AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET LIZ BYRSKI

I spoke with Liz in 2012 regarding an upcoming beauty and ageing article for online magazine, Golden Pen Magazine.  A link to the article will be posted once it’s published; below are some of my questions to Liz.

Do you think all women have an inner need to feel beautiful? Why?
I can’t answer for all women but I think a majority do. As little girls we are so often admired for being beautiful and encouraged to think that it’s really important for a girl or woman – more important than anything else. The current media landscape constantly reiterates this – we are surrounded by images of very young, very beautiful women and messages of the importance of perfect physical beauty and sexiness. Beauty is seen as something purely physical and often very superficial – in other words – something that can be achieved with cosmetics and cosmetic procedures and surgery. The idea that true beauty comes from within seems to have got lost –  crushed under the steamroller of marketing by the beauty and fashion industries.

How do concepts of beauty change as women get older?  Is there a mythical age in which women go “downhill”?As women age they are encouraged to cling to a ridiculous idea that beauty means youthful. So it’s easy for them to get caught up in attempts to stay young rather than trying to look good at the age they are. I’d argue that women don’t go downhill, in fact they get better and better especially if they are able to overcome the pressures to cling to youth, step into age, and be at peace with themselves.  That’s when inner beauty shines through.  But I do think women begin to feel invisible – if they don’t conform to the unrealistic images of ‘beauty’ that they see around them.  It happens around 50 for most but lots of women have written to me to say that they began to feel it in their early or mid-forties.

How do you address this in In the Company of Strangers and other books?
I focus on midlife as a time of positive change and opportunity in which we can make choices about how we want to be as older women.  I try to make the rich and rewarding lives of older women visible and to display the variety, the challenges, the heartaches and the enormous joy and wisdom of older women which all contribute to the texture of their lives and their true beauty.

Which woman (or women) best embody to you the beauty of ageing?

  • Dame Judy Dench – actor
  • Mary Robinson –  Former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights
  • The late Margaret Olley – artist
  • Dame Vanessa Redgrave – actor
  • Lowitja O’Donaghue – AM CBE Aboriginal leader and public administrator.
  • Ruth Reid – Community leader and activist, patron of the arts and widow of former Governor of WA Professor Gordon Reid.

Do you agree with the idea that it’s attitude, not age, that counts? Yes.

Do you think women have become complacent?
I think there is a tendency among some young women to think that they will always be able to stay looking young and beautiful thanks to the beauty industry, so there is some complacency about that. Then when they face the first signs of age they panic. I think young women also think that feminism is irrelevant because the battles have been won. They haven’t and the rise of a particularly nasty form of sexism that attacks prominent women always on the basis of their sex than than on issues may, I hope, start to change this. I’m generalising and of course what I say doesn’t apply to every woman, but certainly women in mid- and later life are anything but complacent, they are determined to make the most of the second half of their lives, and seek opportunities to do things they didn’t have the chance, the time, or the money they did in their youth. They are energetic, determined and altruistic and enjoying  the challenge of ageing.

What sort of reaction do you get to your books from readers? What kind of issues resonate with them the most? My readers range from teenagers to women in their nineties and a surprising number of men. Older women love the fact that they can read about women like themselves. They often say the books make them feel as though their lives are being noticed and valued.  Sometimes they say a book has given them  courage or ‘permission’ to change, to recognise that ageing is an opportunity rather than something that must simply be tolerated. They enjoy to read books that actually deal with things they are dealing with: adult children and grandchildren, ageing parents, floundering relationships, a sense of invisibility, starting new relationships at midlife, returning to work or study, finding new directions in later life, and adjusting to ageing. Young women tell me that the books have shown them that life after fifty can be fun, fulfilling and filled with opportunity. They say they find confidence and enthusiasm for ageing rather than seeing it as a something to fight and fear. And women and girls of all ages love the celebration of female friendships.

Which book/s are you reading now?
I’m re-reading some women’s fiction from the period of the 1930s –1959 for an academic paper I’m writing.  So, currently on my bedside table are The Echoing Grove by Rosamund Lehmann,  At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen and The Greengage Summer By Rumer Godden.

Which five influential women would you most like to have a dinner party with?
Judy Dench (actor)  Mary Robinson (Former President of Ireland and UN Human Rights Commissioner)  Doris Lessing (writer) Ruth Reid (community leader and volunteer)  Shirley Williams (former British MP).