Angela Neustatter: Why can't we grow old disgracefully?

'I don't think it's about trying to look younger, rather it's saying I'll do it my way and if it offends, then it's your problem'
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I have always viewed Joan Collins with admiration, affection and not a touch of envy. Would that I could reach pensionable age and have the courage to be as flamboyantly glamorous as she is. She belongs to that cast of women who are remembered as much for their iconic style as their performing – Sophia Loren, and earlier Mae West and Marlene Dietrich are others that spring to mind.

Ageing, in their book, does not mean giving up on having the style and glamour they have cultivated and, it seems, enjoyed thus far, although it may mean increasingly submitting to scalpel maestros, the cosmetic peel and longer hours in the gym. But that's their choice. As one, they have challenged the notion that a certain age must look a certain way. They are mediums for the message delivered by Gloria Steinem when an interviewer remarked that she didn't look 60: "This is what 60looks like".

This is not a universal view. Last week, in an attack of stunning savagery, a woman journalist writing in a Sunday newspaper laid into Joan Collins and her ilk (Cher and Jerry Hall and Nancy Reagan were, rather improbably, lumped together here) for being petrified fossils, women who do not have the courage to grow up and grow old. There was even a cute little acronym AGED – Antique Glamourpuss Evading Decrepitude – to underline how unacceptable their way is.

This was not an isolated example. For some time it's been open season for women writers to rehearse this well-worn argument. They attack older women who dare to dress or look in a way these self-appointed arbiters of appropriateness conclude is ill-fitting to their life stage and, worse still, an offence to the rest of us who have to look at them.

You could feel the repugnance in the words of one young writer recently contemplating the sight of women over 30 wearing bikinis in public places and displaying, heaven help us, mature flesh. In the same tenor was the sneering condemnation of Cher when she wore spangled fishnet at an Oscar presentation: "She gave the clearest demonstration that, like many women of a similar age, she has failed to absorb life's greatest fashion secret – how to dress your age. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is just not of recent-enough vintage to carry off spray-on Lycra."

So what's it all about? Where is that bottom line of feminism I battled for, that women support women in doing and being what they wish so long as they don't harm others? Are these sisters writing out of heartfelt concern for those who have reached that life-stage the French so charmingly label sans age and cannot see how much happier they would be to grow old naturally, settling for the twinkly granny look with clothes that won't frighten the horses.

The trouble is it's not quite like that. Since people first started scratching symbols on papyruses they've expressed their distaste at the look of ageing, and many of their horrified reactions are collated by Wayne Booth in his anthology The Art of Growing Older. Take the Romans. Surveying older women, they described them as: "flabby, loose-lipped, worn-out". And Shakespeare inveighed endlessly against the distastefulness of women losing their youth. Who wants to be seen as having "thy beauty's field" reduced to "a tattered weed of small worth" just because you've notched up four decades?

There's a lot of sanctimonious mythology around, more often than not expounded by babes, about the virtues of growing old gracefully. What it actually means for many women, as I discovered when I interviewed almost 100 for my book on mid-life, This is Our Time, is being rendered invisible, society assuming they've packed away the libido with the miniskirts.

There is, however, an interesting, and important question lurking in the middle of all this sisterly hostility, and that is: why do these women want to write this stuff, where does their venomous passion come from? In other words, what is pulling their strings? I am interested by the thoughts of the psychotherapist Diana Laschelles, who sees it as a female enactment of the Oedipal fantasy: "An attack on the idea of the mother who will not move over and make a place for her daughter to grow up and have her time.

"Instead of fading down she is asserting herself with style and sexuality in the way that younger women need to do. So in order for these younger women to have centre stage they must, in psychological terms, murder the impostor mother and trample over her body. The savagery of what is said about older women who will not behave 'appropriately' suggests this is what is going on."

So what these writers are saying, in their distorted way, is that it is important for them to have an older generation that feels appropriate, parental or even grand-parental. The psychoanalyst Joan Reggiori sees the fear of younger people who know that they too will have to face the ageing process, and deal with the implicit threat older people represent of what is to come by trying to control them, deciding what is appropriate for someone in their middle to later years.

It's a subject close to my heart being no spring chicken myself, although I have chosen to go the defiant route. I continue to wear skirts as short as ever because my legs are precisely the same shape and size they ever were. I love a swooping decolletage and I'm game for all the cosmetic help I can get to make me look decorative. But I don't think it is about trying to look younger, rather it's saying I'll do it my way, thank you, and go on enjoying presenting myself in a way that pleases me – and if it offends you, baby, then it's your problem.

Perhaps it would be more noble if so-called AGEDs put narcissism aside and trooped off to the developing world to save starving children, but if that's what we would applaud it's rank hypocrisy. We live in a culture that deifies nothing more than glamour and beauty, and do little to challenge it, so why should those who respond to this message the way Joan Collins et al do be dealt the verbal machete?

It would be a lot more more constructive, to say nothing of compassionate, if writers learnt what their psychic fears were, found a way to come to terms with them and stopped attacking miscreant middle-agers. Instead, they could challenge a culture that has youth and image as its gold standard and where beauty competitions begin with babyhood. After all, if we are going to talk straight, the elderly are seen, with a few notable – usually rich and successful – exceptions, as a nuisance, overloading the NHS and making us feel guilty when we tuck them away in homes.

Maybe if this was reversed and we celebrated older generations for what they know and have experienced, they might not choose the glamour route as the way to go on being noticed and keep their audience. But I doubt it. I think those attacking the donning of curly wigs, slinky gowns and lipgloss you could get mired in, and the temerity to think they look good, in women of a bit more than a certain age, are missing the point.

These grandes dames are having fun; they know precisely what they are about, and don't give a toss if it upsets the puritan sisters.

neustatter@dial.pipex.com

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