Women start to worry about losing their looks at the age of 28, according to a survey which polled the views of 4,000 women. So is this true, or does 28 sound too young – or too old? We asked several women writers, aged from 31 to 73, to reveal the moment they suddenly realised they were ageing, with intriguing results.
36… SAYS CAROL SARLER
Journalist Carol, who lives in London, has a grown-up daughter.
I wish I could tell you that I looked into the mirror one day and saw, suddenly, the cruellest fact of life: I was old. But the truth was sadder than that. My mirror, faithful pal, was still kind – it was looking into the eyes of other people, instead, that did for me.
The first time, I was 36 and at a party. In the corner, two attractive men chatted disinterestedly to each other, so I did what I had always done: strutted foxily (I thought) to join them – only to be politely, but obviously, rebuffed. A nearby friend rescued me with a glass of wine and a whisper: ‘Not as easy as it used to be, is it?’
When, ten minutes later, a pert young girl similarly strutted up and was welcomed into the embrace of the conversation, that’s when I knew: whoever said you’re only as old as you feel was talking rot – you’re actually as old as other people feel you are.
After that, the reminders came thick and fast. The butcher who switched from Miss to Missus. The waiter for whom his senorita became his senora. The shop assistants who sold comfy before stylish – not to mention the friend who backhandedly complimented an unusually drab outfit, ‘Y’know, Carol, you always look nicer when you dress your age.’ (Yes, he really said that! Horrid old man.) Realising that positive thinking would be the only salve, I began a bitchy tally whereby I score myself against other people. So: maybe the jawline is a bit rubbish and the pores not exactly baby’s bottom – but on the plus side, there are few grey hairs and a marked absence of wrinkles on the forehead.
Yet even then, in crash the unforgiving looks of others. As I boasted recently to friends about the brown hair and clear brow they spoke as one: ‘Oh. We just thought you’d had a dye job. And Botox, obviously.’ Can’t win, can you?
65… SAYS BEL MOONEY
Writer and broadcaster Bel, 61, lives in Bath with her husband Robin.
To pick an age out of the hat, I suspect I’ll start to worry about my looks in about three years.
Mid-60s, I reckon, is when things begin to slide, no matter how much you’ve looked after yourself. My mother taught me always to cleanse and moisturise, with the result that I know I have good skin, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it pleases me when people are amazed that I will be 62 in October.
A touch of vanity keeps you going. Of course I have wrinkles, and hair that’s thinner than it was, and a spare tyre where there was none, and skin that’s losing its elasticity, but it never worries me. Since your ‘looks’ represent the sum total of who you are, I simply continue being as careful as ever with hair, skin and the all-important make-up, knowing at the same time that it is the inner glow which keeps you looking – no, not young, but fresh.
If you de-construct the phrase ‘She looks after herself’, you arrive at a meaning more profound than the lotion you use to keep the years at bay. We all ‘take care of’ things we cherish, whether a valued heirloom or a small dog.
So taking care of yourself – whether by getting busy with the cosmetics or by surveying your reflection with benevolence – is a philosophy. It says that you like the person you are; the inner person as well as the outer.
And liking the inner soul, I want to do my best to make the outer face match it – cheerfully. But there’s another issue here about which I must be honest, too. Since I am married to a man 16 years my junior I am psyching myself into believing not that he is catching me up, but that I’m running back to meet him.
24… SAYS CLAIRE COLEMAN
Writer Claire, 31, is single and lives in London.
I wasn’t surprised by the news that by the age of 28, most women believe they have started to lose their looks. At 31 I think I’m way past my prime. Alright, that’s not strictly true, but I’d love to look the way I did when I was 18.
There’s a photograph of me taken at that age, when I was backpacking around Europe after my A-levels. Even though I haven’t looked at it for years, I can describe it in minute detail.
After weeks in the sun, I am beautifully bronzed (the biology of skin cancer, pigmentation and sun-induced ageing wasn’t on any of my A-level syllabuses), my glossy hair cascades in perfect chestnut curls (grey hairs had yet to be invented), my skin is clear (post-teen spots, pre-fine lines) and my stomach concave (naturally rather than as the result of hours in a gym).
To me, that photo sums up my glorious youth. And part of me believes that my skin has never been so radiant, my hair so lustrous and my body so toned since.
Of course, at the time I didn’t think I’d reached my beauty nirvana and that it would be all downhill from there on in. No, I think I was at least, oh, 24, when that happened.
