Sex and the older woman
For many women, the realisation that their youthful sex appeal is gone comes as a shock. Aida Austin looks at this pivotal moment in time, when women have to face up to the reality that looking good for your age is as good as it gets.
‘I looked in the mirror one morning and saw the face of a stranger. Who was she, this haggard, bun-faced woman with the softening jawline, the downturned mouth, the world-weary air of a woman who hasn't had what she wanted from life, and knows she isn't going to get it now? Why, it was no one else but me, myself and I.'
When I read these words, which come from Jane Shilling's new book, ‘The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age', I remember my own ‘mirror moment’, which came at age 40, on a beautiful afternoon on a beach in Greece.
It suddenly dawned on me that being petite and having a sun-tan doesn’t stop a bikini from looking as if it’s being worked way too hard. Age, I realised, had caught up with me and given me too many indignities for a bikini to forgive.
Shilling's warm and honest account of the shock of finding herself suddenly middleaged is full of moments that many women of a certain age will gasp in recognition.
At 47, she describes looking in the mirror one day and noticing that “instead of a delicate violet smudge, there was a livid indigo semi-circle beneath each eye. I gazed at myself in the mirror, and the image that looked back reminded me of a dismayed tortoise”.
On the morning I turned 45, an old friend arrived with an Australian acquaintance to wish me happy birthday. The elderly Australian lady began to talk in earnest about ageing, how reaching her 50s had been about loss, a succession of bleak moments in which she realised her beauty was running out of steam.
“It's hard to age when you're beautiful,” she said. “I look in the mirror now and I just can't come to terms with what I see. I mourn the loss of my looks.”
She also spoke about how women suddenly “disappear” when they enter their fifties. The wisdom and calm that is supposed to come with age had offered her little in the way of compensation for becoming “invisible”.
It is a theme that Shilling returns to often. In her 30s, she had grown used to seeing herself reflected in the popular culture. But once she turned 50, she noticed that “all of a sudden, there was apparently no one like me at all”.
Middle-aged women are under-represented in art, ignored by fashion and an easy target for comedians. Men, who had once paid them attention, now look over their shoulders at 18-year- olds, whose breasts and hips are padded to perfection and whose skin shouts “youth!” at the top of its voice.
Shilling embarks on a bold exploration of what being middle-aged means. Like many of us, she finds it hard to find an older woman with whom she can identify. The slippers and housecoat caricature of middle age is depressing and the artificially prolonged alternative unconvincing, never mind painful.
Shilling considers 50-plus fashions and is outraged. Style advice is limited to what is no longer allowed: knees and upper arms must remain out of sight, long hair ought to sit above the shoulder, sparkly eyeshadow should be used with extreme caution or, God forbid, we find the ‘mutton' tag attached.
What is recommended is even more depressing: Spanx pants and ‘sharp tailoring’.
She looks towards France, where midlife is regarded as a stage of intriguing maturity instead of a pitiable state, where attitudes to older women are less punitive and women grow into their skins with unapologetic panache.
For every woman who simply looks in the mirror and gives up, there are many sexually confident women who somehow manage to reconcile themselves to ageing and dismiss the tired ideology peddled by the media that being sexy equals being young.
Model agency boss Celia Holman-Lee, who bared all for our cover shot, has decided not to go gently into that good night of middle-age. “I was talking to my doctor and was blowing my own trumpet about how I was not really suffering with the menopause at all,” says Celia, who has no problem with admitting that she has turned 60.
“I have mood swings and I'm cross half the time anyway. My doctor got slightly annoyed with me and said ‘Women really suffer with menopause' and that I should be down on my knees with thanks that I wasn't having hot flushes and other symptoms, so I really do appreciate how lucky I am.”
Celia rails against the idea of ‘age-appropriate’ dressing, particularly when on holidays. “I wear my short clothes, low necklines and I enjoy myself because I am in a holiday mood and more adventurous. I think I’m 20 again and I lose the run of myself.”
However, she tones it down somewhat at home and when she is working — she founded the Holman-Lee Modelling Agency in Limerick — but still finds that other women applaud her youthful style.
“When I go around the country, women come up to me and say, ‘Please darling, keep flying the flag for us older women, keep it up.' They compliment me if I wear a low neckline or if the skirt is a bit shorter. They say it's fantastic because you are being told to be ‘ageappropriate' but you can have a bit of fun too.”
