Scrubbing up

The term ‘scrubbing up well’ seems to have crept into people’s vocabulary when they describe women of my age. Someone recently called me a ‘force of nature’ which I think is the modern term for ‘old bag’.

Unfortunately, at 60 looking good, or trying to, is becoming hard work. Highlights, lowlights, waxing, electrolysis, pedicures, manicures, Pilates, skin peels; all of them clog up my diary and cost far too much money, with the effects barely visible to the naked eye. Basically, I am fighting the ultimate losing battle to hold back the visible effects of ageing.

I wondered whether we are having a rougher ride on this score than previous generations, but a quick delve back into history revealed that the history of the older woman is a truly a horrible one.

Menopause and madness have been linked for centuries, and menopausal women have been portrayed as witches throughout time. In fact, it’s the dominant stereotype. I am such a busybody and know-all these days, I can sort of see how this happened. Women over 50 know stuff. We know what we want and mostly we know how to get it. Which means we’re scary. But burning us at the stake was a bit over the top.

“Sometimes invisible is good. I can nip into the shops with my slippers on and no one notices. No one even sees. If I was tempted to shoplift a frozen chicken, I’d be well placed to do so.”

The horrible history of the menopause goes some way to explaining why getting older is such a challenge for women’s self-esteem and body image and why for thousands of years we have found the process of ageing profoundly difficult to come to terms with. It’s nothing new.

What has changed is the way we dress. My own grandmothers always seemed old. Granted, I was young and they were old, but they seemed to dress as old ladies from their 50s onwards. I certainly didn’t remember either my mother or my grandmothers wearing anything remotely stand-out, or even fashionable once they reached ‘a certain age’.

Today, many of us are wearing high-viz red hair and attention-seeking clothes which mean we are refusing to be invisible, making sure we stand out, or simply dressing fashionably well into our older age. Perhaps before my generation of Baby Boomers there was a distinct uniform of old age and it’s one we as a generation are refusing to adopt, on the basis that if you dress old you must actually be old.

For that reason, clothes aren’t a side issue in ageing. The grey revolution is nowhere more evident than in the way older people are dressing. Women over 50 now spend nearly £3 billion a year on clothes – which is nearly half of all fashion purchases in the UK. It’s as if they are wearing signs saying Made You Look.

The Classic range at M&S (which is, I guess, code for the old lady section) looks deserted in every sense. Older women are refusing to be invisible in the way previous generations were. We are coming out. Literally. It feels as though women of over 50 are expressing their liberation from the stigma of old age through their choice of clothes.


But wait – it’s more complicated than that. This continuing struggle with the ageing process isn’t making us any happier. There is now a great deal of evidence that, despite all the liberation and changes for middle aged and elderly women, we are very unhappy with our body image.

Until recently all the body image and eating disorder research has focused almost exclusively on younger, adolescent or college-aged populations, but there has been persuasive and depressing research on older women and their body image. They found there was a positive relationship between fear of ageing and disordered eating.

Older women have been found to have higher scores of body dissatisfaction than even adolescent girls and are developing as many, if not more, eating disorders. It seems we badly need to find a way of expressing our femininity and personalities without beating ourselves up about our thickening waists, because for us in particular, life is too short.

IMG_0695-768x970So let’s not abandon invisibility entirely. Being liberated from looking good is also good. Perhaps we should bring back the battle-axe ‘look’ with serviceable baggy clothes, support stockings and practical hairdos.

After all, sometimes invisible is good. I can nip into the shops with my slippers on and no one notices. No one even sees. If I was tempted to shoplift a frozen chicken, I’d be well placed to do so.

If they saw me at all, people would assume I was harmless, even beyond reproach. Think what good spies we’d make. Private detective work might be a marvellous career opportunity for some of us. We’d just be wafted through security, no problem at all. Give us a tabard and a cleaning trolley and we’d challenge James Bond any time.

Not being looked at can sometimes be good too, so let’s not beat ourselves up if we choose the neutral invisibility route – it might well be a positive step for some women who decide that it sets them free from a lot of nonsense and bother and that is holding them up and wearing them out. Fine. Just fine, and some days I do just that.

Nothing about ageing is simple, but the point is we have the choice. Perhaps for the first time in history, women of a certain age can (if they want to) use fashion to express their vibrancy, their zest for life and their newfound confidence in who they are. They don’t have to apologise for being older; instead they can flaunt it.

Dressing to be noticed is an important part of our ‘coming out’ and a not unimportant part of the grey pride movement, whatever that becomes, but the point is it’s about us, the new us. If we want to buy for invisibility and comfort that’s fine, too. It’s about being confident in our own skin and confident in the way we present ourselves to the world. And that marks something of a revolution.

Illustrations by Hannah Carmichael

Training to be old

Getting old

It’s official, old people are taking over the world.

