Carol Hunt: Look past the wrinkles and you'll see the gem
It's not just the neck that gives us away. When Nora Ephron wrote her savagely poignant account of ageing -- I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman -- she astutely said that "if anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini and don't take it off until you're 34".
Unfortunately I'd passed that milestone -- and years in a sensibly boring one-piece -- before I read Ephron's little gem of wisdom. Now I wish I'd pranced around naked. Because, truly, there is nothing that will make you appreciate what you take for granted more than the losing of it.
Next month sees a birthday looming which puts me on the other side of 40, and it's not just the neck I despair of. My, ahem, finest feature if I may say so, and I do, has always been a well-structured cleavage, which (to para-phrase a comment of Chris Hitchens) was once the toast of two counties.
No more. Some of the wrinkles that have begun to appear around my face have decided to head southwards and landed smack, bang in the middle of my previously perfect cleavage. I now know it's only a matter of time before I'll have to order in a crane to hoist my breasts off my knees.
But happily, the onset of an ageing body has coincided with diminished eyesight. So I just thank the Goddess for small mercies and refuse to wear my prescription glasses while looking in the mirror. That way I feel I'm still in control. But eventually I'm going to have to come to terms with the fact that ageing happens; I can't fight it -- or gravity. So, I'm looking for role models; women who have aged in a way that I think I might like to emulate.
Earlier last week I watched the last instalment of Homeward Bound: The Gathering, where a defiantly wrinkled and very beautiful Fionnula Flanagan showed us what growing old gracefully looked like. Or at least I think she did. But then I had to ask if the difference between her face in the black-and-white film (stunningly etched with age) and in colour (not so lined at all) was due to lighting or make-up or perhaps the odd bit of "work".
It has quite altered the way I watch telly these days; wondering who has or hasn't been trying to halt those ravages of time with stuff like Botox or filler. It's all part of the attempt to control how we age, of course -- and I've succumbed to temptation myself, enthusiastically accepting a gift from a friend for a jab of Botox here and bit of filler there.
Initially, I suspected that the whole point of such stuff was to get rid of lines and wrinkles and evidence that you'd actually had a life, but according to the doc I saw a gentle amount of product can be used "to make you look the best you can at the age you are" and, most importantly, that "no one is supposed to notice". Tell that to Kylie Minogue, I said.
Ha! Even just looking at Irish TV channels I can see that this ethical message of "less is more" has been mangled by many as frozen brows vie with trout lips and pillow faces for our appalled attention. Paradoxically, too much work done too young actually makes you look older.
It's all a bit sad, isn't it? We're all so terrified of getting old, and yet if we look around it's obvious that there has never been a better time in history to be what we used to call "elderly", particularly for women. Retirement is no longer seen as a time to crawl off to the old people's home, but rather a well-earned opportunity to travel the world: bye-bye kids, don't wait up, we may be a few years.
In fashion, due to the "Twiggy effect" (the increasing use of older models in advertising), 60- and 70-something women are now a powerful consumer group, demanding and receiving respect from designers and fashion houses.
On screen we have a plethora of role models to choose from -- Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Maggie Smith -- all proudly displaying the evidence of their ageing: lines, wrinkles, crow's necks, saggy busts, etc, on cinema screens and TVs all over the world.
The recent success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (a film I made my kids watch to show them there is life outside Disney), which is now to get a sequel, shows that Grey Power is gaining ground.
And in politics we have Hillary Clinton, who is being touted as Democratic US presidential candidate for 2016 -- when she will be a youthful 69. Recently she was caught leaving the house without -- oh, the mortification -- any make-up on her face, and she made these comments on ageing:
"I feel so relieved to be at the stage I'm at in my life right now. Because you know if I want to wear my glasses I'm wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back I'm pulling my hair back. You know at some point it's just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention. And if others want to worry about it, I let them do the worrying for a change."
She's right. We need to do what we like, look how we want and f**k the begrudgers. When I look back at my younger bikini-suited body I have to admit that I'm much happier in the skin I'm wearing now, no matter that it's starting to sag and wrinkle. I look at my beautiful, dynamic 70-plus mother, whom all my friends say they want to be like at that age, and realise I am so lucky to have the best role model possible right here.
We tend to forget, in our fetishising of youth, that "to age" is a privilege. The dodgy eyesight, widening waistline, wrinkled neck and collapsing cleavage; all are symbols of survival. Ageing means we are still alive; still contributing, still in the game; with a wealth of knowledge and experience that more than compensates for the loss of a peachy smooth complexion, tight bum or even that perfect cleavage.
As the American poet Longfellow wrote:
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.