For many women, the menopause begins an exciting new chapter in life. Freed from the constraints of fertility, women may feel they can take on new challenges and explore new directions. Yet as women face the reality of ageing, the menopause can bring mixed blessings. Some felt strongly that the media and society as a whole tend to stereotype older women.
Ageing as a new chapter
Some women felt quite relaxed about growing older and accepted ageing as a fact of life over which they had no control. They might start to think about the future, deteriorating health and ‘things like death’, but saw this as part of life. Rather than being ‘written off’, women saw ageing as a positive experience; a time to do ‘all those things you’ve been putting off’ and ‘live for the moment’. They talked about learning new things, taking up new hobbies, contributing more to the community, or beginning a new career. Some women set up new businesses; others cut their working hours or took early retirement.
Karen retired at 50 and is now free to travel and learn new things
I’m quite a positive person and I like to learn new things, do new things so for me it gave me more freedom because the menopause finished sort of early fifties and I’d made my mind up to retire at 55 anyway if the business would allow it, which we did. We sold the business and moved on, so it’s all very positive for me, it just allowed me to move on to the next thing and take up new hobbies.
And what are you looking forward to most as you get older?
Travelling more. Now I haven’t got my dogs, we’ve decided we’re going to spend more time actually travelling to places we’ve never been. I’d like to see Eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, further away because we could never do that when I’d got family and other things here. Just learning new things.
Brenda is taking on new responsibilities in the Orthodox Jewish community now that shes older
I think I’m in a very between time. In a few years time I’ll be marrying off kids and I’ll become like the mother of the bride and then the grandmother. At a certain stage I was having babies, everybody was coming to congratulate me on having babies. I’m doing none of that now, I’m just living with the teenagers, my goodness. I think it’s a very middle time, yes.
I think it’s, I don’t know I think you have to be happy at every stage you come to and I’ve learnt that in life. At a certain stage I had lots and lots of very small children and I thought I could go mad or I could really enjoy now and go down to their level and just be a mum right now. And now I feel that I’m able to take on stuff that is not only to do with the children and that’s making me, I suppose that’s making me feel quite, yeah, quite grown up.
And I’ve also joined the Hevra Kadisha which is the group that looks after bodies after people die, because I thought now I’m a grown up and I can deal with this. And so I’ve only gone once, I’ve only been called once but I could, I mean I’m not somebody who’s frightened of sickness or whatever. So I went and did that. And I think that’s something. And I discovered that it’s the only time I’ve ever sat in a room with a group of women for years and been the youngest one present.
Sallie is starting up a new business with her son but looks forward to retiring one day and ...
And here I am now and I sort of decided to give up my regular job and do something that I really wanted to do which is catering on a self-employed basis.
Oh, and have you been doing that?
I’m working with my son and we’re going to start a business up. We’re going to specialise in vegan and vegetarian food. Not that I am vegan or vegetarian. But I can cook it.
That’s great so that’s an interesting thing to happen to change your direction.
Well, yeah I’ve changed my, I’ve thought, do something that I really want to do. I’ve thought about it for a long long time and so I’ve actually given up my job and I’m going to go for it.
I’m the sort of person, I just take things as they come. It’s just another stage of life. I suppose it’s a transition towards it. You can look at it like that I guess. No, I’m not bothered by old age. I hope that I’ve got these plans that I want to do this, this and that. I hope I get to do it, probably won’t, but I have this image of me sitting painting in a beautiful garden or something like that, growing herbs and it’s probably not going to happen at all. But I hope that I keep my health and my sanity to enable me to enjoy my old age.
As they began a new phase in their lives, women spoke about feeling empowered, grown up and more mature, being wiser, enjoying life more, having more confidence and self-awareness and more ‘me’ time. Some described how they’d reached a new ‘level of contentment’ which made them more sympathetic, patient and understanding.
Susan describes the menopause as a bereavement of ones self from which shes emerged renewed...
It is a bereavement of one’s self. It is dying to oneself. That’s what the menopause is in many ways. It’s a kind of and someone I always remember compared it to when I think of an Indian culture where a woman loses her husband she was into purdah almost. She was into a darkness and I know there’s a lovely Greek mythology which talks about the mother and daughter going underground during winter and emerging in the spring. There’s something about the menopause that is a going underground, a dying to one’s former self, a going into purdah behind the veil.
It’s all of that but all I can say is from where I am here now is that you emerge again and that it is a place of hope and renewal and refreshment and that you can look back on it. I mean certainly while you’re there nobody could tell you. Before I’d done it nobody could have told me how bad I was going to be and now that I’ve come out of it to look back on it I think, “God, that was awful. I can’t believe I am where I am now.” And I suppose that’s the one thing I can say is that it’s a wonderful place to be, to have it behind you and that you are renewed.
