What with the media's interest in the newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron and his much older wife, twenty-four years older to be precise, Brigitte Trogneux, relationships between older women and young men are in the spotlight.
Having been in a relationship with a man half my age, naturally I'm drawn to the topic. I'd like to know why this sort of relationship is taboo when our culture deems a relationship between an aging, overweight, balding man with bad teeth, yellow toenails and grey bristles sprouting from every orifice and his young female wife or lover perfectly acceptable. Are these attitudes informed by primeval biology or by archaic misogyny? Why, in this day and age, does such a double standard exist?
It's said that well-heeled older men attract young women because they can offer financial security and status. Older women, who become almost invisible as they age, generally lack, along with their inability to reproduce, this enticing pulling power.
I wasn't looking for a relationship with a young man; never even considered the possibility. But in 2010, in my capacity as an established Australian visual artist, I was invited by the Egyptian government to participate in an international artist's symposium in Luxor, Egypt and it was there I fell in love and began a long distance relationship with Gamal - an Egyptian journalist twenty-seven years my junior. I was fifty-two.
To say our relationship was a challenge is an understatement! The tyranny of distance and the cultural and religious differences notwithstanding, our age difference, during the course of our six year relationship, was, for me at least, an ongoing dilemma. How come? What do differences in age, gender, race, culture, religion or anything for that matter have to do with love? Why, apart from the obvious, were my knickers in such a twist? Why wouldn’t this young man love me I'd ask myself on a regular basis? After all, I was intelligent, funny, talented, attractive, a good person and, so I’d been told, great in bed!
And then I'd be slapped in the face with a smarting reality check.
We were in Vietnam when Gamal and I took a cyclo to the French Quarter in Hanoi.
‘Where you from?’ our wizened driver asked when I’d settled into his carriage.
‘Australia,’ I replied.
‘Where you from?’ he asked Gamal.
‘Egypt,’ Gamal told him.
‘You, how old?’ the man boldly inquired as he looked me up and down.
‘Old,’ I answered with an embarrassed chuckle.
‘You, how old?’ the man repeated his question to Gamal.
‘Young,’ Gamal tersely replied.
‘You mummy?’ the cyclo driver asked, looking directly at me as he stabbed his bony finger in the air at Gamal.
‘No!’ Gamal and I responded in unison, laughing at the audacity of our chauffeur’s brazen interrogation.
But I, for one, was not amused.
Despite Gamal’s reassurances, I became haunted with images of us in, ten, twenty, even thirty years’ time. I began to feel as if I had a terminal illness called ‘old age’ and that our life together was limited. Like a scene in a movie, the camera would zoom in for a close-up (maybe not too close!): Muslim Gamal sitting at my hospital bed holding my gnarled, arthritic little hand, guaranteeing that after death we’d be together in Paradise for eternity. As my looks continued to deteriorate and I saw the passion die in my young lover’s eyes, would I try to push him away? How could I bear to watch him watch me become frail, withered and possibly even senile? What sort of life would that be for Gamal? Was I being selfish? Should I let him go so he can find a younger, more appropriate match? What if he wanted children one day? I’d agonise, wrestling a host of loud and persistent demons.
‘Get over it, Mum,’ I’m sure my hard-headed daughter would’ve said if she hadn’t been so mortified by the age difference! I knew I was in danger of sabotaging what I had if I became obsessed with the issue and endeavoured, as much as possible, to stop fretting about what may or may not happen in the future and enjoy being in the relationship for however long it lasted. Reaping at least one benefit of the aging process, I tried to cultivate a philosophical approach. Nothing is permanent––thoughts, feelings, things; us. Whatever the nature of a relationship, sooner or later someone will leave, get sick, become old, lose their wits or die, I reasoned.
‘Have you any idea what I have to do to stay looking good for you?’ I’d rib my impatient boyfriend whenever he’d complain about how long I was taking to get ready for an outing.
Basically, men can shower, throw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, brush their teeth, run a comb through their hair and they’re out the door. For women, those who choose to buy into the insanity of keeping up appearances, it’s a whole different ball game. Dieting, exercising and shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories aside, there’s the plucking, manicuring, pedicuring, exfoliating, cleansing, toning, moisturizing, depilating, eyelash tinting and make-up applying; not to mention the hair dying, conditioning, blow drying and styling; fashion and beauty industries working around the clock to make women of all ages feel imperfect, inadequate and ashamed in order to sell their products. The quest to remain attractive can become a time-consuming occupation and then there are the costs involved.
‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter,’ said Mark Twain; and I'd try to focus on those words of wisdom as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror slathering my face and décolletage with L’Oréal’s Revitalift Laser X3 Power Serum.
We can be our own worst enemy - so concerned about how we're perceived by others. I'd broken yet another taboo in my long and eventful life and although society would, for whatever reason, continue to sit in judgement, I determined to give them the finger!
Spanning five decades and as many continents, Australian artist Katherine Boland's recently published memoir, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights: from life in the bush to love on the Nile is a funny, moving and compelling story of a woman whose extraordinary life is without could-or-should-haves. It is available here in paperback and Kindle.
Follow Katherine on Twitter @katherineboland
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Find out more about Hippy Days, Arabian Nights at http://www.katherineboland-author.com