When It Comes To Beauty, Older Women Just Can’t Win

Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
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...
Something that I didn't take into account when I underwent gender confirmation surgery was my age. Already in my 40s, I emerged, like a bouncing newborn, with my new vagina at the ready. I was starting again but my body, my intimate body, would now be a thing to display, to share and not to hide.
I could, so to speak, 'put it about' if that's what I wanted to do.
So I never gave my age any second thoughts. I presumed, rather naively, that the world would be right there with me, holding my hand and exploring my pertness. I readied myself with great lingerie; matching, sheer, lacy and barely there. Thongs so slight they became lost between my legs, like a cave-dive guide rope.
I strode out purposefully, sexuality ready, as soon as I healed and declared to the world, "I'm here, I'm ready, I'm luscious, I'm open for business or love – you pick, I'll decide."
And then, like rain on my parade, the world kept walking by, not noticing, not caring, not responding. The harder I flirted – eyes, lips, hair flicked back – the more deafening the silence.
It was only after I had my pussy that I realised my body was that of a middle-aged woman. There was an age difference between me and my vagina. My vagina was new and unused and I was 45.

Ageing happens and rightly so. We are not immortal and nor should we want to be.

Society would box this new me into being past primetime. The occasional comment on Tinder about my being "foxy" or "a sexy mature woman" just cemented the reality that society at large sees women over the age of 40 as being in decline. By 50 it would seem that we have already taken our seat on the train to restful pastures. The word 'mature' made me feel like a tree with many rings.
The unbearable irony in all of this is that society also relentlessly demands that we should do all we can to halt this decline. It makes us feel as if we are failing if we don't stay looking pert, youthful and full of sexual promise.
We are told to 'something-ercise' in a gym, or go planking and squatting in a wet and drizzly park in SW4. This isn't me protesting about being healthy, far from it; as a woman living with HIV I get the importance of cardio, I really do. But the drive to achieve a lithe frame has little to do with internal joy and much more to do with clinging onto youth as a sign of vitality. Smooth equals young equals sexy. Lines equal old and dry.
It's demoralising, reductive and bloody impossible. Ageing happens and rightly so. We are not immortal and nor should we want to be. We are now so obsessed with keeping youthful that we have rebranded middle age to appear as if it were still flitting through its 20s.
When I'm naked I sometimes run my hands down my body, over lumps and areas of fat that I can no longer seem to shift, over hairs that emerge as if to frustrate any notion of being shiny and sleek. My body longs for the hairy '70s when a bush was truly a bush and spread the length and breadth of the garden. When my hand meets my vagina I realise that my most secret place is the tightest part of my body, not only from surgery but from a complete lack of external enquiry. Very occasionally, I stand naked in front of a mirror and what I see is a beautiful body full of life, of good and bad decisions, of history written in the flesh that sits loosely on my bony frame. I feel blessed to have this body in all of its ageing flux.

I don't want to feel like that, I don't want to avoid mirrors, changing rooms and my reflection, I want to enjoy becoming this age and enjoy going beyond it.

Girls as young as 18 have Botox to prevent ageing, my timelines are littered with advertisements for new pert breasts, for athletic wear so slight you'd have to be a gazelle to get into it, for creams, oils and treatments to rejuvenate, plump, dew and lift every fucking square inch of my being. But if girls at 18 are already taking part in this torturous regime of prevention then, at 52, I will only be seen as just about holding on. I have no hope in that game.
I don't want to feel like that, I don't want to avoid mirrors, changing rooms and my reflection. I want to enjoy becoming this age and enjoy going beyond it. I am single, I can almost accept that at my age the world sees me as 'dating redundant' but I don't want to have to fight feeling every day like I am not battling impending age as society tells me I should. I am not failing.
Models now are younger than they have ever been, while the rest of us shudder at the post-Christmas 'beach body' litany and wonder which expanding bits we should cover up this year. Magazines still focus on imperfections being a bad thing and frequently use shaming to incite an article. 'You've indulged, now improve; you're showing your age, now undo.'
Or, worse: 'She's aged'.
If this trajectory continues, where will our relationship with our body and our sexuality end up? We cannot avoid ageing, it is our body's response to living.
I recognise that my journey as an older transgender woman is slightly different from cis women who perhaps lived authentically from the get-go. I never had those opportunities but we are still, as women, all subject to the same offensive rigidities that define ageing as shameful. My grandmother's generation accepted ageing markers and lived their lives accordingly; I'm not saying for one moment that we should be retrospective in building our futures but we have to ask real questions about the demands put on us to keep looking young. My body, with all of its imperfect perfection, is still sexy, it responds to touch in the same way – perhaps with even greater confidence now that I know it so well.
So in line with positivity and my journey to authenticity, I make the following commitments:
1) I like my lines and my changing face, I'm alive and I don't want Botox to freeze me in space and time – so no Botox or fillers.
2) Women, like men, have hair. Women, like men, get more hair in all the wrong places as they age. I cannot keep on fighting this. My hair-removal sessions are becoming epic; hot wax, then wax strips (all sizes), followed up with hours of plucking and general feelings of desolation as I discover new crops sprouting up like wheat. I therefore commit to reducing my removal sessions to fortnightly slots.
3) I will not purchase any more products that claim to hold back time and that includes weighted hula hoops, eye creams, oils (reputedly from Morocco) and super-skinny jeans.
And lastly;
4) I will not shave a few years off my age in a vain attempt to get a date or sex on Tinder. I am 53 in three months – 15th April, should anyone want to buy me something age-appropriate, like a fabulous Mulberry bag.

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