Almost three weeks ago, I turned fifty-five. Yes, the “double nickel” or “the speed limit,” as I’ve heard it referred to colloquially. The cute nicknames don’t really help to ease the blow of my reaching this milestone, though. I know that age is just a number and I shouldn’t really care what the calendar says, but I have to be honest and say that it does matter to me.
I’ve been ruminating a lot about my milestone birthday and what it means to me. Because I know I’m not alone in what I’m experiencing related to aging, I’ve decided to share my sentiments on the blog. I have a lot to say about this topic, so I’m going to split my musings into two parts. Today’s post is about the physical manifestations of aging and how I’m struggling to make peace with looking older. In part two, which will be published sometime next month, I’ll address some deeper considerations, including mindset, regrets, complacency, and “letting the old woman in” (or not).
I’m sure I’ll continue to write about the aging process in future posts, as it’s an important component of the “myself” area of My Wardrobe, Myself. I plan to sprinkle such writings in from time to time among the wardrobe-related posts that are the main focus of this blog.
On Looking Older…
Of the struggles I’m experiencing around getting older, the one that’s most often top of mind is the way I look. My appearance has been a major source of concern for as long as I can remember. I know I shouldn’t place such primary importance on something that’s just “skin-deep,” but I’ve done so ever since my pre-teen years. I’ve always attached a big chunk of my self-worth to my appearance, and old habits are hard to break.
Although I’ve long been insecure about how I look, it’s become increasingly difficult since going through menopause five years ago. I’m having a hard time not ruminating on the changes that have taken place in my physical being. Sometimes I look in the mirror and don’t even recognize the older woman reflected back to me. In my heart, I still feel around age thirty-five, so it’s disheartening to realize the sharp disconnect between that inner sense and the external reality.
I still want to look good. I haven’t had a magical epiphany that’s made me feel okay about gaining wrinkles and losing muscle tone. I’ve managed to embrace my gray hair, at least to some extent, but I pretty much went kicking and screaming into that transition, which made the whole thing that much harder for myself. I don’t necessarily believe that gray hair makes a person look older. I think that’s sort of a societal myth that many people have bought into. I believe that if a woman styles her gray hair nicely and is well-groomed overall, the lack of pigment in her hair won’t automatically make her look like a senior citizen.
In my case, I definitely feel like makeup – especially blush and lipstick – is more important now that I have gray hair, but that’s only because I have so much less contrast in my coloring than I used to. The same situation might also apply to much younger pale-skinned blondes with light eyes or brunettes with dark eyes and dark skin. These women may also feel the need to wear blush, lipstick, and eye makeup to increase the contrast in their coloring. I know I feel like my features all sort of blend together without makeup these days, whereas I never used to feel that way with my dyed auburn hair.
Why is Looking Older So Hard for Me?
I believe that my struggle with the physical manifestations of aging comes down to two main issues, over-identification and societal attitudes and pressures. First, I identify too much with what I look like. For years, I received a lot of attention for my appearance, and I also derived a great deal of my self-esteem from looking a certain way and getting praise from others. I don’t believe it was right or healthy for me to equate my worth with something as superficial as my appearance, but I was socialized to place tremendous value on that facet of my being. Anything that becomes part of our identity or sense of self can be extremely painful to let go of, which is why people often steadfastly hold on to things that aren’t serving them any longer.
When I was in my late forties, I read multiple articles about how women become “invisible” once they reach fifty. I thought it was hogwash at the time, and I still don’t believe that once a woman passes that milestone birthday, people cease to notice her. But I do feel that we become less visible as we age, despite how beautiful we may have been at one time.
My mother-in-law looked like Audrey Hepburn as a young woman, and she turned heads wherever she went. In her sixties, seventies, and eighties, she was still quite attractive, but she was more what might be considered an attractive older woman instead of drop-dead gorgeous at that point. She seemed to have made peace with it somehow, as she wasn’t chasing her youth by way of cosmetic procedures and other means, but I never talked to her about this issue. I wish I had, though, because perhaps she might have shared some insights that could help me navigate my own aging journey.
Attitudes About Aging in the U.S. vs. Europe and Elsewhere
Women in my mother-in-law’s generation didn’t seem to fear aging as much as women in my generation do. Of course, there also weren’t as many options available to them to try to push back the hands of time (or at least the appearance of them) as there are today. So, in some respects, they simply had no choice but to accept the inevitable. My mother-in-law was also European (Dutch), and it seems to me that European cultures revere the older generations far more than we do here in the United States.
Europeans seem to more readily embrace “aging gracefully,” whereas so many American women fight against aging through any method they can afford (of course, there is privilege inherent in the whole anti-aging industry, as many women can’t even go there due to financial constraints). I think the focus on extended family in many cultures, as well as the respect given to one’s elders, likely helps older European women be more at peace with their aging. At least they’re not becoming “invisible” and pushed off to the sidelines of life like what happens to many women over fifty or sixty in the U.S. Perhaps some of my readers from Europe and elsewhere can weigh in on this issue and potential regional differences, as I may have a mistaken or outdated viewpoint.
