The text below comes from a blog post that I find fascinating for its compelling honesty and self-awareness.
I loved turning 50. We spent the day before at Tokyo Disneyland (not as exciting as it sounds; we were stationed in the area),and he gave me black pearls at a 5 star dinner at the military hotel in Tokyo on my actual birthday. I wore a burgundy stretch velvet dress and had a guy literally walk into a wall looking over his shoulder at me. I looked 35, no one ever believed my age, and I once had to show I.D. at a club to PROVE I was actually turning 52. I’ve aged fairly gracefully, thanks to good bones and staying out of the sun (I am a natural redhead, though I do dye it these days—red hair doesn’t go gray, it fades to a peculiar apricot shade that looks phonier than the dye) because after ten minutes in the sun, I burn and peel. But I have aged. And I am no longer passing for 35. I look good—but now I look Good for Almost Sixty.
Changes in appearance are inevitable. Your skin isn’t taut as it was at 40. You sag around the jawline. The laugh lines become crow’s feet, and the smile lines around your mouth deepen. No matter how much moisturizer and night cream you use, you will never look 30 again. Your lips thin a bit. After menopause, you tend to gain a few pounds around the waist unless you exercise like a fiend. I don’t mind my lines—they are part of me, roadmaps that show where I have been, which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t get collagen injections to plump up my lips a little (I may have a big shanty-Irish mouth as far as being opinionated, but my physical mouth is small small) if I could easily afford it (and I’d feel guilty about wasting the money on vanity). I admit to vanity—but not enough for plastic surgery.
For most women, the biggest change is menopause. A few years before it officially kicks in and you become post-menopausal, you hit peri-menopause. Your periods go wild. You’ll have two periods in 6 weeks, and then skip three months. Your flow will be light one month, and two months later you’ll feel like you’re hemorrhaging. You have insomnia or are constantly tired. You forget things. You may feel cranky or teary far more often than you normally do. In fact, except for the hot flashes, it’s a lot like being a teenager again, because your hormones are going nuts. I hit peri-menopause at 44. I squeezed in a move from Maine to Japan in between mild hot flashes, insomnia and mood swings. I was glad to have my suspicions confirmed because it meant I wasn’t losing my mind or having early onset Alzheimer’s.
For some women, especially those who are heavily invested in being a mother, menopause is depressing because it means the end of fertility—no more babies, ever. If you think of yourself mainly as a mother, that’s a major change in your identity. Since I am childless by choice, I didn’t have that reaction. But I can understand why losing that side of being a woman could be devastating to some. I was just grateful to be rid of PMS which began 10 days before my period started and 24 hours of agonizing cramps
For me, the worst parts are the physical changes. You become less flexible, so regular stretching exercises are a necessity, and osteoporosis is a real possibility without strength training. I loathe exercising but it is a health requirement, not simply an option. I hate the neck and shoulder pain I have sporadically—as my doctor reminded me, heads are HEAVY and they take their toll on the cervical vertebrae.
Which brings me to perhaps one of the most important physical issues:
After menopause, the vagina thins and you lubricate less, which can make sex painful. It can take longer for you to become aroused, longer to lubricate (and you get less wet), and longer to orgasm. Even worse, that same lack of estrogen that makes lubrication scanty and can cause the vagina to thin, can also cause you to itch internally, worse than any yeast infection you can imagine. It’s bad enough that you contemplate inserting a backscratcher and just going to town. Fortunately, the cure for the tissue atrophy, the dryness and the itching is simple: Vagifem. It’s a small prescription tablet you insert in the vagina, and leave in for 8 hours, no muss or fuss. Twice a week is what they usually specify, and within a couple of weeks, you’ll feel much better and much more comfortable. If you still don’t get wet enough for comfortable penetration, you can use a commercial lubricant like Astro-glide or KY, or, my preference, Vitamin E oil. You also need to spend more time on foreplay. As for orgasms, if you can’t climax from mouth, hands or penetration, incorporate a vibrator into your play. I recommend the Hitachi Magic Wand. It’s expensive, but it (and you) are worth it.
Some women , freed from fear of an unwanted pregnancy, may get a rush of Mneopausal zest and increased desire while others may not care much about sex. One of the side effects of menopause is a drastic decrease in testosterone, which has a lot to do with sexual arousal. Tests involving giving testosterone to menopausal women indicate it plays a role, but haven’t been conclusive. You can get testosterone pills from your doctor, but there are side effects. I tried them and ended up with acne, and stopped taking them. There is just something wrong about being post-menopausal and having acne, y’know? Vagifem worked, however; turned out most of my lack of interest was fear of discomfort. There may also be psychological reasons. Some women don’t feel attractive any more because they don’t look like they’re in their 20s. Some don’t have partners any more—divorce and widowhood leave many of us without a lover, and many men date younger women after a divorce. They may not have the options.
Which leads right into:
As I noted above, American culture has a limited view of older women. We’re supposed to be grandmothers, ready to bounce grandkids on our knees and be content with that. But we’re more than just built-in babysitters. If I have a problem, it’s not with how I look, but with the way America regards older woman—all too often viewing us as sexless creatures well past their expiration date. We aren’t sexless. We aren’t just grandmothers. We’re wives or single women, too. We want to look attractive. Many of us don’t want to be stuck wearing Age Appropriate Clothes (those horrid floral print elastic waist dresses with puffed sleeves and lace collars and cuffs). My advice is to find your own style and stick with it.
Hollywood doesn’t help. When was the last time there was a romantic comedy with someone like Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon as the leading lady? Harrison Ford can play a leading man married to someone Angelina Jolie’s age—can you imagine Susan Sarandon paired with Brad Pitt? And how about a movie with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, her real life husband? Not very likely. Europeans appreciate “a woman of a certain age”—but American pop culture worships youth when it comes to women. And that can affect how we view ourselves. You have to fight to hold onto your sexuality and your image of yourself as desirable. But the fight is worth it.
The best part of getting older is psychological. At 58, I feel more secure in knowing what I can do and what I can’t. Mostly I have stopped worrying about what I can’t do, because we all have different talents. I’ve also stopped worrying about other people’s expectations. I am who I am, a bellydancing kinky Irish-American liberal Dem feminist Goth Wiccan writer. I am more confident, physically, emotionally, sexually. I am still an activist with many of the same passions for women’s issues, writing, theater, music. I don’t have many regrets other than not having been employed for the last 17 years because I was a military wife, which means you will never have a professional job during his time in. There are things I would like to have done, but they are balanced by having my first short story sale make Year’s Best Fantasy and by getting to spend 7 years in Japan and being married to a man I love and. Don’t regret not having kids. Not at all.
Unlike Nora Ephron, I don’t hate my neck. I like the woman I’ve become. I’ve made mistakes along the way, but learned from them, and most of them were made from the heart, not mean-spiritedness or a need for control. I like myself better now than I did at 25. I am more competent than I was at 25. Or 30, for that matter. I have faced the foreclosure of a house, bad health, widowhood at 34 and rebuilding my life, moved so many times I have lost count, cried my eyes out from loneliness after the death of my first husband or while my second was deployed overseas with the Navy, and come through it more or less intact—lots of cracks, but no breaks.
I’ve given you my story. Other women will have different ones to tell, different reactions, different opinions on sex, looks, etc. So, what are your feelings about growing older? What worries you the most? What do you fear least? What do you see as advantages and disadvantages? Who do you want to be when you hit my age? What would you like to have accomplished?