I never imagined myself becoming a middle-aged woman. Middle-aged women were other women-older, proper, grown-up women. They had wrinkles, age spots, sagging breasts, cottage-cheese thighs. When I looked at my mother, my aunts, my friends' mothers, I always thought of them as "the other," women of another time, another species-the "not me." I knew I was never going to look like them.
While I still felt like a girl inside, there was no denying the reflection I saw in the mirror, especially the full-length mirror. Everything was heading for the floor. But when I looked at myself, it was still me, although it was a different me than I was used to seeing. One day, as I was sitting at the kitchen table sewing a button on a skirt, I looked down, to see my mother's hands, minus the chipped red nail polish. Still, for a time, I denied that I'd changed, until the final blow came.
My twenty-six-year-old daughter was home for a visit. I was getting ready for bed when she walked into the bedroom, looked at me, and said, "Mom, do you think I'm going to get raisins and have yams when I get older?" She was referring to the age spots that were blanketing my body and my sagging breasts. That was it. I remembered the horror I felt when I watched my mother wriggle into her girdle or I saw her flesh oozing from the tight elastic around her legs as she strutted down the beach in a bathing suit, and I knew exactly what my daughter was thinking and feeling. There was no denying it: I had joined the ranks of a group I never thought I would belong to. It was quite a shock.
Every day as we're greeted by the stranger in the mirror, we're reminded that we're no longer the girl we once were. In her place, a woman we barely recognize has appeared. We wonder what's happened to us. And it takes some time to figure out.
If you're still in denial about having reached middle age, the arrival of your invitation to join AARP and your first copy of Modern Maturity will certainly force you to face this sobering fact. How do they find us? They're the age police. They have a database like the IRS. They're watching us. They're worse than Big Brother and they're going to blow our cover. I think that even if you joined the witness protection program, they'd still find you. There's no place to hide. Our time has come, and everyone's going to know it.
For those of you who haven't yet hit the big 5-0, let me offer you a warning. Several months prior to your fiftieth birthday, the dreaded envelope will arrive in your mail, inviting you to become a member of AARP-okay, if you're too young to know what the letters stand for, it's the American Association of Retired Persons! I know. None of us is anywhere close to retirement age and we never will be. Nonetheless ... In my case, I didn't have the option of immediately burying the envelope in the garbage. A so-called friend bought me a membership as a fiftieth birthday present. How depressing. The people at AARP don't realize that we feel that we're way too hip to want to join their organization. I don't care if there are lots of perks, hell no ...
But I have a confession. Last week, while I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room, I noticed a copy of Modem Maturity that had an interview with Gloria Steinem. I made sure that no one was looking as I quickly folded the cover back. I hate to admit it, but not only did I thoroughly enjoy the article but I found it informative. No, I didn't subscribe. That would still have been too big a step for me. But there was a crack in my armor. Ladies: there's no denying it-we're getting older. Okay, say the word. We're middle-aged.
I don't know about you, but have you noticed that we boomer women look pretty darn good? While we're certainly healthier, sexier, and younger-looking than women our age in preceding generations, we're still confronted with the stigma of aging. It wasn't long ago that middle age was considered the beginning of the end for women. The label of "older," at least for women, meant worthless, sexless, invisible, over-the-hill. It was assumed that we would suddenly mutate into frumpy old women wearing muumuus and false eyelashes and sporting bad dye jobs. Midlife was seen as a wasteland, a time filled with loss-the loss of femininity, power, beauty, and youth.
With the onset of midlife, women are caught in a double bind: Despite the inevitable changes in our bodies, we're expected to continue to look young. But as Germaine Greer observed in The Change, "A grown woman should not have to masquerade as a girl in order to remain in the land of the living." The more a woman has depended on her appearance for her self-worth, the more vulnerable and insecure she is likely to feel as her youth and beauty fade.
We no longer pretend that we can trade on our looks the way we did when we were younger. Those days are gone. It's time to find something deeper-more enduring-to count on. Our bodies and appearances are in a continual state of change. But our authentic selves remain constant, undiminished by time. This is a revolutionary idea, one that goes against the dominant culture. We forget that we no longer have to go along with the game. We're grown women. And by the sheer magnitude of our numbers, we can invent a New Middle Age. Consequently, we can redefine the rules for aging and attractiveness.