Women Turning Forty: Then and Now

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Please know that I'm truly not trying to brag when I say this, but I'll be turning 40 early next year, and I still think I look good. I protect my skin from the sun, I get plenty of sleep, exercise, eat the right foods, and the last guy who asked me out - just last week - was 24 years old. So I think it's OK to say that I must be doing something right.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because it wasn't so long ago that a woman turning 40 was pretty much all but turned out to pasture - and if she were still single at that ripe old age than she was truly an old maid and her chances of ever getting married were next to nil. Women over this age were also, it seems, considered unsexy. Once you turned the big 4-0, you might as well stock up on granny underpants because you sure weren't a demographic that Frederick's of Hollywood wanted to reach. 

Case in point: the three ads I've dug up to show here. Maybe these are really isolated examples, but they're a little scary. The Geritol ad above, which came from a 1971 issue of Family Circle, is telling me that all of the women in the photo are 46 years old. Yikes. Some of them look about as youthful as Edith Bunker, correct? And at least 10 years older than that. I'd have to say the lady with the yellow turtleneck looks the best (I'm guessing she's one of the Geritol fans) but the hairdos on all of them aren't helping the situation.

This second ad on the left was posted a couple of years ago by a favorite blog of mine, Kitchen Retro. Not only does it assume that women over 40 like to dress like the Queen of England, but that they're also "fuller figured." That hat really is the icing on the cake. Maybe they're assuming it will distract people from wrinkles and the ghastly looking jumper?

The last ad is the most curious because it's calling for women over 40 to apply to be florists. I guess arranging flower displays just wasn't considered a young and hip profession back in the day, right?

Of course, there were exceptions to the stigma of being an over-40 woman forty years ago: one notable example that comes to mind was the casting of the beautiful Anne Bancroft as that original cougar, Mrs. Robinson, in The Graduate.

However, as much as I love looking back on retro life, I thank my lucky stars that I'll be turning 40 in the year 2012. There's arguments out there that older women are trying too hard to look like their younger counterparts and have bought into the media's notion that young and beautiful is better, but I don't think so. I think women are just wiser today about how to take care of themselves and dress. Think of how many hot actresses over 40 there are today: Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Julieanne Moore, Vanessa Williams, Michelle Pfeiffer...the list goes on and on and on. OK, some of these celebs may or may not have had plastic surgery to keep things in place, but still, they give 20-something girls a run for their money. And then I found this quote on some random chat board:

"Perhaps it's because I'm getting older, but I really don't remember there being a lot of hot over 40 women twenty years ago, at least not like there is today. Keeping in mind that I was a lot more socially active back then and had a much larger circle of people that I interacted with, it just seems that "hot older chicks" were few and far between. These days, I couldn't toss a bran cookie in a coffee shop without hitting a couple, or so it seems. All in all, I'm hoping this trend continues. :)"

Yep. I look forward to continuing the trend next year and beyond.


  1. It IS different! I'm the same age now as my paternal grandmother was when my older sister was born. I sure don't feel, look, or act very grandmotherly (at least I don't think so!).

    Just wait until you turn 50. It is amazing and it is so fun to declare yourself a "woman of a certain age" and having people gasp in disbelief.

  2. 40s not old at all. I always ask myself, if that person died, would I say, "wow how sad they died young" or "at least she had a full life?"

  3. Even without plastic surgery, I agree, we 40 year olds look way better than those ladies in the ads and THANK GOODNESS!!!! And maybe that's why we don't really use the term 'middle aged' for the 40's anymore. Most of those women look like today's 60 year olds! But the we have a much easier life than many of those women - we've come a long way baby.

  4. I definitely think there is a love/hate relationship with aging for women. Regular women try to embrace it, while actresses try to destroy the process.

    Stefanie Powers and Angie Dickinson are two women who were in their late 30s and early 40s when they hit their stride. Oh and Loretta Switt was 40 when she hit it big on MASH. They were beautiful without cowtowing to a "cougar" image (I HATE that term by the way -- and so does Morgan Fairchild I recently found out!). I think actresses like Courtney Cox do more harm than good. However, Jennifer Aniston balances it out by looking fairly normal (although I'm sure she's had stuff done, mostly to her chest)...

    What I dislike is that women, in the media, are held as worthy only if their sexy. Make fun of Edith Bunker, but very few real looking women in their 50s would get such meaty roles on television now.

    You've brought up a lot of great points and I agree, we are wiser and able to avoid the aging process, but I don't think much has changed in the way women are percieved (Sp) as objects who lose their worth as they age. And I mean this in the sense of the media. I don't think most people really have these same ideals with each other. And I am grateful for the real world! :)

  5. Good points, Amanda! I received a free subscription to "More" magazine. It is supposedly for "women of substance" but I'd say 95% of their ads are for anti-aging products and the editorial content is about looking and feeling younger.

    While I do use so-called anti-aging moisturizer and foundation (I think it is considered anti-aging because of the SPF-15 in it), I don't want to feel younger. I like being 50 years old! It felt good to jettison all that youthful baggage!

  6. I personally love More magazine. I think they feature some great role models of "real women" over 40 and their accomplishments. I must confess, I don't pay much attention to the ads.

    What I like is that women 40 and over today aren't considered old bags like they were in the olden days...I'm talking mostly about the average women, not just actresses...although as I said there were exceptions and Amanda mentioned some good ones. But I'm not so sure that I agree that women lose their worth as they age...look at Betty White! She's always had a lucrative career and has really gotten popular in the past 5 years.