Women admitted that ageing can have benefits, but also recognised its drawbacks. In a time of change with children leaving home, partners retiring and increased caring responsibilities for elderly parents, many felt stressed and uncertain about the future (see ‘Family, health and life events’).
Vicky, a Chinese woman, comments on the differing attitudes to ageing among Chinese and Western...
So how do you feel about getting older now?
I feel that at every stage in life, the steps you take are different. For example when you are 20, the paths that you take are different from the thoughts that you have when you are 50. When you are 40-50, you feel very old, I feel like I am very old now. Now I have reached 50, middle-aged, I think, wah, how quick! Now I feel less competitive and less ambitious. When I was younger, I was very competitive and wanted a career, I wasn’t afraid of hardship, but now I am 50, I get tired easily, I have less will to fight. I want a steady life – that will make me satisfied. I don’t want a career anymore, I don’t have that idea in my head anymore and I think it’s to do with my age
Westerners, I think Westerners still think they are very young when they are 60 but I think Chinese people think that 60 is very old, already a grandmother, a grandmother! That kind of feeling. But Westerners are very happy, whatever age they are, they are very youthful, very happy, make themselves look beautiful. Chinese people think red, you are 60 and you are wearing red? They are afraid of being laughed at. So Westerners wear red, so they look very youthful, like they are very happy, very optimistic, not like Chinese, who are perhaps a bit more conservative.
So do you think that Westerners’ views about the menopause might be different from Chinese people?
I don’t know what the menopause is like for Westerners, but based on my guess there shouldn’t be much difference between Chinese and Westerners. Westerners would still be very happy, laughing hee hee ha ha everyday like they have no care in the world but Chinese put all their troubles on their faces and as soon as you look at them you think this person is very unhappy. Chinese and Westerners are very different.
Why do you think that is?
I think it is because Chinese people are more conservative and don’t have that kind of courage that Westerners have so even when they have worries they put them aside but Chinese people always wear their worries on their faces.
The ‘older woman’ stereotype
Some women found it hard to reconcile their ageing body with the young person inside (see ‘Changes in the body and keeping healthy’). Many women said they felt younger than they really were. They didn’t believe that the image they saw in the mirror with wrinkles and grey hair could really be them. They felt the body they presented to the world was at odds with the younger self trapped inside.
Nancy may be 60 but inside she feels like a 25-year-old
I suppose the only regret I felt about it was that it made me feel that I’d entered the next stage of life and that I didn’t really feel particularly young any more. But again, I’ve just accepted it now and I don’t feel any older as a result of it really. When I look in the mirror I see that I am but.
I do find 60 a bit daunting, I do. That does sound awfully old to me when you’re sort of talking about a woman of 60 I think they can’t mean me, that’s not me. I’m only 25.
What are the positive things about getting older for you?
There must be some mustn’t there. I should be wiser shouldn’t I, I must be wiser. I think just talking about work for a moment, I think young people have more respect for older people. I think sometimes very young teachers get a bit of a tough time because they’re not that much older than the people they’re teaching. Whereas if you’re nearly 60 they think, look out, here comes the old bat. So I think that’s a plus point. Yes, I suppose you get certain respect just by virtue of being a bit older don’t you. Other than that I think I’d much rather be younger really, wouldn’t anybody?
Dealing with the stereotype of the older woman in society is one of the challenges of ageing. Negative attitudes to ageing, whether conscious or sub-conscious, may influence not only the service women get in shops but the way women feel about themselves, how they dress, and how they behave. The underlying message seems to be that ‘youth is better’.
Eileen wonders if younger women sometimes see her as an old biddy
One of my main problems I find is not so much how other people are treating me because I really don’t feel that there is a great deal of difference but I will stand there doing things and I don’t feel, I’m still 18, and I don’t see any need to change that.
Do you think others see you as 18?
Oh no. No.
In what ways have you noticed them treating you differently?
I don’t know perhaps if you go to the hairdressers to have your hair cut and this young girl’s doing it she has a perception of what an older person should be like and perhaps the same in the dress shops, they will also have a perception and I feel you can sort of, they say that if you wore the fashion last time round you shouldn’t be wearing it this time. And I agree with that to a great extent but I think you can take bits of the fashion and add it to other things and still make it viable whereas going into the shop and buying that sort of skimpy little top, the girl behind there being all of 16 years old and thinking what’s that old biddy doing with it.
In response, women may try to look younger for as long as possible. They reported using dyes and rinses to hide grey hair, buying clothes from high street shops and, in a few cases, wearing shorter dresses to show off their legs. Rather than succumb to the older woman stereotype, some women seemed to quite enjoy keeping a younger image.
