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
Thursday 28 May 1998
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."
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