The Sunday Times

January 31st, 2010

The insidious triumph of the facelifting classes

It is bad enough getting old. What makes it worse is the constant pressure, these days, to deny it or disguise it. There is endless media wittering about 40 being the new 30 and 70 being the new 60, with the implication that we all should look and feel at least 10 years younger than we are. Now Emma Soames, Saga magazine’s editor-at-large, has come up with an irritating new celebration of being 50: women in their fifties are, supposedly, newly fantastic and having a new, fantastically improved youthful time of late-onset confidence and vigour. She calls them — in one of those neologisms that make one’s granny glasses fug up with annoyance — the Quintastics.

How the heart sinks. Of course it is possible to have fun at 50 (or at 90), if life is treating you well. Of course there are many consolations in maturity. And of course many fiftysomething women today really are healthier, more youthful and more energetic than their mothers and grandmothers, thanks to better doctors and better diets throughout their lives. And thanks to better opportunities, they now often have more interesting lives in late middle age and beyond.

However, what matters in all this age chat is not so much how old one is as how one looks. So long as one’s health holds out, the only problem with getting old is looking old; otherwise one’s birth date would be of little interest. If it weren’t for our mirrors, most of us would be unable to believe how old we have mysteriously become. And what we see in our mirrors is how others see us. So if fiftysomethings are to be seen as fantastic, or as the new 40 or whatever, they must look it. If they don’t — if the so-called Quintastics look every thin-lipped, slack-eyed, grey-haired day of their sixth decade as nature intended — most of them won’t be having such a fantastic time. They will find themselves being ignored and passed over in favour of slack-eyed, grey-haired men and wide-eyed, bright-haired women.

Sexist ageism is always with us, no matter how we struggle against the thought (and indeed against the phrase). Embarrassing the BBC into having a couple of fiftysomething female newsreaders will not change the fact that we are all drawn to youth and the beautiful signs of youth, particularly in women; we are distressed by the wrinkles and pallor that suggest nature is through with us, or at least through with the ageing babe on the telly.

As every woman of a certain age comes to learn, there is a point when you become invisible. People stop paying you attention. No doubt evolutionary biologists have explanations for this. But we know, unless we choose to ignore it, that there is all too much truth in the words of the old song: keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved and — which is part of the same thing — if you want to hold on to whatever power you had in your prime.

Some people — increasingly few — talk of ageing gracefully and one can only admire them. However, ageing as nature intended is not easy to do in a world obsessed with youth and appearances. It is particularly difficult for people working in industries in which seeming young matters, such as the media, from public relations to the music business.

Interviewing cosmetic surgeons a few years ago, I was told again and again that their patients are now no longer actresses and society beauties. They are ordinary-looking middle-aged women, and increasingly men, too, who are terrified of losing their jobs if they show any signs of getting old and past it. And since there has been an extraordinary revolution in cosmetic medicine in the past few years, there is an obvious and growing pressure to make use of it. Looking more attractive than nature intended is a fringe benefit; vanity is not primarily the point.

Having a little work done, in the coy phrase, is now so successful and so discreet that most people feel they can get away with it. The shame and indignity attached to cosmetic surgery are fading away and in any case you don’t need to go under the knife: there are lesser interventions such as hormone replacements, nutraceuticals, cosmetics for protection against photo-ageing, various kinds of lasering for removing blemishes and injections into one’s cheeks of one’s own body fat, “harvested” — in the beauty bandits’ chilling expression — from podgier parts of the body, where it isn’t wanted, to plump up the face and recreate its youthful curves. Ridiculous though all this may sound (and dangerous though some of it is), there is absolutely no doubt that it gives many people new confidence and what is really a new lease of life.

The problem, though, is that all these possibilities are beginning to conscript everyone into a rejuvenation arms race. An acquaintance of mine, a great beauty and literary lioness, complained to me a few years ago that all her richest and most glamorous contemporaries suddenly looked at least 15 years younger than she did. They had all had superb facelifts and she felt, with some reason, that she now looked like their aunt. She did not follow their lead into the hands of a top surgeon, being one of those people either wise enough or cautious enough to avoid it, but she did wonder, she said, whether she really belonged to the facelifting classes anyway.

And that is the point about looking and feeling fantastic at 50 or indeed at 40 or 60. Youth is a class issue now because it has become a commodity. It’s an advantage — perhaps soon more of a necessity for some purposes — that people can buy. People who have enough time and money to spend on top surgeons and dermatologists, on the best diets, best nutraceuticals and food additives for rejuvenating gloss and glow, on cosmetic dentistry, bifocal contact lenses, top hair colourists, the most rigorous of gyms and trainers and plenty of rest and recreation, will always — even without cosmetic medicine — look far younger and feel far healthier than people who can’t afford such things. This difference is already apparent; before long it will become a significant and visible social division.

Actresses who look sexy at 60, or women who are now Quintastics or evergreen granny-babes, must have a demoralising effect on most women. It is expensive to keep the ageing self feeling and looking fantastic and, for those who can’t afford it, these role models must be distinctly irritating. Those who can afford it should either be truthful about it or keep quiet about it; it is not something to celebrate.