When I first saw that Marie Helvin was modelling lingerie at the age of 62 I thought it was fantastic. It felt like a long-overdue recognition that women over 50 can still look sexy.
But it’s a double-edged sword. It’s not long before you’re thinking, “If she can look that good with her kit off, what about me?” Even worse, your partner might be thinking the same.
It feels like a new pressure. It’s not just about being a size 10 (or size 6 in Marie Helvin’s case); no matter what your age, it seems we’re now all being expected to have toned abs, flab-free arms, and no hint of a tummy that’s carried children.
The timing couldn’t be worse. Just as we’re pondering the dreaded “beach ready” question, or the even more terrifying “bikini ready” question, Marie Helvin ups the ante by baring her impossibly youthful body.
You can’t help looking wistfully back to Nigella’s all-encompassing burkini on Bondi Beach. Everyone might have been sniggering, but I bet I wasn’t the only woman trying to get her hands on one.
Dare to bare? Pressure in the bedroom
This assault on body confidence is one thing if you’re in a steady relationship. But if your relationship is shaky, or you’re looking for love, it adds a layer of anxiety women really don’t need, particularly in their fifties.
When Stella Grey, the Guardian’s ‘midlife ex-wife’, described how self-conscious she felt in bed with a new bloke it was enough to make you weep. “I avoided a full unveiling by ensuring that we relocated from his sofa and out of bright light at a key moment,” she wrote.
“Part under the covers, I got the chance to present myself in the only way I could bear to: in the dark, half aware that I was shielding my stomach with a carefully placed forearm.”
Looking good still means looking young
Of course by this age we women know better. We know about Photoshop and professional hair and make-up and good lighting and stylists. But when it comes to appearance, our fifties are an insecure age – however much we pretend otherwise.
The legendary model Iman’s 60th birthday photos in Italian Vanity Fair made her look about half her age. The message hasn’t changed: looking good still means looking young.
Our changing appearance after 50
Ruth, 53, says, “I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist and when I was younger I never compared myself to other women. But recently I’ve caught myself checking out other women – in magazines, on telly, on the tube – and thinking about how good (or bad) they look for their age.
“I think I do it now because I feel more insecure about my looks, and I see that as an inevitable part of getting older.”
But surely it’s got to be better than being invisible, which 50-something women complained about for years? What makes celebrity images intimidating rather than what they should be – inspiring – is that dreaded phrase “good for her age”.
The new hot topic – biological age versus chronological age – introduces yet another element of competition.
Marie Helvin trains like an athlete
But for a reality check, look no further than Marie Helvin herself. In an endearingly frank interview she said, ‘‘I train like an athlete. Lingerie modelling is stressful at my age. It takes a great deal of work to maintain a good silhouette.”
She even admits to varicose veins, sun damage and needing to wear make-up on her legs. What she describes is the kind of phenomenal investment of time and effort that would bore the pants off most of us.
That’s fine for Marie Helvin et al because it’s their job. But the rest of us have surely got better things to do with our time. It’s important not to lose sight of what really matters: feeling comfortable in your own skin, the great perk of age and experience. (Though you can have Marie’s underwear, which launches today on JD Williams.)
So if a bikini doesn’t feel comfortable, why bother? Go for a tankini or, even better, fork out on a beautifully cut one-piece (Eres if you can afford it).
And as Ilona Royce Smithkin says in Advanced Style: “Never compare. You are you!”