herald

Saturday 18 August 2018

Yes! Yes! Yes! to sexy at 50

With advances in health and skin care 50 is now the new 40, so it's about time society opened its eyes to the beauty and multiple assets of older 'invisible' women

Invisible Woman Syndrome is a term used to describe everything from women working in male-dominated professions to women who are married to influential men.

Curiously, it is also used to describe women who are 50 and over. I've lost count of the amount of women who have told me that they started to feel "invisible" when they reached 50.

They tell me that recruitment companies rarely follow up their CV applications, shop assistants are slow to serve them and they don't get a second look should they visit a bar or nightclub. Fifty is by no means old, yet women are programmed to believe that they are past it when they reach that milestone.

"Ageing can be more difficult for some women -- particularly with the emphasis society places on attractiveness, which is generally associated with youth," says Sue Russell of Age & Opportunity.

"It can be hard not to internalise the negative messages around ageing that we see and hear every day in everything from birthday cards to advertising."

But Russell is quick to point out the boons of the age bracket.

"On the plus side, many of us feel an increasing confidence as we grow older. Not just confidence in our appearance, but also in our abilities.

"We are often happier in our skin and more accepting of ourselves. We have achievements to look back on and lots of dreams and ambitions still to fulfil."

While the 50s are often associated with menopause and empty-nest syndrome, it is equally a time of reduced responsibility and more disposable income. Many women in their 50s report that they have higher sex drives. Which would suggest that this sense of invisibility is often borne out of an apparent societal prejudice based on how they look.

Only, with the advances in skin care, fitness and nutrition, visible ageing is less of an issue. Women have never looked better. Yet in our youth-obsessed society, 50 is still considered over the hill by some quarters. Worse, a clique of cosmetically enhanced celebrity poster girls is held up as icons for the age group. You know who I'm talking about.

"Still fabulous at 50. Still rocking it . . . Still going strong . . ." read the headlines when the usual suspects are praised for not retiring and taking up genealogy classes. These articles don't represent positive ageing. They reinforce the fallacy that 50 is past it.

The very word "still" suggests that they should be acting and looking different. And quite how a woman with thousands of euro worth of cosmetic surgery should represent the 50s, I will never know.

What I do know is how irrelevant age is. Fifty-year-old women are just like 20-, 30- and 40-year-old women, except that they tend to have more confidence and life experience. Put simply: they are more interesting.

Just look at Miriam O'Callaghan and Mary Kennedy, cosmetic surgery-free, older ladies who are universally adored by both men and women, irrespective of age. The highest paid female television personalities in Ireland are over the age of 50, and they're not going anywhere. It's a shame then that some Irish women feel invisible when they reach their 50s, particularly when we have such inspiring homegrown role models.

Perhaps it has to do with how older women are portrayed in film. Rarely are they the love interest.

"Hollywood film-making continues to worship at the altar of the 18 to 25-year-old male and his penis," said actress Helen Mirren (65) at an awards breakfast in Los Angeles. "Quite small, I always think."

Remember that the 18-34 demographic is the most coveted among advertisers. In fact, I blame the advertising industry for the 50+ bracket, the plus meaning 'until deathbed'. It's as ludicrous as lumping people in their 20s and 30s into a 10+ category.

There is light on the horizon, however. Sigourney Weaver (61) will soon hit our cinema screens in Cedar Rapids, in which she plays the lover of a man almost half her age. Meryl Streep (61) recently played a divorced woman pursued by her ex-husband who is no longer interested in his much younger 'trophy' girlfriend in It's Complicated. And then there's Julianne Moore, cover girl -- at 50 -- for the March issue of US InStyle magazine.

Disillusion

Off-screen, the dating reality for older women is different, however. A friend of mine in her 50s (who wishes not to be named) joined a dating agency three years ago. Unfortunately, the dates weren't coming and the owner of the agency conceded that most of the men in her bracket were looking for women who were 10 years their junior. She was also advised to lose 10 pounds.

Of course, this attitude is just as prevalent outside of agencies. Jennifer Haskins was so disillusioned with the older singles scene that she set up the introduction agency Two's Company with her partner, Bill Phelan.

She bemoans the lack of nightlife options for older people. "There's Cafe En Seine, The Shelbourne bar, Residence (private members' club). Other than those, there isn't really anywhere else you can go. You're not going to go into a nightclub and start bopping to Eminem."

Gender disparity is also an issue. "Men get away with going to the bars a lot later. Men in their 50s wouldn't be out of place in a bar like Cafe En Seine, but women in their 50s would, there are double standards.

"I suppose older women feel they are up against a lot of 30-year-olds. Some women don't mind it, but others don't want to do it every Friday and Saturday night because they think it starts to look desperate."

Compare the Irish perception of the 50s to that of the French whose older women haven't slid into sexual obsolescence. Older Gallic women demand to be seen.

Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind, makes some compelling points. She describes flirting as a "civic duty" in France: "Flirting is the French drug of choice. It is the lifeblood that beats at the core of French society. Young women flirt. Older women flirt. Even feminists flirt."

Back to Dublin: An older woman engaged in some gentle flirting with a younger male friend of mine recently and was promptly branded a "gamey auld one" by his friends. It didn't impede her progress, though.

In a 2004 survey, just 15pc of French women in their 50s and 27pc in their 60s said they hadn't had sex in the past year. Of course, the French haven't been brainwashed to the same degree as we have. Consider how much older their cinematic sex symbols are compared to Hollywood. Catherine Deneuve (67), Isabelle Adjani (55), Emmanuelle Beart (47).

"They have roles not as old women but as women. Which means they're still considered to be desirable," says Daniele Laufer, author of the book 50 Ans? Vous Ne Les Faites Pas (50 Years Old? You Don't Look It).

Keren Smedley, author of Who's That Woman In The Mirror?, reminds us that only we have the power to make ourselves invisible. "Society can only make us invisible as we age if we allow it. If we all walked around with confidence, it wouldn't happen.

"I went to a restaurant once and a young woman and an older woman came in. The older woman was radiant, and everyone looked at her -- not the younger woman. When we get dressed up and go out, it's what we are thinking and feeling inside that matters, and it's that which actually comes across."

According to Smedley, we need a paradigm shift in our attitudes towards ageing. "In my experience, women can choose how to respond to the widespread myth that old means unattractive."

Myths need to be debunked: men don't get any better with age than women. Men -- old and young -- find older women attractive. Wrinkles are not a disfigurement.

Still got it? Why in God's name wouldn't they?

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