Midlife rebels: Stripping naked in public, wing walking on biplanes: How turning 50 (and haywire hormones) can transform women
Wearing nothing but a white towelling robe, Kate Burgess tentatively picked her way through a room full of strangers, turned to face them and dropped her dressing gown to the floor, allowing their gaze to fall on her naked body.
Her decision to pose nude as a life model would have tested most people’s nerve.
But it was all the more surprising given that Kate was a mother of three, with four grandchildren, and had just turned 50.
Both sides of the draw: Kate Burgess has started modelling in her 50's despite being a grandmother
‘My children were grown up and I’d just got divorced,’ she says. ‘My husband was quite a bit older than me and we’d started to want different things. For the first time in decades, I felt totally independent.
‘Suddenly, I didn’t have to fit the role of mum or wife any more. It made me want to challenge myself; to start taking a few risks and get out of my comfort zone.
‘I’d never have considered taking off my clothes in front of a group of strangers when I was younger — I was much too self-conscious about my body — and for the first ten minutes or so I was absolutely terrified.
‘But being the only naked person in a room is actually empowering. When the first session was over, I felt a huge sense of achievement and liberation. I was really proud that I’d had the guts to do it.’
Kate, far left, seen here with one of her daughters and her grandchildren
Kate, now 53, from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, is far from the only woman to throw caution to the wind as she hits the Big Five-0.
Television presenter Fern Britton had her first tattoo at 53, saying she fully intends to enjoy ‘a disgraceful middle age’, and Coronation Street star Sally Dynevor, who plays Sally Webster, has announced she’s desperate to escape her goody-two-shoes image and do something ‘naughty’ now she’s approaching that milestone.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Kate’s eldest daughter Kim, an artist, asked her to step in and cover for a life model who’d cancelled at the last minute, she said ‘Yes’.
‘I couldn’t let down my daughter and without the time to really think things through, I suddenly found myself posing naked in front of a group of pensioners at the village hall,’ she says.
Fern Britton, pictured, recently has had her first tattoos done, after being inspired by Felicity Kendal
‘It was strange having 15 people staring intently at me and measuring me up with their pencils from behind a row of easels. But everyone was so friendly and encouraging, I soon relaxed.’
In fact, Kate, a craft shop owner, loved the experience so much that she now poses naked at least once a week for art classes and colleges.
‘I’m pleased with how I look now — though I definitely do a bit more exercise these days to make sure I stay in shape and have enough strength and flexibility to hold the poses,’ she says.
‘When I tell people I’m a life model, they’re always amazed and say there’s no way they could do it themselves.
‘But it really has been life-changing for me. I’m thinking about trying my hand at modelling for art schools in Paris this year. The good thing is that once you get to 50, you do lose a lot of your hang-ups: you really don’t care what other people think any more.’
Psychotherapist Evelyn Nathanson agrees that 50 is a pivotal age for many women. ‘/01/25/article-2091365-0F67D0EB00000578-949_634x401.jpg” width=”634″ height=”401″ alt=”Ceri Llyod pictured with a snake during a trip to Gambia” class=”blkBorder” />
Ceri Llyod pictured with a snake during a trip to Gambia has indulged in trips across the world
Llyod, pictured with a rifle, in the desert during the Plymouth to Dakar rally
Ceri decided to sign up for the rally after hearing about it from a friend. But finding a co-driver did not prove easy. No one she knew would go with her, so she turned to the website thelmaandlouise.com, which puts women in touch with female travelling companions.
But then, after buying an old car, getting it modified for the challenging terrain and taking a course in car mechanics, the rally was cancelled following a Foreign Office warning about the high risk of kidnap on the Mauritanian leg.
Not to be put off, Ceri and Anne decided to go anyway.
‘We were in contact, through the rally website, with two other teams who had also decided to go, so we all met up at the Portsmouth ferry terminal.
‘/01/25/article-2091365-0F67D05300000578-790_306x948.jpg” width=”306″ height=”948″ alt=”Ceri Lloyd in her late forties ” class=”blkBorder” />
Ceri Lloyd, left in her forties, and right, looking elegant despite being in her fifties
And what an adventure it was. ‘On the very first day, there was a huge snowfall in the South of England, which created some of the most challenging driving conditions we were to encounter.
