How the French celebrate real women

By Guest Columnists, Barbara Ellen

Bonjour, my friends, or should I say au revoir? I may be a tad premature, but I wanted to give plenty of notice: at some point in the future, when I hit my late 50s, I will leave these shores for France, where, if what one reads is correct, it will still be possible to put in an eleventh-hour bid to be "hot".

Granted, there is a little time to go before one is officially considered "totally past it" in age-obsessed youth-worshipping Britain, but I'm taking no chances. Even when I was as young and nubile as I was ever going to get, I was known for my ability, as one cruel wag put it, to turn hot pants into "tepid pants".

Bearing that in mind, what hope have I got here in Britain - the nation where certain tabloids thought it in good taste to execute a breathless countdown to the day young opera star Charlotte Church became "legal". So, France, cometh the hour, cometh the woman, cometh La Ellen, femme fatale - lock up your, erm, divorced and separated middle-aged fathers.

The French have long been far less likely than their UK counterparts to run in disgust from a woman old enough to be, well, their first wife.

However, the Gallic appreciation for (queasy alert) "Women of superior vintage" or (scream) "The Menopausal Muse" has never been stronger. Over there, actresses in their 50s and 60s (Charlotte Rampling, Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve) still attract love-interest roles as a matter of course; over here they'd be lucky to land the role of "put-upon mum" in a gravy advert.

Likewise, the French applauded when presidential candidate Segolene Royal, 53, was snapped in a bikini on a beach - none of the childish barfing of our press when poor Cherie B is pictured in a one-piece or when even Jerry Hall was teased for her cellulite. Then there was the Paris Match photo spread of Arielle Dombasle, 53, wife of philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, featuring the singer-actress on all fours wearing a silver thong, at one point studiously adjusting her nipples.

Is invisibility a feminist issue? It seems to be. Ask any woman in Britain, like La Dombasle, in her early 50s, and odds on she will say: "Something happens." Not the face falling off or the body turning into flesh tapioca - women have never been in better nick. It's rather chilling slow-mo psychosexual demotion.

A sudden dusty coating of "safety" and "domesticity" when inside, for all the world knows and cares, this woman might still be the wildest hellcat on the block. A panicked scrabbling against a glass wall - watching the world carry on (flirting, loving, hating), but unable any more to hear or see you.

Of course it happens to men, too, however much they indulge in "anti-ageing treatments" (in their case, blondes, affairs, Porsches). But for women it seems much worse - deemed erotically unimportant by male committee, it's as if they become spectres - sexual ghosts doomed to wander the empty rooms of their former potency.

Depressed yet, ladies? Ready to go the French way? (I'm adjusting my nipples as I type). Certainly, the threat of becoming a Sexual Ghost is enough to make any self-respecting British woman jump on the next ferry, though maybe we should show a little caution. On the one hand, there's the argument that women should fight against sexual phantomhood; on the other, it must be most 50-plus women's worst nightmare to be handed a tiny silver thing and told to: "Work it baby!"

There may lie the catch, the caveat, of eternal sexual attractiveness: you have to remain sexually attractive. It's not as if the streets of Montmartre are full of young men wolf-whistling at old ladies in black shawls. So, sure, I fancy spending my twilight years having my hand kissed, and my wrinkles celebrated, by sweet-eyed Frenchmen. But I'm not sure the average Jacques is likely to feel much amour for the 60-year-old hag I'm likely to become. Good luck to Dombasle, Royal, Rampling and all the others who've made it through the glass wall of middle age defiant, unscathed, "hot".

Maybe it's kinder for some Sexual Ghosts to be left to haunt in peace.

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