Body Image Issues
Thus far in this essay, I’ve mostly concentrated on aging related to my face, but I have at least as many issues about my body as I get older, if not more. I mentioned a loss of muscle tone earlier… That’s actually something that came as a big surprise to me. I knew that women often gained weight after menopause, particularly around the midsection, but I wasn’t aware that I’d also experience a dramatic decrease in my muscle tone. I’ve always been someone who exercises most days, including doing regular strength training. I’m not a “gym rat” or a “sporty girl” by any means, but I make a point of being active enough to stay in reasonably good shape.
For most of my adult life, the physical activity I did was usually sufficient to maintain my weight and shape, as long as I didn’t go off the rails with my eating. But after menopause, things shifted fairly rapidly. Without changing my diet or exercise practices in any way, I gradually went up two sizes and also lost the firmness that I was accustomed to having. My thighs grew flabbier, my previously toned arms became loose, and I experienced excess fat around my waist for the first time.
I was able to drop some weight over the past couple of years by increasing my activity and being more careful with my diet (i.e., reduced sugar, fewer snacks, and smaller portion sizes), but I’m still up a size from where I was prior to undergoing “the change.” I’ve also toned up somewhat after stepping up my strength training, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as firm as I was before age fifty no matter what I do.
Two Unpalatable Choices
My larger and looser body feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar to me. It’s been a struggle figuring out how to dress myself in a way that’s both flattering and feels emotionally comfortable. More often than not, I resort to hiding my body rather than showing it off these days. I used to wear more form-fitting garments, at least on my upper half, but now my default is to aim for looser-fitting clothing that glides over lumps and bulges rather than highlighting them.
I know that most people wouldn’t consider me overweight, and I objectively know that I’m not. But I struggled with eating disorders for many years, and I still feel a lot more comfortable and attractive when my weight is lower. However, I don’t want to resort to extreme diets to achieve and maintain my ideal weight, as I went through hell with diet mentality, obsession, and restriction for a large portion of my life. I hate that my choices seem to be either accepting being bigger or reverting back to behavior that I was happy to finally leave behind. Both seem like unhappy options for me.
It may seem on the surface that I’ve accepted my larger body, as I’ve passed on all of my smaller-sized clothing and have a relatively large wardrobe filled with items that fit me now. But I don’t accept the weight gain – and the loss of muscle tone – in my mind and in my heart. I feel self-conscious about my body, which is part of why I rarely post photos of myself these days. I’ve even stopped taking them for the most part because I tend to be too self-critical of what I see. It’s painful to be mean to myself about my age and my body. It’s a longtime bad habit that I’d like to break for the sense of my mental health and inner peace.
Pushing Back Against Societal Influences
Society isn’t kind to women “of a certain age.” There’s a major double-standard related to women and men in middle-age and beyond. Men are often viewed as “distinguished” or “silver foxes,” but there are no such positive terms for women as we get older. Even with the rise of feminism over the course of my lifetime, women are still expected to look youthful by whatever means possible, whereas men are afforded the grace to age in a natural manner.
This is all too evident when we view men and women in the media and Hollywood. How often do we see a woman over fifty doing the evening news? And how many female actresses in that age group are given “meaty” roles, Meryl Streep notwithstanding? Some famous actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have had to create their own production companies so they could continue to act in roles other than bit parts as someone’s mother (and Reese is only forty-five!). In contrast, male stars like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, and Sylvester Stallone are still headlining action films well into their late-fifties, sixties, and seventies, with their wrinkles on display!
It’s a strong woman who eschews all of the societal nonsense and bravely owns who she is and how she looks at any age. I wish I could be such a woman, but I’m not. Perhaps the issues that I’ll address in part two of this series will shed some light on why I seem to be struggling so much with aging. Maybe if I felt better about myself and my life, the changes I see in the mirror wouldn’t be so scary and difficult for me to accept.
I don’t know, but I’m having a hard time with it all, and I’m struggling to make peace with where I am at this stage of my life. It seems like just yesterday that I turned fifty – or even forty, but time marches on… I want to experience peace and happiness in this season of life, so I’ll continue to work on accepting what is. But I have to admit that it’s not easy…
Speaking of easy, this wasn’t an easy post for me to write, and it was even harder for me to publish it, but my intent in sharing my thoughts is that maybe those battling with similar issues will feel less alone. If you have insights to share that might help me and others who are struggling with the physical manifestations of aging, please impart your words of wisdom, especially if you’re a bit older and have managed to navigate your way to a place of peace, acceptance, and freedom.
Also, if you identify with what I’ve written in this post, I invite you to weigh in as well. You’re welcome to do so anonymously, if you wish. Thank you for reading and thank you for your support of me, this blog, and your fellow readers.