The power of owning your look and ageing bravely in midlife

Midlife should be a time when a woman knows who she really is, and becomes truly comfortable in her own skin. Here's Ellie Balfe on the power of owning your look.


Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Seriously, in your forties, who really cares? Frankly, I’m more interested in wit and wisdom. I may love a killer haircut and Cos haul as much as the next 44-year-old woman, but I don’t want to hear about “anti-ageing” anymore. I’m done. Why are we “anti” what is inevitable and more than a bit brilliant? To chase anything that claims to make us appear younger is a disservice to ourselves on a grand scale. As we get older, stories of authenticity, resilience and personal revolution are omnipresent; if we show those experiences on our faces in the form of a few lines, then so be it.

Recently, the #decadechallenge on social media was a thing, showing up on multiple feeds highlighting physical changes in the user in the past ten years. I loved looking at them, not to see the dodgy overplucked eyebrows and questionable lipliner, but to see something else in their eyes – the contrast of innocence and experience. And dare I say it – each and every one looked better with the decade behind them. Maybe that’s my bias, and granted, almost all had better hair at the turn towards 2020, but either way, age looked appealing. There have always been two schools of thought when it comes to beauty in ageing; one is to grow old with grace, which implies silently succumbing to our bad knees and blue rinses; or to grow old disgracefully, which implies a brash (and needy?) rebellion based on partying like an 18-year-old at 80. Neither appeal.

I think the beauty in ageing is ageing bravely; with style and purpose. With honesty and humour. And not madly pushing against it trying to shapeshift into something you’re not. The beauty is being present in it. The beauty is in enjoying it. The beauty is in knowing who you are, and giving less of a toss about what others think.

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Make no mistake, this is not a battle cry for a no-makeup movement, or a push to stop dyeing your hair in order to let the grey show out. It is the exact opposite of that. In fact, it is not a call for a mass movement at all; if anything, it is a cry for an entirely solo revolution. This decade is about living your life as you see fit. Be that in the micro lifestyle choices in terms of beauty or fashion, to more macro professional or domestic moves you may make in order to create a new world that suits you better.

When it comes to beauty, personally speaking, I am a massive fan of a mane of grey, but I continue to dye my hair its natural black. Because that is what I want to do. I am also addicted to Biologique Recherche facials and skincare for my – at times – dull, mid-forties complexion, and I will not be moved from them. I had Botox for a while a few years back, but I stopped, as I didn’t feel like me. I like the look of my face as it is ageing. Controversial? Nah – it’s normal. My normal, not yours. You do you, friend.

My manifesto for beauty would be just to do whatever the hell you want. Get Botox if you want it. Get filler, peels, and fat freezing if you want to. Cut your hair short – or don’t. Be a Scandi-minimalist-trainer-wearer in head-to toe black or a maximalist in bright brights and glitter… but not because someone else – be it a magazine, social media, your mother-in-law or friend – suggests it; because you want to. That’s what living in your midlife affords you: the beauty of your own decisions with no external consultation. We eventually won bodily autonomy in this country; well, the same rules must apply across the board – no individual, media platform, influencer or other mum at the school gates gets to tell you what to do, wear or say when it comes to living your life. You are free. Revel in it!

But you know what’s truly beautiful? Self-awareness. As is speaking honestly, showing up for people and standing for something. Counselling is one of the most life-enhancing endeavours you can undertake, as it delivers you the gift of knowing yourself. You can invite out old demons from your younger days and fight them as the adult woman you are now – powerful and capable. Notions of the brilliance of youth dissipate as you look honestly at yourself as you step up – no filters, no hiding. Monsters under the bed disappear in the light. What’s exposed is the truth. That truth shows in your eyes – and they shine.

What’s beautiful is a woman evolving; a woman inhabiting her own skin fully and wholeheartedly. A woman living unapologetically and intentionally; caring less and less what anyone thinks. Not to say that we shouldn’t think of others and their experiences of life alongside us – of course we should, for that is how to live in peace; but to not seek permission, not holding other people as bastions of our own behaviour is liberating.

We are grown-ass women. We have our own checks and balances. We set our own codes. On moving into the second stage of life, you see that kindness and empathy are the real currencies, that understanding the people around you and seeing them as flawed, imperfect individuals mostly doing their best frees both them and you. You see them for what they are–the very same as you. Loosening the grip on previously-held expectations allows you to be softer; to settle a little and strive less.

Give up on perfect – it doesn’t exist. Not in personalities, in looks or in bodies. High ideals are admirable and all that, but holding up what you can’t control is exhausting and heavy, and a battle oft-lost. Let that go. Ageing is a privilege denied to many. Frankly, you are winning a life lottery by waking up each day. Try not to subscribe to the anti-ageing economy, in both beauty or media narratives – it is both reductive and rubbish. Try also to obsess less about your reflection in the mirror. Look deeper, and then deeper again... See your true magnificence. And march on.

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Ellie Balfe is launching a new platform, aimed at women in their forties and beyond, theheyday.ie, coming this May.

Photography by Jason Lloyd Evans. This article originally appeared in the Volume 2 2020 issue of IMAGE Magazine. 

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