I am middle-aged, and I feel beautiful. There I said it. What’s more, I am surrounded by middle-aged women who are also beautiful. Infinitely so. One of them has the bounciest walk in Christendom, one of them has skin so fine it rivals porcelain and a body so stretchable she could take on Elastigirl. One looks like a queen when she walks in the door, even when holding a bag of shopping. What they all have in common? An intimate loving relationship with themselves. A sense of belonging in their own bodies. Owning their own bodies, and allowing space to move on up to make room wherever they choose to walk.
Despite what you read in women’s magazines and in the British press (yes, Guardian I’m talking to you!) about women’s fear of ageing (usually expressed by women who are all of 32, and have yet to earn a wrinkle), many women discover this sense of well-being only AFTER the panicked self-doubt of their thirties and the struggles with post-baby-belly and all the rest of it. They do a lot of this:
Now, at 40-something, we are still just about pre-menopausal but we have “fulfilled” our social and biological obligations and destinies. It’s kind of a magical zone to be in, actually. Of course, we don’t scream “yay” every time we spot a new laughter line, or boast about who has the most lines on her neck: youth is always something that you can get all wistful about, in a kind of abstract misty soft-focus way. But really, honestly? No way do I want to go back to talking to myself in the mirror tearfully once a month and other nonsense. I have never felt so good.
And so I was mulling over why it is, that we have to take so damn long to get to this magical state, when I caught sight of my youngest daughter, and realised that, aside from sharing the same cheeky grin, we actually had something else in common. A lack of caring about what impression we make on other people.
At the peak of her physical prowess and beauty, she is utterly unaware of it, moving through her day like a leonine creature: strong, all sinew and muscle, not a shred of excess fat to get in the way, skinny and sun-kissed, flicking her hair over her shoulder simply because it’s there, smiling, full and toothy, just because the day is about to begin and will be full of new adventures.
And I realised there must be an in-between-time. A twilight zone, a Bermuda triangle in our lives that women and their physical self-assurance disappear into.
On what day exactly do we women wake up and suddenly become self-aware, see ourselves from the outside, through a tinted lens, realise that flicking our hair is deemed perhaps sexy by some, or at least, it becomes a “thing”.
This morning my daughter complained that she didn’t want to wear the pretty undershirt her dad had bought her with the small silver heart sewn on the neckline. Why I asked? “Because it feels wrong, it feels like it’s back to front.” she explained. I understood completely. But at the same time I found myself thinking, “What a shame, it’s so pretty.” For heaven’s sake, its a friggin’ undershirt! No-one sees it anyway! But five years from now she, and girls like her everywhere, will start wearing stuff that is uncomfortable. Even underneath. I suffered for decades wearing itchy ill-fitting bras. The truth? I didn’t even need them! But I wore them because I wanted to assimilate, I wanted to be attractive, I wanted to do the stuff I saw women were meant to do.
So what joy, decades on, when I have the strength, the self confidence to say, “I can’t be bothered with bras anymore.” Or indeed with a lot of things I did only to please others. So what happens in the intervening 30 years?
That is a long time to lose yourself, lose your self confidence, your feline grace, your love of hanging upside down by your knees, exchanging it instead for a hobbled walk, itchy ill-fitting clothing, self-conscious hair flicking, smiles you don’t feel like giving (“Cheer up, it might never happen!” “Give us a smile!”) and a strange sense of not being good enough no matter how many careers you balance alongside being a super-mum.
Melissa Benn in her brilliant new book “What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female” writes about this weird symmetry in a woman’s life.
“…a mirroring of the autonomy and self confidence of the pre-pubertal girl and the post-menopausal woman. One stands at the portal of the elaborate imperatives of adult womanhood, the other has exited from its often tiresome obligations, including the need to please or create connection – through relationships or motherhood; the post-menopausal woman returns, once again, to the outgoing autonomy sketched in the young girl, but this time cultivating her interests and activities with the benefit of experience, now enjoying an unfettered, more courageous yet enriched individualism.”
Until I read this, I didn’t realise that that is exactly what I am doing. I spent the last 30 years trying to do “what is right” trying to fulfill my obligations and destinies as a woman, trying to balance my own desire for self expression and creativity with the restrictions that being a woman brought with it. Now, having “done my job” (at least to a large extent) I am starting to look beyond, because society’s grip on me is becoming lax, it is no longer so interested in me…and in return, I don’t care so much what other people think, be it the other mothers in the park (because I am no longer dependent on them for approval or a feeling of belonging) men (because I don’t need them to help me make babies anymore so they get to enjoy my personality, regardless of what I am wearing) or people in the supermarket queue (so let them think I am crazy, or get annoyed because I have to quickly run to grab the toilet paper I forgot, I don’t care anymore. I have earned my 8 surplus seconds at the counter, after years of assiduously and efficiently storing my shopping, keeping my kids under control and having money at the ready, all at the same time.)
Now, my strongest critic, one I still really care about, is my own adolescent daughter. She has just gone over to the other side. Disappearing disconcertingly into the Bermuda triangle, with make-up and magazines as her only luggage. She appraises me, comments on the shape of my eyebrows, the height of my heel, oh, so critically, and demands of me to “just be a proper mother again, like you were before.”
How terribly sad that the mother she longs for was the unhappy depressed woman I used to be. The one who baked and cooked as if her life depended on it, to prove that her kids weren’t paying the price for her having a career. To prove I could be all and everything to everyone (heads up to younger women readers: you CAN’T. Only if you completely obliterate yourself, which is not such a good idea). The one who snapped when her daughter dallied on the street because we would be 2 minutes late for kindergarten, manhandling her into her snowsuit with brute force to ensure I wasn’t late.
There is lots of eye-rolling. She is busy being assimilated. Being claimed by the twilight zone of body dysmorphia and time-consuming skincare routines. I am standing by her, loving her “the way she is”, trying to show her there is another way. I grieve for the sunshiny, enthusiastic, tumbling, chubby whirlwind that has been replaced by an awkward, busty, short-skirted blonde bombshell who is scared to give a talk in class incase people laugh (Let them laugh, I say, laughing is a good thing! Laugh too, laugh at yourself…). Knowing that she can’t possibly know this. Knowing she may need 30-odd years of assimilation before she realises that to truly assimilate is to lose yourself. And hoping against hope that she won’t succeed….