We’re everywhere like a rash of adolescents with liver spots and more time on our hands. The over 60s are now the fastest growing section of society and the BBC have just announced that their average viewer is aged 61. But wait – where are all the over 60s presenters and news readers? Where are the oldies in dramas on TV dating, still holding down the day job and dancing in the kitchen to Ed Sheeran? And don’t even get me started on the lack of older women in those roles. OK so Mary Berry is the new pin up – hurrah and double hurrah, but on the whole age discrimination is alive and well. A survey this week revealed that almost half of the over 50s feel that they are overlooked for promotion, ignored in shops, and by other drivers or bartenders on a regular basis. The world is simply not keeping up with the fast changes amongst the older generation. The stereotypes are seriously out of date. We are no longer knitting nanas but more likely to be shopping in Zara and still at work well into our 60s, than at home watching Countdown, going to a whist drive or making tray bakes for the W.I. Get with the programme please everyone.

It’s weird isn’t it – getting old is the one thing that all of us will do (with luck) and yet it’s the one club no one actively wants to belong to. All of us are surely trainee old people – and yet even in our 50s and 60s many of us are in denial rather than in preparation for our last life phase when we will be less mobile and less independent than at any other time of our lives. Now that we are all potentially living so much longer (our life expectancy on average rises by 5 hours a day in the UK) we might all usefully think about how to make the last phase of our lives the best – when our hip replacements kick in and little by little most of the things we love doing are either exhausting, impractical or impossible and our friends start to fall of the perch one by one. Because being properly old is still no party for most of us. We – the Baby Boomers – are now entering that stage of our lives and for the generation that invented sex and drugs and rock and roll the transition is going to possibly be the cruelest.

There are genuinely things we can do to prepare for this last tricky phase of old age and I’m not talking about pensions, which since I am caught in the pensions gap, is a sore point, and in any case it’s all a bit late for that now I’d have to be stashing away tens of thousands every year to make up for the state pension being put back as far as it has been for me and my contemporaries. There were protests but honestly I can’t believe how long some of us are having to wait for the pensions that we assumed we were going to get at 60.

According to the very brilliant Sir Muir Gray who is a leading and distinguished physician on the effects of old age (amongst other things) and has written some fabulous books on ageing– ‘Sod 60’, ‘Sod 70’ and now ‘Sod Sitting get Moving’ – exercise is by far the best training we can do. When he says exercise he means serious stuff in serious amounts. Men, he says, should be doing at least the number of press-ups per day as their age, women should ideally do weightlifting and he recommends upping your exercise every year. The older you get the more activity you need to do in order to hold back the effects of ageing, or even reverse them.

The biggest danger for older people health wise is not tripping over in the snow, or catching the flu but  sitting down. And we all know how much the old like a nice sit down and a cup of tea.  The worst thing you can do for an older person therefore is to offer them a seat on the tube or treat them to a nice run out to a Toby carvery. Exercise he says is the wonder drug to combat the effects of ageing. This is the training we need to be doing. It’s not easy, and I for one now look like I am raising the alarm rather than jogging if I run round the block, and my cycling trousers with undercarriage nappy mean that I very much hope that my new found invisibility as an older woman does actually kick in. Alas I invariably meet everyone I know in Waitrose on such occasions. Such is life.

Exercise then is what we need to do, and maybe we trainee oldies in our 60s and 70s need to make this happen for the people who are housebound and in care homes. If there was one health campaign worth doing it might be for us all to take over church halls and run exercise classes for the old. It’s happening in Denmark already wouldn’t you know. ‘The Move it or Lose it’ movement with classes for seated exercise is a brilliant initiative too. And maybe for us the 60 somethings it’s win win as we will be getting fitter at the same time.


Think positive

Yet another report on ageing with another recipe for slowing down the ageing process has pinged into my inbox. This time it was one I took notice of by Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel-prize-winning biologist, who is looking at the all important telomeres which stretch at the end of the chromosomes and sort of hold them in place. There is now a lot of evidence that with time the ends of the telomeres start to fray and when they do the cells in our body start to become senescent. Once one goes, they all go and no-one really knows what triggers it but there is now some consensus that the telomeres fraying contributes to this. There is a great deal of significance associated with your cells becoming senescent because once they do, they succumb to all the illnesses associated with old age.. so in essence this is what old actually is. One minute you’re zapping around the place as you always have been, and the next your body starts to fight back and tell you that you’re old.

Elizabeth Blackburn has identified several ways in which you can delay your telomeres going ragged on you – firstly more exercise and at least 45 minutes of cardiovascular three times per week, and most importantly stress resilience. Stress has a way of hastening the ageing process like nothing else, she is discovering and so she suggests 12 minutes of yoga chanting a day (you might have known all roads lead to mindfulness), and a positive attitude. Again, bemoaning your bad luck in life will hasten ageing she says. One way of banishing negative thinking she says is to look in the mirror and think positively about yourself. Instead of finding fault with what you see, feel the positive vibes and tell yourself you love what you look like.

Has she ever tried looking in a mirror when you’re over 60?