If you’d asked me a few years ago what age I’d choose to be if I could go back, I’d have probably picked 25, or thereabouts. Old enough to be past the angst of teenagehood, young enough to have my whole life ahead of me. And a great body.
But realistically, looking at 25 year old me, I was a complete mess. It was the mid-90s and I was a club reporter for a magazine. My life was nocturnal – I regularly lurched from nightclub to dawn, and slept through most days – my life was disordered, chaotic. Immersed deeply in the rave culture and everything that goes with it, my actual life was fun, but pretty unhealthy.
I look back at that me now, and the very thought of it makes me exhausted. Frankly I’m astonished I’m even alive
I was a size 8, not through healthy eating and exercise (although I did a lot of dancing) but that cavalier attitude towards life and our bodies that only the young can sustain. If I wasn’t roaring about the countryside chasing an illegal party I was routinely gingerly trying to eat a Pot Noodle without throwing up, before pulling on my trusty Buffalo trainers and doing it all over again. I lived on cans of Nurishment and bags of Hula Hoops for about three years.
My personal life, unsurprisingly, was also a mess. Serotonin in flux aligned with an unstable life and a desire for danger and excitement led me repeatedly into unsuitable loves and scrapes, and this added to my rollercoaster existence. It was the best of times, and the worst of times. I look back at that me now, and the very thought of it makes me exhausted. Frankly I’m astonished I’m even alive. I’m rethinking my ‘ideal age’.
What is the best age to be then?
My glamorous grandmother – whose daily toilette would take around three hours – used to muse out loud whilst I sat watching her elaborate routine, waiting to go rollerskating, agonisingly impatient through the makeup, the removal of curlers, the backcombing and spraying, the relentless chainsmoking. And her favourite musings were about the best times in her life.
I’m 51 now and I can’t help feeling that the best is yet to come
She’d led a charmed life; one of the beautiful people, she’d taken lovers through the war and then revived her marriage, spent time modeling in Paris, travelled to exotic locations like Istanbul when travel was still very much a luxury. And she always said if she could be any age again it would be 40. “Old enough to know better, young enough to still have fun,” she used to say.
15 year old me couldn’t understand that at all, but I get it now. I think it helped that by their 40s my grandfather had made a few quid, so life was pretty cushy. She’d never had to work or worry. But as we age more slowly and live longer now, I’m reckoning on her 40 being equivalent to today’s 50-55. I’m 51 now, and I can’t help feeling that the best is yet to come.
OK – so let’s be clear. Heading into your late 40s is not entirely a bag of fun. There’s perimenopause to wrangle with, and big changes to your body. It just changes, there’s no two ways. There’s the realisation that you’re not going to be 40-something any more, and late nights are tougher, and there’s things like bingo wings and unshiftable spare tyres and crow’s feet, and other general shite that wasn’t there before.
But actually, that stuff is mostly skin deep, and to a large extent, fixable. Emotionally though, it’s quite hard to let go of being young, and accepting it’s likely that most of your life is behind you, not in front. That is quite weird. It’s also the time of your life where friends start to die. Not in droves, but cancer gets a few, and other illnesses take their toll. You begin to realise you’re not immortal.
On a positive note, it lends a sense of urgency to doing things you’ve put off, and finishing things you’ve started. It also makes you deeply grateful for the fact that you’re still here. As a million memes attest to, ageing is a gift not everyone gets to enjoy.
So what exactly is so good about being 50?
Firstly, it’s about the reduction of fucks one gives. The utter joy of not caring about stuff is one of the most thrilling developments of my life so far. I don’t mean important things, but the small stuff. Such joy to realise that it doesn’t matter, and let it go.
You also realise – once you accept that the first flourish of your youth and beauty has gone – that actually, it’s quite hard work keeping up with that too. You know what suits you and you stop worrying about it, and you lose a lot of unwanted attention. There’s a huge sense of relief in not being part of that rat race.
I like myself more, and I choose my friends more carefully (oh the joy of not having to pretend to like someone!)
You also largely stop worrying about what other people think about you, and you do what the hell you like. I have spent much of my life in this space anyway, but I understand for others it’s something of a renaissance. It’s very freeing.
Speaking personally, I like myself more, and I choose my friends more carefully (oh the joy of not having to pretend to like someone!). I feel happier in my own skin, even if it’s not as pert as it used to be, and I laugh more easily. I am better company; I am kinder, softer. That hard, combative edge that used to make me challenging to spend time with, I think, is blunted, and I’m better for it.
Along with being kinder, however, comes the wisdom and the grace to say no to things more often –an act of being kind to oneself. Particularly over doing crap that you’re supposed to like but secretly hate. Yay for that! Bugger FOMO, I’m all for the JOMO. It’s also a great way to stop feeling resentful too.
So is 50 the new 30?
No, it’s better. People talk about 50 being the new 30 – I don’t subscribe to that. Maybe there are parallels in terms of what is deemed acceptable behaviour, but the experience and wisdom that comes with living for 50 years can’t be crammed into 30. It just can’t.
I pity the 30-year olds. Life was so much harder at that age, fumbling my way through life
That’s why 50 is better. Not only do we still get to act like young ‘uns if we want now, we have wisdom and life experience on our side. We can do all the things now that you can when you’re 30 – take a gap year or five, launch a business, sleep around, have kids even if you must – but we do it with a bit more nous.
I pity the 30-year olds. Life was so much harder at that age, fumbling my way through life, trying to be a parent and career woman and try to strap on a social life, and pretend to have it all when inside, you’re actually bewildered and exhausted.
And being 50 means fewer people argue with you too, because you’re older and you won’t stand for it, you have authority. How is that ever going to be a bad thing?! On the flip side, you can actually also become an elder, someone who hands down experience and wisdom – if asked – passing on the baton with love.
As for embracing being 50…
When I was approaching my 40th birthday I thought I was fine about it. But I wasn’t. It turned out days before the big date that I actually hated the whole idea of leaving my 30s and I hid away at home, had a takeaway with The Boyfriend and cried. But by the time I was 41 I’d got over myself and had an absolute humdinger of a party with champagne, casino tables and cocaine. A Rabelaisian orgy to be proud of.
I’m going to make it a tradition and have a 51st party, go crackers next year. Hitting 50 feels like a rite of passage though and I think David Bowie summed it up perfectly.
“Ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.”
Amen to that.
Main photo: Erika Szostak