The last taboo: Why women aren't supposed to age

Miranda Harcourt with daughter Thomasin McKenzie.
Maarten Holl

Miranda Harcourt with daughter Thomasin McKenzie.

Miranda Harcourt has never acted her age.

For the first half of her career, the esteemed New Zealand actor was always cast in the part of an older woman.  In her first role out of drama school, a play in The Fortune Theatre in Dunedin, she portrayed a mature mother of two: "Both of my 'children' were actors who were older than me."

"I just looked older than I was. Then suddenly I turned 38, and started playing people younger than me," Harcourt says. "I've got great skin; just a lucky quirk of fate. So now that I'm 54, I don't look 54. 

Miranda Harcourt has never looked her age.

Miranda Harcourt has never looked her age.

"I've always slid around inside the age thing. I guess it's a matter of your age on the inside."

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Miranda Harcourt as Gemma in 80s soap Gloss.

Miranda Harcourt as Gemma in 80s soap Gloss.

In an industry where age and gender discrimination is rife, and the battle to remain ageless is merciless, Harcourt is not too proud to disclose her maturity. But at the same time, she chooses not to broadcast her birthdays. 

"I just say how old I am because, firstly, I don't care. There are age markers in my life: When I say I have a 10-year-old child, people react with 'Oh gosh, that must have been a late baby'. So why not be upfront about it?" says Harcourt, an acting coach whose experience has most recently been sought-after by Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg.  

"I also have no problem with ageing, but I'm unusual in that. I know actresses who are fearful of revealing their age in case they're cut out of potential casting decisions." 

Sarah Paykel started a business to help women reentering the workforce after having children.

Sarah Paykel started a business to help women reentering the workforce after having children.

Age suppression is a serious business. Last year, a bill was passed in California requiring entertainment websites like IMDb to remove an actor's age from the site if they requested. Last month, a federal judge blocked the law, saying it almost certainly violated the First Amendment, by preventing the publication of factual information.

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"But I think more than that," Harcourt says, "women - and some men too - are ashamed of their age. That sense of shame enables them to shave a couple of years off, be a bit mysterious, or decide not to have a 50th birthday party.  I did that myself, because I didn't want people to know I was 50; I didn't want to mark it with a massive public event. 'Ding dong, now I'm a 50-year-old!'"


Sarah Paykel is treating her body differently as she closes in on 50.

Sarah Paykel is treating her body differently as she closes in on 50.

With my own half-century milestone rolling towards me like a large, grey boulder this year, I share her reluctance. My 40s have been fabulous. But 50s? Frightening.

When women throughout the world have pushed aside so many barriers, why is the spectre of ageing still so universally terrifying? Why are we a society still so obsessed by youth, when the number of people over 60 in the world is expected to double by 2050?  And the majority of them will be women.

Maybe it's to do with women, particularly those in the public spotlight, feeling constantly judged on their appearance and their accomplishments.  Add their age, and the magnifying glass intensifies. 

Sarah Paykel back in 2006.
norrie montgomery

Sarah Paykel back in 2006.

Or perhaps it's about women experiencing job discrimination because of gender and birthdate.  Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Dr Jackie Blue, talks of a woman who was told she wasn't suitable for a job because "they were looking for young, fresh-out-of-uni types"; and another who honestly indicated on an application form that she was over 50 – and missed out on two jobs.

Or it could be simply that the Invisible Older Woman is as real as ever.  You won't see her in magazine ads, unless she's promoting a retirement village or incontinence pants. She rarely appears in American sitcoms, unless she's Betty White. Most of the women questioned in a British lifestyle survey in 2014 said they felt invisible to the opposite sex from the age of 51; their hair greying, their confidence eroding. 

A friend told me she recently sat in an Auckland bar with two girlfriends, only to be ignored by the bartender for 15 minutes. "I reckon it's why American women tip – it's the only way to get good service after 40," she says.

Anne Else.

Anne Else.


Best-selling author Wendy Leigh wrote in the Daily Mail that she hadn't been truthful about her age since she was 30.

"Lying about it is a liberation, especially romantically. As a writer with 16 books to my name, my age doesn't affect my professional ambitions — but, if it were made public, it would certainly play havoc with my personal ones," wrote Leigh, who once had a famous affair with media mogul Robert Maxwell.  "My unwillingness to come clean isn't just because I don't want to be pigeon-holed or limited romantically, but because I'd rather not admit my age to myself." 

Liz Mitchell at her atelier.

Liz Mitchell at her atelier.

When Leigh died last year, tragically falling from the balcony of her London flat, obituaries revealed what she had successfully veiled for over three decades – she was 65. 

For Dr Vivienne Elizabeth, an associate professor at the University of Auckland who teaches the sociology of gender, keeping her age to herself has become "a longstanding habit".

"I've joked about my age with people for so long, it's deeply embedded in me. For a long time, I looked younger than I was, and it was a compliment when people would guess my age at quite a lot younger," she says.

Liz Mitchell says women can dress well as they age.

Liz Mitchell says women can dress well as they age.

But it's also about career. "Even in academia, people are looking out for bright young things," she says. "You can judge me on my appearance and on my CV, but you are not going to be able to interpret my CV through my age."

The trouble is, Elizabeth says, our youth-oriented society assesses the worth of a woman on her appearance and sexual attractiveness, much more than it does a man. 

