It was my birthday last week; I turned 55, something I’m genuinely proud of. In my head, I’m ceremoniously lighting each candle with a sense of optimism and joy. There’s so much to be grateful for. In the recent shadow of many lives cut short, we all understand how fleeting and precious life is. And there’s a future to look forward to: more rainbows, sunsets, fluffy clouds, things to do, people to meet. Surely, those two reasons alone: living and looking ahead warrant Catherine Wheels, popping corks and a chocolate fountain.
Recently, I asked the age of neighbour who I discovered had a birthday around the same time as me. ‘I can’t say,’ she said with horror. ‘Look at me. I don’t dress old.’ She wore skinny jeans, pumps and a printed shirt. I insisted this was an opportunity for happiness, but whatever her forthcoming age, she almost gagged. The number stuck in her throat and the words refused to form. Perhaps, it was none of my business. ‘Never ask a woman her age’, the hackneyed phrase goes…
I came away wondering why some find escalating birthdays terrifying. It’s not a major spoiler to say none of us live forever but it seemed sad to treat the momentous day of one’s birth as a fearful thing, like staring into the barrel of a gun. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, life’s only two certainties are taxes and death. So, yes, every birthday brings us closer to the end but arguably, that starts from day one.
The physical reality of our changing bodies can present challenges. As collagen levels diminish, the older self is less firm, plumped and smooth. The colour and texture our skin and hair is markedly different to how we remember them. Our bones can become thinner and frailer, muscles shrink, our faculties and capabilities: hearing, sight, agility, memory may be reduced. Oscar Wilde said, ‘youth is wasted on the young’ and it’s only with perspective, we reflect on how dewy we once were, ironically something we are unlikely to have recognised at the time.
Society’s obsession with youth is perhaps where many of the euphemisms and associated coyness around female ageing spring. Being on the Shelf or Past our Sell-By date are sayings that must have originated from men because they’re never used in relation to the male species. It would also explain how these disempowering, patronising sentiments relate to some type of shopping activity or marketplace. But women aren’t date-stamped products on a shelf waiting to be bought. Women own themselves.
It’s true our bodies decline, crumble and eventually we die, but the spirit of youth: curiosity, creativity, learning, openness, pleasure, playfulness, nurturing and generosity are not the exclusive domain of young bodies. These qualities can run throughout life and keep women younger than any skin cream. I sometimes entertain myself with a fantasy programme called, Ten Years Older where those with less experience and perspective are given shots of wisdom, not dermal fillers. As for birthday presents, one more candle was gift enough.
Nilgin Yusuf is a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter @Nilgin and Instagram @nilgin_yusuf