I have been thinking about my grandmother recently. She was widowed young and this makes me recognise how fortunate we are, as older women today. We can travel and enjoy all of life in a way that she could not. There were far stricter social norms for a single woman, whether widowed or divorced, in earlier times. Even now friends describe how attitudes towards them change when they become widows, how men, in particular, offer unsolicited advice as if they are automatically incapable on their own and need protecting. Even Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, described recently how she lost confidence when her husband died suddenly and she found herself alone. Neither career success nor wealth can protect us from the human experiences and interactions of everyday life.
Last week I went to an inspiring talk by Leah Thorn of www.loveolderwomenrock.wordpress.com at the Loose Muse women’s writers’ group in Covent Garden. As always it was organised brilliantly by the inimitable Agnes Meadows who is certainly an older woman who rocks! Leah’s poems were poignant, uplifting, funny and often subversive. They were accompanied by her fantastic collection of clothes, shoes and jewellery embossed and embellished by her poetry and integrating the creativity of several women involved in the Older Women Rock pop-up shops and exhibitions she is currently organising.
Inevitably it got me thinking about what it means to be an older woman. My mother, at the age of 82, used to describe to me how she felt 18 inside – until she looked in the mirror, or felt a twinge in a knee or hip, when reality would return. This will be a common experience for both men and women of a certain age, I suspect.
And yet much as we feel the same person as we were when we were 18, the truth is that it is not just our skin tone that has altered. Inside, on both conscious and unconscious levels, the building blocks of who we are have shifted position, changed shape, grown and maybe deepened. Whilst we may, as women, endeavour to smooth out all those wrinkles, the fact is that these wrinkles have painted the history of our inner experience on our faces. The laughter or worry lines, the sadness, anxiety or mischief in our eyes, the happiness, amusement or depression that plays around our mouths. Why do we feel it so necessary to wipe these out in order to please a society too strongly focused on appearance and so-called beauty? I could name some very attractive older women who have done nothing to hide their life story from their faces and are all the more beautiful as a result. In fact my old schoolfriend, the actor Dame Harriet Walter, produced a book of photographs on the subject of older women, entitled Facing It. It is inspiring.