Agebreak – Let’s Be Thankful For Our Years, Not Ashamed

A long time ago there was a song that’s now become an iconic soundtrack of a period in Australian history – AC/DC’s Jailbreak.

Back in their formative years (the 1970s), the band was fronted by the late Bon Scott, a hard-boiled young sex god with a chest rug, tattoos back when they were dangerous, and denim jeans so tight you could see the outline of his considerable assets.

Jailbreak remains legendary for many people and I’m going to use it now as a metaphor for the cages in which we control and label women as we age.

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Three events have sparked this post

Each acted as a small thorn in my side, until I put all of them together and realised that this was a subtle push to voice my feelings and thoughts.

The first was the joint gasp from a group of young and beautiful narcissists on a franchised TV show premiering in Australia. It features several twenty-somethings with seemingly faultless and idealised body types, all thrust together on the tiny Love Island.

As viewers, we are expected to voyeuristically gorge our eyes on their unblemished physiques while we watch them figure out a pecking order, and couple up night and day under the watchful eye of 24/7 cameras (including night vision).

The almost-comic gasp I mention occurred when the group discovered that one of their members (a svelte, early-twenties buck) had a fling with an ‘older woman’ – “almost 50” no less.

The shocked expressions worn by these young women might indeed have been hilarious if they were not so insulting. I saw the gamut of emotions flicker by as the camera panned around the group – astonishment, the dreadful reality sinking in, revulsion. I imagined these vain hen peacocks trying to comprehend the scandalous notion that their ‘perfect’ bods might not actually be enough to keep hold of their man!

Who knows what the young bucks were thinking – I indulge myself that maybe they were a little more opening minded?

The second event I recalled after subconsciously pondering that ghastly show (like a car accident that held my gaze, I found myself strangely compelled to watch it until the first ad break!).

This second event was a story told by a recreational cricket player here in my town and it involved a similar socially suspect admission by a younger guy. Let’s say he was in his late teens, but his age is irrelevant. Points were jokingly assigned to these cricket hobbyists based on their most recent sexual success. When it came to the young buck’s turn, he LOST points – amid much jocular ribbing – because his womanly ‘conquest’ was over 40.

Not only was their assignation deemed unworthy of point value, he was penalised for it!

The third event was a comment made by a man on a dating site.

“Who’d be interested in a 52-year-old man?” he rhetorically and self-deprecatingly enquired. I responded, “And why wouldn’t someone be interested?” Tick any of the boxes that our youth-worshipping society so neatly packages up for us – too old, clapped out, can’t get it up, past his use-by date, haggard, jaded and just plain boring.

And for all those stereotypes there are matching ones for women! Dried up old prune, wrinkled, middle-aged, invisible, unworthy of our interest or attention, tired, past her best, and so on.

Subverting the dominant culture

While I find these examples of narrow-minded ageism all too predictable, it’s simultaneously fascinating that, subverting the dominant culture, is a whole other world where mature women are actively sought out for age-earned privileges.

‘Knowing what we want’ and ‘being able to hold a conversation’ are two such examples of the recognised virtues an ‘older woman’ brings to the table, as well as the more questionable ‘cutting to the chase’ and ‘being low maintenance’. (You might want to have a quick peek at my section about the changing definition of a ‘cougar’ at this point.)

Yes, it’s true that sometimes we don’t care to mess around with preliminaries – we might just want to get laid. In contrast, people regardless of their age still have very human needs and for me, being respected is right up there in the top five.

…people regardless of their age still have very human needs and for me, being respected is right up there in the top five.

Another example of the change in attitude at the other end of the spectrum is the term MILF. Firstly, that it exists, and secondly, that it’s consistently one of the top five most popular search term on Pornhub. (Pornhub Annual Report 2016) More worryingly, ‘step mom’ was the top most searched term in 2017 and still remains extremely popular.

Both cultural terms denote edgy, mature (and slightly dangerous) female sexuality combined with the traditional stereotype of women as the nurturers and carers.

In the article The Emancipation of the MILF: Does sexual freedom belong only to the young? journalist Kim Brooks describes the relatively unchartered territory of mature female sexuality, especially that of women who are also mothers. (Kim Brooks, The Cut May 2017)

In her 40s, author Claire Dederer came to the painful conclusion that she had a problem. “The problem had to do with sex. It had to do with desire. It had to do with being a middle-aged wife and mother and needing and wanting to be seen and known by new people in a new way…” says Brooks.

While recognising that she loved her husband and her family, she could no longer suppress the bubbling desire for something ‘other’ than where she found herself in her life. “A part of her wanted to step outside the boundary of the polite, middle-class domestic life they’d drawn around themselves. Or, to put it more crudely, she wanted to fuck around.”

And this concept is being echoed around the world, not only in memoirs, articles and blogs, but in TV shows like Wanderlust, and even among my own midlife female friends.

Revising the concept of the cougar or MILF

In the time since I installed that first dating app four years ago, I’ve done a complete 360 on my attitude to the concept and mythology around MILFs and cougars.

