Sali Hughes chatted exclusively to Cameron Diaz about the publication of The Longevity Book, her new co-authored exploration of the female ageing process – from wrinkles and menopause to relationships and mental health – and asked her how, at 43, the project had altered her own perceptions about getting older.
There are so many books about anti-ageing but this book seems to be the opposite. You positively praise the process of getting older.
Exactly. I wanted to change the conversation with this book. It’s about the inevitable that we all face if we’re really lucky - the alternative isn’t too good! So we may as well embrace it and understand what it really is because [when I wrote the book], I was going to be 40 and I’m actually now seeing that 40 is different from 30 and 20. I wanted to understand what ageing really is and what we’re afraid of. Sure, we have wrinkles, maybe bad eyesight, and I can see the changes in my body and that it’s different than it was ten, even two, years ago. So I think okay, what does this mean and what is ageing? It’s more complex than that. So I went down to the cellular level to see what it really is, and I visited people who are studying ageing to try to understand it.
There are lots of topics in this book that often go unspoken. I’m in my forties too, and pretty much every woman I know wants to know about the menopause or thinks about menopause, or is thinking about scary things like dementia and so on, but no one really talks about them. Was it important to say “come on, we’re all thinking about it so let’s talk”?
Absolutely. One of the things that was really interesting during the research process was acknowledging that we are ageing and you can do that in a hopeful way. With the menopause, we found that women who were informed and more accepting of the transition typically experienced milder and shorter symptoms. The stress of not understanding it, or hiding it from the people around you, or not being able to talk to your girlfriends, or be able to help your partner or children understand what you’re going through, makes it physically harder. It’s like periods – none of ours are the same because we all experience different symptoms and experience them differently on a monthly basis. The transition is different for everyone too. It’s better if we can understand as much as we can about what’s ahead of us. It’s also good to have the comfort of knowing that it will pass – it’s the thought of it never ending that makes people go crazy and makes it hard to endure.
Yes, people feel better and cope better when they have a greater degree of understanding about what lies ahead. So I wonder if embarking on this book was like that for you - did you think it would help you yourself navigate the ageing process more calmly?
Sure, I’m always amazed at how much knowledge helps. My life partner [husband Benji Madden of Good Charlotte] and I said that this is not something to look at as a midlife crisis, this is a midlife celebration and we’re lucky to get to do this. One hundred and fifty years ago, life expectancy was 40. At this moment we’re living longer than we’ve ever lived before. So we’re the luckiest humans to get to have this life span. So now we’re living longer but why would we want to live half our life sick? Why don’t we look ahead and think, “How can I impact it and how can I do my best to live a health span instead of a life span? How can I be more capable of looking after myself?”
We are the masses. We have the power to say, 'I’m actually going to embrace ageing because I am valuable and I have more to offer that someone who hasn’t had the experience that I have'
The interesting irony with this book is that you’re so embracing, positive and welcoming of the ageing process, but your day job is in a film industry that doesn't really like women to get old – they’re not even permitted to get old – and I was wondering how that contradiction sat with you?
Well I think that’s one of the things that I really hoped to do with this book, to have this conversation. We, as individuals, are the only ones who can release ourselves from the burden of feeling like we need to be something that we can’t be. We can’t keep young forever and I’m not a superhero and can’t age backwards, and I’m not going to beat myself up for that. That’s my experience in life and for me to embrace and engage with. That’s my responsibility and however anyone else wants to view my ageing has nothing to do with me. It’s how I do it, it’s my life and how I live. And that’s a conversation that I want women to understand – we don’t have to do this to each other and we don’t have to do it to ourselves.
It’s hard to deflect the pressure when the world expects us to stay frozen in time.
We don’t have to look at ageing as a bad thing. We are the masses. We have the power to say, “I’m actually going to embrace this because I am valuable and I have more to offer that someone who hasn’t had the experience that I have.” We should celebrate ourselves as mothers, as wives, as grandmothers, as sisters and as friends who have contributed to our lives. It’s very valuable - who cares what you look like because you go through life with what you have, and what you can sustain and how you grow through it. That’s the conversation that we need to start having with each other. We need to start honouring ourselves and honouring each other, instead of beating ourselves up and judging other women.
I guess Hollywood is the most extreme example of a lack of acceptance of older women, but do you feel there’s a shift? I interviewed Helen Mirren recently and she felt that there was a gradual change of tide, that there were more interesting roles coming up.
Absolutely, every time Helen Mirren does a film, she gets nominated! Women like that, like Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer, are women who are incredible, and what they uniquely bring to their roles is their life experience. We don’t look at them and think “God, they look old.” We look at them and think “Wow, they’re so powerful. They’re making me feel something that I didn’t know I could feel and they’re making me connect to something that I haven’t before in a way that’s relatable.” That’s from their experience and life, and so I feel like we women just have to start doing it. We have to start embracing it and loving it and loving each other and ourselves throughout the process.
Do you feel that those role models are important? I feel in my forties more than ever, that older women have become role models for me because I want to know how they work it all out, how they feel. Women in all fields. Are they inspiring to you and do you feel like they’re laying the path ahead?
Absolutely. Since I was a child I always loved my grandparents and only wanted to be around them. I would beg to stay the night at their house and I just wanted to be next to them to see how they did it. Now, seeing how older age can be done, what can still be done, and how to engage and get the knowledge and experience that elders have, it’s invaluable. Human females live past menopause and few other species do that. Once you’re past reproduction you usually die off! That’s because our grandparents and mothers are here to help the families, the grandchildren, the daughters, the friends. To help them to be able to learn what the path is ahead of them. To pass on knowledge and wisdom to future generations. There’s something significant about that and I was personally touched by it in a real way.
Are you wiser now?
I’m definitely wiser than I was than in my twenties and thirties. At this point in my life I know more than I’ve ever known on so many levels, and I know that I have so much more to learn every day. it’s important to keep yourself open to learning and understanding what’s ahead of you, especially. I think that it’s really important. It’s wonderful to keep the memories of the past to understand what your experiences meant and how you got to where you’re at. But there’s so much more ahead if we’re lucky. Not everybody gets to grow old and that’s a privilege.