Maureen refuses to admit her age. She wants people to think shes younger than she is
No. No, I’ve never felt better. No. In years yeah like I said I hate putting my name down, I hate putting my age down on anything and if anybody asks me my age I just say “I’d have to kill you if I told you”, I could not tell people my age. But I do feel younger even, I might not look it but inside I feel younger and happier and freer.
Why do you have a problem with your age in terms of not wanting to admit how old you are?
That’s a good question. I wish I knew the answer to that.
I really don’t know. I didn’t have any problems telling you did I?
Well you did hesitate a little when you were filling in the form.
I just want people to think I’m younger than I am. Even though I might look 90 I still want people to think I’m 18. I don’t know.
Why is that important do you think?
Because I feel sexy if I’m younger. I feel feminine. I’m youthful and pretty. That’s why. All the things that I want to feel I can feel as long as I’m young. If I admit that I’m old or getting old I’m expected to dress in old woolly cardies and sensible shoes and act like I’m old.
Maggie rejects the stereotype of the frumpy older woman
I am aware of my face changing and lines coming, but it’s not something that really worries me. So far I’m enjoying the sense of being older and being more womanly, and I certainly enjoy it in my friends as well who are my age. I love being around people my own age and just celebrating where we are really, without, I think there’s a lot of it’s quite liberating to perhaps not be the stereotype of your age, but be who you want to be at your age, that’s quite nice. I mean middle-aged just sounds quite frumpy to me, as a term, but I know I am middle-aged, but it’s not something I would say about myself really, but that’s because of a lot of cultural kind of norms I think that perhaps we take on consciously or sub-consciously about what we should be at a certain age.
And what should we be?
Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. So I think that’s what’s exciting as well, about being older and yet feeling still quite young and not caught up in those kind of stereotypes necessarily, so we can be who we want to be really.
What is the stereotype? Can you just describe what you think that is?
Well I think it’s from when I was younger perhaps, where I used to think of middle-aged as, well quite frumpy really and someone who’d let themselves go a bit and not really kind of a bit of a couch potato maybe and not very active, a bit bowed down by life.
Others, however, said that society, with its emphasis on body image, sex appeal and youth, sometimes made them feel invisible.
The invisible older woman
Some women found it increasingly difficult as they got older to fit in with society’s prescription of what a woman should look like. They felt less valued once their youthfulness faded and fertility declined. They identified a gender divide where men remain attractive into their fifties, while women become increasingly invisible and less confident in their appearance.
Joyce wonders whether she will lose her sex appeal when she turns 50. To judge people by their...
I see your life as being like a book, and there’s lots of chapters in it and I wasn’t quite ready to finish that, be out of that last chapter and I’ve been forced into the next one. Which rightly or wrongly is entitled “Middle Age.” And I’m not ready for that.
What do you fear about it?
I fear losing my looks, I fear people making assumptions that I’m not at the top of my game, or the peak of my both professionally and personally. I think less now, I think I’m a bit more mature about this now, if you’d asked me that question ten years ago I think I might have said “Loss of sex appeal,” but actually I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
But I suppose yeah and it’s a silly thing to think because people in their forties, fifties and sixties now there’s some lovely posters out aren’t there, about how people age differently now and we do. There’s some gorgeous women who are in their early sixties who are just very sexual, very sensual, and I suppose that’s what I feel, will I lose that sexuality, will I lose my sensuality, will people if I were to say how old I was, I’m still in my forties but when that day comes and it’s only two, one year and eleven months away and I trip over the big five oh and people say how old are you? If I was single then would people still be interested in me when I was 50? And I suppose that’s what it’s synonymous with, that it’s that loss of youthfulness but that is a silly thing to think because we make our impressions of somebody on what we see, what we feel, what we say, what we hear from people isn’t it. It’s not, “Oh and by the way just tell me how old you are and then I’ll make a judgement about the person you are.” Your age is kind of academic isn’t it. So it’s kind of I sort of pull myself up sharp sometimes and say well that’s a bit of a shallow way of thinking. Because you wouldn’t make that judgement on a man would you? Men in their fifties are often still utterly, really really attractive and some in their thirties aren’t so it’s just kind of academic really isn’t it, it’s the person. So there’s quite a, I kind of I do pull myself up sharp because I just think that’s a pretty shallow thing to think.
Janice feels that society does not value older women
I just think that when you start your periods you hop on this bus and everybody’s welcoming you, “Come on you’re with us. Ah, it’s a fantastic thing. You’re coming into womanhood. Get on the bus.” And then get to fiftyish and it’s, “Get off the bus now, go on, you’ve had your bus ride.” And you’re sort of left there and you sort of know what’s facing you. You haven’t got the resources. You see your skin ageing and you see lots of things around you ageing and unless you can afford Botox or plastic surgery, what’s in store for you is just a journey into ageing, which is not what our society in Britain values. So it’s quite depressing, what’s at the end of that journey don’t you, and there’s nothing really what you’re allowed to support you. There doesn’t seem to be any support. There’s nothing for me to celebrate being menopausal at all.
