On Instagram a couple of weeks ago I put up a series of posts about different aspects of ageing as a woman; invisibility, body image, self-acceptance, finance and sex. The best thing about these posts was reading the comments I received from so many women who are navigating their way through midlife. Some are feeling stronger and more positive than ever, others a little crushed by the challenges they’re facing. I wasn’t able to answer all of them on IG itself and some of these issues deserve far more detailed discussion. So I thought I’d revisit them here, in the light of people’s comments.
Creating the posts made me think about each issue in more depth than I’d done before. Fifty years old is steaming my way and increasingly I feel that laying the foundations of a ‘good’ old age is my main goal. I come from a long-lived family, so optimistically I feel have another 45 or so years left. Only slightly less than I’ve already lived. But I’m aware that is 45 years during which my health, strength and faculties will become increasingly challenging. And when I revert to babyhood there will be no indulgent mama there to coo over my cuteness (old people are rarely cute, let’s face it).
I have never come across another person in real life who embraces the idea of creating a fabulous old age with the zeal that I have for it. Maybe I’m an oddity (of course, I am!) and probably this stems my early life being spent around the elderly. My energetic and creative grandparents demonstrated the richness and joy of that time of life.
However, I know I’m not alone in relishing the confidence of midlife and many share my relief at ‘youth’ being over and done with. I was a miserable youngster. But society, with it’s patriarchal, commodity-based drive for more, more, more means that women’s bodies (the ultimate commodity) and our value in society becomes less, not more, appreciated as we age.
So, how do we make this different? Not turning our faces to the wall for start…
From the posts I did, I was most struck by the one about work and money. Anyone reading my blog will know that earning money is a bête noir of mine, as I’ve never been very good at it. I did a little research and discovered that women are far more likely to live in poverty in their old age than men as our careers are often broken due to our caring responsibilities. Also, as traditional pensions vanish, so do our expectations of support from our male partners.
Many careers are still difficult to succeed in if you want to take time out to be with your children or care for loved ones. So we are caught in a Catch 22. We can’t save without earning, we can’t earn without working, we can’t work with our babies, so we end up in poverty unless (can you believe this is still the case in 2018?) we marry a wealthy man with a good pension. Seems Abba had it right.
A number of women in their 40’s and 50’s commented on the post that they were expecting to work for many years to come, often having returned to work after caring for children and the ending of their marriage. Women still work mostly in lower-paid professions and therefore must rely on staying healthy enough to keep working. Personally, after a ‘retirement’ of 15 years as a mother/carer, I’m planning a return to work that I expect to last until my mid-70’s. The upside is, I feel that I’ll be vigorous enough to do it. The downside is I’ll jolly well have to be if I don’t want to end up on the streets.
This is the area that women themselves shy away from. We’ll happily whiffle on for hours about body image and fashion and throw on a token slogan t-shirt. But this battle is won doing unglamorous things; challenging laws, re-writing company policies and procedures. It’s won by an unceasing pressure on society. By the small challenges, we can all make. Just a few years ago the female solicitor required that my husband sign some forms that were needed for a house were buying jointly. Her reason? Because the computer had “Mr” as first on the drop down box for form completion and she didn’t want to have to reset it. She couldn’t understand why I complained when I was told that my signature was unwanted, even though it was my money funding the purchase.
Yet even though we find all of this boring, it’s the cornerstone of any decent life as an older woman. We can wail about our invisibility, about the struggles of menopause and how our ageing bodies are no longer lusted after but none of it will matter if we’re living on the breadline.
The other issue where there were some surprises and discord in the comments was my post on sex.
I noted that women themselves, especially midlife women, rarely acknowledge sex in their posts and I made a call for it to not be ignored. Some messages I received in private were the closest I’ve had on IG to being told to shut up. There was lots of discomfort. Some people responded that their sex life was private, other said they would not feel comfortable ‘being sexy’ on social media in case it attracted unwanted attention. Both of these attitudes are understandable but neither get to the crux of the matter.
I wasn’t, in fact, calling on women to ‘be sexy’ in their posts but to include sexuality as part of our discussions with each other. This isn’t so difficult to do; Women & Home magazine have managed a great article about sex this month, as did Good Housekeeping. They are hardly wild and inappropriate porn mags. Sex is a vital part of our physical and mental health and having good sex can greatly benefit us through the menopause.
Sharing our knowledge and attitudes, if not our personal sexual experiences, is helpful to all. We learn we’re not so weird, rejected, unlovable, greedy or demanding as we might think we are when we keep it all locked up in private.
Talking about it is also very important for the next generation. One of the reasons we find it so hard to project ourselves as sexual is because it feels like we’re giving up our power and making ourselves vulnerable. This is because sex has been taken from us, by the porn industry, the media and advertising; they seized control of it and dictated to us how we should be to be sexy. Which we all know is only the tiniest aspect of real life sexuality which comes in a myriad of experiences. The more we talk about it ourselves, the more we reclaim the verbal and visual language of sex and the less we feel afraid of it.
This is something we can pass on to our sons and daughters. How frightening to be a young boy on the cusp of sexuality in this environment. How frightening to be a young women. Let’s try to make it easier for them by not freaking out over our own sexuality but, understanding it, enjoying it and owning it proudly.
I’m sure you’ve guessed that this a subject we’ll be revisiting. I feel daunted by the changes we need to make but energised by it too; few of us are lucky enough to have the perfect old age waiting. For the rest of us, there’s work to be done. But the best thing about growing older? We know we can do it.