“I have a good body shape. I'm kicking myself that I only started to do weights and exercising two years ago. There is no way you can get away without exercising when you reach a certain age. I'm reasonably confident about my body. I'm not saying I'm fantastic. I do a small bit of weights for my arms mainly and I do a bit of weight-lifting for my thighs as well.
“That's how it is. I have a good pair of shoulders and a good waistline. They didn't come from any exercise — God gave me those. My legs are okay, but they would not be my best feature. I've never had any work done. I've didn't have a boob job, so I need plenty of help.”
If Celia is a model of pragmatism (“I'm very aware of the cold light of day,” she says, “I love soft lighting, soft lighting is my best friend”), she is also a model of confidence.
“I had no problems doing this shoot,” she announces.
But for other women, the ageing process can be more traumatic. Kate is a 56-year-old nurse. She's tall, slim and, by any benchmark, attractive. She describes the gap between how she feels and how she looks.
“I had a kind of watershed moment last week at work. I overheard a patient refer to me as the ‘old blonde one'. When I look in the mirror, there's a disparity between how I see myself and how I look. It's not that I think I look young, it's just that I'd thought other people might be able to see past my age, like I can.
“I'm aware that I'm transiting from one age to another. It's weird having a body I'm not quite sure I like that much any more. Sometimes I have this weird sensation of hardly being able to recognise it.”
Although her appearance is changing, this has negligible impact on her sexuality. “I feel odd about the fact that my body is softening, but this has got nothing to do with sex. One hundred per cent, I feel sexier now than I did in my 20s,” she says.
“You get better at something by doing it a lot. And women have practised sex for a long time by the time they hit their fifties. I know what I like, I know what my partner likes, and what people seem to forget is that for every ageing woman, there's an ageing spouse.
“My husband's thinning hair doesn't bother me and he doesn't seem to care that my boobs definitely look better in a bra. Sexual chemistry is quirky that way, thank God,” she adds.
The loss of sexual allure, that moment when you suddenly become “invisible” to men, is a potent fear for women in their 50s. Holman-Lee, for instance, describes feeling an urge to shout “Remember us!” when the photographers look set to overlook her in favour of twentysomethings at a red-carpet event.
Yet sexual attraction does not depend solely on firm flesh and shining hair. With age, women become more sexually adept and more at home in their own bodies, according to relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, co-author of ‘The New Joy of Sex'. “There's plenty of research that shows sex gets better for women as they get older. It's one of the best-kept secrets of women's lives,” she says.
“There's a pressure to stay at a certain stage of development and not grow any older,” she adds. “It's in the culture everywhere — not just in showbusiness — and it's very troubling and stultifying to the spirit, I think. Not everything about ageing is fantastic. No one loves every wrinkle. But it's a part of life.”
For most of us, finding a way to carry femininity through midlife — to preserve some kind of feminine vibrancy — is part of what the ageing process is about. We might find some inspiration from Shilling who, at 53, is closer to finding what she's looking for.
“As it continues, the ageing process seems to me to be more about what remains than what is lost,” she writes.
“The bloom of early adulthood is bound to fade. But allure needn't necessarily vanish. It's just that at 50, it has less to do with the firmness of your flesh and more to do with the firmness of your sense of self.”
Her words reminded me of another inspiring role model for older women, the late Sarah Henderson, Aussie cattle-rancher, author and mother of five. “The strength you need to achieve anything is within you,” she once wrote. “Don't wait for a light to appear at the end of the tunnel. Stride down there and light the bloody thing yourself.”
This quality of composure to which Shilling refers seems evident everywhere. Celebrities such as TV chef Nigella Lawson and broadcaster Marian Finucane appear to have a lovely audaciousness that suggests they have cracked a few of life's secrets.
And when I consider my peers and friends, most of whom, like me, are too old to be young but too young to be old, there is scant evidence of the kind of excessive “mourning” that my Australian guest laid bare.
What registers most is not just the firmness of their sense of self but the firmness of their purpose, a purpose that's defined by energy and optimism.
Women's fears surrounding the ageing process are, more than likely, mostly paper tigers. Getting to the point of unambiguous middle age is a bit like jumping off the end of a pier in winter — an awful shock when you hit the water, but lovely once you're in. And in one respect, middle age is the same as any other — exactly what you make of it. Jane Shilling's parting advice might be worth remembering: “A great pair of shoes and a good concealer makes life seem better at any age.