My late thirties were stupid. Maybe yours were, too. Even the first couple of years of my forties were steeped in ego, trying to prove to the world – really, myself – that I was immune to biology and reality. I know this isn’t true for everyone, that there are a lot of people content with who they are at all stages. To those people I can finally say, I am now one of you. But for a few years I was turned inward, taking care of my family and responsibilities, all the while panicking over facial creases and the newfound knowledge that armpits can have cellulite. See? Stupid and self-centered.
I don’t know that it was pure vanity guiding my ship to the rocky shores of skincare products called Hope Is Not Enough or just the shock of noticing that my neck could use a bra. Maybe I was simply confused; I had just figured myself out not too long before, finally understanding how I was comfortable going through life, and now I had to reroute. This is all so shallow, I agree, but it wasn’t just my appearance that had me wound up. I had changed jobs a few times, each time thinking something larger than myself -something akin to destiny, maybe-had placed me there instead of practical circumstances and the appreciation of a paycheck. Could destiny be wrong so many times? I finally determined there was no such thing as destiny, which is probably why Beyoncé went out on her own. And look at her now.
This phase of introspection, let’s call it, manifested in all the great ways that today’s world allows such fools to publicly demonstrate self doubt. Social media was fantastic in giving me a way to showcase images of myself engaged in activities that surely cemented my place in perpetual youth.
“Here I am paddle boarding with dolphins!”
“Check me out – I’m on a plane, TRAVELING!”
“Hey, I got another t-shirt with clever text and graphics!”
Does anybody care about my leisure time other than…well, myself? To be fair, the things I love to do and share with others are sincere. Paddling with dolphins is indeed cool; it just doesn’t make me any cooler than anyone else. And it’s certainly not an activity reserved for the young. Neither, of course, is traveling, enjoying wine, running races, or hiking mountains. The problem is that as much as I love doing these things, while in my thirties, I was equally as focused on the image of doing them. Who was I without a mirror? And what better mirror than other people’s (likely insincere) praise and positive comments?
Middle age is a strange place to be, at least initially. It’s the life phase people laugh at the most, and with reason. No one laughs at the elderly. People may patronize them by marveling when they continue to enjoy life in their advanced years, but older people don’t appear to be emotionally lost if they behave younger than they are. Wear ridiculous hats, and you get to be in a club full of other ridiculous hat-wearers. But a forty-four-year-old woman riding a skateboard? That earns sneers. I should mention that I am a forty-four-year-old woman who sometimes rides a skateboard. And I am not really ashamed of it! But many people would tell me that at this age I should instead try a fingerboard–a scaled-down replica of a skateboard that a person “rides” with their fingers, rather than their feet. Well, I cannot deny that it is a great sport but I think there is nothing in me sticking to skateboarding! But again, if I stick to what I love, the “getting mocked” part can come into play.
So, how do we midlife folk navigate these mockable years? We don’t want to give up our favorite things just because we may now look funny to others while doing them. I think this is why so many of us seem to be working so hard on our images. My solution is that we keep doing the things we love or want to do before we die, but drop the self-consciousness and self-marketing. I love to try new adventures and make a point of doing something each year that makes me feel sick with nerves, but I can just as easily do that without the approval of my peers. In other words, I can have fun and adventure and document these moments without eclipsing it all by trying to capture it with a unique, gasp-worthy phone pic. I have discovered in the past few years that it is a lot more satisfying to focus on what I’m doing instead of whether or not I look cute doing it.
I am embarrassed to be admitting so publicly that I was ever so vain, but I can clearly see that I am not alone. Not that I am judging those who are going through the identity struggle that I recently decided to abandon, but I am just glad to be out of it. It’s a little like exiting a doctor’s office and seeing a full waiting room on your way out. I don’t know what made me finally feel comfortable in my sagging skin, but it is likely that I got distracted with my family, particularly teenagers, whose needs seem infinitely greater than young children’s, and also the realization that I was bored with myself. The people around me are much more interesting than the body parts I was spending so much time attempting to reshape.
I am very happy with my family, my friends, my job and am thankful to be in good health. I have gray hairs that I can cover if I get around to it, but I am a busy woman and rarely consider my hair anymore. Maybe this is what “letting oneself go” feels like. If so, that’s okay. I admit I’m not quite ready to give up my t-shirt collection, but that’s okay, too – as long as I wear my shirts for me and no one else’s approval.
By Tara Bailey