I will turn forty at the beginning of next month. A major milestone – or should that read millstone – in anyone’s life, and I’ll admit freely that it has taken some coming to terms with. For a woman, ageing is, of course, more complex than it is for a man. I don’t need to revisit here the reality of our society, that men acquire sophistication and gravitas as the years progress. In mainstream cinema, the great and underestimated shaper and reflector of society’s values, the women they romance appear to become steadily younger with each passing year, while their female peers in the industry must, in the main, assume the role of character actress or perish.
I remember well turning thirty. Now that felt like a terrifying milestone. And yet. My thirties were revealing and definitive. Until I entered them, I had not recognised the misery of my teens and twenties. All that time dedicated to the mirror, desperate to secure the affections and approval of men. There was little time to find true community and affinity with other women. For all my friendships, there was a shadow hanging over them, a sense that we were all somehow in competition. Everything was comparison. It is strange now to think that the pleasure of a friend looking beautiful could wound. And there was even less time still to focus on the inner workings of the mind. I might well have occasionally managed to be decorative, but, I gradually discovered – in my case through the revelations of motherhood and the modest satisfactions of my career – I had probably failed to be useful. And one’s degree of usefulness is, I think, a pretty good measure of personal happiness. I think it’s come to be my kind of success.
Yes, ageing is more complex for a woman. My perceived sexual appeal – well, whatever’s left of it – will undergo a shift. The default heterosexual male gaze will settle on other, fairer and younger faces. But there’s genuine liberty in a paradox. The less interested the world is in us, the steadily more interesting we, as women, become. As I journeyed through my thirties, I became less concerned with how men considered me. It’s made me braver, truer and more insistent on what it is that I really want.
Recently returned from India, I’ve reflected on the great riches of experience – the heartbreaks, follies, failures, and truths of my earlier years. That trip was meaningful not simply because of its intrinsic extraordinariness. It came before a momentous birthday. And I was there alone. Me, myself and I. Complicated, contradictory, but, finally, self-accepting. (I think this needs to be filed under ‘Personal Growth’.)
When I looked in the mirror this morning, I had to admit it: I am not the girl I was any longer. More worryingly still, I realise I haven’t been that girl in decades. I was just too busy to notice. As the great Helen Reddy had it, I am woman. And not even the brutality of gravity can take that away from me.