There’s a pattern I’ve been noticing when I shop for clothes or get dressed in the morning. If I try something on and think, “This makes me look like a middle-aged lady,” I immediately reject it and put on something else. If I look at an article of clothing on a store rack or in a catalog and think, “Nah, that might look good on someone else, but on me it’d make me look like a middle-aged lady,” I won’t even try it on.
And I’ve been wondering: What’s that about?
After all, I am a middle-aged lady. I’m 52 years old. And I’m generally comfortable and happy with my age. There are downsides to aging, of course, mostly in the area of physical health and ability — but there are serious upsides as well, mostly in the area of confidence and experience and perspective. And I’m happy to have my clothing reflect my age. In fact, I’ve written on the topic of age-appropriate style more than once, and although I have some issues with some of the details of how that concept plays out in our culture, the core of the concept is one I embrace. I am a different person now than I was when I was 20, and I want my style to reflect that. So what does it mean that I’m comfortable with my age, and am comfortable looking my age — but that I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady?
I’ve been thinking about this. And I think I know what it is.
When I think, “I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady,” what I mean is, “I don’t want to look like society’s perception of a middle-aged lady.”
When I think of the cultural tropes and stereotypes of middle-aged ladies, especially when it comes to fashion and style, the words that come to mind are: Conservative. Conventional. Modest. Sexless. Inobtrusive. Invisible. Stodgy. Frumpy. And none of that describes me.
I don’t want to look flashy, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to command attention. I don’t want to flash my flesh, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to express my sexuality, and in some situations I even want to flaunt it. I don’t want to flagrantly ignore cultural standards, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to express independence and even defiance, albeit in a more thoughtful and selective way than I did in my youth. I don’t want to look like a kaleidoscope took mescaline and threw up, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to express exuberance and joy.
It’s a tricky thing. As I’ve written before, it’s hard to use the metaphorical language of fashion and style to express “sexy middle-aged woman,” when the very concept of a sexy middle-aged woman is one that’s seen as incoherent. And it’s hard to accept and respect the basic idea of using fashion and style as a form of expression and communication, while rejecting many of the assumptions that the language is based on. The assumption that youth, by definition, equals beauty and desirability; the assumption that after a certain age, expressing your belief in your sexual desirability is just embarrassing; the assumption that unless you’re Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, once you’ve reached a certain age you might as well just give up — these assumptions are deeply woven into the language of fashion.
And of course, any number of impossible contradictions are woven into that language as well. There’s an assumption that looking younger means looking better — coupled with a perception that people should age gracefully. There’s an assumption that of course everyone over 30, indeed everyone over 25, wants to look younger and should try to look younger — coupled with the perception that women who try too hard to look younger are making fools of themselves. There’s an assumption that it’s embarrassing to try too hard — coupled with the perception that it’s also embarrassing to not try hard enough, to “let yourself go.” We’re supposed to try the exact right amount, I guess. (More accurately, I think, we’re supposed to look younger — but it’s supposed to look effortless. A theme that crops up a lot in cultural beauty messages. But that’s a post for another time.) We’re supposed to find that perfect sliver where we accept our age, but also accept that of course it would be better to look and be younger. And that perfect sliver gets narrower and narrower the older we get — until the walls pressing in on us collide, and cross, and we enter the zone where the expectations of us move from being narrow to being literally impossible.
So how do I find my own voice in this? How do I find a way to express middle age, while resisting the cultural assumption that being middle-aged — or at least, being middle-aged and female — means not commanding attention, not expressing sexuality, not showing exuberance and joy?
Maybe the issue is with the word “lady.” I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady: I am not a lady, and I do not give a flying fuck about being a lady. (Obviously — if I did, I wouldn’t toss around the F-word so freely.) I am not conservative, conventional, modest, sexless, stodgy, frumpy, inobtrusive, or invisible — and I do not give a flying fuck about being any of these things. To the contrary. I am radical, shameless, sexual, defiant, obtrusive, and as visible as I possibly can make myself be. And I embrace all of these things.
I want to look like a middle-aged woman.