For some women turning 50 can herald a stylish rebirth, finds Jane Shillingby Jane Shilling / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
These are peak times, apparently, for middle-aged women. As a cohort, we enjoyed both free university education and jobs (with pensions attached) in which we might choose to remain for years—even decades. While still in our twenties or thirties even those of us with modest incomes could afford to buy a flat, gradually trading up to the family homes to which our children now return as young adults, reclaiming their childhood bedrooms so that they can save for the remote possibility of one day being able to afford a place of their own.
All that saving means that we parents have disposable income, a fact of which the fashion, cosmetics and entertainment industries are acutely aware. Clothes manufacturers from high street to haute couture vie to include middle-aged and older women in their advertisements. The faces of Helen Mirren (70), Joan Didion (81) and Iris Apfel (94) gaze from the pages of glossy magazines. Each season, some young model is hailed as the new Kate Moss before being reabsorbed into the mass of beautiful young women, while the old Kate Moss, now 42, appears on the cover of Vogue with undiminished regularity.
As on the catwalk, so in the corridors of power: Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey may not yet signify the equal representation of women in business and public life, but they are harbingers of its progress.
With a voice in the public domain far greater than those of our mothers, and real estate that our children can only dream of, we ought to be the happiest middle-aged generation in history. But to read the literature is to find a curious disjunction between the confident media image and the anxious, foreboding narratives of female middle age.
Both self-help books and memoirs seem haunted by dismay: a feeling of lost identity, of powerlessness, invisibility, intractable physical symptoms and intimations of mortality all the more baleful because their cause is biological, rather than economic or political, and thus less easily addressed by meliorist aspiration.