Jennifer O’Connell: Where are the older female role models to emulate?
Women's writing for Women's Day: For older men in the public eye, there are far more choices than ‘shockingly sexy for his age’ or ‘amusingly eccentric’
Helen Mirren: The problem with her is – well, there’s no problem with Helen Mirren. At 71, she is still opinionated, acerbic and relevant. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA
It’s official: I am getting older. I have moved the slider on my phone to “larger size” text. More than once recently, I caught the pained expression of younger colleagues as I recounted my fascinating adventures with DOS computing, in the days before the internet.
There are visible signs too. After a particularly stressful week last summer, I woke to a deep fissure in the space between my eyebrows. I showed it to my mother, a woman for whom the term “ageing elegantly” might have been invented.
“Look,” I said, prodding it with my finger. “There’s some kind of stress fracture in my face.”
“I think,” she said gently, “that might be a line.”
I drank lots of water, massaged my face, contemplated stretching the skin out with a Band Aid while I slept. The stress receded, but the fissure did not.
I have begun parsing photographs for other signs of decay, zooming into the areas under my eyes which, when I smile, have begun to resemble the Nile delta. I am determined to resist the temptation to have my face buffed and filled and plumped until I could pass for an inflatable snowman, although I am slightly less determined than I was at 38.
It’s not really the ageing itself I dread though. It is the prospect of becoming invisible. Recently, I had dinner with some much-loved friends who had not all been together in the same room for close to 20 years. Now in our 40s, we have accomplished things with our careers and still have lots more we want to do. We have lovely families. Being part of that generation who were buying houses in the pre-crash years, we are not – and will never be – rich, but we are content. And we look better than we did 20 years ago.
The conversation turned to ageing, specifically to the paucity of older female role models for us to emulate.
“There’s Helen Mirren, ” someone said.
“Yes, there is Helen Mirren,” we agreed. Then we fell silent.
The problem with Helen Mirren is – well, there’s no problem with Helen Mirren. At 71, she is still opinionated, acerbic and relevant. She is still working. She looks fantastic on the red carpet, better again photographed unawares in a swimsuit – better than most of us do at 30 years her junior.
The problem with Helen Mirren is that, whenever you ask someone to name an older female role model, they’ll say Helen Mirren, who is no more representative of the average woman than Dromoland Castle is representative of the bog-standard Irish bungalow. Given a little more time to think about it, they might mention Meryl Streep, who is 67, or Julianne Moore, at 56.
But where do all the other opinionated, accomplished, gorgeous 40-somethings vanish to once they reach their 50s? Why are so few of them visible on our TV screens, in billboards and in magazines?
The vast majority of us who are not blessed with being Helen Mirren, and don’t wish to become invisible once we bypass the age of reproductive usefulness, have two choices. We can either give into the anti-ageing creams, the needles and the fillers; we can punish our bodies and surgically incise every ounce of pleasure from our lives, until we risk looking like a joyless, lifeless carapace, in the hope that people will still listen to us. Or we can embrace the lines and the grey hair and the squishy bits and succumb to being pigeon-holed as “wacky”, one of those smart and amusing older women who gets invited on the telly in the hopes that they will shock the audience by talking about their sex lives or urinary incontinence issues.
For older men in the public eye, there are far more choices than “shockingly sexy for his age” or “amusingly eccentric”. A man of 70 can go on TV and look like a man of 70 and no one will bat an eyelid. If a woman of 70 goes on TV looking like a woman of 70, she’s making a political statement.
That’s not to say that there are not many accomplished and gorgeous older women doing worthwhile things off-camera. You’ll find them on the radio, in newspapers, on Twitter, lining the shelves of bookstores. You’ll find them in academia, in the sciences and in the corporate world. You’ll find them delivering babies, saving lives, saving the world.
Where you probably won’t find them is filling TV screens, splashed across the cover of glossy magazines, or holding the stage at conferences. And that’s a shame. By not inviting them into the spotlight, we’re not just denying them – we’re denying ourselves the chance to hear their perspective, learn from their wisdom, admire their accomplishments and be amused by them (the older women of my acquaintance are very witty).
Here’s the thing. Ageing is not a sign of personal inadequacy, a failure of personal care, a lack of Botox funds or some eccentric lifestyle decision. Ageing, in fact, is the only alternative to dying. The fact that you’ve made it this far is something worth celebrating.
Just ask any man.