Women said media advertising and television programmes focused on positive images of youth, and downplayed ageing. They felt that advertisements for anti-ageing cosmetics conveyed the message that ageing is bad and to be hidden. While these products could make them feel good, most women rather doubted whether they really worked. Some admitted to ‘being conned’ into buying expensive products which hadn’t made ‘a blind bit of difference’. They resisted procedures like Botox and cosmetic surgery that focus on preserving youth at the expense of age.
Judy believes anti-ageing products and treatments take advantage of vulnerable women
Do you do anything to counteract the effects of ageing like anti-wrinkle creams and those sorts...
of things? How do you feel about all that and cosmetic surgery in the future?
All my friends talk about it. I do tell them, like for example Botox, tell them it’s one of the most virulent bacteria and it’s used to treat spasticity, it’s got a role to play but for them to use it for removing lines from their forehead is a complete waste of time and in fact it doesn’t make any difference anyway. They have to return to it, it’s expensive and it’s a complete waste of money and when they talk about all these adverts where these, I can’t remember what you call these new proteins that they identify, it’s just a load of rot really. I think it’s taking advantage of vulnerable people.
So do you think older women are vulnerable?
Yes, many, yes I mean the whole if you’re not attractive and if you don’t look young, what about all these programmes on how to change your look and look ten years younger? The whole force of the media is driving you to think less of yourself as you age and not so maybe your flexibility and problem solving may become slightly more difficult but your wealth of experience and guidance and advice stay, develop and it’s the same, and nothing’s new. It’s all happened before but all of that is not negated but undermined really. If it doesn’t come in an attractive vessel then the strength of the message is undermined really.
Women spoke of positive role models like Judi Dench who carried themselves with ‘poise and dignity’, but felt that, in general, older women in the media did not represent the typical ‘more well-rounded 55-year-old’.
Charlotte loves getting older but would like to see a few older women role models
How do you feel about embracing later life, getting older?
I really love it to be honest. I’m one of those people who think 50 is a great age and beyond is great. I know myself better, I’m happier with myself, I’m not afraid of, people start talking about the wrinkles and the this and that, I think you can present yourself well in whatever age category you’re in and that won’t go away just because you’re older.
Where are these shops we can buy clothes for women of our age that we like. So it’s more like that, so not so much about the makeup products.
And do you think there are those shops, do they exist?
No. No they’re very difficult to find because our age isn’t trendy, it isn’t, it is quite difficult for us I suppose in that respect. It isn’t profiled in any way as a good age. You’re either work driven and written off because there is no sense other than that you’re..., or you're in the housewifey kind of mode. So, I think that is a problem. And I think it is a problem of this transition we’re talking about, how to manage that. And those kinds of things would be in my mind. Perhaps more than some of in body image not body image but how to present ourselves and how we can present ourselves in different social situations in a positive way that makes us feel good about ourselves. And that’s to do with clothing and what’s available and so on. So I do like it when I see adverts where there’s a woman portrayed who’s a bit older or some kind of situation or film or something where there is a woman positive looking role model.
And do you think there are enough role models for women our age?
Probably not of the type we would want, I mean the Americans are very good at the kind of skinny, ”I am Madonna and I’m now 40 something”, or whatever age she is. They’re good at that kind of person but not of the more average well rounded 55-year-old woman. So you don’t see her so much I don’t think. Certainly in terms of, oh I haven’t talked about ethnicity at all but certainly in terms of black women I think that would be good to be able to see more women, mature, successful, successful in terms of successful to themselves and how they present themselves.
Donna worries about the culture of self-hatred amongst women in our society
I find this culture of anti-ageing really disturbing actually, and particularly face lifts, or cosmetic surgery. And I feel there’s such a culture of self-hatred almost, particularly amongst women, and it’s happening to men now that there are all these men’s magazines springing up, seeing eating disorders and things like that becoming issues, but no, all the messages out there are you’re not good enough as you are, and unless you, yeah have a face lift, or three inches of flab taken off your thighs or something, you can’t expect to be loved. And I think it’s very very disturbing actually what’s going on. Because no amount of money can make somebody happy with themselves, it’s an internal process.
Many women approach ageing with acceptance and a sense of excitement, recognising the advantages and freedoms which later life can offer. They know they can’t turn back the clock and reclaim their youth. Yet at the same time some feel society is unjust in seeming to ignore older people in general and women in particular. One woman asked ‘Why do you have to have the menopause on top of getting older? Don’t you think it’s about time men had something?’
Last reviewed July 2018.