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...
When Alice Watkins set off for a wellness and detox retreat in the West Country four years ago, she didn’t realise she would be adding 'transgressive experience' to the itinerary of weight loss and clearing emotional baggage. Running the detox programme was Mia Logan, a tall and beautiful woman. The pair hit it off and so impactful was Alice’s experience that she offered to volunteer for the retreat, arriving a month later with a tent to sleep in, until Mia offered her a full-time job and she moved into a bricks and mortar house. As well as employee and employer, the two developed a strong friendship, talking most days on the phone. Three years later, Alice had fully relocated to the same small town as Mia, and a month later Alice found herself confronting Mia, telling her that she’d realised she had feelings for her. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but the risk was worth it; her feelings were reciprocated. "We realised that together we felt the best about ourselves, and wanted to spend the rest of our lives with each other," Alice tells me. What makes their story unusual is that until then they had both identified as heterosexual. At that point in their lives, Mia was in a long-distance relationship with a man, and Alice, a mother of three adult children, was a hands-on grandmother to her eldest daughter's three kids.
Gay or straight, single or married – people love to label each other. Recently, though, culture has shifted and there has been a rejection of the binary; queer has become a nebulous umbrella word that covers the many shades in the spectrum of love, while polyamory and gender fluidity are more accepted than ever. You can even identify as an alien and find yourself an equal partner in love and life. And while Alice identifies as gay, Mia identifies as a heterosexual woman who is in love with a woman. "Sexually I am still heterosexual but I found that the relationship that works better than any other I have ever had is with Alice. She just happens to be a woman – I am not with her because she is a woman. I hadn’t considered that we could have a relationship until she declared her feelings for me. Even then we discussed the possible repercussions if we did make it physical for a whole month before we even kissed," she says.
After realising my feelings for Mia, it made me question what I found arousing about men. I realised it was their desire for me.
If you’ve ever tried to buy a gender-neutral Baby-gro you’ll know that we are spoon-fed heteronormativity from the minute we inhale our first breath. Realising that it isn't the right fit for you, accepting it, and letting the people in your world know about it can be a strange, painful, joyous and liberating experience. But what is it like realising this in your 50s? For Alice, who was previously married to a man, the experience was confusing – but rewarding. "I’ve always admired the female form, and I’ve always looked to women for closeness and intimacy. Even though I was married to one, I always sort of found men a different species. After realising my feelings for Mia, it made me question what I found arousing about men, and I realised it was their desire for me, the feeling of being wanted. I hadn’t thought that I could get that from a woman; I think if I had met a woman earlier in my life who'd made me feel like Mia does, I’d have realised sooner that I could."
There’s something about having sex with someone the same gender as you that is just… different. Magazines still publish articles instructing women how to please a man, as if that is the sole ambition of heterosexual love-making. But having sex with someone whose genitalia is the same as yours is pleasure of the highest level – it’s so deeply intimate and mutual and generous that there's no need ever to fake anything. And of course, two women (or two men) can go at it unhampered by any kind of contraception. "Sex has completely changed for me now – I love its newness, the fun and lightness around it," says Mia. "And the fact that the desperate need has been replaced with a gentle desire to explore and discover." Alice agrees. "When you’re in your 50s, your sex drive is different; there’s no imperative to reproduce and that feeling of 'Ugh, I need to get laid' has gone. Sex now is tender and intimate. It’s nourishing because we have such a deep connection." Many women experience the desire to have sex with another woman in an undefined way, perhaps because of the allure of that connection – and when Alice started to tell her friends about her relationship with Mia, many of them confessed to having same-sex relationships in the past, more than she had realised.
According to GLAAD’s annual report, the number of LGBTQ characters on TV has risen over the past year – and will surely only continue to do so. Do the pair, who are both in their 50s, recognise themselves or their relationship anywhere on screen? "This might be because we’re noticing them more but I definitely feel like we’ve hit a zeitgeist somehow and there are more films and shows about lesbians," says Mia. "But I don’t think I remember seeing anything about a portrayal of two heterosexual women falling in love. We have the author of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (who was in a same-sex relationship with her late best friend), the woman who wrote the Moomins and my mum, who I found out recently was in love with her best friend but neither would leave their children so they wrote long, hand-delivered letters to each other, every day." Something in Blue Is The Warmest Colour chimed with Alice: "I thought it was beautiful and amazing, how Adèle opened up and realised she was drawn to girls. It made me think that if people had been more accepting when I was growing up, I might have opened up in that way too."
I feel upheld to my highest self so I have to keep growing. A woman can do that for another woman; they’re like support bras for each other.
The growth in representation of LGBTQ characters mirrors the fact that culture is more accepting now than it ever has been. Until recently it was fairly common for lesbian characters to be portrayed as grumpy (presumably because they couldn’t get a man), frumpy (presumably because they didn’t need to dress in a way that men perceived as sexy) or gratuitously hot, sex-mad wife-stealers. Basically, they were a threat to men. But the breadth of LGBTQ characters – as well as IRL public figures – has meant that coming out and being gay is much less scandalous than it used to be. Mia agrees. "I think it’s completely different for young gay people now. The adult children of my friends who know about us are extremely underwhelmed by the news as it seems to be completely normal to be gender fluid or bi – even trans seems mainstream now."
Mia and Alice plan to get married later this year. They’re buying a house together and consolidating their lives into one, in part because it makes economic sense to have one house, one washing machine, but also because they are best friends who are in love with each other. "I know so many women who hit a wall of depression in their 50s; their kids have left home, they are locked into mortgages," says Alice. "But Mia and I are in a place where we can ask ourselves, 'What can this love create together?' I feel seen, I feel heard, appreciated, acknowledged and enjoyed. I’ve never felt so aligned with another person, and most importantly, I feel upheld to my highest self so I have to keep growing. A woman can do that for another woman, they’re like support bras for each other."
Gay, straight, binary, non-binary; every relationship is a different and personal journey. The day Alice went to Mia’s wellness retreat turned out to be life-changing for both of them. "Our relationship feels extraordinary," says Mia. "It’s just love. It’s a wonderland of ways to simply express love."