How it really feels to be fifty

Cher thinks it sucks. Is she letting the side down, or being refreshing ly honest? Bel Mooney and some fellow fiftysomethings come clean

EVER since she arrived for one of the Oscar ceremonies wearing a cobweb-dress in which she looked witchy and magnificent, I have had a sneaking admiration for Cher. Her hippy-headband I Got You Babe youth was my youth, her determination to transform herself from singer into actress had an echo in my own life (journalism to novels), yet the bravado which poured her into that dress in her forties was like the unquenchable vanity which lured me into leather jeans. Now, when she says in an interview in People magazine "I hate my fifties. They suck. I never felt older until I hit fifty," I find myself applauding her honesty.

Helen Mirren, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie and other iconic glamorous women have all stated they do not mind the advent of the fifties; indeed,I have written it myself. When I reached my 50th birthday (a long 18 months ago) I celebrated the fact with two long, reflective articles in a national newspaper - and everything I said at the time I meant: "...I don't want to be 30 again. Not with the fire in me now." That sentiment was admirable if only for realism, let alone optimism and independence. Ah, but the mirror is a source of grief some days. What once seemed (speaks vanity) bewitching, and could wear the witchy with style, now looks, in some lights, straightforwardly like a witch. And like Cher, I hate that.

When I read her words I went to the bathroom and (since such honesty is catching) tweaked my face from above the ears to see what it would be like to lose the smile lines that have sagged. There is no philosophy in the world which can save me from this. I am a creature of the 1950s culture which put teenage girls into girdles, and "set" hair into waves and curls worthy of middle-aged women. I was brought up to think that appearance matters, and cannot understand how a close friend (exactly my age) can "allow" her hair to winter into great swathes of white. When once, inspecting my new red-brown, she asked, `Don't you want to grow old gracefully', my reply was blunt: "Sod that!"

Yet at the same time, I despise this obsession. When (wearing my hat of children's author) I visit schools, I am appalled to hear from head teachers of the increase in eating disorders in teenage girls, as well as the terrible general anxieties about looks that can make the lives of even primary children a misery.

When I note that fashion and beauty take up far more space in newspapers than 10 years ago, on the grounds that thus female readers will be attracted, I disapprove and yearn nostalgically (another sign of middle-age) for the days when I was a young journalist and this was the stuff of women's magazines. For me, the hysteria after the death of the Princess of Wales was no more, or less, than the canonisation of the clothes horse-horse: a fitting symbol for our appearance-obsessed era.

Of course, ageing matters all the more when (like Cher) your life depends on good looks. Even those who are not locked in that particular prison may feel sad (as I do) that they will never backpack around India, or ride pillion on a Harley, across the States. "I want, I want," cries the child inside the middle-aged person, and no amount of common sense will quieten those little wistful moans, or quell the jumping up to windows impossibly high.

The desperate assertions that being 50 is great, that ageing does not matter, fail to convince - even when uttered by someone as intelligent as Helen Mirren. Is that not to enter a state of denial which only serves to postpone the moment of horror? To admit that you hate getting older is the first stage towards dealing with it, and constructing a philosophical acceptance which will scaffold you far more surely than makeup or a facelift. The morning comes - and you may be 45, or 60 - when you realise that you are not as young as you feel but as old as you are. You have boarded the moving staircase and are being carried inexorably towards the grave - and all your scrabbling, and running backwards, and whoops of devil-may- care, cannot put you back again at the top where you were.

This is the dark note that runs through the interview with Cher. What is most interesting is that it seems to have been sparked off by the death of her ex-husband, Sonny Bono; as if, with the loss of the man she had fought with for years, she suddenly looked in the mirror and saw what TS Eliot called "the skull beneath the skin". The most significant quote in the whole interview is this: "I know it sounds weird but how bad, how hard, can dying be? I figure it's all right because he's done it and if he can do it I can do it. I just feel a little less anxious, a bit more comforted about being dead."

A few days after her 50th birthday George Eliot wrote to a friend: "... I have a deep sense of change within and of a permanently closer companionship with death." Another of my heroines, Simone de Beauvoir, wrote that at 50 she "seemed to have crossed a frontier", and yet at the same time, the truth of being older "remains foreign to me". Having expressed this universal paradox she goes on (in All Said and Done) to say: "I no longer feel the haunting anxiety of death that was so very strong in my youth. I have given up rebelling against it. The idea of my end is with me. Beneath my feet there stretches a road; behind me it emerges from the darkness and in front of me it plunges into the night."

That sense of brevity concentrates the mind most wonderfully, and is a good reason to look in the mirror with open eyes. Good advice to the middle-aged often involves "re-inventing yourself", yet again there is something desperate about seeking new roles, new selves. Perhaps the bravest thing to do is to accept the role of the dying: knowing that each day, in the flaking of your skin, and the beating of your heart, you are waning as surely as you were once waxing - and therefore there is no time to waste. I think about death each day of my life: it is in the "Mexican Day of the Dead" skulls that litter my study. And I find them good company.

The hardest thing is to convince people that this is not morbid. On the contrary, it is a reminder that behind the face in the mirror is a spirit, and now is the time to realise that things of the spirit have to be allowed their space. Beauty and sexuality - wicked and deceptive things that caused so much trouble - are hard to lose, but I love what I have brought along the way, without reinvention. I know there are many more books in me, but it does not particularly bother me if I write them, or take up painting again, or do the garden.

I tiptoe towards age with a husband of 30 years' standing, glad that the impulses of wild youth did not drive him away. With a son of 24 and a daughter of 18 who are a far greater achievement than backpacking across India. With parents and in-laws I love, and with dear friends with whom I share a conversation unto death. Music, painting, sculpture, books and the fields and trees and wildflowers outside my window matter to me now far more than they did when I was 30. I am overwhelmed with richness, and yet I am not afraid of the day when I have to give them up, and enter the darkness. Or the light.

Karine Vandergucht, 58, florist

"It took me seven years to accept I was in my fifties. At first I hated it. Even men in my own age group weren't interested in me because they thought I was too old. I've now got a partner who is five years older than me and things have settled down. But the sex I have now is definitely different than when I was in my forties."

Carole Tibbles, 52, clerical assistant

"I never wanted to be 50 and I was really annoyed when my partner threw a surprise party for me on my birthday. I don't think I'm ever going to accept that I'm in my fifties. I like to dress as young as I feel and I don't think I act my age. If I had the money I would consider plastic surgery."

Janice McIvor, 51, secretary

"I've always gone for older men, my present partner is 25 years older than me. So I really didn't mind turning 50. I feel more confident now because I have been around for a bit. I think you get to know yourself better. I certainly feel comfortable with the way I look. I'm less critical of myself than in the past."

Karen Proto, 54, retired

"My life didn't really change when I was 50. The radical shift came when I was in my forties, when my children reached adulthood. When they grew up, my husband and I had the freedom to spend the year sailing around the world in our yacht. It's a fairly physical thing, but I don't seem to have any less energy."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Operations and Administration Support Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Solar P...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Specialist

    £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is changing the way at...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor