Around ten years ago, my sister and I joined my mum for a walk down Portobello Road. At some point while the three of us ducked our heads in and out of the antique shops, we heard a man shout ‘you look beautiful’. Sibling rivalry reared its head, and my sister turned to me and said ‘he meant me, obviously,’ to which I quickly retaliated ‘shut up, Mick – I’m wearing my new skirt so it’s clearly me.’ My mum, then in her early sixties, tossed her head of immaculately highlighted hair, fixed us with her perfectly-lined blue eyes, and said ‘oh no girls, it was me.’
Only now, I’m told left right and centre that unless I can preserve the appearance of youth while simultaneously gaining the wisdom of ever more years, that I will have less and less value. I am told this through adverts, which still peddle photos of models in their early twenties despite trying to sell creams that only an older demographic need or could afford. I am told this when hired for video jobs, and youth and relevance are discussed as if they were synonymous. I was told this just last week when I was sat in a bar, happily sipping the wine that I could afford to buy without eating into my overdraft, and heard a group of men openly discuss how a woman who was on a dating app in her mid thirties was likely to ‘be desperate to lock the relationship down because they’re at that age,’ as if all women revert to some pre-conditioned hunt for a husband as the years pass.
I am 32. Not old by any stretch of the imagination, and yet I am not only now aware of the pejorative terms used when others describe ageing, but also that I am suddenly, in the eyes of others, at an age at which I ought to start fretting about wrinkles and what not. Never is this revealed more than on the occasion when someone finds out that I’m the towering age of 32 and then proclaims (probably in an attempt to be charming) that I could ‘pass’ for someone in their mid-twenties.
This galls me. I know it’s meant as a compliment, and comes from a good place, but it makes me rage because I feel that if people are already starting to consider me to be of an age at 32, what on earth are my prospects in life by the time I’m 50? I don’t want to be poisoned by this view and find that I hate what I see in the mirror in thirty years time (if indeed, I’m privileged enough to have the good fortune to sidestep the myriad illnesses that may rob me of my life). I don’t want to feel less valuable in my job becomes I don’t look twenty, or for my future self to feel that the young version of me had a greater currency simply because she had clocked fewer years.
What really bothers me is that there seems to be this collective wisdom that looking 20 is somehow intrinsically more agreeable than looking 40/50/80. It locks every person living in a battle that can never be won. If we triumph over death, we will age. Daily. It’s a fact of life. But the attitude that ageing should be fought as if it were a cancer doesn’t have to persist. At the very least, perhaps we women can try to adopt the viewpoint of men towards the process – because it can’t be denied that there is a feminist side note to the ageing thing. Or perhaps it isn’t a side note at all. Perhaps it’s right at the core of it, nestled in plain view. As Carrie Fisher once said: “men don’t age better than women, they’re just allowed to age.” And she’s right, of course. George Clooney is rarely described as ‘hot, for a dilf’ – he is merely hot. Brad Pitt at 20 or 50: gorgeous. No caveats. No aside about his softening abs or advancing crow’s feet.
But I’m not the only one who is keen for a new chapter in how women are encouraged to view themselves to begin. The internet is currently alight with positive attitudes towards ageing, with Kathleen Baird-Murray writing a stirring piece on the decline of the term ‘anti-ageing’ in marketing (about time!) for the FT, the rise of ever-older models (Lauren Hutton was on the cover of Vogue Italia recently, Gareth Pugh used models of all ages in his AW17 show, as did Simone Rocha), and the #advancedstyle movement spearheaded by Ari Seth Cohen on Instagram currently has over 73k posts, allowing older women a space on the internet to break away from the annoyingly narrow ‘milf’ role and style themselves as they see fit to let personality and individuality shine through. I choose to align myself with this camp, and would like to continue to be whatever version of me I choose to be at 35, at 40, at 50 – whether that permutation comes in a twinset or leather trousers.
That all said, I am a Beauty Editor so the quest to define my version of ageing is more complex than simply letting wrinkles amass and having fun with colour. My decisions will inform my work, and vice versa. It seems that there are decisions to be made. And right at the forefront? To botox, or not to botox? I vote not right now, as I don’t like ageless, frozen faces and personally don’t (yet) have any of the frown lines that would make a good argument for botox of the preventative variety. I also have concerns following a chat with top facialist Nichola Joss about the negative effects of taking that route: “botox paralyses a muscle, which means it atrophies – over time, that will mean your face structure changes.” This makes sense to me, given that celebrities who’ve relied heavily on botox start to look not younger, but different. Fillers are also out – I have seen too many faces take on that homogenous duck-like, preternaturally plump aspect so, again, unless something dramatically caves in, I’ll avoid them for now.
But grooming and a more assiduous approach to exercise and health is decidedly in. It is here that I think the real impact can be made in which trajectory ageing takes. I have started to cover greys (if my whole head of hair turned grey like Sarah Harris’s, I’d be delighted and wear it with pride, but the odd strand to my mind looks messy and unkempt), have manicures, wax, and tend to my brows with regularity. I’m also taking a holistic approach, with movement, reducing stress, and eating well with a view to gut health all being part of my ageing plan. As will using good skincare. This leads me to another topic that’s having a moment, with the question on everyone’s lips being ‘how can a cream stop, or even slow, the inexorable hands of time as marketers would have us believe?’
The answer: it can’t. Of course it can’t. Ageing cannot be stopped, unless you die. And even if a cream really did impact cellular health (and some do), that wouldn’t be the whole story – the appearance of ageing is the result of so much more than wrinkles, with everything from the network of muscles lying under the skin to the lymph playing a part. I will of course continue to use great serums, seeding in retinols (which are proven to boost skin and encourage it to behave more youthfully), acids and of course using SPF whenever I’m outside, because they condition and bolster skin – and well-cared for skin reflects light and retains elasticity far better than the neglected variety.
Ultimately, I want to be like those women I saw growing up. I want to feel that I gain wisdom with each year, and that my unadulterated face isn’t something that has to be tugged at or hidden away to conform to someone else’s idea of beauty. I want to do me until the day I die and, if I ever have daughters, I’d like to be able to strut down a street with them, eyeliner on, hair coiffed, and feel every bit as valuable as I did when I was their age.