We have to stop being so obsessed about looks and youthfulness, says Clare Shaw

Dame Judi Dench. Photo: Ian West/PA

Dame Judi Dench. Photo: Ian West/PA - Credit: PA

Wake up, world! Older women deserve more respect!

The amazingly talented Meryl Streep. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The amazingly talented Meryl Streep. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP - Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Older women don’t do much more than drink Horlicks and watch Emmerdale, do they? Rubbish! Steven Russell hears a passionate call to arms to fight those damaging (and just plain wrong) stereotypes.

Let’s plunge straight in. Forget Magna Carta; here’s a trimmed-down list of demands for today – A Middle-Aged Manifesto, from the heart of Clare Shaw. Does this sound like the kind of world you’d like to live in?

1. Respect for everyone, whatever their age or sex.

2. A society that values experience.

Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP - Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP


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3. A society that is not horrified by the signs of ageing. Grey hair and wrinkles are natural.

4. Media that does not discriminate against older women. Why is it all right to have a grey, slightly-lined David Dimbleby on our screens, while Mary Beard is berated?

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5. More older women shown in a positive light in theatre, film and TV drama – and showing older women as active, sexual and assertive; not just victims or someone’s mum or wife.

And when does Clare want it. “Now.” Of course.

Dame Maggie Smith. Photo: Ian West/PA

Dame Maggie Smith. Photo: Ian West/PA - Credit: PA

She’s certainly doing her bit to get a debate going. Her new book – Sageism: How To Be An Older Woman – is a celebration of growing older and wiser.

“It’s a desire for a society that reveres the wisdom of experience and is an alternative to the current climate where middle-aged and older women are judged simply by whether they’ve managed to look ten years younger than they are,” she says, adding:

“Women who have reached middle-age, and I’m one of them, are too often made to feel invisible and are consequently retreating into dark corners.

“It’s about time we came out into the light and shouted about how great older women are and how much they have to contribute to this society, which is sadly still rife with ageism and sexism.”

'Its about time we came out into the light and shouted about how great older women are and how much

'Its about time we came out into the light and shouted about how great older women are and how much they have to contribute to this society, which is sadly still rife with ageism and sexism,' says Clare Shaw - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Not that Clare, 58, is downhearted. “Attitudes show some small signs of changing, and we must keep that momentum going.”

In the UK, she points out, more than 20million people are aged 50 or more – a third of the population. More than half of them are women. In 2008, people aged 60 and over outnumbered children for the first time. “We are getting older so, statistically, the youth should not be dictating anything. Yet they do.”

Some of the issues she feels directly. “I am affected by not having older women role models on my TV screen, I am affected by being made to feel stupid by others just because of my age and sex and I am affected by magazines that airbrush every line out of an older woman’s face so she looks like a plate.”

Not that the mother of two grown-up daughters is po-faced. Clare has written Sageism with the aim of it being “packed with information as well as a funny and wry look at what it’s like to be a middle aged and older woman in this society. It’s a celebration as well as a call for change”.

It’s time to act. “It’s no good sitting at home whinging about it all; we all have to play our part in ensuring attitudes are changed, so we must all GET OUT THERE AND LIVE. [Clare likes the occasional “shout”.] Live our lives the way we want to and not how we are told we ought to.”

There’s a way of doing it – by coating the pill of your serious message with some sweet and palatable humour, wit, satire and irony. People are more likely to listen.

We shouldn’t worry about death, by the way – it’s going to happen, some time. Instead, live each day as if it’s our last. (More fun; less tidying of the kitchen cupboards.) Nowadays, anything goes.

“We now have fewer pre-conceived ideas about being middle-aged or older. You don’t have to change the way you dress, behave or live your life as you get older. BUT YOU CAN IF YOU WANT.

“If you want to go clubbing at fifty, then go. If you want to make jam then make jam. Wear what you want, work as long as you want, and take part in any activity that takes your fancy, from sewing to skateboarding, from pottery to naked parachute jumping.” Should we also be influencing our daughters in a way that will prepare them for being middle-aged themselves? “Why not? Maybe the next generation will be more prepared for middle-ageddom. And maybe they can have the confidence we sometimes lack.

“If we can pave the way to ensure there is less discrimination against older women, then they can thank us as we all thank the suffragettes and those seventies feminists who achieved new equality laws.

“If my own mother showed me that being middle-aged meant sitting in dowdy clothes, slowly disintegrating into a pile of useless bones and lost dreams, then we can show our daughters it’s the age of bungee jumping, karaoke and changing the world.

“We can show them that life just gets better and better, which it has the potential of doing. We can show them that you never stop learning, you never stop living and you never stop to regret.

“Because that’s how it should be. That’s how it can be.”

n Sageism is published by Indigo Dreams at £8.99

Society’s obsession with looks is a big problem, says Clare. Why do older women want to look younger and why do women and girls feel judged for what they look like?

She cites a survey suggesting seven out of 10 girls felt they were judged more on looks than ability. “Sadly, body confidence is becoming an increasing problem in middle-aged women.”

It doesn’t help seeing photographs of celebrities in their 50s that are air-brushed out of all recognition. We can’t have older women revered for looking like younger females. “It’s as if their other achievements or their knowledge and wisdom are irrelevant details we needn’t bother ourselves with.”

Sadly, there does seem to be a link between appearance and opportunities/advantage. “Studies have shown that neonatal nurses favour the better-looking babies and teachers assume good-looking children are also more intelligent and consequently give them more time than their uglier counterparts. It seems the beautiful have a head start in life.

“For some reason, we accept this as chiselled in stone with no erase facility… Instead of striving for perfect looks in our quest to ‘achieve’, WE NEED TO CHANGE ATTITUDES.” It can be done.

“Teachers, for example, can be shown they have unconsciously ignored spotty Jenny with the wonky glasses in favour of a peachskinned cute-faced Samantha.”

She accepts we can’t change nature – most women do want to look good to attract a partner – and females also say that looking good boosts confidence.

“Looking as good as you can is not the same as chasing an impossible perfection we see flashed at us in the media. The middle path is the way... So why not choose nice clothes that suit you and spend a little time doing your hair, but draw the line at a brand new face.”

We should tell the TV channels we want more older female presenters on the box, says Clare. And we should campaign for digitally-enhanced photographs (making women look younger) to be labelled as “altered”.

This would create more positive role models, and help stop women’s confidence being dented, because they’d feel less of a second-class citizen.

There’s discrimination, she says. “Female politicians are subject to criticisms of their appearance in a way their male counterparts are not. Older female presenters have been sidelined as they age, such as Miriam O’Reilly from Countryfile... And yet we continue to adore the likes of David Attenborough, David Dimbleby and Tony Robinson, giving no more than a passing thought to their age and appearance. The message is clear. Women have a sell-by date which men do not, and to stay on television you have to be young or look young.”

Advice when it comes to style? “Find out what works for YOU. There is no such thing as a right or wrong way. Mary Beard [the classics professor whom TV critic AA Gill wrote “should be kept away from cameras”] is happy to let her grey hair be just that – grey hair. Nothing wrong with that.

“Helen Mirren has at the time of writing dyed her hair pink. Nothing wrong with that either. Appearance is primarily for confidence... I don’t feel comfortable in shorts or a mini skirt, so I don’t wear them. You might, so do. There are no rules about appearance here. Just check that you are dressing and altering your appearance for YOU and not for what you think is expected of you.”

Clare points to research by Saga that discovered 65% of over-50s were sexually active, with 46% having sex at least once a week. “I guess it’s down to the arts and the media to get rid of the illusion that older women get their kicks from bingo and a bar of Galaxy,” she writes.

“So, all you authors out there, make sure the older woman character gets her pants off from time to time; all you playwrights, don’t call your older woman character ‘Mother’, ‘Grandmother’ or ‘Woman in the Supermarket.’ Give her a name. And a sex life.”

Lack of confidence holds women back, reckons Clare. “Women, it seems, are more likely to have a fear of failure or a fear of making a fool of themselves. Men seem happy to take the risk. And it’s by taking risks and sometimes failing that we eventually succeed.”

She adds: “Older women seem to be even more susceptible to low self esteem and lack of self-belief, perhaps because they grew up in a time when men were even more dominant...” Good news: we can do something about it. Try to quell thoughts like “No-one’s going to listen to me…” and “I’m too old to...” Instead, think “I’ll give it a go” and “I am interesting and have interesting viewpoints”.

A few reasons why we still need feminism:

Not enough girls are achieving their potential. (Only one in 10 engineers is a woman, and just one in five architects is female)

Women are still not equally represented in many important areas, such as Parliament and the boardroom

Women are portrayed in limited roles in advertisements

A few reasons why we need to fight ageism:

Older people are often passed by for promotion, despite laws

People are called ‘middle-aged’ as an insult

It is assumed anyone over 50 is slow, physically and mentally.

Clare Shaw:

Born Cornwall

Trained as a speech therapist in London

Moved to Colchester in 1979

Met husband-to-be John on squash court at the local leisure centre

They have two daughters, in their 20s

Jessica is an actress, Emma a psychologist

Clare did some writing for parenting magazines

Had series of parenting books published in the 1990s, including Help Your Child Be Confident

First novel The Mother & Daughter Diaries came out in 2008

Also writes plays

Her radio play Selling Shoes in Southend was one of the winners of an Essex Book Festival/BBC competition

Clare works as a speech therapist

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