Photo: Getty Images

LIFE HONESTLY

What you need to know about being a woman over 40

Photo: Getty Images

The hangovers, the sex, the intolerance of bad pillows. Sali Hughes advises on the realities of being a fortysomething

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By Sali Hughes on

I currently have three girlfriends on the cusp of the big 4-0, all of whom, by their own admission, are completely freaking out about their impending birthday. But I’ve learnt a great deal in the year since I hit my landmark birthday, and so allow me to prepare you for what actually lies ahead.

This is their problem, not yours

Other people are a bit mad about the idea of turning 40, but don’t let them project that on to you. Last year, on my birthday, I went for a pre-party blow-dry. When I told the young female hairdresser I was turning 40, she gasped as though I’d just confessed to a case of the clap. Later, a taxi driver said, “God – and you’re celebrating?!” I’d heard countless similar comments in the preceding year (I’d been rather proudly saying I was “almost 40” for a good 18 months), to the point where I suppose I should have stopped owning up. But I refused to pretend, just because other people were weirded out by something that is an inevitability for everyone lucky enough to have survived their youth. Forty is an arbitrary figure that proves nothing other than you’ve been alive at least one day longer than when you were 39. You are about halfway through life and that is always cause to reflect. But to engage in the daft mystique of one number is to perpetuate it.

Own it

You are now closer to old age than you are to childhood, and so you can no longer blame your poor decisions, judgements and misfortunes on the relative crapness of your formative years. Your mistakes are now yours, not those of your parents. Being a bit nuts at 40 is natural wear and tear (and makes for interesting party guests), but those who are wilfully damaged to the point of causing havoc become such tedious company that they get dumped by their peers, especially when they repeatedly refuse to address their bad behaviour in a more meaningful way than saying, “My mother didn’t love me.” If you need therapy, sacrifice any material goods to pay for it. Otherwise, unless we are talking about serious abuse, it’s time to own your conduct and stop whining – time is running out.

Let it go! Let it goooooooo!

Things that are no longer important in your life: the Charts; staying an extra hour at the party (go now; you will never regret it. And don’t bother doing a lap of goodbyes. Your kettle awaits); substandard friends (there’s not enough time to see the great ones as it is); pretty but uncomfortable clothes; having everyone you know agree on political issues; wooing people who don’t like you; confronting friends who’ve upset you; amassing belongings for their own sake, whether or not people approve of who you fundamentally are. Conversely, some things become hugely important for the first time, and you’ll be happy to drop the dead wood for: having a proper pension; exercising; framing photographs you love; social occasions based on sitting down; mates who’d help you dispose of a body if you needed it; holiday accommodation that’s at least as nice as your own house; living in the moment; reliable thermostats; maintaining harmony in good relationships; death; good pillows.

The very nature of finding yourself halfway along a continuum means that you’re often not sure whether certain changes are important or pointless. In my forties, I find I’m unsure of so many things, where my positions were once so entrenched

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It’s liberating not to be fancied as much

Those who joke that no one will fancy you after 40 are a little bit right, but missing the point. It turns out that many men will see 40 as some sort of attractiveness cut-off point, meaning they were never going to be someone you could grow old with anyway. Your age acts as a handy filtration system for dickheads – these, as well as those men in the street who once told you to “Smile – it’ll never happen”, or commented on your boobs while you’re minding your own at a bus stop. They pretty much all stop noticing you. But what will emerge is a large number of good divorced men embarking on round two, who know how to have relationships, how to iron their own shirts, how to have good sex with people old enough to remember Frankie Says Relax. You may realise that being fancied has gradually become much less important since you were very young and it will feel quite brilliant.

Pay respect to your body

There’s no way to sugarcoat it – your 40-year-old body is probably not what it was. You will no longer be able to lose half a stone between now and Saturday night by eating fewer crisps and more apples. Neither will you bounce back from hangovers – getting drunk on a weekend effectively means kicking Monday and Tuesday in the arse. You may get more headaches than before, enlarge the text on your Kindle for an easier life and find eyeliner more challenging to put on slackening lids (embrace sexy and smudgy, rather than sharp and bold, lines). You will occasionally look at old ladies with shopping bags on wheels and quietly wish Whistles would make them cool. You will consider joining a gym, realise everyone in them is about nine, and take up yoga on the living-room floor. On the bright side, if your partner is male and over 40, he'll be as likely to register variations in your weight as he would be to notice changes to Justin Bieber's hairstyle. You will feel utterly stupid about how disparaging and downright mean you were about your young body.

You will long for instruction

University – travel – career – cohabit – mortgage – marriage – babies (or whichever version you happen to buy into) is not just a conventional pattern, it’s a handrail through life that suddenly ends at around 40 (albeit often with some grief that you didn’t hit every marker). At that point, we are all on our own without a map, left to our own devices to seek continued happiness. They say retirement kills people, but maybe, in a more subtle way, so does this much earlier sense of to-do list completion. Maybe it’s the need for continued challenge. You will wonder what to do when it’s probably too late to drastically change career. You may decide to take an OU course, learn a new language, start a blog, novel or cottage industry. The important thing is to keep developing, not just living. Meanwhile, the very nature of finding yourself halfway along a continuum means that you’re often not sure whether certain changes are important or pointless. Moving house seems appealing because I’d like an extra bedroom, but in seven years’ time, my boys will leave this home – oh yes, they will – and I’ll have two rooms too many. I finally have enough money to buy the lovely expensive coat, but is it worthwhile when I already have heaps and of clothes with a not-unlimited time left to wear them? Do I just now accept I’m a whole dress size bigger and that’s fine, or is it worth knuckling down to reverse the tide? In my forties, I find I’m unsure of so many things, where my positions were once so entrenched.

The 9s and 1s are worse

According to a major academic study in 2013, people of age ending in nine are more likely to have an extra-marital affair or commit suicide, than those of other ages, including those ending in zero. It seems that the dread and perceived crisis of hitting the next round number is far bigger than the reality. Many of my friends found 31, 41 and 51 worse still. The year of celebration ended and they were metaphorically left in a messy party venue, wearing a wonky paper crown. Forty-one is unexceptional and marks the beginning of the journey towards 50 and I do understand the feelings of deflation. But, at 41, I’ve found it essential to live in the moment – not in anticipation of the future we may or may not be lucky enough to see.

@SaliHughes

Photo: Getty Images
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