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. Welcome to Life Begins At...
I knew my 28-year marriage was over one night after a knock at the door. I felt I’d been at best rejected, at worst complicit in my husband’s philandering. Bruised and defeated, I filed for divorce and retreated into the loving support of family, friends, work, an excellent therapist, personal trainer and the arts. I didn’t need a man to complete me and as if to mark the end of that life, I had an emergency hysterectomy. Everything that had made me vibrantly female was ripped away along with my womb and my ovaries. I laughed out loud when my gynaecologist told me to come back when I was ready to start having sex again.
My passion for an emotional, romantic life was spent. Desire would play no part, I decided. I would be celibate, a nun, and from this saintly pillar I looked down on peers who dated – a bit desperate and Anne Bancroft for me.
But a pillar is a shaky place and I’m not well suited to being a nun.
"Perhaps you feel as if someone else made that choice for you," suggested my astute therapist friend.
She had a point. We are constantly fed messages that men in their 50s and beyond are sexual beings but that menopause is nature’s way of saying that women are not. For some, sex has morphed into foot rubs and cosy cups of tea in bed. But what if you haven’t made that choice?
With the notable exception of killer whales, the females of most species die when they stop being reproductively useful. Social scientists (mostly male) have found that – surprise, surprise – men just don’t fancy women who can’t reproduce. Evolutionary biologists (mostly female) have at least found a role for us as carers to the familial line. Post-menopausal women present a biological conundrum and a question of female identity. I had no choice but to challenge all this – because frankly, I can’t knit.
The last time I’d been on a date with a man other than my ex-husband was 1984, the year the original Apple Macintosh computer went on sale. 'Jeff' picked me up in his new car, a convertible, and drove me to a party, the wind ruffling my Farrah Fawcett hair. I tried my first and only joint and promptly threw up all over the cream leather seats of his car. We didn’t go out again.
"Bit surprised someone like you would go on a dating app," my happily married brother said.
"Is it safe?" asked a married friend who used to cruise the clubs with me in our 20s. "Why don’t you just ask friends to set you up?"
Scratch that idea off your list. No one knows a single, straight man. If they do, he’s probably too traumatised by the end of his marriage or the death of his wife, otherwise he’d be on a dating app. I finally took the plunge because dating apps seem no more crazy than thinking you’ll find love after three Cuba Libres and a quick fumble in a bar.
Of course if you haven’t spent the intervening years documenting your life online, it feels a bit odd, and for women, the steepest hurdle is the photo. A quick left swipe on any dating app will show that many men don’t stress about this too much – pop in a headshot from work or stand in front of a bathroom mirror with your phone angled at your hip, praying your wife doesn’t catch you at it.
One friend hired a professional photographer. She changed outfits between shots and the photographer offered to touch photos up. Men get incandescent about this on dating apps. "You’re buying the drinks until you look like the photo on the app," I read more than once. I think women just accept that he’s not going to look like what he puts up because to be honest, who does?
I asked a friend who understands Instagram filters to take mine. I wasn’t wildly happy with the result but I haven’t been happy with a photo of myself since I was 10. I also ignored my friend’s partner John, who told me:
"You need a full body shot so they know you’re not a moose."
Moose or not, I wasn’t doing a bikini shot or waiting until I’d "lost all the weight". I’m desirable, I told myself as I signed up. I didn’t believe a word of it but in this parallel universe maybe this was also true.
There’s an app to suit every taste. I chose Bumble because I liked the idea that women make the first move. My daughter said it was probably full of men who like to explain they are feminists but I didn’t really find that to be the case. I liked the simplicity but other friends hated it because they wanted to more carefully target certain sorts of men. Many women in their 50s use dating apps around their favourite newspapers – Encounters Dating (The Times and The Telegraph) or Guardian Soulmates. These apps require only a little more commitment, filling in forms and paying a fee. Others go straight for apps like Elite Singles which match professionals and require a lot more information. I didn’t feel ready for that. I don't know many people who use Tinder at our age – maybe it feels too raw, too scary. Some people like OkCupid. Apps like Happn, which help find people you’ve crossed paths with, imagine a world where everyone’s a bit too young and trendy for me. Friends who live in the country often go for Muddy Matches. We’re too old for The League – it's invitation only anyway – and I felt too young for some of the other sites that market themselves to people over 50.
So what did I discover?
An interesting anomaly in the male population: a bumper crop of 48-year-olds who look like they’re 63.
Some men wax lyrical about their love of the theatre or walks on the beach and only want to hook up late at night.
The women of Britain are sexual aggressors. Perfectly sweet-looking men feel compelled to state on their profiles in all caps: NO ONS! (one-night stands).
Online dating improves your social life with married friends too; men want to evaluate their own performance against other men (not men they already know), and women want to check out what’s out there in case they decide to walk out.
Can I recommend it?
At first, it’s a vulnerable place but the people you meet are vulnerable too. If you’re single in your 50s, something has happened in your life, but that can be life-affirming.
And the dates?
I fancied some of them but even the ones I didn’t were nice. Like Portuguese P who I’d chatted to online for weeks (rookie error) but five minutes into dinner, realised I felt no attraction to at all. Or J, an older Scottish man, handsome online with his mouth shut, interesting and smart to boot, but with a snaggletooth right in front. I spent most of the date trying to work out how quickly I could suggest dental work.
Women are shallow too, but social scientists have it all wrong.
Post-menopausal women are actually quite a desirable lot: more confident than our younger sisters, clear about what we want and even attractive to younger men who like the fact that we’re more comfortable in our own skin, even if that skin is a little crepey. Most of my dating friends have been out with younger men and in some cases substantially younger men. If that’s what you want, you can tell Madame Macron to move on!
My friend L maintains the only purpose of dating apps is to stop hoping you’ll meet someone to complete your life every time you go to dinner or a party. For me it has affirmed that my life is already a good life. I’m looking for the cherry on the top of a cake I chose and baked myself. I don’t need it but it would be fun.
Dating has given me a chance to laugh, be carefree and connect with something I’d lost in myself. It’s not a desperate act. You can do most things alone these days – buy a house, travel, have an orgasm. Although you can’t have a knee-trembling, passionate kiss, there aren’t many of those in long marriages either.
Maybe dating in your 50s isn’t about love, companionship, orgasms or even passionate kisses. Maybe it’s about feeling that your life is still opening up, not shutting down, and that you can choose which direction you want to take it in. Online dating could give you confidence both professionally and personally, and learning how to flirt again isn’t a bad thing either.
And yes, I did recently visit my gynaecologist. The world has changed for women there too, but that is for another article, when you’ve already taken the first step and swiped right.