It hasn’t been easy, because I’d imbibed the subtle messages that surround us, as women, that once we reach a certain age our lives become less interesting, less important and certainly, less passionate. As I age, I instinctively struggle with this blatant ageism, because in my core, I don’t feel any different from those early heady years of discovering my personal, female and sexual identity in my late teens and twenties. I’m sure you feel the same way.

History and popular culture has proven that many, many women in midlife can identify with what Claire Dederer grapples with in her memoir Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, forensically examining what happens when a devoted wife and mother stops taking care of everyone, “stops subsuming her own needs to those of her children and husband, stops repressing her unruly sexual desires, and starts acting like, well … a man.”

Dederer asserts that a woman might be a mother and yet also a person with unruly, lively and even promiscuous sexual desire. “…A mature woman’s love life might be every bit as sensuous, tawdry, complicated, and overflowing as that of any women in her twenties,” she says.

Kim Brooks suggests of Dederer, “…but as a woman, she is setting out into the uncharted territory, suggesting, as a few brave souls have now begun to do, that the MILF might not just be a male fetish and a focus of male desire, but a person in her own right, not just an object, but a subject with things she herself would like to do.”

This image of the powerful and emancipated cougar or MILF is in direct contrast to the dominant ideology western society likes to periodically regurgitate. It was repugnantly blatant in the three examples I mention here – and it is not only confined to women.

Men also experience a similar cultural backlash as they age, even if they are party to its distribution.

For example, men perpetuate ageist attitudes about themselves (“who’d want this clapped-out old goat?”) and in the popular midlife trend of seeking out a newer model of the no-longer-interesting wife.

Research shows that men judge a woman’s physical appearance significantly higher (33%) than any other factor. (Elyse Romano ‘The State of Dating: What Do We Look For In A Mate?’)

British journalist, Deborah Orr writes in The Guardian, “how many articles have there been about how awful it is that ‘middle-aged women’ can’t meet ‘middle-aged men’ because all the ‘middle-aged men’ are snapping up ‘younger women’?…Women are culturally programmed to go into some kind of existential panic if they find themselves single in their forties. Men? They’re culturally programmed to believe that whatever they do, they mustn’t get mixed up with an ‘incredibly lonely’ and ‘incredibly vulnerable’ woman in existential panic. Which, frankly, is fair enough.” (Deborah Orr ‘Helen Bailey and the Lethal Darkness Behind This ‘Middle-Aged Woman’ Myth’ The Guardian 25 Feb 2017)

Looking on the bright side

But thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom for women in midlife.

Not only do we have the titillating prospect of sex or liaisons with younger men, but at least 58% of 26,434 men between 30 and 49 in one study said they’d consider dating a woman older than them. (Elyse Romano ‘Online Dating Report Women Want Younger Men’) So there are some positive aspects to take out of some research.

One article says that, “the overall attitude [is that] the older woman is better adjusted …that women in their forties have significantly high levels of self-confidence, are happier with their lives overall and feel that the best days of their lives are ahead of them.”
Even better for men with commitment phobia, “96% of women in their forties are content being in a relationship that may not end in marriage, but only 62% of eighteen-year-old women can say the same.” (OK Cupid Says Men Are Looking for Older Women and Just Don’t Know It’)

I am happy to have reached the stage where I am content both with myself and my life, as a strong, independent woman.

I don’t need a man – I want mutually satisfying, challenging and fun relationships, but that’s very different at my age and stage at any other decade. I don’t have a burning, ‘sand through the hourglass’ desire for babies, I don’t have any economic need to be taken care of or pampered. I don’t rely on my body or my appearance for my external validation (although it’s always nice to be appreciated or admired!).

Finally, in this second half of my life, I have reached a place of satisfaction, empowerment and reasonable contentment with myself. I’m still a work in progress, as we all are.

If there’s one thing I’d say to those obnoxious, narcissistic young women on Love Island it’s this: One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll reach 50 too. Pray that by then, you have something other than a lithe body and a pretty face as the foundation for your self-esteem.

The Thorny Topic of a Woman’s Age (pt 3)

In my last two articles I shared my thoughts about how women over 35-40 are perceived, messaged and portrayed in our modern world, and why this might be cause for concern, or deep irritation!

Ageism is real and though some could argue that funky, attractive and interesting women have a social obligation to buck the stereotype and proudly declare their age, that’s not what I’m here for on this online dating journey.

My main motivation so far has been opportunity, making the most of it and experiencing the variety and spice of life.

I have never doubted that stating my age would reduce my opportunities, and so my tactic has been to bend the truth or allow other people to be the judge. Just look at the data if you don’t believe me – unless you’re a woman in your early 20s, you’ve already passed peak desirability!

The dodgy social experiment

‘With this aspect in mind, I conducted a sort of social experiment over a couple of months on kik’s Match&Chat. Unlike the very young men desperate to get into ‘the adult club’ (especially with an older woman), I was keen to shed some excess years and slim down to a numerical figure I felt more comfortable with.

I already knew from countless online interactions (in excess of 150 during my first gung-ho year online dating), that men tended to see me as significantly younger than my biological age. This was flattering but looking at it beyond ego and through a cultural lens, I was interested in how a stated age determines opinions, reactions and beliefs about you.

I did not want to buy into this age stereotyping. I was more than curious about, given an open canvas, how my age might be interpreted by a ‘neutral’ viewer who only had my pen-name and my headshots to go by.

On kik’s Match&Chat there are no other accompaniments to influence a person’s perception of age. This is different from the majority of ‘dating’ or hook-up sites, where stating your age (even if it is massaging the truth) is mandatory.

I began my experiment whenever the prickly but predictable question of age raised its head. In nine cases out of ten, my age was asked within the first five interactions. Instead of replying with a numeral, I asked, “Guess – and I’ll guess yours.” This was a fun micro ice-breaking game, and the revelations were astounding. I carried on this approach for about 50 interactions and I observed two distinct trends.

Two scary trends

The first was that men universally and in all cases underestimated my age by at least a decade, and in many cases, well over a decade. I don’t even use ‘beauty-face’ or air brushing filters in my pics, the way so many people do.

Apparently if you show a photo of yourself laughing in an online dating profile, you have more than three times the chance of communication from site members. And it’s no surprise that 47% of men and 27% of women have encountered a first date who looked nothing like their dating profile image! (Online Dating Industry Facts and Statistics)

But before I start congratulating myself on positive responses, there’s more.

My second finding – and this might be obvious – was that guys in their teens and early 20s tended to view me as much closer to them in age.

It seemed that the concept of ‘an older woman’ in their minds meant a woman in her late-twenties to early-thirties.

I found that hilarious and when I revealed my age, the shock, surprise and the general wowing compliments were indeed gratifying. Keep in mind that this is no recommendation of my good character, behaviour, intelligence, kindness or compassion or any other worthy quality. This was purely a comment about my ‘packaging’ and it pays to keep a humble foot on the ground at all times.

What I find amusing and slightly galling is that, especially for very young men, the idea of a sexy mature woman does not, in their limited imaginations, stretch beyond mid-thirties.

This is infinitely sad and a sign of our social conditioning around women aging, and the obsession with youth in first-world countries.

Why is it inconceivable that a 49-year-old woman or a 53-year-old woman could be ‘hot’ and attractive? I found it very funny to read that women apparently experience two periods of adolescence – perimenopause being the second!

No wonder so many cougars are searching for sexual satisfaction online!

People over 35 are the highest users of online dating

The statistics also bear out the rise in people over 30 using online dating. American research in 2011 showed that singles over age 55 were visiting dating sites more than any other age group! And the number two spot was occupied by people aged 45 to 54. (Elyse Romano The Brave New World of Senior Dating http://www.datingsitesreviews.com)

Being considered ‘attractive’ and to some extent ‘young looking’ holds a pivotal place in the online dating world, where people are judged in a microsecond by their photograph.

I can only speak of my own experience and my own reactions. I was sometimes merciless in my ‘ticks’ or swipes and in the broader sense, about who I wanted to spend time talking to or meeting, if they lived in my city. Was I prepared to invest my precious time and energy in a man I was not attracted to?

No. It’s a brutal answer and I have absolutely no doubt that it is echoed not only across the board in terms of the choices other women make, but also in the choices men make.

Some might even argue that men are even more predisposed to judge a book by its cover. Research shows that men judge a woman’s physical appearance significantly higher (33%) than any other factor, whereas women judge a man’s sense of humour as the most important factor, at 24% ahead of 21% for physical appearance. (Elyse Romano The State of Dating: What Do We Look For In A Mate? http://www.datingsitesreviews.com)

On the subject of photographs, I admit that I choose my photographs carefully. I have often presented several images and always one with a natural smile (I loathe smiling in a selfie). What has been a surprise more than once is when a young man comments on a date that I am ‘far more gorgeous’ in real life! That is dating gold, I have to say. Balm for the ego – and let’s be honest, we could all do with some of that.

Age is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

It’s a social construct in the sense that by omitting reference to it, we are immediately free to be ‘other’ than our age, to shed the stereotypes we all share, even if buried deeply. We are free to be ourselves no matter how we defy conventions or unspoken ideas of what a woman of a certain age should dress like, look like or how she should behave.

Yes, age is a biological fact, as my mother constantly tells me. We can’t escape it forever, but my goal on this online dating journey and at this stage in my life has been to hold back the tsunami tide of ageism.

Even with internationals I didn’t ‘lie outrageously’ and agree that yes, I was 23 or 34. I could have had some fun with ridiculously bending the truth. A friend helped me shape my philosophy about this. In a world where there is pressure to ‘age gracefully’ and accept our place in the shadows as we grey up and fill out, she said, “if you’re never going to meet them, what does it matter? Just have fun!”

How liberating to accept that not only can I behave any damn way I like, (consider our previous sexual horizons or constructed personas that we build and carry throughout our lives) but online, I can be any damn age I like!

And that’s nobody’s business but mine.