Clive James famously described the face of Barbara Cartland as a flock of crows embedded in a chalk cliff. A cruelly accurate and witty description that distils the social contempt for old women. Let us not forget, for all his extraordinary cleverness, Clive was also a fat, bald man with bad teeth, and whatever his private awareness of the realities of his own appearance, it was not held against him. What were Barbara’s sins but presuming to continue the habit of beauty, developed as a prewar debutante, and to peddle romantic fantasies?
A fact of ageing for women is a growing sense of estrangement from one’s face: it no longer seems to reflect the person you imagine yourself to be. This can happen incidentally: during a visit to Specsavers to choose new reading glasses, I peered into the mirror and was shocked by what I saw. Was this tired, creased, saggy, muzzy-jawed face really me? Is this what the young woman showing me frames saw: a middle-aged woman? The phrase itself stands alone as a denigration, implying menopausal daftitude, obsolescence and unshaggability, even after decades and waves of feminism. That’s not who I am inside. In many ways, I’m still a shy, gormless 20- year-old.
Until recently, I’d got off lightly. In my 40s, or so I flattered myself, I could get away with being 30. No kids, no smoking, no sun. But the advantage of being child-free, fit and getting enough sleep has, finally, been overtaken by the reality of chronological age.
Now, as my 50s advance, I am developing an old lady face. My skin is still good—for my age, and for the fact that I grew up in pre-‘Slip Slop Slap’ Australia, when teenage girls basted themselves in baby oil and browned like rotisserie chickens in the midday sun—but it does not lie. The outline of my face has softened and my eyelids are drooping. In the deepening grooves between my eyebrows and my nasolabial folds, I can see the little old lady I will become—and I will be little. I may even shrink, given the family history of osteoporosis. I don’t expect to be properly old until my late 70s (yoga, broccoli, running, HRT, tofu) but I’m no longer, no matter the light, visibly youthful.
The age of old age, certainly for women, has gone up. As early as the 1990s, 40 was the new 30 for women who did aerobics in the 1980s, and now 60 is the new 40 for those who took up yoga in the 1990s, around the same time as Madonna (who has evolved into an ageless cyborg) and got the message about sunscreen. Not that many generations ago, women were old by their 40s and could relax into comfortable clothes and sensible hair, freed of the burden of being sexually attractive to men. Any such attempt, deeply despised and called out, was ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. (Who, under 40, even knows what mutton is?) Nobody, in the Good Old Days That Weren’t Actually That Good, expected to come out the other side of maternity still looking youthful. Diet and exercise, like plastic surgery, were for film stars, not ordinary women. You attracted a husband in your 20s, had the kids, and relaxed into your middle years, job done.
As long as your husband didn’t dump you for a younger model. The sad cliché: in middle age, husbands who could afford it traditionally discarded wives for a younger model. A menopausal woman, used up in her childbearing years, was put aside like an old donkey for the knacker’s. Internet dating in my mid-30s, I learned that men my age wanted women at least ten years younger; men in their 40s and 50s specified early 20s to about 32. One gent in his 50s—I was already too old for him—was very clear about wanting to keep the option of fatherhood open; he was also very clear that a future partner should be completely self-supporting, because he was retiring from IT in order to pursue an acting career. How was that supposed to work if he wanted kids? I did not bother to ask.
These days, women are starting their lives over at 50 and beyond. A divorcee will start up a business on Etsy or eBay, take up marathon running, found a charity, motorcycle around the world solo with her dog in sidecar (the dog will have its own Instagram account). You can read the inspirational, slightly breathless accounts in women’s magazines, blogs and lifestyle websites. In fact, living quietly on your subsistence pension, with trips to the library for large-print books, being old, is a failure.
Certainly, looking old, like putting on weight, is considered a preventable failure these days, almost a moral transgression. Better medical and dental care and the normalisation of exercise and ‘healthy eating’ in the Western world have made a huge difference, but so have advances in cosmetic intervention. Fifty is the point at which the distinction between ‘work’ (fillers, Botox, thread lifts, peels) and ‘natural’ is unmistakable. Look at Nicole Kidman or Kylie Minogue. It’s not genetics or £400 serum or staying out of the sun. The sharply defined jaw and cheekbones and smooth, taut skin: nobody has that at 53 without some help.
As this kind of intervention becomes normal, so does the distinction between those who can afford it and those who can’t or won’t. I’ve never lived in a context where cosmetic intervention is normal, and I’m still taken aback, even in 2022, to see an obviously Botoxed forehead, as I did in my ballet class a few weeks back. The woman was obviously a professional dancer; she was still young, but not that young, and dancers peak early.
While maintaining a feminist belief that I am much, much more than my looks, I’ve always kept them up. In the 1990s, before the current generation of YouTube skinfluencers were even born, I discovered Paula Begoun the ‘Cosmetic Cop’, in book form. I read that that toner and eye cream were scams and that I should be using AHAs, which were not actually available to buy in Australia at this time. Since Paula’s well-researched skin-care range was sold on to Unilever, it now includes these redundant products, with prices up there with department store products.
In the last decade, I’ve seen skincare blogs evolve from hobby sidelines to slick online businesses. Punters are induced to sign up for the email list with the promise of a free e-book, then offered personalised skincare routines for a fee or an actual real-world book. The very blogs that were set up to counter the marketing of giant cosmetic companies become marketing exercises themselves. Also, I’m automatically wary of any self-proclaimed expertise based on ‘10 years in the beauty industry’ as a beauty journalist, model or saleswoman, people who get the goodies for free. (Also, ten years as a measure of experience only impresses people under 35.) I prefer the more scientific blogs, even if I don’t actually read the science bits. A favourite is Labmuffin, run by a cheerful Australian skin chemist.
The great skincare democratisers and game changers of the last decade are The Ordinary and The Inkey List. These ‘disruptors’ sell ‘actives’—fashionable ingredients like retinol and Vitamin C with proven efficacy, packaged at great expense by premium lines—for around a tenner in plain plastic tubes or (pet hate) wee glass bottles with pipettes. Along with all the other women who can’t or won’t spend hundreds of pounds a month on fancy skincare products but crave the benefits of science, I have pieced together my own routine. I think it works, but without a scientific control—my naturally ageing face, in a parallel dimension?—I will never know. Neither will I know how much better I could’ve looked if I’d paid for premium products. As with so many things, it’s a matter of faith.
These days, decent moisturising foundations are very affordable, and my face will never resemble a chalk cliff, even if my budget mascara occasionally clumps.