LIFE begins at 40, they used to say. What they meant was that was when it ended. The sex games would never be so dizzying again, attractiveness had drizzled away; now was the time to find solace in hobbies, and a consoling interest in others. But Joan Collins (right) is 60 today (though she says she feels '39 inside'), and for her the sex games are apparently much as ever: she described herself this week 'leaping all over' her new partner, Robin Hurlstone, 33. And she has promised to bring out a beauty book and video this year 'to share her secrets with other women'.

Do other women want Joan's secrets? With her carefully outlined lips and trowelled-on make-up, how suitable a role model is she for grown-up people? In The Change, her book on the menopause, Germaine Greer argues that 'a grown woman should not have to masquerade as a girl to remain in the land of the living'.

It isn't only Joan however, who is offered as a girlish ideal of the middle-aged female. This month's Esquire carried a feature called 'In praise of older women', in which the lavishly photographed few - Joanna Lumley (left), Isabella Rossellini, Selina Scott, Isabelle Adjani, Jane Birkin - all looked like younger women. They represented an ideal which it is practically impossible for anyone who lives a vaguely normal life to achieve. What is more, it is an airbrushed, meretricious ideal: I visited Jane Birkin at home in Paris last year and she didn't look even remotely like her picture in Esquire.

Perhaps though, women like these images of perfection? While it may not be possible to look absolutely fabulous yourself, perhaps it is encouraging to think that Joanna Lumley does - and that being over 40, or even 50, doesn't mean that the only interesting thing that can possibly happen to you now is that you might become a granny.

The truth seems to be that most women feel muddled. Middle age throws into relief long-felt confusions about whether anxiety about looks is beneath a woman's dignity, or whether one might as well just make up and play the game. Some are resolutely insouciant, others mourn the loss of a prop. Most, in varying degrees, feel both: they would like to believe, with Germaine Greer, that 'there are positive aspects to being a frightening old woman,' but they can't, quite, see what they are.

(Photographs omitted)