By Rachel Lankester, Founder, Magnificent Midlife
So much of what we’ve learned to accept about midlife and aging is utter rubbish. It took me going through early menopause at 41 to wake up to the fact that women have been sold a load of nonsense when it comes to getting older.
This negativity exists mainly because there’s such a big gulf in our society’s (specifically men’s) perception of a fertile woman and an infertile one. We go through life learning that youth is best and that only the young are beautiful, sexy, creative, full of energy and so on, and we associate those things with fertility.
We find a mate by being our most attractive. Many of us compete with other women to be the most alluring mate for men. Because of this link between youth, vibrancy, beauty, and fertility, the idea of moving from being fertile to no longer fertile often fills us with dread.
What is our role as infertile woman? Where do we fit in? So much of a woman’s identity is wrapped up in her ability to reproduce (even if she doesn’t have children) that when that physical ability goes, many of us don’t know who we are anymore. And we often have a very negative perception of who we are
That’s certainly how I felt after my early menopause diagnosis, even though childbearing was only part of who I was. I walked out of that doctor’s office feeling ancient, that the best of my life was over. I let the diagnosis of menopause instantly change who I believed I was. How sad was I, thinking that?
But I had no idea who I was post-menopause. What was I supposed to do, think, feel? Who was I now, and what was left for me?
It’s acceptable for men to get older. There are few negative associations around men aging. They become silver foxes. They don’t become invisible when they have wrinkles and gray hair.
Their stature increases rather than diminishes as they age. And, of course, the ultimate injustice: they can continue to reproduce until the day they die (well, technically, anyway). Nick Nolte, Clint Eastwood, and Rod Stewart all sired a child at 66, and Mick Jagger was 73. But not us women.
Not only do our eggs have a use-by date, but we’re also taught to be ashamed of and cover up the signs of aging. We’re sold anti-aging products all our lives.
Older male actors are paired with women half their age in movies. Older male TV presenters can roll out of bed and into the TV studio, but not their female counterparts. The latter need hours in hair and makeup, and to be dyed, nipped and tucked to within an inch of their lives.
We’re made to feel shame for every wrinkle, sunspot or gray hair. We get the Botox, the facelifts, the hair dye. And we contribute to making older women invisible because we’re not looking the way nature meant us to look at this time of life.
We may believe it’s what we want and that we’re exercising freedom of choice. If you want Botox, go for it. However, I’d argue that the decision to get Botox isn’t just yours alone; you’re not making it in isolation. If you decide you want it, it’s likely because it’s what you’ve been taught to want. You’ve been taught to view your aging face a certain way, and I want to challenge that assumption.
I see wrinkles as the maps of our lives. I’ve earned mine! Crow’s feet show we’ve smiled a lot. I’ve also frowned a fair bit too (the lines between my eyebrows remind me of that), but that’s okay. What sunspots I have remind me that, even living in rainy old England most of my life, I’ve enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my face too.
We may look more tired as we age, but even that’s a personal judgment. Consider also that it’s possible we aren’t aware of the subconscious reasons we choose to change our looks. You’ve been taught that visibly aging skin is bad, or at least not as good as young skin. You’ve been taught to view your own face as less attractive if it shows signs of age or even just looks tired as you perceive it.
I have a confession to make here. As well as actually appreciating my wrinkles, I don’t dye my hair and never will. Apart from a few white hairs at the front, my hair still has its original color, just a bit lighter.
My mother at 87 is strawberry blond rather than the bright auburn she was when younger. She moans about how she’s lost a lot of color. I tell her not to be so daft.
Even though I’m not currently losing hair color, I like to think that if I did, I’d embrace it. I know many women prefer to cover their gray or white hair, but I think the way our hair changes color as we age suits our older skin tone.
Gray and white hair can look stunning. You’ve only got to look at the gorgeous British silver curve model Rachel Peru to see that. She didn’t become a model until she stopped using hair dye and let her natural hair color shine through. You can listen to her story on my Magnificent Midlife Podcast.
Of course, it’s a matter of personal choice, but, like the Botox, I’d argue the decision to cover silver hair isn’t a choice freely made because we’re inundated with messages that older women aren’t beautiful, vibrant, or sexy. We’re told that having natural silver hair ages us, and if we look older, we’ll be sidelined.
Women suffer ageism everywhere and particularly at work, where sexism enjoys having a friend to hang out with. Many women feel they have to cover up aging hair, in particular, to stay visible and relevant in the workplace and so they don’t disappear to those around them or those in authority. We can be subject to this prejudice at home too.
Menfolk who are perfectly happy to go gray themselves can sometimes pressure their partners to keep the dye. I know one woman whose husband is happy to dye her hair himself, rather than let it become the natural color it is. This seems rather sad to me. Even when the husband is himself older, he doesn’t want the world to see him with an older-looking woman. We can’t win, can we?
The marketing and advertising industries, and most importantly, the clients they serve, play a huge role in perpetuating the myth that youth is the best stage of life. They make a lot of money by cultivating our insecurities and promoting misogynistic myths and stereotypes. There’s so much money to be made from hair dye, anti-aging products, Botox, face-lifts, and stay-younger-longer treatments.
Just imagine if all women, as I used to, purchase anti-aging products constantly from age 20, for life! We also tend to try out the more expensive ones as we get older and perhaps have more money available, just to see if the claims are true. Try doing the calculation on your own spending, then multiply it by billions.
The global anti-aging market was estimated to be worth US$44 billion in 2021 and predicted to be worth US$58 billion by 2026. That’s a national economy right there, predicated on the myth that signs of female aging need to be hidden.
Many companies have a lot invested in maintaining these myths. “Youth is best” messages keep us as the captive buying audience. Remember how smoking used to be so cool we all wanted to do it? We finally woke up to the truth behind that marketing campaign.
Youth is when we’re smarter, quicker and most attractive, right? No, I believe we’re smarter, at least in terms of the stuff we know, and potentially just as quick and attractive, as we progress through life.
A perfect body is a young one, correct? No, a perfect body is one that functions in good health and allows us to do everything we want to do. Youth doesn’t mysteriously bestow some magical luster of beauty or perfection. We’ve just been brainwashed to believe it does.
Being a bit older doesn’t change who you fundamentally are. It doesn’t lessen you in any way. I’d argue age can make women more attractive, not less. I see great beauty in older women’s faces, as our character sets in and our bone structure becomes more defined.
I believe my mother is still beautiful at 87, and also that her most “typically” attractive decade was her 50s, when she really grew into her features. Our beauty doesn’t diminish as we age; it evolves. One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met was the incredible yogi, Tao Porchon-Lynch, who sadly died at age 101.
I met her when she was 99. The beauty that radiated out of her was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, utterly breathtaking and infectious. Her smile was a sight to behold. I’d been a fan for several years when I finally met her in the flesh. I was so overwhelmed, I cried, soft melt that I am! To me, she was the essence of true beauty.
So if you’re feeling sad about getting older, try to see aging in a new light. This article is an extract from my book – Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond. There’s lots more in that to help you see the possibilities inherent in getting older and to transform how you feel about yourself as you age. There’s also my Magnificent Midlife Podcast to inspire you.
You are magnificent. And you always will be. You get better with age, not worse.
Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, author, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age. Get her book Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond.