Growing older isn’t something to sigh over, says Rosie Mullender
When Jameela Jamil tweeted a thread about our attitudes towards growing older (in response to a troll – plus ça change), I felt a surge of solidarity.
‘I would just like to say that as someone who has been chronically ill my whole life, and had cancer twice, I find it EXTREMELY offensive that there is a cultural taboo around aging,’ she wrote. ‘Those of us who fight for our lives and those who lost that fight young, deserve more respect. It is a sickness of our society to look at aging as anything other than an achievement/privilege.’
For many of us, as we creep towards30, birthdays stop being exciting and start to be something to be groaned over. Cards morph from celebratory to sarcastic – ‘It’s your birthday, hip hip replacement!’ And instead of looking forward to candles and cake, our fun is stifled by fears that each year passing is a sign that we’re becoming less vibrant and relevant.
From online listicles of things you should stop doing once you hit 30 (including ‘eating like a garbage truck’ and, bafflingly, ‘wearing hoop earrings’), to anti-ageing products marketed as if getting wrinkles is a disease to be cured, the signs that growing older is distasteful, and to be avoided if at all possible, are all around us.
A report published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), That Age Old Question, surveyed attitudes towards ageing, and found that negative feelings about age can begin to form at just six years old.
Those aged 18-34 had the most negative attitudes, with a quarter agreeing, ‘it’s normal to be unhappy and depressed when you’re old,’ and almost the same number believing that ‘older people can never really be thought of as attractive.’ No wonder, then, that cosmetic surgery is booming, with procedures rising 47% since 2013 – partly thanks to those of us between 23 and 38 trying to turn back time to make our faces selfie-ready.
‘The aesthetics of ageing is a highly gendered issue, with half of women at all ages stating that they feel ‘pressure to stay looking young’, compared with just a quarter of men,’ says Toby Green, Policy and Research Manager for the RSPH. ‘As Carrie Fisher puts it, ‘Men don’t age better than women, they’re just allowed to.’
‘What’s so dangerous about ageist attitudes are that they take root at such an early age, and become reinforced over the course of our lives. Once we reach what we perceive as ‘old age’, we begin to apply the ageist convictions we hold about mental and physical ability to ourselves,’ says Green. ‘Increased memory loss, higher risk of depression and anxiety, reduced ability to recover from illness, disengagement with healthy behaviours such as diet and exercise, and poor body image are just some of the health impacts that have been linked to negative attitudes to ageing.”
But no matter how much we’d like to rage against the dying of the light, ageing, as Jameela eloquently points out, is a privilege – and one we rarely acknowledge. Life expectancy has more than doubled over the past 200 years, and living to see your hair greying and your face wrinkling used to be considered an achievement to be venerated – especially among women who’d lived through the deadly risks of childbirth multiple times.
And like Jameela, I’ve learned to treat every birthday as a joyful celebration, without any fears about the march of time. Ten years ago, I lost my older brother suddenly, when he was just 34. In my mind, he’ll always be my big brother, even though I’m now seven years older than he will ever get to be.
In a cruel twist of fate, my fiancé also suffered the tragedy of losing one of his siblings shortly after we met: his sister died aged 36, leaving behind a young son. I’ve lost a handful of other relatives well before their time, in their 40s and 50s, who never got the chance to moan about aching joints and sagging jowls.
It means I see every year that passes as a blessing. Every one that I’ve remained healthy, and lived to see an extra candle on my Colin the Caterpillar cake is a great one. Nobody likes losing their shine – skin and hair dulling, wrinkles creeping in and music suddenly becoming incomprehensible (Lil Dicky’s Earth – WTF?). But the positives of getting older – from growing self-confidence and a (hopefully) bigger bank balance, to realising if you say no to things you don’t want to do, the world still keeps turning – are too-often overlooked.