40 Is Not The New 20

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A few years ago I saw an interview with Madonna that has stuck in my mind like a grass seed. She would have been about 46 at the time, and she said "I look so much better now than I did at 20." Pardon? I waited for some kind of objection to this, but the women on the interview panel quietly nodded their heads.

I have no objection to a woman claiming beauty at any age, but her comment heralded a real change in our perception of women’s bodies. I went to look up photos of the Madonna I remembered as a teenager. There she was, rounded, glowing and young. Whatever the nature of our beauty as older women, it is not the fullness of youth. To compare the 20-year-old to the 46-year-old is not only preposterous, but also unfair.

More recently I was talking with a friend who was wondering how she would bear the inevitable spread coming with menopause. She told me how a mentor of hers said that she simply reached a stage when she stopped looking in the mirror. It stopped mattering to her. My friend and I looked at each other in dismay. To us, both quite vain lovers of clothes, this was an unimaginable prospect.

There is something deeply stunted and sinister about the focus on physical appearance expected of women later in life. We know all too well that 40 is not the new 20. Not simply because we have lost our physical youth, but because the level of self absorption required to maintain culturally sanctioned "sexiness" into late adulthood interferes with the developmental tasks that call us at this time.

How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? For many of us, the hours lost in the pursuit of physical perfection can be life draining. Is it now meant to go on forever? As another friend asked, "When can I let myself go?"

Even pregnancy is now meant to leave us unchanged. Any woman who has lamented her changed body after giving birth has heard at least once the reply, "Well at least you got a baby in the end." Quite literally, thank you. And now, are we meant to go back to how we were before? As if this is possible on any level. Or desirable.

I suspect that among the reasons we are not allowed to let ourselves go anymore, lurks our current allergy to grief and regret. Do I miss a young body? Of course I do. I miss pain-free mornings, young feet and smooth skin.

Getting older, like any form of moving forward, involves mourning. And it’s especially hard to do this when we have so little to look forward to, and so few friendly ears for our complaints. Middle-aged women are now entering specialist eating disorder clinics in numbers never seen before. As it does with young women, this points to a level of despair that goes way beyond the control of an uncontrollable body.

Perhaps we are tempted to hang on to the past because there is so little public acceptance of older women’s physicality in the public arena. Have a look at women in their 40s on television. There is a strong template here of a caricature of the female. Long wavy locks, big eyelashes and the obligatory high heels. Do we see a new permissiveness afoot? Is there any evidence that our ideas about gender or ageing are being expanded? It looks to me like a new gender straightjacket locking us into an even narrower physical universe. It’s a drag show — without the fun.

One of my concerns with our current fixation with how sexy and young we can look over-40 is that we are in danger of stealing young people’s thunder. Just at the age when many of our children are in their teenage years, our own focus on physical appearance is amped up.

We only have one full-length mirror in our house and I would be seriously hampering my 14-year-old daughter’s mirror time if I spent too long there myself. Besides, truth be told, I rather admire her. In the interests of grounded research, I asked her the other day what she thought of all the attention given to older women’s looks in the media. No punches pulled here. "We don’t really understand it," she said. "Don’t you have other things to do? We don’t think you’re hot." OK then.

Women can be beautiful whatever their age — obviously. But youthful beauty deserves celebration — even in a culture that worships youth to the point of denying its passing. My grandmother was an incredibly stylish woman. She dressed beautifully and was interested in fashion well into her 80s. But I was never encouraged to see her as sexy, nor as particularly youthful. Her beauty existed on a plane of sophistication I have yet to visit — one that only comes with great physical acceptance and comfort.

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