My father called middle-aged women “dried-up old dust balls,” telling my sister to enjoy her attractiveness while it lasted. He frequently commented on young, beautiful women in a way I now know was inappropriate, while treating women his age or older with disdain. My mother spent most of my life ruing the passage of her youthful beauty, which was considerable, as she advanced into middle age. Once her hair turned gray, not long after I was born, she applied futile effort to returning her hair to its former auburn glory, resulting in a sad, patchy apricot that overlaid a flat, dark gray color in badly damaged hair. She wouldn’t leave the house without “putting her eyes on”, which involved pencil-darkened eyebrows arched in permanent surprise.
I observed my parents’ attitudes about women’s beauty and aging with a critical mind. I knew from observing my fabulous Aunt Lillian, 18 years older than my mother, that women in their 40s and 50s and 60s were sexy and vibrant and very attractive. Lil was a blonde version of Dixie Carter, an Auntie Mame-type who traveled the world and racked up husbands like she had a scorecard. She had legs that I always envied, having earned my sturdy tree-trunk legs from the Russian side of the family, and drew attention everywhere she went. In her 90s, she was reported to have attended a neighborhood meeting wearing stilettos and a skirt she kept whipping around her legs, flashing the gams at the neighborhood men.
I don’t know if the stilettos part is true, but I like to think it was.
Aunt Lil was clear evidence that my parents were wrong, and as a kid, I couldn’t understand why they thought that way, but I decided there was more to this aging thing than my parents knew. So I watched. And listened. And waited until it was my turn.
In my 30s, I started going gray. My husband and kids will attest that I was excited about my first gray hairs, and even kept one of the first in an envelope, like you do with your child’s first haircut hairs, dated and sealed so I could look back on it later and remember. To be fair, my graying process has been beautiful, imparting even strands of silver throughout my chestnut hair. My mother often said her gray hair made her look like George Washington, with a poof on either side of her head and one just above her forehead.
Even as a kid I knew that she had some control over that…maybe, don’t perm your hair?
I realize that it’s not fair of me to compare my aging with my mother’s, because we came from different (if overlapping) genetic material, and had vastly different life experiences. She had seven pregnancies in eight years; that will age a body FAST. She also experienced gynecological complications after giving birth to me, her last child, and that cast the die for her ensuing health. She was, reportedly, never the same physically after I was born.
I can, however, fairly compare our attitudes about aging, as attitudes are the factor that we *can* control.
Helped in part by an incredibly supportive and enthusiastic husband, I made a decision to see every change in my body as another developmental stage in life. Just like going through adolescence carries physical changes, so too does going through the childbearing years, and then through mid-life, and menopause. So I braced myself for these changes with the expectation that *something* was going to happen, and it was inevitable, and I might as well enjoy it, because fighting it seems so ridiculously sad and petty. Being young is but a small part of our lives; we spend so much more time being adults, and it’s so much more satisfying! Why on earth would I *want* to go back to being in my twenties?
God, I was stupid then.
But now–NOW! I have this expanded understanding, including the realization of all the shit I don’t know yet, and of how much more there is to explore and discover. Good grief, but there’s a big world out there, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
This outlook wasn’t possible when I was young and having babies and trying to figure out how to keep the electricity on and food on the table. These are halcyon days for me, of fertile imagination and clear vision. I’m almost officially post-menopausal: I’ve heard that a full year without a period means you’re done, and if true, I only have three months to go. A friend told me of some research she’d read about menopause. Apparently, going through menopause has the side effect of lifting the veil of hormones that colors our thinking when we’re in child-rearing years.
Those hormones are necessary for helping us protect our young, our homes, and when we no longer need those tools, they wash away with our monthly cycle, and we enter a new phase of life. Post-menopausal women have the benefit of all the years of experience, of intellectual understanding, the insight of intuition, and none of the emotional grappling that tied us up when we were younger. The study found that post-menopausal women were more outspoken, more willing to stand up against social injustice, and more confident in their abilities to contribute to change.
There is freedom ahead for me and for my women friends. It has nothing to do with men or babies or finding a partner or looking great “for our age”–and everything to do with finally being released from the inane expectations of this lopsided, male-centric culture.
So I’ll take the gray hair, and the wrinkles, the things that mark me as an older woman. I’ll eagerly trade looks for understanding, a whistle on the street for self-awareness, the need to “dress to impress” for stylish, comfortable clothes that make me feel good. I’m done with that, I’ve been there, I don’t want to go back. There’s so much ahead.
I’m sad that my mother and father had such a dim view of life that they thought it ended when their hair turned gray. How awful for them that they cut themselves short like that. But for me, I’m going to take advantage of every extra day that I’m allowed, every moment I get to wake up and see this gorgeous, limitless world. I’m so grateful that I get to interact with this crazy place on my terms–FINALLY, as me. Just me.
I have good relationships with three kids who have turned into fine adults, a healthy, enriching marriage, friends to spend time with, exciting work at my fingertips and curiosity about the world. This feels like what life really has to offer, so far beyond hair color and skin smoothness and the superficial interpretation of beauty. This life is beautiful, and rich, and exciting and thrilling. Sometimes it’s sad, and hard, and frustrating, but it’s life in all its complexity. I’m happier now than I have ever been, and can’t wait to see what comes next.
I’ll take everything this life has to offer.