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.
So 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