I remember doing my make-up in the mirror and catching sight of a fleck of silver.
Realising, with what can only be described as horror, that it was a grey hair, I gasped audibly, plucked it out and phoned my best friend to announce in melodramatic fashion: ‘Oh my god, I’m getting old!’
For all the drama queenery of my proclamation, there was some truth behind it.
Wrinkles and grey hair to me spelled old. That single grey hair was proof that I had begun my journey down the slippery slope.
Yes, of course, in my heart of hearts I know that there is a beauty to be found in age, wisdom and self-confidence. It’s just like many of the women who think, aged 28, they’ve lost their looks, I’m just not entirely sure I’d choose that sort of beauty over the beauty that lies in being 18.
50 … SAYS CAROL THATCHER
Writer Carol, 55, lives in Switzerland.
It’s my 55th birthday today, so my message to the 28-year-olds in this survey is to grow up and stop whingeing.
Will I sink into a bog of despair this morning as I meet my reflection in the bathroom mirror, now I’m closer to 60 than 50? No way, I intend to start the day as I often do: swimming 80 lengths of an outdoor pool.
However, this may be an attitude borne through survival – surviving the ageing process and indeed surviving the jungle in the I’m A Celebrity. .. TV show, where all my aged flaws were on display to millions of British viewers.
If I’m painfully honest, the moment I really started to worry about ageing was when I turned 50. Although I’ve never concerned myself too much with the modern – and perhaps superficial – conceit of beauty, turning 50 was the year I started to panic.
I worried how my body was holding up, whether I had achieved enough, and what other acquaintances thought of me. Had I, I wondered, reached that age when instead of being referred to as ‘looking good’, I was that hideous backhanded compliment ‘looking good for your age’.
I suppose it was that 50-year landmark that propelled me into the Australian jungle on I’m A Celebrity. It was a rather drastic move, but liberating, too. It was there, in the muddy, grimy public arena, I finally embraced the next 50 years – knowing how little time I had left to waste.
Now, as I look forward to a gruelling 280-mile bike ride through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in the autumn, I don’t care about beauty, wrinkles or ageing. I may well appear a muddy mess when I hike the old Portuguese gold route in Brazil next year.
But so what, I am going to do both.
My mother, when she was booted out as Prime Minister in 1990, took off her power heels at her farewell party in No. 10, stood on a chair and declared to all the guests: ‘Life begins at 65.’
And that is how I am determined to embrace the next era of my life. Fifty was my landmark, but why shouldn’t 65 be the next? Or even 80?
Each birthday from here on in may well bring more wrinkles, and my body may start to creak, but I’m following my mother’s mantra.
And for those mornings when I simply cannot bear to examine my face in the mirror, I just won’t put my contact lenses in.
42… SAYS SHYAMA PERERA
Author Shyama, 50, is divorced and lives in London with her two daughters.
It doesn’t surprise me that women think they start losing their looks at 28: I am convinced we suffer a marked deterioration in looks and fitness every seven years, probably starting at around 28.
After that, for me the big deterioration came not at 35, but at 42. I had noticed that all my older friends, whether utterly gorgeous or merely very attractive, started to lose the markers of beauty once they passed this milestone. I kept hoping it wouldn’t happen to me, but it did. By 43, everything was going south.
It started with the visible bits – all of a sudden my eyelids were heavier, there was a sag on my jawline, and the appearance of bracelets around my neck. The bosom went from heavy to heaving and my stomach finished somewhere around the knees.
Even my once-luxuriant hair started to thin: it seemed so unfair that having finally found the confidence to express myself physically, the attributes on which I depended for social approval were taken from me with such speed.
I am not a woman who hankers after the glorious bloom of youth – that is something I am happy to admire with wonder in my daughters. I’ve always been pragmatic. I truly believe that as we get older, beauty comes from within: it stops being about looks and becomes about ‘the look’ – it’s something inside.
Nonetheless, I’d be lying to say I didn’t enjoy my transitions from shiny-faced ingénue to sharp-featured career woman and then to soft-eyed, soft-bosomed, mother. Each step of that journey had meaning: my looks complemented my state of mind.
What’s scary now is that my face is duller, rounded, saggy. In another few years I may consider this yet another glorious bygone moment, but right now when I look in the mirror, all I see is the trace of who I was and, more scarily, who I am.
