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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Beddington

At 48, I should be inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow and her abs. But they make me want to throw things

Gwyneth Paltrow
A testament to bone broth and dead bugs … Gwyneth Paltrow. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

There is good news for midlifers, so gird your loins for a flurry of off-brand optimism. Kicking off the list is a new prize for debut novelists over 50. “The reason we launched the award was to say to people over 50: yes, you too can be a shiny, sparkly, new writer – just older,” said Lisa Highton of Jenny Brown literary agents, who launched the award. I am delighted, because it will add new literary later bloomers to my carefully memorised list: Penelope Fitzgerald (first novel published at 60), Raymond Chandler (51) and Annie Proulx (56). It looks less impressive every year I still don’t write a novel, so new blood is welcome.

It’s heartening to see more recognition that while life might have stopped you from making that cursed Granta Young Novelists list, this might make your writing richer and more exciting – although nothing short of a full transfusion of virgin’s blood in a Swiss clinic could achieve “shiny, sparkly” for me. This year’s Women’s prize shortlist offers further evidence of that, with five out of six nominees over 50.

If you are more into physical than intellectual loin-girding, I read that Gwyneth Paltrow’s chiselled abs are achievable at 50, even if your nutrient intake exceeds an IV bag of bone broth a week (it’s all about “dead bugs” – an exercise, not a low-carb snack). Middle-aged men, there is hope for you, too: you can get as chiselled as 43-year-old David Gandy with no breakfast and weights. Then, if you were thinking literal loins – no problem, according to the Daily Mail, where the sex therapist Tracey Cox recently declared that women around her are getting “sexually WILD”.

It’s lovely to hear about midlife high-achievers – professionally, sexually, abdominally – and a cheering corrective when attitudes to ageing are still overwhelmingly negative. But I can’t be alone in slithering unhappily down the slope from admiring optimism into aspiration and then expectation – from: “You could get Gwynnie’s abs,” to: “Why don’t I have Gwynnie’s abs?”

It’s not just my terrible personality (I hope). Certainly, the self-improvement industry has tuned into a demographic who might have achieved a degree of financial stability (far from a given in 2023, true), offering up glittering examples of midlife self-actualisation, fuelling ambitions it can facilitate with books, retreats and supplements. In the US, you can even take a luxe self-help course on approaching midlife with the “Modern Elder Academy” for $5,500 a week (£4,400).

At 48, I find stories of later-life triumph inspiring, but they also fuel my insecurities: what if these don’t turn out to be the best years of my life? They are not for many people, for myriad reasons: money or health, caring responsibilities, relationship breakdown, age discrimination, bereavement, or just a dodgy back. What if you are just scared and sad at the state of the world in a way no amount of Goop’s Madame Ovary supplements can shift?

In this bright, shiny new world of 50-plus possibility, I often feel obscurely cheated of the kind of menopause and midlife I internalised from 1980s soaps: silently emptying a bottle of cooking sherry while sitting motionless at the kitchen table, then maybe throwing a casserole at a wall out of the blue under the horrified gaze of my family. I have been waiting to do this for decades – and now you want me to run an ultramarathon, start a wellness empire and launch a podcast instead?

So, I am hoping to get some traction to reinstate it into the panoply of midlife self-help possibilities. Put the “pause” back into menopause if you will – sit down, tune out, throw a casserole. The tagline needs work, but it’s basically a reverse rumspringa: rather than going out and briefly seizing everything the world can offer, like the Amish youth, we would sit quietly for a year, working through our inevitable losses and disappointments and whatever the hell happened to our necks. Then, refreshed, we would be ready to take on the next goal-crushing phase.

I would explain more on my podcast, but I don’t have one.

• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist

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