Embracing Ageing

I am 47. I cannot, hand on heart, say that I am ageing gracefully- it is more like being pulled along. Sometimes with my heels dug in and sometimes with much less resistance from the gracious reminder that I am lucky to still be here. I am more grateful than resistant to getting old and really my reluctance is that I have so much I want to do and experience, I am not ready for it to feel like any sort of ending.

I admit that occasionally I get stuck, which is easily done when the messages from everywhere are ‘young women are the pinnacle’. I am not a huge fan of my frown lines, the perimenopausal body changes and new plethora of aches and pains. They are not fun to experience, AND where do we hear/see that ageing is beautiful?  You trade on your youth and beauty as a young woman. Sometimes in the knowledge and sometimes oblivious to the patriarchal consumerism capitalising on the way you look. As a young woman, I remember the constant looks of strangers; a weird combination of feeling noticed and deeply uncomfortable. 

Consumerism exploits the attraction of youth by perpetuating the idea that youthfulness is synonymous with beauty, vitality, and success. This marketing strategy not only drives consumer spending but also reinforces harmful societal norms and expectations surrounding ageing and beauty. And we buy into it, literally and physically. 

Perhaps youth is so prized for women because it’s a measure of female fertility and this was traditionally the primary function of females in a patriarchal society. Across many centuries and in many cultures, motherhood was thought to be the pinnacle of female achievement. Women who could no longer reproduce were thought to have lost their value and could be easily marginalised or discarded. Fertility was never the primary measure of value for men.

Invisible Woman Syndrome

For some women, invisibility means a release from the expectations of youth and the pressure to attract a mate, and they no longer feel they have to be “on show”. They consider the invisibility that comes with being menopausal and an older woman as a superpower, giving them the ability to act without being judged or to simply not to care about being judged.

I don’t feel invisible, however, I have often felt minimised. I have been told I am too much, too opinionated, too loud, too tall, too big, too quiet, too American, not American enough, etc. 

In this same light, women have been invisible and minimised for a long time. How many women are in our history books? How many female artists are in our galleries? (How many female artists are in the National Gallery you ask?) In a collection of over 2,300 paintings spanning the 13th to early 20th century, there so few by women, 21 to be precise. 

So let’s not beat ourselves up for feeling invisible or minimised, the world was constructed to make that exactly so. What can we do? Whatever feels right for yourself! 

Well, it is not quite that simple. Being invisible can also mean being excluded from the workforce, financial precariousness, growing homelessness, bad health outcomes, just to name a few. Moreover, invisibility breeds silence and inaction in social policy, as the needs and concerns of older women are overlooked and dismissed. It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates the marginalisation of women as they age, robbing them of their agency and voice in a world that values youth and beauty above all else.

Our Bodies are Repositories of Pain

So when we get old enough not to care as much about what people think of us, we have to also deal with the build up of 50 years of pain. But the pain can be our teachers. I like the thinking of The School of Life’s recent post, 

WHAT YOUR BODY REVEALS ABOUT YOUR PAST

For well-founded reasons, we can end up imagining that the main clues to understanding who we are lie in our brains. It is words and memories that have the best chance of explaining — to ourselves and others — who we really are and what has happened to us.

But this is to ignore the extent of the evidence to be found in our bodies as to what sort of people we are and how our lives have unfolded. As the well-known phrase puts it, our bodies keep the score. But what is the score, and how can we discover it?

To generalise, our bodies are repositories of pain. The more difficult our trajectory to life has been, the more we are likely to feel negatively towards our bodies and the more troubles they are likely to give us. 

Two problems in particular stand out. Firstly, low bodily self-esteem. If early care-givers did not take a delight in our physical form, we are unlikely ever to be able to take pleasure in our own appearance. We will be tempted to interpret the gaze of others as hostile, we’ll look at ourselves in the mirror and flinch; we’ll feel sorry for a partner who has the misfortune to have to deal with us close-up. And equally, if a caregiver directed contempt towards our characters, a little of their disdain tends to wash over into our physical self-perception. Bad people must — we imagine — also be bad-looking people; we’re likely to identify with beetles, earthworms or crows.

Another way in which fear and trauma have physical consequences is that we may find it excruciatingly hard to let our limbs move in an energetic or uninhibited manner. Without being lazy in our lives in general, we might find it very difficult to take exercise — simply because this requires us to lose rational command. Dancing might be similarly difficult. Our way of walking and of holding our shoulders may indicate an ongoing lack of bend and sway.

Embracing Ageing In Your Own Way

What does that look like? Well, it does not look the same for everyone. Like most things, we like to oversimplify and tell women to age this way, work that way, be a mother, don’t be a mother, look young, do face yoga, embrace your grey… and none of it or all of it could be true for you. The beauty comes from figuring it out for yourself. 

Embracing ageing in your own way means rejecting societal norms and expectations and carving out your own path. It’s about finding what brings you joy and fulfilment, whether that’s dyeing your hair blue, pursuing a new career, travelling the world, or simply relishing the quiet moments of solitude.

So let’s settle for nothing less than living life unapologetically, in a style that is uniquely our own. 

By Alex Westfall

“In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction,” Lorde told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work.