At the end of August I turned 56, and although – like many midlife women I’m sure – in my head I often feel as if I’m still sitting somewhere in my thirties, it pulled me up. I had to remind myself that age really is “just a number”, and something that most of the women I know identify with as we leap into our midlife years.
In so many ways leap is exactly what we do as each birthday comes along – positively and confidently in celebration of our age – and if it’s a milestone birthday, at the prospect of a potentially exhilarating new chapter.
Of course, there’s always going to be some measure of retrospection, but I think that’s more about looking back over the memories we’ve accumulated and the choices we’ve made. It’s seldom rueful. We are full steam ahead for what lies ahead. So why is it that sometimes we still feel the need to validate our age? And more importantly, when we know that the sum of our years in no way reflects or defines who we are, why do we still carry an element of our own negative prejudice, however slight, as the numbers increase?
When I think about my birthday, in all honesty I don’t actually feel much different to when I was in my 30s and 40s. A few more achievements under my belt, a little wiser hopefully, and definitely a greater sense of confidence than I had ploughing through my 20s – but on the whole, still the same me. Yet turning 56 a couple of weeks ago inexplicably seemed more galling than when I reached the grand milestone of 50 years.
The numbers have changed, but the core of who I am, my values and needs and aspirations for the future have continued through the years much the same – so for the first time did my own unconscious bias come into play?
In the September issue of Vogue, a number of midlife celebrities talk candidly about their attitude to ageing. According to Beyoncé (41) on reaching her 40s: "It has absolutely been the best I've felt in my life. I'm so grateful to be GROWN, GROWN!” For Gwyneth Paltrow who is turning 50: “I would never want to go back to my 20s, or even my 30s for that matter. I know myself, I like myself, and I am so grateful for the wisdom that comes with age.” Julianne Moore (61) says: “There’s so much judgement inherent in the term ‘ageing gracefully’. Is there an ungraceful way to age?” And at 77 Helen Mirren believes we should: “Take it on the chin, and roll with it. You die young or you get older. There is nothing in between! You may as well enjoy it.” For each of them, a recognition that the number of our years does not define us – and a sense that in many ways, the older we become the better we feel.
Of course, you can argue that there is also a hint of the Peter Pan syndrome at play. It’s all too easy to look at our children and the next generation – now in their teens or at university or out there in the working world on the exciting threshold of early adulthood that was exactly the same for us and, quite frankly, still seems like only yesterday to me!
There might be just a tiny slice of envy at their carefree attitudes with so much unmapped lying ahead of them. Small wonder there’s always going to be a slight reluctance to wholly let go of our youth – which is probably why many of us never quite do.
So as I go into my 57th year I’d like to think that we are very gradually beginning to see signs of an ageless society, that the perception of age boundaries is starting to shift, chipping away at the notion that we have to adopt some sort of middle-age persona that is ‘age-appropriate’.
The development of social media has given us a great platform to be seen and heard, and we’re definitely using it to rise above the pockets of ageism that linger on. Of course, there are areas that still need a hefty nudge – the workplace for one – but there is gradual change, and I think largely this is because as we all go into midlife and beyond we are refusing to see our age as anything other than just a number. I know I am.