Authors: Stephanie Dolgoff
here were certainly signs that something momentous was taking place, but initially, I saw each as an isolated incident:
• Beginning a couple of years ago, salespeople in trendy boutiques, who used to swirl around me like bees over a puddle of orange soda, could no longer be bothered. Evidently they saw me as someone who wouldn’t (or plain shouldn’t) buy their skinny jeans, spiky heels or strappy little camis that are ideally worn without a bra.
• Friends arriving in New York City asked me—a lifetime Gotham denizen and supposedly glamorous member of the fashion and lifestyle media—which were the cool places to hang out. I couldn’t think of one that hadn’t been shuttered during the first
era or that wasn’t now a Starbucks.
• I began to have to wear makeup, or at least a decent tinted moisturizer, to get that same “I’m not wearing
makeup” look that I used to get by, well, not wearing makeup.
• One time, in a Pilates class, the instructor had us lying on our backs, pressing our shoulders into the mat. She then told us to raise our arms straight up, at a 90-degree angle from the floor, and then reach to the sky, lifting just our shoulders. We all did: The bones of my shoulders followed my arms vertically a full four inches toward the ceiling. But the flesh surrounding my shoulder bones remained splooged out on the mat. My skin and the thin layer of adipose tissue that normally traveled with my bones and muscles had clearly decided that Pilates was for losers.
• And the real piercing car alarm of a signal—why this didn’t catch my attention I have no idea—came one morning after too much coffee, as I was rocking out in the kitchen to “One Way or Another,” a Blondie song seared into my neuropathways since adolescence. I was horrified when I realized it was the sound track to a Swiffer commercial, blaring from the TV in the other room. I found it especially humiliating that there was a Swiffer, at that very moment, sitting in my broom closet. What’s more, I had recommended it to friends (!!!). I thought about that:
I feel strongly enough about a cleaning implement to have recommended it to friends
. It didn’t seem like that long ago I wasn’t spending enough time at my apartment to need to clean.
I began to feel vaguely uneasy, but the reason hadn’t yet gelled. Things were going quite well, and my life was more or less exactly as I’d set it up to be: I had lived my lunatic 20s, throwing myself into my career, scaled many magazines’ mastheads and then calmed the eff down and gotten married in my mid-30s. My husband and I had wonderful twin little girls, I had a great job, good friends, and we all were healthy and solvent. There was no crisis. And yet … something was off.
I just didn’t feel like me.
And then, finally, one day just after my 40th birthday, all became blindingly clear.
It was early in the morning and I was on the subway, on my way to work. A sexy stubbly man next to me leaned in and asked me for the time. I braced myself for the pickup attempt I felt sure was to follow. “Eight-forty,” I replied tersely, careful not to offer even a hint of encouragement in my tone.
And then … nothing. Nada. Bubkes. He may have said, “Thanks.” I don’t remember. I do remember that he went back to his book. Apparently, the sexy stubbly guy who asked me for the time simply needed to know the time. He wanted information, not to have sex with me. Imagine!
I was shocked. Shocked! And internally embarrassed. Just who the hell did I think I was? Well, I’ll tell you who I thought I was! I thought I was who I had always been: a hot chick, damn it! Big hair, big boobs, big personality, a young woman who (not so terribly long ago) had reason to adopt
a slightly defensive posture when men asked her superficially innocent questions on public transportation. (In fact, I met the man who is now my husband on the subway.) I was hardly a supermodel, but hey, even if I wasn’t a particular person’s type, it seemed to me that my general appeal was irrefutable. After a few decades of believing this about myself—and usually being reacted to as if it was so—being an attractive young woman simply became part of what I was and how I navigated the world.
But in that instant, an energy-saver bulb reluctantly flickered on over my head, and I got it. Boy, did I ever get it. I was no longer “all that,” perhaps no longer even a little of “that,” whatever “that” is. No wonder things didn’t feel right! I didn’t feel like me anymore because I wasn’t me, at least not the me I had always been.
I’m not talking about one guy’s opinion, of course. In retrospect, all the indications that my head-turner days were receding in the rearview were there (in addition to the aforementioned, fewer men who drink 40s on apartment stoops made vile sucking noises as I walked by; and I was ma’amed on several occasions when I was not in the Deep South). Together, along with all the other signs that had nothing to do with my looks, it made sense. Over the last few years, while I’d been busy working and having twins and not sleeping and getting peed on and eating and yelling at my husband and maybe not taking such good care of myself—and oh, yes, that pesky passage of time thing—I’d become a perfectly nice-looking 40-year-old working mom
doing the best she can. Which is
totally not the same
as a hot chick. That in itself is not a problem. The problem was that my self-definition had yet to catch up with the reality of what the world saw when it looked at me.
