Earlier this month, I finally caught up with Luca Guadagnino’s highly stylised film I Am Love on DVD. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the elegant, ethereal matriarch of a privileged Milanese family, so it was unfortunate that I spent much of the film pondering the implausibility of her alabaster forehead and flawless complexion. Although entirely appropriate to the role, her striking looks were a distraction, mainly because she appeared to be twenty years younger than she is.
If youthful good looks seem incongruous in a middle-aged woman, consider the alternative. Those of us not blessed with Swinton’s natural, ageless beauty seem to disappear as we grow older. Like many women, I’m far more assertive and outgoing in my forties than I was as a solipsistic twenty-year-old. I also feel I have a lot of hard-earned wisdom to impart, especially after a few glasses of red wine. So why does there appear to be an inverse relationship between my increased confidence and my ability to get served in pubs? Why do strangers fail to grasp that a muttered, ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you,’ only adds insult to injury when (as happens with increasing frequency) they elbow me aside at the checkout or veer into me on the pavement?
Some women of a certain age try to shrug off this cloak of invisibility by making an effort with their appearance. But all those visits to the gym, beautician and cosmetic surgeon seem like an enormous waste of energy when time is running out and there are many more important and interesting things to be getting on with. And it’s always a delicate balancing act: the ageing woman who strives to be noticed risks ridicule for trying too hard. As a man, the fifty-something artist Grayson Perry looks attractively rumpled; as a woman, with his frou-frou frocks and stencilled eyebrows, he resembles a pantomime dame.
The sidelining of older women is particularly obnoxious in professions where maturity might have been thought to be an asset. Where are all the female Jeremy Paxmans and Jon Snows? I recently came across an illustrated magazine article in which a number of eminent fifty-plus television presenters – among them, Joan Bakewell and Miriam O’Reilly – debated whether the BBC was guilty of discriminating against its older female staff. Depressingly, their photographs were styled like a fashion shoot, their heavily made-up faces and dyed hair serving only to perpetuate the ageist, sexist culture that they denounced.
Are we to understand that grey hair and gravitas are acceptable only for men? Do women bear some degree of responsibility for reinforcing this attitude, or is it excusable if they doctor their appearance in whatever way seems necessary to preserve their livelihoods and social standing? I have no answers and can’t help but bring my own prejudices and skewed perceptions to the debate. One thing, however, seems increasingly clear: while my male friends mature into elder statesmen or silver foxes, my own ageing process is likely to involve a steady loss of status, recognition and perceived attractiveness. This is no country for old women.