Women Don't 'Disappear' Over 50, They Are Our Most Valuable Role Models

Illustrated by Anna Jay.
This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. From compassionate careers advice (like, there’s more than enough time to try something new and fail, then try something else) to sex and dating tips from a formidable divorcée whose 28-year marriage ended after a knock at the door, these women have lived through all the things you worry about – and emerged stronger, funnier and more at peace. From the joys of over-60 gap years, to embracing your inner style diva at 78, to having the confidence to say exactly what you want to Benedict Cumberbatch at the opportune moment, life 'over the hill' can be a ball.
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The women in this series, titled 'Life Begins At...', put two fingers up to stereotypes and ageism. But sadly, not all women in this age group feel this empowered. Ageism is prevalent in our society – from the workplace to Hollywood to beauty ideals. A 2014 survey of 2,000 women found that more than half of women over 50 had been made to feel "invisible", "left on the shelf" and "judged negatively because of their age". Just 15% of those women said they had a high level of confidence.
In episode three of the award-winning Netflix show Grace & Frankie, the two main characters (women in their early 70s) are trying to buy cigarettes in a supermarket. Completely ignored by the male staff who prioritise serving a young blonde woman, after eight loud "excuse mes", Grace, played by Jane Fonda, starts screaming: "Do you not see me? Do I not exist? Do you think it’s alright to ignore us?" The pair walk out, with Grace telling her friend, "I refuse to be irrelevant", while the friend reveals she has shoplifted the pack of cigarettes. "We have a superpower!" she says. "If you can’t see me, you can’t stop me!"
I witnessed a similar incident a few years ago, sat next to a woman of about 70 on a long-haul flight. The audio on her TV screen wasn’t working. We tried various things and different headphones but there was clearly a fault with the system. She kept pushing the help button but no one came. She said "excuse me" to various air stewards several times, finally saying more loudly "Am I invisible?" before they acknowledged her. One of them said they’d look into it, never to be seen again. She gave up and proceeded to watch Minions, a favourite film of her granddaughter’s, with no sound because the story was easy to follow.
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At 53, the actor Kristin Scott Thomas summarised this feeling in an interview with a young journalist at Cannes, saying: "I’m not talking about in a private setting, at a dinner party or anything. But when you’re walking down the street, you get bumped into, people slam doors in your face – they just don’t notice you. It’s a cliché but men grow in gravitas as they get older, while women just disappear."
The aforementioned woman who slighted Benedict Cumberbatch is Rahila Gupta, a journalist and activist in her early 60s who points out in her feature that now is the time to fight for the rights you want in later life – when you’re young enough to be listened to. Don't just sit back and bask in the privileges of youth.
As highlighted by a 2013 survey titled Boomer Women: The Invisible Goldmine, baby boomer women (mid 50s to mid 70s) are the demographic spending the most money on consumer products, yet 53% of the women they spoke to said they felt ignored by advertising and marketing.
Granted, since that survey we’ve seen glimpses of progress with a handful of luxury fashion houses featuring older women in their campaigns; Charlotte Rampling modelled for a NARS lipstick campaign in 2014 aged 68, Joan Didion posed for Céline in 2015 aged 80, and Joni Mitchell starred in a Saint Laurent ad aged 71. But these were one-offs – major diversions from the type of imagery the brands usually put out. It shouldn’t have been, but the sight of an older woman looking cool as fuck in an advert for an expensive clothing brand was a shock to the system; it made headline news. That photo of Joan Didion in oversized Céline sunglasses and a chic black crew neck made me feel excited about fashion, and I’m 31.
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Somewhere between the campaigns plastered all over the city and the internet featuring 17-year-old model daughters of supermodel mothers, and the streams of 25-year-olds living their best lives on my Instagram Explore page, I’ve stopped relating – let alone aspiring – to the images around me. I'm only 31, and I already feel aged out of things, already feel 'older', less desirable, past my prime, worrying about my face looking drawn and observing each new grey hair like a curse. Friends younger than me are getting Botox; others started lying about their age at 28. But what, or who, are we getting too old for?
Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, 60, observed: "When I look around a newspaper office, I am usually the oldest woman there. With a few honourable exceptions, the media likes young blood, fresh meat and people who do as they are told." Hearing this as a young woman in the media is terrifying. It makes me worry about my future and my currency in this industry past 50. Indeed, there are only a handful of powerful women editors that I aspire to, and they’re all in their mid-to-late 40s: our global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich, Gentlewoman editor Penny Martin, Guardian editor Katharine Viner, The Pool co-founder Sam Baker… then I start drawing a blank.
I don’t want to feel invisible when I’m 50 – at work, in the street, on aeroplanes. I want to be at my most stylish, my most confident, my most powerful and desirable. I want to look forward to those years, not spend lots of money and emotional energy trying to stave them off. So how to prepare? Well, first, I think, by finding role models like the women featured in this series who are smashing glass ceilings of gender, age and race to achieve incredible things. Like Carmel McConnell MBE – a woman in her mid 50s who started the children’s charity Magic Breakfast and this year won the Women of the Year Campaigner Award. Carmel told Refinery29: "I am older but I don’t feel old. I don’t have any sense of what being old should be. I’m just finding out things about myself now, in my 50s, like I’m going to try and do a marathon! I have always assumed we would be in gradual decline, but now I’m thinking it’s more like gradual increase."
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In her acceptance speech for the #SeeHer Award at the Critics' Choice Awards in 2016 (a speech which, frankly, should have won its own award), Viola Davis talked about letting go of expectations when she took on the role of Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder: "I said oh god, I gotta lose weight. I gotta learn to walk like Kerry Washington in heels. I gotta lose my belly. And then I ask myself, well, why do I have to do all of that? I truly believe that the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. And, I just recently embraced that at 51. I think my strongest power is that at 10 o'clock every Thursday night, I want you to come into my world. I'm not going to come into yours. You come into my world and you sit with me. My size. My hue. My age. And you sit. And you experience."
Let’s start working towards more narratives like this.
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