"I'm 48," writes India Knight in her new book, In Your Prime: Older, Wiser, Happier. "I don't feel old. Do you feel old? I don't feel young either, but I don't mind about that at all, because I'd rather be the person I am now than the person I was at 25, so anxious and unsure about so many things, so tentative. I prefer 48. Plus I'm kinder, wiser, more patient, less judgemental. These are all improvements." Still, she says heading towards 50 feels "absolutely absurd", despite "going 'ooof'" when she sits down "in a really satisfied way", and enjoying getting into bed so much "that I actually groan with pleasure".
I'm 47, and I relate completely to every syllable of the above statement. Every year gets better and better, despite the preposterous idea that 50 is around the corner. People who fear or deride middle age are those who have not yet reached its blissful shores. Trust me. Middle age feels like hitting the absolute prime of your life, except instead of actually hitting anything, it feels more like gliding with ease on a raft made of your own experience, confidence and wisdom. It's bloody lovely. Or maybe middle age is more like an island, a haven of contentment in the vast sea between the insecurities of youth and the challenges of decrepitude. It won't last forever.
"The window of prime is finite," writes India Knight. "It's not very big. Prime comes before a fall." Middle age is, after all, the time when, mindful of our mortality, we tend to start really looking after ourselves. When we realise that we need to be best friends with our bodies, rather than regarding them as amusement parks. Do yoga, urges Knight.
Hitting your prime does not, however, mean that life suddenly gets easy in your 40s and beyond - far from it. In middle age, you are probably never busier, sandwiched between elderly parents and your own teenagers, or possibly younger children if you started late, or have started again. Or grandchildren, if you started early. Or all of the above, if, like several of my (exhausted) friends have had late babies with new partners as earlier babies grew up and had babies of their own. Hectic.
And that's just indoors - we are simultaneously navigating the worlds of work, friends, dating, sex and culture, while noticing that it takes just a tiny bit longer to get back up again when we bend down, and that the idea of repeated late nights fills us with dread and a longing for the sofa in our onesies.
"Traditionally, at forty five you would almost certainly have been a grandmother," writes Knight. If you were 50 in 1955, she says, you were either a matron or a spinster. "You knew what to wear, how to behave, how to speak, how to occupy yourself." Today, we have Madonna at 55, of whom, like many middle-aged women who found her liberating in the early 80s, Knight is a long-term fan - although not of Madge's approach to ageing.
"I am quite annoyed with the way Madonna has decided to age," she writes. "I feel let down by it. She could do a book like SEX, except clothed, maybe call it 'NAN'. I'm not being facetious - I wish just one woman in the public eye would relax about middle age, and I wish it were her."
And here lies the media and entertainment industry view - that is, the public view - of women becoming middle-aged, with its corrosive trickle down on the rest of us. We are not allowed to. Men are allowed to be middle-aged, but not women. Obviously, we still do - hello, there are billions of us - but once we become middle-aged, one of two things tends to happen. We either disappear completely from the mainstream cultural radar, or when we do appear, it's in connection with the supposed horrors of ageing, that is, losing our youthful faces and bodies. As though we consist entirely of our appearance, and once that appearance shows signs of its decades on earth, it - along with the person inside it - atrophies.
Middle-aged women are subjected to the twin killjoys of invisibility and 'appropriate' dressing - India Knight, for all her joy and sparkle and dismissal of the idea of invisibility ("You're not invisible to your tribe") devotes a serious amount of time warning women not to be mutton. She is obsessed with mutton, as she writes about "navigating the passage from nymph to nana". Example: "To me, leopard [print] over the age of 30 was more 'working down the docks, charging extra."
Hmmmm. Not sure about that. Perhaps the thing is to dress exactly as you please, because if you feel happy and confident, that is what you project. I dress to please myself, and no other. My hair remains the same fake fire engine red it has always been, as does my lipstick ("red makes your teeth look yellow"), I always wear black ("black looks absolutely awful on almost everyone") and lots of leopard print (although I have never charged extra down the docks).
My sartorial heroines are Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes. The thing I do not do is overtly sexualise myself - I don't do cleavage, high heels, short skirts. Does that make me un-mutton? The lack of rack and stilettos isn't about age - it's about not wanting to, ever, at any age. But that's just personal choice, which happily, we all have.