  7. Amanda...you don't like the cougar term, but don't you refer to David as your "man cub"? :)

  8. I just about keeled over when I read that those women are supposedly just 46.

    Hell, I'm going to be 48 this year...and my bloggy photo is recent (taken two weeks ago) - and I think I look a helluva lot younger than all of them.

    You, also, look very young!

  9. lol! Busted! I do call my guy mancub! And yes he is younger (only by 2 years), but cougar and MILF are meant simply as sexual terms, as if that is all that defines you... it just gets me all angry! :P

    I also forgot Cloris Leachman! She was so awesome in her 40s on Phyllis (and still is today), and I agree that Betty White has also shown what it is like to be a vital older woman, but I still think when it comes to the media measuring it's worth against males and females, we have a little farther to go... And I completely agree with your statements on real women. It's a different playing field out here! YAY! I think the pop culture junkie in me takes over on these issues.

    I've never read More Magazine. I should pick up a copy and see what's what!

    And I just got carded yesterday. That was crazy! The two people I was with did not. That felt GOOD!

  10. I really love that as time goes on, people get younger and younger (age-wise, that is). My mom is living proof: she got married for the first time at age 41, had her first child (me!) at age 43 and sure doesn't act her age at nearly 68 today. I love that people over 60 can be considered young, and it gives credence to the adage "you're only as old as you feel."

  11. I'm 47 and I cannot believe how old those women look in that ad! I suppose the matronly hairstyles and clothing aren't helping them look young either. I'm sure that most of these women smoked or drank too, which could also contribute to their looking older.

    By the way, I also HATE the term cougar!

  12. I used to think that once you hit 40 everything goes downhill but now that I'm 41 I'm not thinking this as much. I still get a bit depressed about the aging process but that's because the media makes it seem like if you don't use certain products to keep yourself looking younger than there is something wrong with you. I admit that I do use the anti-wrinkle creams but can't afford the expensive ones that they claim are the best.

    From your photo I can tell that you look much younger. People used to say that about me too but not as much anymore. That first photo of the woman in their mid 40's is kind of scary - I feel bad for saying that. Women definitely do look better at that age these days.

    I wonder why it is that society considers men with gray hair distinguished looking but push the hair dye on women and make it seem like you are unattractive even if you have a little bit of gray. I won't be dyeing mine because it's not in the budget but wish that I could mainly because of this reason.

  13. I'm having a hard time accepting my age of 40 y/o and I don't know why. Maybe because I date younger guys. Any advice to get over it It's so depressing.

  14. Marlene - Thanks, you definitely don't look anywhere near your age...I bet that sense of humor helps keep you young!

    Amanda - sorry, hope you didn't think I was busting your chops. :) Cloris is a great example of another older woman with a lucrative career.

    Allison - my mother had me when she was 42 albeit I was a surprise. Still, it's not unusual today for women in their 40s to have children.

    Suzy8-Track - nope, you definitely don't look your age, either.

    LaraAnn - thanks and you as well. Good point about the hair color double standard...on men it's considered distinguished but on women it's considered old looking. I wonder why that is...

    Carolyn - well, I think you're only as old as you feel and I would think if you're getting dates with younger guys it must help you feel younger, right? Unless the generation gap is obvious, as is he case with the guy who asked me out. Think positive...40 is definitely not 40 anymore.

  15. So I wasn't wrong when I thought... "Man people used to look older at my age". Of course, folks take a lot better care of themselves, their skin, hair, etc. etc. than they used to.

  16. Astounding post!

    One look at that ad, I think of the TV show Maude, where Beatrice Arthur and Rue McClanahan were playing women who were in their upper forties. By today's standards, Bea looked (at least) ten years older than her character's actual age (46, at the start of the first season)!

  17. this is a good time to be an older woman. they have "cougars" now, which was unheard of in the 50s,60s, 70s and 80s. old men have ALWAYS been into younger women, but now older women are dating younger men, which i think is awesome! there are definently alot of beautiful 40-something women today, but let's be honest-they will NEVER give 20-somethings a run for their money! its just not realistic. 20 (and 30) somethings have firm boobs, flat stomachs, no wrinkles and tons of energy! im not trying to be rude but everybody knows that when you hit your 40s, generally things start sagging and the wrinkles start coming. its just a fact of life. also, you talk about how people think older women try desperately to be young and say you dont think thats true and then mention quite a few gorgeous 40-something actresses and admit that they may or may not have had plastic surgery-to look younger! women will always be striving to look younger. look at all the anti-aging creams on the market. youth is precious. with that being said, i do think things have changed for the better for older woman and 40 has never been as faboulous as it is now!

  18. Anonymous--there are many women in their 40s and older who look better than some 20-somethings, because they work out and stay in shape! Not everyone in their 40s is saggy. Let's not forget the obesity epidemic that seems to be plaguing the younger generations...

  19. These women look "old" to us because they did not have healthy childhoods.

    The women in this ad were born in 1925. They were children during the Great Depression. Vaccinations were few, not a lot was known about nutritional needs, and proper food was often scarce. Schools did not serve lunches at all, there were no food stamps. Children often had to actually work.

    The school lunch program was started because WWII army recruits were so malnourished. The US began feeding children because they needed healthy people for the war.

    During the war food was rationed. These women started having children right before the war ended, and they continued to have several children.....who became our parents, the Baby Boomers.

    The Baby Boomers enjoyed health and good nutrition second only to that of their OWN children.....US. We who are in our 40's, now.

    We look so much better than these women in the ad because we were fortunate enough to start out healthy and we have not had anywhere near the number of children these women did. We spend more of our money on ourselves...staying healthy and looking good.

  20. I would have to disagree with anonymous. Many women in their 40s are in WAY BETTER shape than the 20 something girls, because many of them are overweight or obese.


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