Discover more from My Goodness! From Jo Elvin
I wouldn't go back to my 20s if you paid me
For a start, my hair wasn't as nice....
I barely recognise the woman in this photograph. But earlier this week, an Instagram follower sent me this blast from the past.
It’s my editor’s letter from an early 2000 copy of New Woman magazine. Here’s the editor’s letter from that issue:
Incidentally, a small hair salon in Selby lifted that photo and used it on their classified ad to advertise ‘half price cuts on Wednesdays.’
That picture of me is 25 years old. It unleashed memories. My boyfriend and I were living in a small flat in South West London and were just about to get married. He thought he didn’t really love our big fat cat, Olympia, until she went missing for two days and he sobbed as much as me. It was around that time I bought him his first little Nokia brick mobile phone; he still thought mobiles were for ‘wankers’ and wouldn’t catch on, but I was tired of not being able to hunt him down when I locked myself out of our flat for the millionth time.
I loved my New Woman job, but I was getting anxious about others around me who were moving onto the next ‘bigger and better’ thing. I mean, I was nearly 30, so I was ancient. I was concerned that once I left my 20s, I’d start to be a bit past it and I didn’t want to ‘stagnate’ in my career. (What a twerp). I was starting to think that I would need to start starting to think about having a baby. If that’s what I wanted. (Did I? That sounded like hard work and we already had the cat.) And then decided that, actually, I would stick my fingers in my ears and chant, ‘Nah nah nah not listening’ to that naggy voice for at least another two years.
It’s a timely study (well, at least for me, Jo Elvin, 53) of our attitudes to ageing: an intelligent, thought-provoking discussion about why our society worships youth and fears, sneers at and shuns those of us who are not so young anymore. Anna’s manifesto is all about embracing the advancing years with curiosity, energy and excitement. I highly recommend it.
But while you might assume it’s a book to soothe we mid-lifers as we limp towards the inevitable, I’d argue that it’s a much more vital read for younger generations. It’s too late for me to live my earlier decades without dreading my future ones, but perhaps not for you.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I genuinely believed that 50-something was so fricking old - a distant, dark abyss that I would never reach. My only thought was that I’d better cram as much as I can into living before I reached that state of decrepitude. All the messaging around me was that as midnight struck on my last day as a 39-year-old, life as I knew it would be over. My ovaries would vaporise. People would probably never serve me in shops let alone employ me. My face would lose all its youthful, bouncy collagen and probably sort of slide down to meet my tits. (I remember fearing even being 39 because of a film in which Madonna’s character was depressed at how ‘old’ and saggy her 39-year-old boobs looked). Indeed, I would be so physically undesirable that all men, my 50-something husband included, would probably turn to stone at the sight of me. Not just my hair, but life itself, would turn instantly, irrevocably grey.
You won’t be shocked to know that, now that I’m actually living my 50s, the reality is very different. There’s a chapter in Anna’s book where she’s chatting about age with much younger women and the question comes up; ‘What age do you wish you could go back to?’. Anna, the oldest person in the conversation, is the only one who says she would not choose to go back at all. This startles the younger ones who are assuming what we are all taught to assume: That age is something we must all want to run from.
If this is you, read Anna’s book. It’s easy to look back with a rose-tinted view of our unlined faces and think those were our happiest, most carefree times. But those years still came with their own stresses and strains.
It’s a well-worn magazine feature to ask celebrities what advice they would give their teenage selves. But for me personally I think I’d love to have a word with this me.
I’ve written before about the fact that when I look back, I can’t help but focus on the ample evidence of my own dickheadery. She was a decent enough egg, for sure, but she definitely had some rough edges that needed ironing out. At the same time, she was riddled with anxieties and way, way too harsh on herself. It’s lovely to be young, but it’s also quite hard. Here’s what I’d want 20-something me to know about the ‘decrepit’ 50-something she is to become:
Yep, that’s right, you are STILL HERE. Mad, I know. We still have all our own teeth - well done us - but my hair is nicer than yours.
You are not ugly. I know you really with all your heart believe you are. You’re no supermodel but… WHO CARES? Seriously, CTFO. High school children’s opinions are not facts. (In fact, if you zoom in on the words in the editor’s letter above, you’ll see my opinion of myself shining through. It was not helpful for me, or for the readers who may have been grappling with similar self-image struggles. It was not a great message to come from a women’s mag editor, was it?)
Your anxiety is not useful. Feeling stressed all the time is not giving you ‘a creative edge’. It’s a waste of energy and it makes you quite difficult to be around, actually. You will actually have better ideas and be more productive if you prioritise rest as well as work.
On that note, it’s a shame that the whole concept of ‘mindfulness’ hasn’t really taken off yet but when you hear about it, embrace it, because it will really help with your stress levels and the accompanying bad temper.
Exercise. You think you hate it, but you will be amazed at how much it improves your stress levels and your body confidence.
Someone else’s promotion is not your demotion. You’re on your own path and you don’t need to obsess with the comparathons.
Stop thinking that you have to look like you know everything and already have all the answers. I know you haven’t been doing this ‘being the boss’ thing for very long yet, but actually a lot of people will respect you - the boss - a lot more when you are honest about the times you’re not sure what to do. You will be amazed at how helpful it is to ask for help. It’s not failure, or weakness and being brave enough to be vulnerable will ultimately help others to feel comfortable being honest with you and then you’ll all get along better. Go on, try it.
A failure at work is not the worst thing that could ever happen. And when it happens not only will you survive, you will come to realise that even setbacks can have unexpected upsides. You’ll see.
You will be very happily married to the man you already live with. He’s a keeper. But you will come to understand why older couples say a good marriage takes work. You don’t know what that means right now, but know that it is absolutely worth it. It’s not all ‘mad sexy times’ in a long-term relationship, no, but it turns out that that is not the middle-aged death knell you seem to think right now.
Sitting there in your baggy black 501s and oversize black shirt, you will find it hard to believe that your wardrobe will one day explode with kaleidoscopic colour and - gasp! - leg-revealing looks. Rather than being the old bag you’re expecting, you’ll be better dressed in your 50s than you ever are now as a young woman. In fact, many will come to see you as a source of valuable fashion advice, and yes, I know that right now that seems ludicrous. Ironically the person who loves you the most - your husband - will be the one who hates most of your outfits. He’ll deal.
At 53, you still don’t feel like you have everything figured out. But unlike now, you won’t panic about that, you’ll actually feel energised by the fact that there’s still stuff to do and stuff to learn.
Rather than dreading getting older you will start to understand that each new era has its pros as well as cons. And you will witness people you love suffer pain and loss that is unimaginable to you all right now. So don’t forget what a gift growing older really is.
All in all, I think I am a better person now than I was then. Well, you’d hope that a woman in her 50s has grown a bit since her 20s, right?. I’m more at ease with who I am. It’s difficult to embarrass me. I can happily sit in restaurants and turn up to parties by myself. I know what I will and won’t put up with in everything from relationships to work situations. I have my daughter now and I might be biased but she’s the loveliest human I’ve ever met.
I’m fitter now than I was in my 20s. And even with the added wrinkles, I actually do think I look better than I did then - probably because I don’t beat myself in quite the same way I did about such things as a younger woman. And unlike my younger self, I don’t feel shame when I pay myself a compliment.
Like Anna, I have no fantasies about returning to my youth. Currently I’m still on some multiple and steep learning curves in my relatively new multi-hyphenate career. And you know what, as challenging and stressful as that is at times, I feel very grateful to be into my sixth decade and still feeling curiosity and energy. Also, with much nicer clothes than I had in my 20s.
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