Fifty is fabulous!
Alison Hull was concerned about approaching her 50th birthday, but it proved to be an opportunity for change
When my 40th birthday was only a couple of days away, friends of mine who had already passed that magic number assured me that being 40 was wonderful. And, by and large, they were right. But in 2009 I passed the next big hurdle – becoming 50. Would this be even better?
A lot of it is a matter of choice. One big choice I made last year was to lose weight. Not primarily to improve the way I looked, but because every article you ever read, as a woman, tells you that it is harder to lose weight after the menopause. Being overweight also makes you more at risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. So if I wanted to look after my health, losing weight was the biggest and most important step I could take.
I find it interesting that evangelical Christians do not, by and large, smoke, and the reason that is always given for this is to quote the verse where St Paul says that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Absolutely: I have no quarrel with that. But we will quite happily eat to excess.
Inspired by my sister, who is three years older than I am, and who had lost over two stone (and then taken up running and completed the Great North Run – but there is no need to go that far) I scribbled down her diet details and started it last spring.
The Dukan diet, that she and I followed, was devised by a Frenchman, and, like the Atkins diet, is high in protein. But it is also low in fat - so no fried breakfasts. Think lean meat and masses of green veg, and that is about it. Throw in oat bran porridge for breakfast, hard boiled eggs, ham and salad for lunch, and that was my eating pattern – and still is. I cheated regularly (red wine is essential, I am sure it says so somewhere in the Bible) but the weight still dropped off, and I am now totally satisfied with my shape and weight, and have no intention of letting either alter very much.
One aspect of losing weight that I had never really considered before is the cost. Not so much the food, as the clothes. When absolutely nothing is the right size any longer, you have to clear out your entire wardrobe. And you particularly have to do this, so that you have to stay your new size – no old clothes that will fit any longer if you get bigger. It gives you the chance to plan your wardrobe and make sure everything co-ordinates. At least that was the idea . . .
Do I feel better? Yes, immeasurably, and I look better as well. It is a sad fact that clothes just look better on slimmer figures. So impressed was my sister with my weight loss, that she bought me a load of new clothes and paid for a hair restyle.
Ah, you are saying, but all that is about the outside. Yes, but we are, after all, holistic beings, and what affects our bodies affects our minds and spirits as well. What about the emotional and the spiritual side of being 50?
I've found that I have started thinking more carefully about what I want to do with the time I've got left. Admittedly, I may have another 50 years, but nevertheless there is a feeling of, if time is limited, is this what I really want to do? In the last six months, I have faced the question of what I would do if my current editing career came to an end. Would it matter?
I had the chance to pursue a different line – but realised, quite soon, that the different line, however lucrative, was not what I felt called and created to do. I want to go on being involved in putting books, and issues, and people, in front of the reading public, to influence, entertain and educate. Having said that, I don't want to spend all my time doing so.
I had let my work expand to the extent that I worried about giving up even an afternoon to see a friend. I felt I had to generate a certain amount of earnings each week, and that would be put in jeopardy by doing so. But then I slashed all my financial commitments, saved everything I could, and was given the pleasant news at the end of the year that my tax bill would be far less than I had saved, and I could, if I wished to, take things more easily for a few months. I could go out for coffee with friends, be there for those who are having a tough time, smell the roses.
One thing I really didn't realise when I was younger was how much more confident women tend to become as they get older. It isn't just about our appearance, it is about all sorts of things. As my friend Helen Boyce says, one of the advantages of getting older can be summed up quite simply: “not caring so much”.
PA Tua Phelps-Jones agrees: “As you get older”, she says, “you will have gained some life experience and wisdom, your comfort is more important than looks, you have more confidence, you're more content... And you are also more likely to be stable economically, with less worries.”
Novelist Catherine Fox cites “the invisibility cloak that allows you to walk past building sites without being whistled at. For a while I just thought builders were getting politer. Now I realise the only way to be seen by men under the age of 50 is to trip over, and then they will rush to see if you've broken a hip. The only exception is running, when from a distance a 25 year old may check your chest. His eye will eventually travel upwards and clock your face, then you'll get an apologetic expression: ‘Sorry, love, didn't mean to trouble you with my lechery at your age’.”
Anita Morley says that, for her, “the best thing is being free of total parental responsibility ... we have a lovely brood of grandchildren which we can give back! I love being able to do what I want when I want, and it is great just being a couple again.”
Denise Shepherd feels that, for her, getting older has made her more able to accept herself. “I have come to realise,” she says “that I am me, that God made me and he didn't get it wrong. I am a bit quirky, but I love Jesus with a passion. And I'm glad I am not a youngster any more: it seems just too stressful.”
Ciindy Zudys is a dance teacher, and says that, for her, being over 60 is even better than being over 50. “All I'd ever heard about getting older is untrue. I've got as much ,if not more, energy now than when I was younger and, because of the nature of my work, I'm as supple as I was as a child.” And veteran broadcaster Cindy Kent agrees that changing priorities are one of the best things about getting older: “It's ok to be a bit lazy and a bit sluttish. The world doesn't stop because you haven't done the washing up. It's ok to sit down and watch Murder She Wrote without feeling guilty.”
And to really prove that life does not end at 50, novelist and writer Anne Atkins says: “The best thing about being over 50 is sex. Mind you, that is the best thing about being under 50 too.”
Should I dread the menopause?
Every woman, from puberty onwards, knows the menopause is coming. It's a bit like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, really: gloom and doom. Your periods will stop and it is all downhill from then on. Articles warn us that we will put on weight and not be able to lose it: suffer hot flushes and so on. . .
The problem with these lists is they have to be exhaustive. Every single symptom that has ever been linked with the menopause has to be in there. What is very rarely included is the simple statement that most women do not suffer all of these, and certainly not all at the same time.
Many women report feeling better than ever. As I realised when I lost weight, we have a lot more control over the way we feel physically than we realise.