Saturday, October 30, 2010

Embracing the Invisibility of Middle Age

I was never a beauty.

In fact, I was a plain, awkward and shy teenager who sat home dateless on prom night and who would listen, with an aching heart, as guys -- who considered me a great buddy -- asked me for advice on how to capture the affections of my female friends. While rumors swirled around some classmates at my Catholic girls' high school that this one had French kissed and that one had actually flirted with third base, rumors about me centered on my alleged post-high school plans of entering a monastic convent in the South where the nuns beat themselves and slept on straw.

My mother, a popular beauty in her youth, tried to console me by taking my head in her hands and telling me to just wait, that my time was coming, that one day I would wake up and look just like Elizabeth Taylor.

My Elizabeth Taylor moment never arrived.

However, in young adulthood, I blossomed into enough attractiveness to prompt whistles when I walked past construction sites, propositions from colleagues at out of town conferences and, to my considerable relief, the romantic attention of some very good men. And I would sometimes even catch the eye of an occasional celebrity. In one memorable incident when I was a young magazine reporter, I was having lunch at Hollywood's legendary Brown Derby restaurant with an aging television star whom I was interviewing about his endorsement of a major political cause. Near the end of the interview, he leaned over to me, wheezing slightly, and said, off the subject and out of the blue, "You know, I've had a vasectomy."

Equally memorable is the day I realized that my maximum visibility, my time in the sun, had vanished and that I was slipping irrevocably into the invisibility of middle age.

I was plump, on the edge of graying, and in my mid-forties. On a whim, I had stopped at the construction site of some beachside condos to look at the model homes and dream a bit.  The construction zone around the parking lot was teeming with young, burly construction workers.  I stepped out of my car and, a few paces later, into a giant pothole, severely spraining my ankle. I fell face down onto the asphalt. No one noticed. I lay there waiting. Nothing. I finally struggled up and, on all fours, dragged myself into the sales office.  A robotically smiling young woman, brochures in hand, looked down at me.  "Have you visited our models before?" she asked.

"I'm hurt," I moaned, rolling and flailing on the floor at her feet.

"Does this mean you don't want to look at the models?"

"I fell in a pothole out there and I can't walk."

"Oh. Well, do you want to sit down for awhile?" And she rushed to answer a phone call.

I sat, realizing that if I didn't get ice on my ankle and some medical attention soon, I wouldn't be able to move at all.  I crawled back to my car, still invisible to the construction crew only a few feet away, and drove myself to an Urgent Care center.

To varying degrees, it happens to all of us.

My college roommate Ruth, a successful attorney with a taste for hot sports cars, says that her realization of invisibility came when young men stopped staring at her at stoplights and saying "Hi, babe. How you doing?" and started saying  "Hmmm. Nice car!"

When we reach a certain age, advertisers and marketers start ignoring us for younger, more free-spending demographics. Most movies are made for younger audiences more likely to pack theaters.
The female movie stars of our youth -- with the exception of Helen Mirrin, Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon who seem to elude all ageist categorization -- slip into television or obscurity.  As my Aunt Molly used to say "You know you've reached that certain age when you're a guest at the party, but the party is never for you."

And yet, like Harry Potter's wonderfully useful invisibility cloak, there is an upside to middle-aged invisibility.

It gives us the freedom to go the party for someone else and rejoice for them. It allows us to sit on the sidelines without feeling diminished as we cheer our kids, our grandchildren or young people we're mentoring on to achievement.

It gives us the joy of being very much ourselves, less concerned with how we appear to others and what others think.  It allows us to find our voice, to speak our minds with new clarity. Away from the outside clamor and attention, often from those who really don't matter to us, we quietly come to terms with the unique individuals we have grown to be.

Middle-aged invisibility allows me to sweat at the gym and take the risk of throwing myself into Zumba Gold and Pilates secure in the knowledge that no one is looking at me. So what if I'm a klutz or overweight or forgetfully mangle routines? I have the joy of getting fit without worrying about looking like a fool.

Invisibility allows us to speak our minds, take new risks and tackle new challenges because, until we're well along with our goal, no one notices.

And when people do notice, it's to give us extra credit for things that used to be ordinary. Young people laugh with appreciation and a bit of surprise when I erupt with a cynical opinion, a mild obscenity or a statement they consider at least a little outrageous for a white-haired woman of a certain age.  When my husband and I hold hands or put our arms around each other in public, almost invariably, a younger person will approach us with "Oh, you guys are soooo sweet!"

But the opinions of others don't matter nearly as much as they used to. Now that we're mostly invisible, we're self-directed, more confident and more in touch with who we are and what we think.  Only our own and the opinions of those close to us matter.

Not long ago, my sister-in-law Amp, who is in her late twenties and from Thailand, suddenly, mid-conversation, took my face in her hands and said softly "You are so beautiful. I hope when I am older, I can be as beautiful as you."

Stunned, I looked back at her lovely young face with obvious incredulity.

"Your life is in your face and I love what I see," she said, tracing a finger along a laugh line. "Where I come from, we know that real beauty takes time."

I thought back -- through all my youthful disappointments, the loneliness of my blossoming young adulthood and the confidence that grew through finding my own voice, cheering others on and celebrating each season of my life -- and felt the power and truth of her words.

Beautiful -- in my own way and my own time. At last.

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