11… SAYS LIZ JONES
Writer Liz, 49, lives in Devon.
I first thought about ageing, what the years would do to my skin and hair, before I even became a teenager.
I have photos of me, aged 11, sat on a freezing beach at Sidmouth, slathered in sun protection, with a hat on, because I had read somewhere about UV rays.
I was obsessed with reading about beauty products, even at that age, in Vogue Health and Beauty, which no longer exists. I bought my first moisturiser aged ten.
I was obsessed with hair conditioner, and using the right toothpaste. I didn’t start smoking or drinking as a teenager (I still haven’t even had one puff) not because I was frightened of cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, but because I had read they were both terribly ageing.
In my 20s, too, I wasn’t thinking, ooh, how lovely and dewy I am. I was thinking, oh God, I am getting nearer and nearer to 30. To celebrate my 30th birthday, I had plastic surgery, reducing the size of my breasts which were incredibly big and saggy and, here is the important bit, ageing.
This warped, obsessive self-preservation – I would wear softening mitts on my hands and feet in bed, and drink gallons of water, and go to bed early, every night – stood me in good stead, I suppose. I think, at the age of 49, I am incredibly well preserved.
But I also think, well, was it all worth it? I certainly didn’t have much fun along the way. Laughter lines, after all, denote the fact you had must have had some fun at some point. And so I look quite young (please don’t write to tell me I don’t), but what good, really, does it do you?
Wouldn’t it have been better to have had a great life? I was in the Versace store in LA a week or so ago, and the sales assistant said to me: ‘Smile, it’s nature’s face-lift.’
Hmmm. She is right. I, we, need to stop worrying about age, and start living.
38… SAYS HELENA FRITH POWELL
Journalist and author Helena, 43, lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband Rupert and their five children.
Maybe it was the glare of the midmorning sun, but as I caught sight of myself in the rear-view car mirror I recoiled in horror.
Who was this old crone staring back at me? Where had all those hideous crow’s feet suddenly come from? Why did I have more wrinkles on my forehead in the mirror than on my actual forehead? And why was my hair streaked with grey?
The truth was that, of course, none of it had happened overnight. But throughout my 30s I had been too busy nurturing babies to notice my own steady decline. Then, at the ripe old age of 38, the last of my brood of five (two step-children and three of my own), was old enough to spend a morning at school, so I started to look in the mirror again.
I decided drastic action was needed. I called my literary agent and mooted the idea of a book on how to stop the signs of ageing. I would travel the globe trying everything from green tea to Botox to facial exercises. ‘Good idea,’ she said. ‘Let me know how you get on.’
During my research I learned several things: one, that exercise and eating well are the most important anti-ageing tools you have; two, that Botox (done well) is more effective at erasing wrinkles than just about anything else; and three, if you are going to use the rear-view mirror, then use it to for checking out the traffic, not counting your wrinkles.
50… SAYS MARCELLE D’ARGY SMITH
Former editor of Cosmopolitan, Marcelle, 73, is single and lives in London.
Most women feel that they lose their looks in their late 20s? That’s shocking and sad, and proves that most women’s self-esteem is terrible. As women are meant to live until at least 80, 50 years is a hell of a long time to feel past your prime. I wouldn’t put up with such a feeling.
I’d do something – that doesn’t include buying creme de la mer face cream – to make you feel better. Dyeing your hair, exercising, losing weight and having a few Botox shots seem like perfectly good ideas to me.
But I think it’s not as simple as how you look. It’s what you’ve achieved and what you’re doing with your life.
Mind you, my mother once said: ‘I wanted a beautiful blonde daughter. I got you. No one will ever say “You should have seen her at 21.” ‘
I flinched at the time, because girls want to be beautiful. But later I understood why I was lucky.
So, it took me until my late 20s to start to feel attractive, never mind past my prime. By then I knew what to wear, how to apply make-up and could answer back to charming, difficult men.
A friend once told me that the best time of a woman’s life was between the ages of 27 and 35. I saw exactly what she meant.
My few lines didn’t detract. I was getting better. Between 40 and 50 I was as happy as I’d ever been. I was so busy working and having a good time, I barely noticed my face.
As my face wasn’t my fortune, I never lost a fortune. But yes, by 50 I have to say I’d gone off, or maybe I became more aware of the many beautiful, younger women around me.
I always thought I’d care more, be envious. I’m not, but I do use more moisturiser.