As I pass the standard “mid-life” markers, I find myself laughing more often, more ironically, and with more gusto. Laughing at myself, mostly. No, I don’t think it’s generic old-age loonies; instead I think it’s an accumulation of wisdom overheard in my younger days finally getting through to me. There’s a group of women that visit me, as memories, from time to time. I can still see their faces and hear their conversations on topics that were totally disconnected from my reality at the time. Not anymore. I’m remembering, and I’m listening more closely than ever.
While in college in my early twenties, I taught an aerobics class on weekends at a gym exclusively for women. The proprietress (“Ginny”) was a statuesque former beauty (you could still see it in her bones) somewhere in her seventies. She walked like a model, wore a silver bouffant wig, tons of bangles on her wrists, and kept a bottle of vodka in her personal locker. I liked her, a lot. Most of Ginny’s clients were well past middle age. Some of them were in their eighties. They were a different breed of gym-rat back in the day: always dressed in fashionable gym-wear and always in full makeup, perfumed and wearing jewelry. Perspiration was to be avoided.
These ladies eased-into their “workouts” by having coffee with Ginny when the gym opened, around 7 a.m. on Saturday. When I got there a little before 10, ready to teach my class, Ginny was in high spirits (Coffee Lace, as they say in the south, I always thought.) and usually welcomed me with a bangle-jangling hug and cloud of fragrance. During stretches, the women continued to talk amongst themselves non-stop. After about 20 minutes of low-impact Step, I’d guide them through a mild bit of circuit training. Through which they all talked. I don’t think anyone there (besides myself) ever broke a sweat. That wasn’t what this gym was about.
Menopause. Cheating husbands. Feeling ‘invisible’. Slowing metabolism and weight gain. Sagging body parts and wrinkled skin. It was pretty much the same loop every weekend, and fairly easy for me to tune-out. Not only did I tune them out, but I actually thought “What bizarre conversations they have, and what boring lives these women lead.” I had the total impertinence and smugness to think that their concerns could never in a million years be my own one day.
Turns out, as I laugh at myself these days, I do so in the company of these women — now long-gone, most of them. I remember the 85 year old who always washed her face in ice water and never used any other moisturizer than Crisco (I kid you not). Nowadays, almond, olive, apricot and other oils are “de-rigueur” for skin. Then there was the woman who told me that my metabolism would some day slow to a sluggish crawl; that I wouldn’t be able to snack on nachos at midnight without packing on the pounds. My, my — do tell. Finally, there was the woman who complained that becoming Invisible was the worst part of aging for any woman (she eventually became one of the Red Hat Ladies, which I didn’t “get” at the time, but now I do.)
No question that in Western culture we value youth above all things (next to celebrity and celebrity-athletes). But there’s a time period of ‘limbo’ for women — before our kids start joking about pushing us out in a canoe or leaving us on an ice floe — in which Invisibility is a definite problem. Doctors try to convince us that 20 pounds is ‘normal’ weight gain, post-menopause. The fashion industry follows suit by creating Mom Jeans with Tummy Panels to console us. Eye doctors tell us, “Get ready for cataracts — they’re inevitable!” With the aging process, apparently, comes a whole complement of things we’re to assume we must accept. To my thinking, this is the very definition of the Invisibility that my gym-lady was describing so long ago. “You’re a woman, you’re growing older, your body is going to hell but it’s really ok because no one cares, unless you can compete, which you obviously can’t.” Reinforcing this invisibility is the husband who trades his wife in for a model “with fewer miles on it”. Not just a cliché, but a common reality.
What’s a woman to do, when facing Invisibility? Start wearing a red hat, a crimson lip and leopard stilettos? Commit to a strict Paleo and prep for a 10k? Give up cocktails and chocolate? Resolve to find summer and winter-weights of sweatpants? All women will face versions of these questions, and more, as they age. Speaking as one well-into this phase, I can offer two pieces of advice: the first is that Invisibility has distinct advantages, and becoming older brings a certain wisdom and cunning that comes in really handy, when used correctly.
My second piece of advice is to know — or learn — what feels right to you (body weight, fitness level, diet, makeup — clothing- accessories) and jump on that, with all you’ve got. Challenge doctors, dentists, stylists, nutrition and fitness “experts” if or when their suggestions clash with your own inner knowing. Learn to flow with aging according to your own rhythm and sense of well-being. I don’t have a red hat, but I do have a very dramatic, femme fatale black cloche with an iridescent peacock feather perched jauntily on one side. I don’t wear it that often because, when I do, the ‘drama’ of the hat attracts a lot of attention and questions about where I bought it. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I enjoy being invisible.