Younger women have got nothin' on me

Guest column

Has it happened yet? Have you been called "ma'am" at the supermarket? Have you woken up and looked in the mirror to find your mother staring back at you? Do you perform an occasional strip-tease during a business meeting as a hot flash comes on? Or have you noticed men staring as you walk past them on the street - not at you as they once did - but at your daughter?
Or how about this...
You're out with your husband, enjoying cocktails with some work associates after a holiday party. You feel pretty good in the outfit you bought for the occasion - it's swishy, slimming and youthful. You're chatting and laughing with the other wives and you notice that they pay close attention when you speak. Ahhh! I'm fascinating as well as gorgeous tonight, you think. The other women are a bit younger than you; their children home with a babysitter while your teenagers are out with friends. It seems like just yesterday that you were forced to keep glancing at your watch, as these women do, to be sure you wouldn't be late for the babysitter. The talk turns to the wear and tear motherhood puts on women's looks. "Wait until they're teenagers," you throw out casually but with an air of authority. One of the women counters with "But you look great!" Before you have time to take in the compliment she adds, "I hope I look as good as you when I'm your age."
When I'm your age? When I'm YOUR age? Suddenly the noise in the bar begins to fade, taken over by a weird humming sound as all the blood in your body rushes into your ears and your brain tries to sort out what this statement means. How old do they think I am? What do I look like from their perspective? Were they paying such close attention to my comments because they see me as their elder, wiser counterpart - the Village Crone?
You do your best to appear engaged in the conversation but the internal dialogue is too loud and you find yourself wishing you had the excuse of a babysitter to hurry you out of the bar. Your makeup feels like it's melting and the bulge around your waistline feels suffocating. The clock has struck midnight and Cinderella suddenly ain't lookin' so good anymore.
Scenarios like these are happening to me with increasing frequency. I am often (too often to ignore it) mistaken for my younger sister's mother. I'm blown away, when it's time to get my driver's license photo re-taken and I see the difference between the old picture and the new one. And what about invisibility? I always thought it would be cool to have a super-power, but I was thinking more about, say, flying or X-ray vision than becoming invisible to entire sidewalks full of people younger than me.
Let's face it. We live in a youth-worshipping culture where women (and men -- guys are not entirely exempt from this phenomenon) are pressured to dye their hair, lift their lids, nip and tuck chins, necks, breasts and butts. In short, to do anything but allow the natural process of aging to occur. There is a sense of something coming to an end, of being about to topple into the abyss of old age where society will view and treat you differently.
So what do we do? Do we just disappear? Do we give up and resign ourselves to the end of life as a vibrant, worthy, physically beautiful person? Or do we embrace the change, accept the results, and rejoice in the freedom that can come from letting go of the superficial? We certainly would not be alone if we chose that approach - far from it.
There are 76 million baby boomers - both men and women -staring mid-life square in the face. Youth may be our obsession, but the baby boomers - now between 45 and 65 - are the largest segment of the population. The majority! And a generation that brought about social reform, fueled the women's movement, changed the way we look at sex, ended the war in Vietnam and taught people to question authority, should not be silenced or dismissed when it comes to aging.
"Menopause The Musical" has played in 250 cities across the United States and nearly 11 million women in 15 countries have flocked to this light-hearted look at menopause since the show's opening in 2001. A search on the Barnes & Noble Web site, keying in the word "menopause" resulted in more than 1,000 titles. lists more than 3,400.
Articles are appearing in increasing frequency in newspapers and magazines regarding a new attitude toward aging. Time Magazine (May 16, 2005) ran a cover story entitled, "A Female Midlife Crisis? Bring it On. How Women are Making the Most of a Major Turning Point in Their Lives." The article offers glimpses into the lives of women who are taking midlife by storm and reinventing themselves, their careers, and even their marriages.
Sue Schellenbarger's book, "The Breaking Point," draws from interviews of women who are taking the midlife crisis to new creative, productive heights. Gail Sheehy recently published a book called "Sex and the Seasoned Woman," celebrating women between 40 and 90. Seattle's Tara Gimmer put together a photo show of senior women in bathing suits, noting that " seems like the point of transformation when women accept their bodies is more in their 50s."
The year I turned 50, my friends, many going back as far as high school, had either just reached it or were getting ready to celebrate the half-century mark. And celebrate we did! It should be celebrated! It is an achievement.
My work with cancer patients for the past 19 years has taught me never to mourn a birthday but to welcome it with profound gratitude. If growing old is a by-product of celebrating yet another birthday, then so be it! Don't get me wrong. I have shocking moments of disbelief in front of the mirror at least once a week. I go to the gym and remember the days when I was the young, hard-bodied babe who had all kinds of time to maintain the muscle tone. I swore I'd never be, well, me. I'd always find time to work out and stay young and fit looking. How wise we think we are when we are in our 20s. How determined to hold fast - and how totally clueless!
The truth is, older women are beautiful. We are. We are confident and strong, truthful and gentle, vibrant and creative. We can throw great dinner parties, organize the hell out of events, juggle work and family and friends and book clubs and volunteering. We can still dance and have fun. And we are wise. Dude! We know stuff! I can give great advice on the days when I'm not raging from low levels of estrogen. What is so bad about all that?
Jean Baptiste-Troisgros, reknowned French cuisinier who lived from 1897-1974 and whose sons have continued in his culinary footsteps, running one of the finest restaurants in Burgundy once said:
"From 35-45 women are old, and at 45 the devil takes over, and they're beautiful, splendid, maternal, proud. The acidities are gone, and in their place reigns calm. They are worth going out to find, and because of them some men never grow old. When I see them, my mouth waters."
Now that's what I'm talkin' about....
Irene Hopkins is a former (20-year) resident of Queen Anne, now living on a sailboat at Shilshole Bay Marina in Ballard with her husband and one of two daughters.  She works at the UW Medical Center and in her spare time writes essays about family life, women and motherhood.[[In-content Ad]]