Angry Anna shows us how to age

While the older generation bears the brunt of pernicious ageism, a fear of being considered old infe

I've always liked Anna Ford, especially since I read that she is nicknamed "Angry Anna" by some - which essentially just means "a woman called Anna who has an opinion" and is therefore, albeit unintentionally, just about the best thing any woman could be called. And I particularly enjoyed her latest sally in the war against ageism. Speaking to Saga magazine, she asked readers to "count the women over 60 we see on the TV screen - Joan Bakewell, Esther Rantzen, Anne Robinson . . . then count the Dimblebys, Peter Snow, Paxman, Humphrys, Sissons, all with white hair, and considered authoritative and serious." She went on to say that "going grey is liberation".

Ford's comments are particularly interesting in the light of a new Help the Aged survey, which finds that one in five people in the UK have lied about their age. This prompted an article by the TV presenter Kate Garraway, 41, who admitted that, since a journalist misreported her age some years back, she has allowed people to think she is younger than she actually is. "It wasn't always unwelcome," she wrote, and when she began dating a younger man, "given the choice between feeling like Joan Collins or quietly knocking a year off, I knew which one felt more bearable".

Garraway's admission underlines that, while the older generation bears the brunt of pernicious ageism, a fear of being considered old infects society as a whole - particularly the female half. I remember an especially annoying acquaintance at university who, in her early twenties, was constantly worrying about her latest wrinkle. It usually proved to be a stray eyelash. Her self-scrutiny trod the line between the irritating and the comical, but it was underscored by real terror. And she wasn't alone. The Help the Aged survey found that among respondents aged 18-34, the number who had lied about their age rose to a third.

A colleague recently noted that, in the eyes of many people, there are only two ages of womanhood, both clearly pejorative, and neither actually involving being a woman - namely, "girl" and "old bag". The first includes a certain power, a sexual power, which is empty of real influence; in this phase, a woman can easily be undermined in the workplace as someone without actual experience. When women reach an age at which they might expect to be rewarded for their knowledge and skills, they often find themselves in the reviled second phase, marked by invisibility or, worse, a kind of horror. This was typified by the US "shock jock" Rush Limbaugh, who asked of a Hillary Clinton presidency: "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"

In the face of such outright sexism, it seems that there are three distinct strategies. The most inspiring is the approach taken by Ford, who seems determined to challenge ageism head-on, questioning attitudes to older women and to natural signs of age, such as grey hair. This approach isn't specifically defined by a woman's tonsorial choices, but whether she feels comfortable in herself, recognises the ageism inherent in society, and is prepared to challenge it.

Then there's the strategy of Madonna, 50 this year, who is equally defiant, but simply seems to deny that the ageing process exists. "I'm not going to be defined by my age," she said in an interview this month. "Why would any woman? I'm not going to slow down, get off this ride, stay home and get fat . . . I'm not against plastic surgery, I'm just against discussing it." Her attitude seems to be: age? What's that? While this is definitely impressive, I suspect that the work Madonna puts into denying the onset of ageing would be too relentless for most of us. Actually, let's face it, all of us.

And then there's the approach that involves very openly worrying, even panicking, about age, and doing everything possible to "combat" it - cosmetic surgery, punishing detoxes, using lasers to tauten the skin. This tactic has long been in the ascendancy, but there are signs that it might be slowing. At a recent meeting of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, for instance, several members said they had noticed a fall in patient numbers, while one of the big new themes in the self-help genre is for books that advocate ageing without surgery.

Although this apparent plateau in cosmetic surgery could be the result of an expected economic downturn, pathos may also play a part. Over the past few years, the market for anti- ageing products and cosmetic surgery has grown among men. Women have been able to watch, with a new kind of objectivity, as blokes in the public eye have attempted to defy growing old by dyeing their hair unconvincing shades of brown and having unappealing eye lifts. There is something inherently sad about this. Thank God, then, for the women who are speaking up and proving that there is another, much angrier - and much healthier - way to age.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything