go down one wrong road, it’s for a reason. You get back on the right road, realise why you went down the previous road, and that it was actually necessary.
I was watching the Late Late Show one night, and as much as I love it and Ryan Tubridy, I said to myself, ‘Viv, what are you doing? He’s not going to jump out of the TV and ask you on a date’. You have to get out, put yourself out there a little bit to meet people.
Norah Casey 57
This is a nice period in my life. I feel I’ve faced up to decisions that I should probably have taken a few years ago. I think that in my lifetime, I have never consciously thought about my age. I was a little bit of a late starter, because my 20s weren’t good. I was in a very difficult marriage. I feel that my life really began when I met [my second husband] Richard. So in my 30s, I truly had the best time ever.
Richard being taken from us was so rapid and cruel. That was a devastating period for me. And I don’t remember all the things that people think you should remember about your life, and where you’re at. When Richard died, I was ridiculously busy. That was the only default position I knew. I just wanted to be busy.
Life experiences inevitably happen to you over time, and you become a stronger person because of things that happened — all the flaws, the highs, the lows, the scars: they all contribute to you being able to do things at a certain time in your life.
Unfortunately, when you get into your middle years, you become stuck in the same routine, which your brain hates. It’s very important to me that every time I feel like I’m coasting, I learn something new — how to fly a plane; white-water rafting; and, most recently, dancing.
For all the people like Richard, who died too soon, and all the people in hospices, the people who struggle with ability issues, you owe it to them to live your life as fully as you can. Say to yourself: are you done, is that all the life you’ve got to lead? Or is there something else? The reality is that the third chapter of your life is the one where you can achieve everything.
I’m hugely energetic. I would say I probably lacked energy in my 30s — it’s very gruelling to go through IVF. I think I’m achieving more now, at this time of my life.
If I could, I would parachute myself into young people’s lives. If I stuck to 50-year-olds, I’d have a shawl around my shoulder with a lightbulb over my head. In my age group, I find it very hard to find people like me, who have an excitement and an energy for life.
In my 20s, I was a massive gym goer, a runner, physically very fit. In my 30s, as I settled down into married life, you end up nesting and eating fabulous food; and then of course I was doing IVF, which is a terrible emotional roller-coaster. Physical exercise was a no-no; I didn’t even think about it.
I really only woke up to all of that after Richard died. While he was sick, I ate everything around me, I thought there was no emotional state I wasn’t going to eat my way though. Now I always do at least 20 minutes cardio in the morning. And from now on, my fitness regime will include things I have learned on Dancing with the Stars.
Celia Holman Lee 67
I’m very happy in my skin. That doesn’t say that I’m looking forward to 70. One wants to be as positive as possible about ageing, but I’d rather it wasn’t happening. There’s no point in saying, ‘Look at me, I’m fab, I don’t care about age’. Of course I do, but I try, for my confidence, not to think about the actual number, just to keep going.
With regard to routines, I don’t do an awful lot. I think an active mind is one of the greatest gifts you can give your whole body. I try to walk, and I try to eat as well as I possibly can. If I was being stringent? No sauces. Not stringent? Loads of dark chocolate. I don’t eat too many carbs. Then, as much fish as possible, some meat, and plenty of veg. Everything is as fresh as it possibly can be.
When I’m not too busy, I try and walk every day, usually two, three miles. I don’t overdo anything, because I know I won’t keep it up. There’s no point in my saying, ‘I’ll go to the gym,’ because I’ll fall by the wayside. With skincare, I dabble with everything. My family might get me Creme de la Mer at Christmas.
I find the Boots No7 range very good. I go for facials, and once or twice a week I throw oil on my face.
The early decades were difficult in ways — trying to build a business, get my name out there. Then all the rewards come — TV, interviews, shoots. In those decades you have your children, and that’s fantastic. I’ve had a very good life, I’ve been working, and happy, but I would definitely have to say that the best time has been since those grandchildren came into our lives.
This is my happiest decade. I have reached where I want to get to in my career. So the next stage then is the gift, and the gift for me is the grandchildren. They have given us so much. It’s like a new lease of life. There are five of them there now — the eldest is nine and the youngest is six months.
Somebody asked me during the week if I plan to retire. Here is the problem with me and retirement: I’m all in, or I’m all out. I’ve never known in-between. When I take holidays, I slow down. I can’t remember where my phone is. I love being busy; I think it’s very good for you. I know there is a time when I won’t be able to be that busy, that that time is coming. But I’m going to keep going. Not necessarily driving around the country all the time. But when I’m asked to do something. Because it makes me very happy.
It has taken decades to get this comfortable in my own skin, to feel that it’s not the end of the world if I’m looking like god-only-knows-what. Because I have proven I can look alright.
I think women of my age are as strong as ever in my industry. I can get as much work as I want at the moment, which was never the case for a generation before me. I think the industry has woken up to the fact that we’re the ones with the money.
Grace O’Shaughnessy 78
It’s funny, I’m much better now than I was. As you get older, you appreciate things much more. When you’re younger, you’re always trying to some extent to make sure that you do the right thing — especially when you’re working — and impress people. When you get older, I don’t mean you care less, but you feel more relaxed about things. I know it’s a cliche to say there are more opportunities and new challenges come up, but they actually do.
When you’re older, you’re grateful to be alive. To be able to walk, and do things like that. Particularly when you’ve had a few operations like I have.
I’m so lucky, I feel. And you value your friends more; much more than you probably used to. I’m not saying you’re a little ray of sunshine all the time. You’re not. I’m not. Everybody has their ups and downs, but I honestly do feel, certainly for myself, more appreciative of everything. And I know it does sound sort of twee to say that, but you are. You worry less about what I call first-world problems.
Now I’m relaxed, I’m not striving anymore. I think it’s terribly important to stay interested in things, to keep mentally interested.
My energy levels are not what they used to be, to be honest with you.
I suppose I think there’s no point in being negative. If I do feel gloomy and down and sad or anything, I find if you get up and get out and get on with it, it does improve. There’s no doubt about it, rather than let it fester in you. But everybody does have bad days. Anybody who says, ‘Oh no, I feel positive all the time’, that would be telling lies. You have your down days. And you look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, I’m getting so old’ occasionally. But you don’t mind, because you lived. As Bette Davis said, ‘They’re my lines, and I earned them’.
You really are much more tolerant of everybody, including yourself, as you get older. I forgive myself for not being able to do things much more easily than I did when I was younger.
Styling by Liadan Hynes