The bigger picture of female middle age is the lack thereof. Jane Shilling, in her 2011 book The Stranger In The Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age, writes about the cultural disappearance of women ageing: "Throughout my adult life I had become accustomed to my experiences as a woman being reflected in the culture. Magazines and newspapers contained pictures of women more or less my age, dressed in clothes I might also like to wear, describing experiences that were familiar to me. Programmes on the television and radio took as their raw material the experiences of my contemporaries. In bookshops, the female experience appeared in a myriad narrative forms. Until the onset of middle age, where, all of a sudden, there was apparently no one like me at all. Like the children of Hamelin, we had all vanished."
Instead, she notes, it was all back to the external stuff. Again. "At 40 and beyond, there were no fashion shoots, just grim lists of garments that one could (apparently) no longer wear without appearing grotesque," she writes.
"[Magazine] features tended to dwell on the indignity of the middle aged experience: the lamentable divergence from the youthful form, with an outrageous catalogue of post-menopausal love affairs, heroically late pregnancies, marital humiliation, extremities of cosmetic surgery, the alarming side effects of HRT. The repulsiveness of the middle-aged female body, and the constant vigilance required to suppress its desire to sag, bloat, flab, sprout, droop and wrinkle was a prevailing theme."
The late Nora Ephron, with characteristic cheer, wrote about the physical ageing of herself and her girlfriends, who "have not been girls for 40 years", in I Feel Bad About My Neck: "We all look good for our age. Except for our necks. Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks, turkey gobbler necks. Elephant necks. Scrawny necks, fat necks, loose necks, crepey necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks. "According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at 43, and that's that. Short of surgery, there's not a damn thing you can do about your neck. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck."
Not that Ephron gave a hoot. That's the glorious thing about ageing - you just don't. Although, as Jane Shilling reminds us, a few middle-aged literary heroines outside of the Mrs Bennet/Mrs Doyle construct would be nice; adventurers, polemicists, don't-carers. The roles allocated to the middle-aged woman in literature and cinema tends to be the dumped wife, the interfering meddler, the martyr, the overbearing mother, the asexual frump, the occasional psycho, or that most insulting term of all, the 'cougar'. If not inhabiting one of those stereotypes, the middle-aged fictional female is automatically assigned the role of background carer.
This last one does tend to reflect real life for the middle-aged female. Caring, or the assumption that you will, automatically, for the entire family, as required, is of course what many of us do. If it weren't for middle-aged women, Christmas would not exist. And beyond being a family therapist, a domestic coordinator, a social butterfly and a woman in the prime of her career (unless you are a lap dancer, an actor, or other age-dominated professions), there is the other, harder stuff.
In between her entertainingly breezy, bossy advice on how to take recreational drugs ("in the recovery position, to minimise risk") and "culling bad friends", India Knight includes a short chapter on 'Ailing Parents' - dealing with parental decline, dementia, funerals, how to keep your sanity and deal with grief.
"There's silence about all of this," she writes. "It's because there's nothing we want to hear. One day, when you have finished looking after your aged parents, you will become like them, and you'll need, and hope, that your children will look after you... Thinking about this makes me want to run away screaming with my fingers in my ears." There it is. Middle age is not all about worrying about your neck.
Meanwhile, what about your marriage or relationship or lack thereof? Your private life? "Keep your marriage happy by not asking too much of it," suggests Knight, with the sagacity of a woman who has been married with kids, unmarried with kids, divorced, and now lives with her partner and children. "People are imperfect. Life is imperfect. So what? The small stuff is so very, very small, and love is so big."
That's the brilliant thing with being older and in a relationship - unless you have been with the same person since you were a teenager (and this includes fewer and fewer of us these days), you will know by the time you reach middle age (a) what you want, (b) how to recognise it, and (c) how to appreciate it. The (b) is the crux here. Most of us will have experienced by now both long-term sex (marriage or the equivalent) and short-term sex. And that terrible scary taboo - no sex.
No sex happens. No sex can last for ages, either inside or outside a relationship. The thing is to not lose your nerve after a drought. In between tips on how to divorce and how to date, there is the promise that "The idea [of sex after a period of no sex] is far more agitating than the reality. Nobody forgets how to have sex.
"Also, the reality is that if you fancy somebody, and they fancy you, then you will both be pleased and excited to find yourselves naked in a bed. Men don't stop having a boner because your tummy sticks out or you're 64. They're just really pleased to be about to have sex. With you. All old and naked. Hurrah!"
Hurrah indeed. Being in love in middle age is like being in love when you are 20, except a million times better, because the love is just as intense, but the insecurities and cluelessness have been neutralised by age. Don't let anyone - or any media outlet - tell you differently. Instead, remember what Virginia Woolf wrote when she was 50: "I don't believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one's aspect to the sun."
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