"The primary encouragement for women is to look good. And who do we try to look good for? It's still for an appreciative male gaze. That's cultivated by society to look towards younger women," she says.

There's a sense that women can have a use-by date, says Elizabeth, as women in their fifties often find age a barrier to reemployment.  "Successful women like Helen Clark manage it, but it's more difficult for less high-achieving women. There's a sense they may be washed up after a certain age," she says.

"Thank goodness, most airlines don't limit the employment of female stewardesses by age anymore." Until the late 1960s, American Airlines set a mandatory retirement age for its hostesses at 32; two years ago, English grandmother Katrine Haynes realised her dream of becoming a Virgin Airlines flight attendant at the age of 59.


We all know women who, after having children, have found it difficult to return to full-time paid employment. In the late 2000s, Auckland businesswomen Sarah Paykel and Kate Ross created their return2work courses for "the lost workforce" - mums who leave jobs and don't return because of what they perceive as a lack of options, or a loss of confidence and skills.

As Paykel closes in on her 50th birthday, she's had to make her own work changes and embrace ageing. But she admits it's easier said than done.

"As I've got closer to that big number, I've been in denial. There's a lot of judgement out there. There's never been a time of so much pressure to look good, and perform brilliantly; you have to tick so many boxes as a woman now," she says. 

"Ageism is real and it brings personal and professional changes with it. So I've made a conscious effort to do things differently." Paykel, 48 next month, has reduced her public relations company to focus on board roles and directorships, while "managing three very busy daughters [aged between 12 and 14], a husband and the obligatory dog."

Realising her body is changing, she's switched high-impact cardio and boot camps for gentler daily exercise including yoga and walking the dog. She eats better, and takes more responsibility for her own health, after losing four women she was close to, to breast cancer. 

"As we age, some women get isolated and depressed, but you should try to stay connected with community. Don't give up your sense of self. One of the great things about ageing is that it brings maturity and wisdom; I really want to influence young women, like my daughters."


"How to Dress Your Age"; "Ten Items You're Too Old to Wear" - magazines and blogs fire haughty fashion directives at women as soon as they've left their teens. 

Respected New Zealand fashion designer Liz Mitchell – who, as "a young 61", still listens to punk and Patti Smith – says there are few rules on age-appropriate dressing. That so-called expert advice is simply to sell products.

"The beauty industry is all about making people feel unhappy in their skin. Billions of dollars go into their ad campaigns. But ageing isn't terrible – our lines are about laughter and personality. We need to celebrate realness, to be more accepting of our changing bodies."

For those of us who still struggle to accept our hair fading to grey and our middles thickening, while we doggedly cling to our old dress sizes, Mitchell's advice is "Don't give up".

"Underneath it all, we want to feel sexy and beautiful; we want to be loved. But plastic surgery won't fix anything," she says. "Clothes that are made well and fit well will make you feel so much better about yourself. As you get older, you can still do edgy or funky if that's what suits your personality. No one wants to be boring or dull."

While young designers bring a current eye to fashion, Mitchell says the senior fashionistas – from Vogue veterans Grace Coddington (75) and Anna Wintour (67), to designers Donna Karan, Miuccia Prada and Vera Wang, now all over 60 – command respect for their unrivalled knowledge and experience.

Last month, at a Contemporary Feminism panel discussion called Ageing and Agency, before a full house in Wellington's City Gallery, the subject of Dame Helen Mirren (71) being the face of beauty label L'Oreal Paris was a hot topic.

Miranda Harcourt was one of the panellists, and defended Mirren, along with others in her business of "transformation". 

"If, within your job, you're able to move around inside the age bracket you've been cast in, then why not celebrate that? I believe we should create a world where people can rest easy in the way they look, the age they are, the body they have. But at the same time, there are elements about transformation we find fascinating, and we can't tar them with the same brush," she says.


Writer and feminist social commentator Anne Else was among the Ageing and Agency audience, and she appreciates the need to look and feel good in her later years.  When she wrote her memoir, The Colour of Food, she invested in a decent studio photograph: "Most women making writing headlines were a lot younger than me," the 71-year-old says.

"If you're doing anything that requires a public persona, you're conscious of trying to look reasonable, and no older than you have to. But I draw the line at plastic surgery or botox. I've been really shocked at what appears to be a concerted campaign to normalise what was once seen as extreme cosmetic surgery."

Else doesn't believe older women are accurately portrayed in the media. "We see a lot of grey-haired men in the paper - heads of companies or politicians - carrying on as normal in work regarded as valuable. But there aren't as many grey-haired women - and that's not because we're dyeing our hair," she says.

Older women are seen as frail and incapable, she says, and yet many make valuable contributions to society in their retirement - caring for grandchildren and ageing husbands, or doing volunteer work.

"It's annoying to see the ads aimed at older people always featuring the same incredibly well-groomed, pretty, Pakeha men and women with no visible disabilities, all gadding about in their rest homes," she says.

"This fear of the elderly often extends to not showing them in their full glorious diversity. Women deserve to be celebrated for their diversity."

It is beginning to happen, Harcourt believes, and women are their own agents of change. "Older women are becoming more visual and more celebrated. They have more of a choice about how they want to present themselves – choosing to dye their hair or not. They are being asked to stand up and speak – on reclaiming our bodies, the politicisation of reproduction, or protesting against Trump," she says. 

"Maybe I'm an optimist, but in a very short space of time, I believe things are really changing for women for the better."

 - Stuff


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