What is it like to be a woman in her 40s in the 21st Century? I’m not sure, because as far as my head is concerned, I don’t feel 40. But then again, what is ‘being in your 40s’ supposed to feel like, anyway? I’m pretty sure there’s no benchmark; and anyway it’s all subjective. My mother always used to say (and I dismissed her, naturally) that you never really feel older; you never change inside and are still the person you were at 18 – it’s only other people’s reactions to you – and the fact you don’t recognise yourself in the mirror – which change.
I am beginning to find this to be true – there is a very real sense of ‘disappearing’ in terms of visibility to society and especially to men – I’m no longer in the ‘attractive’ age range, therefore I am becoming useless in a society which bases importance and worth entirely on youth and sexual attractiveness. This shouldn’t matter to me – I used to delude myself that I wasn’t that shallow – but this is the world I grew up in and it sets women (and men too, but this is subjective to my experience, therefore I am writing from a cis-white female perspective) up to fail as soon as the bloom of youth begins fading. It’s both not surprising and disappointing the extent to which this hurts and bothers me. I clearly grew up placing great importance and deriving much self-esteem on completely worthless premises such as how ‘pretty’ I was perceived to be. As though it was somehow an achievement. It wasn’t. It isn’t. And this resultant feeling of slowly growing an invisibility cloak is extremely strange.
If you want to know exactly how it feels, imagine yourself as an 18 year old woman in the prime of life – newly mature, the world ahead of her, popular, relatively successful and happy with herself and – suddenly waking up (in a 13-going-on-30 kind of way) and seeing wrinkles on your face and a body that you don’t associate as yours looking back at you from the mirror; in addition a new lethargy and slight aches as you go about your day that you don’t remember feeling before. Then go outside and realise that people aren’t paying you a lot of attention – it’s almost like you’ve slipped into another dimension. The free coffees, offers of help, and willing smiles you used to get (from both sexes, I’m not just man-bashing here, but society-bashing – everyone loves youth) are gone. You become aware that all of that attention was only there because you used to fit a certain norm – and now you don’t.
It’s bewildering. You haven’t changed, nor have your interests. You’re still a nice person, and hopefully an interesting one, with valid and informed opinions. But everyone’s just being slightly different towards you; a bit patronising, as though you’re a child; a bit amused at you trying to express preferences for any particular new music or fashion trends – how can you possibly like them, you’re old; a bit dismissive if you try to assert yourself, as though your opinions don’t matter anymore.
You watch films and realise that the (extremely few) female characters your age in them are routinely played by women on average 5-10 years younger than the characters themselves – god forbid we show an actual older woman actually aging (this is particularly galling if, like me, you are/ were an actor – bye-bye, interesting roles). Then you notice that these characterisations don’t resemble you in the slightest bit and they don’t resemble any woman you know. Absolutely nothing recognisable is on the screen; and you certainly NEVER see anyone your age being a protagonist – after all, you’re middle-aged; your story is over.
It’s disconcerting and discombobulating to say the least (at last I get to use discombobulating in a sentence – that is a tick off my bucket list). You still have ambitions and dreams. You still feel young. However everywhere you turn for some sort of recognition or reassurance, you get the message that you’re past it. I assume this is an unfortunate rite of passage which everyone my age goes through, due to the youth-centric nature of media which is completely entrenched in our society. It isn’t a club I asked to join, yet here I am, my membership card thrust upon me.
Even more terrifying is the realisation which comes along with this mid-life process – the knowledge that this will still be the case when I am 50, 60, 70, 80…my mind will be exactly as it is now, exactly as it was when I was 20 and 30, and yet I’ll be subject to increasingly infuriating infantilisation by the people who surround me.
I am no longer surprised that the elderly often have a reputation for being grumpy. To them, they are still the same 18-year-old talking to other 18-year-olds and cannot fathom why they are being treated like their humanity has diminished to the level of a beloved pet. It’s fucking humiliating, and it’s something that needs to be noticed. That old guy crossing the street so slowly wishes he was jogging, and that elderly lady at the checkout making you huff and puff at the time she is taking to retrieve the change from her purse is completely aware of her slowness and just wishing her body would still respond quickly to her brain. THEY ARE YOU – it’s only the outside which differentiates them. Try to remember that. It’s important.
Can we also stop making fun of older people who like what they like? Especially if it isn’t considered something they ‘should’ like. You think I’m too old for Snoopy nightshirts and Pusheen slippers? Fuck you, they make me happy. Laughing at this sort of thing is literally setting yourself up for the same humiliation in 20 years’ time, and it’ll occur before you realise it. (And then you’ll write a blog post about it, and everyone your age/ older will know exactly what you mean, and everyone younger will think you’re over-dramatising or talking bollocks, as things won’t be the same for them, how could they, the world is entirely theirs.)
We’ve got to start looking at people’s souls instead of their meat-suits (yeah I like Supernatural, too. Too old? Well, I also watch Markiplier. Fuck off). The sooner we realise that people are people their entire lives, not just within the arbitrary, tiny chronological parameters set by the world we live in, the better the world will become.
Now go and visit your Grandma (or Grandpa, or Great-Aunt Jane). Take her a decent malt whisky, a good movie, and watch it with her. Gossip. Maybe paint her nails. Treat her exactly as you would your 22-year-old flatmate, and then watch with pleasure as she shines.