‘We also had to negotiate a sandy minefield between Morocco and Mauritania. There was no road: we had to just follow in the tracks of the great big lorry in front.
‘We had an armed guard throughout Mauritania, because it’s so dangerous, and we also had to pull ourselves on a makeshift ferry across a river full of hippos.
‘I never felt worried or scared, though — just excited and alive, as if I was 20 again. I knew my children would be really proud of me for doing it.’
The trip brought another bonus in the form of 59-year-old doctor Neil Rushton, who was driving one of the other cars. He and Ceri are now engaged and in training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro next month.
Ceri has since completed another rally, this time across Russia to the Arctic Circle, and she hopes to move to a hospital near Everest base camp for three months this year, where Neil will work as a doctor and Ceri will run the administration. ‘Life after 50 is certainly worth living,’ she says.
If you’re wondering why a previously devoted mother could put herself in such danger, the answer may be in her hormones.
According to psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Mind, the changes that occur in the run-up to and during the menopause cause our natural desire to take care of our children and our partners to recede.
The natural reduction in oestrogen, progesterone and oxytocin also allows us to become much more aware of our own needs and wants.
But it can cause problems. Counsellor Evelyn Nathanson warns: ‘Women can suddenly go to extremes in their search for independence. Many sign up for physical challenges they’re not really capable of or exotic gap-year-type trips they can’t afford.’
Gill Sherwood, below, celebrated her half- century by parachute jumping
There was no such problem for mother of two Gill Sherwood, 62, who celebrated passing her half- century with dare-devil stunts including wing-walking on a bi-plane and parachute jumping.
‘It started on holiday when I went parascending (where you go up in a parachute attached to a motorboat) and I realised I loved flying,’ says Gill, from Sandhurst, Surrey.
‘But my obsession really began when my husband Tony, who hates heights and won’t even climb a ladder, bought me a balloon flight for my 50th birthday.
Nigella Lawson is amongst a growing number of older celebrities being heralded despite being over 50
‘That sealed my love of being up in the air. The feeling of exhilaration and freedom, of being so high above the ground, plus the wonderful views you get, are hard to beat. So I made a list of other things I’d like to try.
‘When I signed up to do a wing-walk in 2002, everyone thought I’d back out once I got to the airfield. But I didn’t feel nervous at all — not even when I realised I’d be going up with little more than a thin leather strap to hold me on to the bar on the top of the bi-plane.
‘The experience was absolutely thrilling, if a bit windy.
‘Perhaps the bravest thing I’ve ever done is a tandem parachute jump five years ago.
‘After an hour or so of training, I went up in an old aircraft, strapped to an instructor, with a group of strangers. One was a lady in her 70s, and we were both calm — unlike the two 20-something girls onboard who were terrified and in floods of tears.
‘It was just wonderful coming down through the skies. I was too busy looking at the view to worry about anything going wrong.
‘Turning 50 makes you realise that life is too short not to get out there and enjoy yourself.
‘I still have a full-time job in retail that I love, and I’m fitter than I’ve been in a long time. I want to test myself a little and live my life to the full.’
Perhaps it’s no surprise older women are daring to take new risks given there are so many role models for them in the public eye.
‘Nigella Lawson, Lorraine Kelly and Madonna are all in their early 50s,’ says Ceri Wheeldon, the 52-year-old founder of fabafterfifty.co.uk, which helps women make the most of their lives. No one would disagree that such celebrities are still youthful and vibrant, and want to be out there taking risks and achieving things.
‘We are all living so much longer. Statistics suggest that one in seven of the women who are 50 today will live to be 100, so we really do need to change the way that the age of 50 is perceived.
‘I’m thrilled that the time when women used to put on a twinset and pearls and settle into invisible middle age is long gone.
‘These days, your average 50-something is much more likely to be donning Lycra to cycle across Venezuela or putting on a wet suit to cage-dive with sharks.’
Or perhaps — like Kate Burgess — peeling off that twinset to wear little more than a confident smile.