Lucky for me, I had my then-four-year-old daughter Vivian, at home to give my self-definition a good frogmarch forward. That very same evening, she snuggled close to me on the chair-and-a-half in her bedroom while I brushed her hair after her bath. Abruptly, she turned to me.
“Mommy, what are those?” she asked, her face just millimeters from mine, so close that her eyes were crossing. She was fixated on my nose.
“What are what, honey?”
“Those. Those round things.” We’d been over this. That Japanese book,
The Holes in Your Nose
, about nostrils and boogers and which body orifices you might stick your fingers in and which you are firmly discouraged from sticking your fingers in, had long been a favorite in our house. I reminded her that they were my nostrils and that she had them, too.
“No, not those. Those smaller ones. Some of them have little hairs growing from them.”
Sigh. Vivian, of course, was referring to my pores, which in the last couple of years had been expanding like crop circles on my face. I’d hoped no one had noticed the little hairs. I can only see them in the 15× magnification mirror I masochistically keep in the bathroom.
I felt that familiar wave of … not shame, not humiliation,
exactly—you can hardly be ashamed of your pores in front of your child—but of what I’d imagine a toad would feel if he were cognizant of being dissected: laid bare, with the cool, objective, curious eyes of a scientist seeking data. This same scenario had repeated itself many times in the last year with little variability, except regarding which of my previously unremarked-upon flaws was being scrutinized.
So I did what I did the time her sister, Sasha, pointed out—entirely without judgment—that my belly looked like a tushy on the front of my body, or the time she said that there were bumpy blue worms under the skin of my legs: I chuckled wisely and said something mature about how bodies are fascinating and change as they get older and went and got the 15× magnification mirror and showed Vivian her own (invisible to the naked eye) pores. I then explained the function of pores in cooling the body. Vivian was riveted. I was proud of myself for being such a good mommy, for recognizing and acting on one of those “teachable moments” you read about in the parenting magazines.
And then she asked this:
“But why would there be hairs in your pores?”
Yeah, you know, Vivian, I’d like to know the same *(^&(*[email protected]*&^ thing!!! Maybe it’s because there is no God, Vivian. Maybe it’s because your mommy did something really, really naughty in a former life. Maybe because the body is just randomly gross for no reason and we’re all basically still monkeys and some things are simply better examined from a distance. “I just don’t know, sweetheart,” I
answered. And then I put her to bed, and took the 15× magnification mirror with me to see what I could do with a tweezer.
That pair of entirely un-fun epiphanies indicated that there was a seismic, unacknowledged transition afoot. It felt like a smack upside the head and a relief at the same time. I didn’t know what I was turning into, exactly. I didn’t act, look or feel what I’d imagine a middle-aged person would look, act or feel like, and I certainly wasn’t old. I just knew that I wasn’t what I used to be. I had been unsubtly hot, and now, I supposed, I wasn’t. I began jokingly calling myself Formerly Hot. At least I had a name (albeit one I made up) for that strange, uneasy, dissonant feeling I was having, and why I was having it.
Formerly Hot. Yes, that felt right, and it made me laugh at myself, which seemed the better alternative to standing in front of the mirror scrutinizing my multiplying crow’s-feet. And although I didn’t yet grasp the extent of this new state of affairs, I had a feeling that there was much more going on than the blush falling off the rose, and that I couldn’t be the only one experiencing something like it. If years of writing and editing stories for women’s magazines has taught me anything, it’s that if you’re going through something, odds are excellent you’re not that special—quite often in a good, comforting way.
I began to carry my new self-definition—that of Formerly—tentatively around with me like a just-in-case sweater, and threw it over my shoulders whenever I had that
chilly feeling of being an adult “tween”—i.e., too old to be young but too young to be the kind of person who asks about the availability of parking at her destination before agreeing to go. “Formerly” fit nicely, and now that I had a name for it, I found myself tripping over evidence of my transition everywhere I went and in every interaction I had.
It quickly became clear that no longer being hot was merely the most obvious Formerly I was experiencing. I was also Formerly Groovy, Formerly Relevant and Formerly In-the-Know. I noticed that marketers had stopped trying to sell me cutting-edge, exciting sparkly things and tried to get me to take my children on a Disney cruise or consider baking with Splenda. Physically I felt fit and well (if lumpy and misshapen from childbearing), but I had lost enough energy for it to be noticeable; I no longer felt like staying out all night, and the truth was, I really wasn’t sure I could party past 2:00
these days even if I wanted to. I liked to get out and do things, but I needed a guarantee it was going to be more fun than staying home, or else why bother? I wasn’t crotchety, yet I was irked by things that I used to let roll off me, like rude people and having to sleep on a futon. I started a blog about this,
, and it clearly struck a chord. I and my agemates were formerly a lot of things, a big bunch of Formerlies. It was a veritable groundswell.