A very dodgy foundation

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The Independent Online
IT IS not, I concede, a matter of world-shaking importance; but to women like me, of a certain age (as the patronising phrase goes, meaning over 35), it is significant that at 41, Isabella Rossellini is considered too old to be beautiful. She's been advertising cosmetics for the last 15 years (I refuse to specify whose, but the firm's pretty ordinary products benefited a good deal by Ms Rossellini's association with their name), but her contract, which runs through 1995, reportedly will not be renewed.

Her character-filled face made a change from most young models, whose placid, flawless features look as though no idea more complicated than 'Gee, my hair looks pretty neat]' has ever crossed their minds. Ms Rossellini's face had a thoroughly lived sort of look. As the daughter of Ingrid Bergman she inherited genetic beauty; but her own exploits as actress, wife, mistress, mother and model filled out that inheritance with the look of a contemporary woman who has known some ecstatic and some harrowing times, and learned a thing or two along the way.

Being 54 myself, I am passionately opposed to the idea that the only possible beauty is young beauty. This is not to say that I don't admire and enjoy the physical appearance of the young. I love it. My daily Tube journeys are made more pleasurable by the sight of smooth young faces; I find my own children and step- children, aged between 15 and 30, enchantingly, touchingly attractive, although that attraction is often masked by the drawn tiredness of young parenthood or the preoccupied frown of work or study; but I neither can nor wish to emulate their youthful looks.

Quite the contrary. I feel a mixture of exasperation and pity for women like Joan Collins, Raquel Welch and Jane Fonda, who try so desperately and so publicly to preserve their faces of decades ago. Exasperation, in case men are hoodwinked into thinking that if the 62-year-old Ms Collins can present a simulacrum of youth for the paparazzi, surely their own wives of 30 or 40 years should be able to do the same. For heavens' sake, I want to tell them: don't you see it's her job? Looking young and attractive is a full-time preoccupation for these ageing actresses, and they spend thousands of hours and many thousands of pounds every year on it. Give your wife the same budget for beauty products and treatment, treble the sum you first thought of for brilliantly engineered underwear and wickedly well-cut dresses, and she too would look much like Ms Collins. But she'd still be 62.

And this is where the pity comes in. Poor Ms Collins, Ms Welch, Ms Fonda, vainly chasing the shadows of their once-youthful selves. Their lives must have been peculiarly unsatisfying if in the fullness of maturity they have acquired so little wisdom and serenity that their one aim is to look like ignorant, inexperienced 20-year-olds.

The cosmetics company may be surprised by the backlash. Women may indeed be vain, they may like to indulge themselves with new face creams or lipsticks, they may fall for the blandishments of advertising and packaging, the seductiveness of a fantasy half hour whiled away at a cosmetics counter. But they are not half-witted. They know, really, in the realistic, budget-balancing, grandchild-minding, birthday card-sending part of their brain that no cream can make them look truly young again.

The great thing about Isabella Rossellini was that the promise her face held out was believable. If I use that cream (and eat sensibly, stop smoking, and get plenty of fresh air and exercise), one thought optimistically, I might just be able to look 44 (in a good light, on a good day, after a good night's sleep and a week without alcohol). But could I ever look 18? Come on. What sort of an idiot do they take me for?

Over the last few decades, largely triggered by feminism, there has been a real revolution in the lives of middle-aged women. My mother was typical

of her generation: middle-aged at 35, old at 40. I can still remember how poignantly, on her 40th birthday, she wept - as though all the fun had gone out of her life. I'm old, was her cry; nobody will be interested in me, flirt with me, dance with me, ever again.

It didn't cross my mind to think like that at 40, nor yet at 50, nor do I suppose it will at 60. Today's older women can have lives as vigorous and involved in the world and their jobs as older men. That central role is reflected in their faces: full of interest, energy, curiosity and confidence. My female contemporaries look wonderful. They have far too much intelligence to make themselves ridiculous by trying to look girlish, but what they do have is the beauty of an assured style, and control over their own lives. Isabella Rossellini had it, too. Now she's gone. Pity.

Why should the fate of a model - who, it is rumoured, earned dollars 2m a year - matter? Because it is symptomatic, in an unconscious and thus all the more sinister way, of the attitude that women are valuable only as young breeders or status symbols, and that an older woman is superannuated, used-up, ludicrous and redundant. That attitude must be fought and exposed every time it rears its ugly head.

Beatrix Campbell's column in future will appear on Tuesdays.