The buffed, bejewelled and bewigged septuagenarian trio of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin swept onto the stage of the America’s Emmys last week like a force of nature. Their smart-ass banter carried the confidence of looking like a million bucks, which is no doubt close to the cost of what it took them to get there.
For many people the drastic cosmetic interventions undertaken by some older women are a reason to target them with opprobrium. True, the often weirdly inflated cheeks and lips and robotic expressions can be traumatising to their children, and disquieting to anyone whose face still moves in real time and subject to the laws of gravity. Oddly, these surgical enhancements can often make them look older, as we think: "She's only 57?" and stare at the waxy skin we assume is battling to stay this side of seventy.
Worse still is a lifted celebrity's claim that her new elixir of youth is healthy eating and plenty of fresh air. Far more refreshing is to hear her joke about the age difference between various bits of her body.
A woman might try to hide her signs of ageing with the help of a surgeon’s scalpel, but she will never escape the observational powers of her sisterhood. Those avian heads of ancient Egyptian Gods might as well have been modelled on their women, hawk-eyed to who was bathing in milk and gaining advantage through the beautifying powers of kohl, henna and burnt almonds.
Five thousand years later we remain fixated on looking closer to our procreative age than to one that hints at our demise. Yet this is now less about vanity than about being pertinent to society. When a woman can choose whether or not to have children and opt for a career, keeping age at bay is not about being young, it is about holding on to her sense of self often defined by her professional input, abilities and experience.
A woman friend in her mid forties once admitted, with the casual manner of eyeing an expensive dress, that she was saving up for the cosmetic surgery she would need over the next few years. As I searched her youthful features trying in vain to see what she could improve, she explained that, if she was expected to work well past her sixties, she would need to command the attention of male and female colleagues half her age, and a wizened face at the end of the conference table was not going to cut it.
There is a decade in a woman's life - from late forties to late fifties - when ageing is difficult. Like flattering leggings that eventually lose elasticity and texture, looking old does not happen suddenly. Yet, just when a woman is at the sweet spot of enjoying the balance between the intellectual and emotional stimulation of home life and career, those leggings unmistakably sag.
What follows is an awkward stage of being neither young nor old but simply tired-looking; a time when some women unknowingly taste their first ever sip of depression. They can choose a glass of Prozac over surgery, or both, but most just float along to the shores of maturity, when the upside of an unaltered face can be the beauty of fine lines and wise eyes, now sufficiently removed from the gifted glories of one’s thirties and forties. Add a healthy dose of new-found irreverence and many women describe the ensuing phase as the best yet.
But those women who go all out on artificially rejuvenating their appearance to look thirty years younger, are, nevertheless, trailblazers of positive change. Poster women, viewed through the TV camera or in studied poses on magazine covers, they roll their sleeves up and show their muscular mettle like WW2 women joining the fight to contribute. Today their hutzpah and self-belief reinforce the impact of all older women who stand up straight and speak confidently.
Before rushing to judge older women who choose to defy their true age through cosmetic surgery, we should applaud their attempt to prevent being sidelined. It often takes a shocking gesture of defiance by one generation to carve out a better path for the next, unencumbered by stereotyping or prejudice. Cosmetic surgery is not for everyone, nor was burning bras, wearing a man’s suit, nor indeed is competing on Britain’s nationally televised “Strictly Come Dancing” at 58, and yet millions of women go on to benefit from such provocation.
So, although Jane Fonda looked scarily like she was reprising her 1968 role as Barbarella, she is doing all women a huge service. So what if she doesn't actually look like her younger self? Who does at almost eighty? She and her two “9 to 5” co-stars offered a great big hewed and honed f-you to ageism, and a massive thumbs-up to hey! look at me - and, more importantly, listen to me! Jane Fonda is good scary.