When I was about 29 a friend from Boston gave me a leather and suede mini-skirt that she no longer wanted. It was a very expensive and beautiful skirt, that is, if you like leather and suede. I never wore it. Well, that’s a lie, I dressed as Dolly Parton once for a Halloween Party, and that skirt was perfect. When I turned 40, I clearly remember the day I was cleaning out my closet, pulled out that skirt, and thought to myself “well, you missed that window!”. At age 40, I surely was not going to be wearing a leather mini-skirt. It was a weird eye opener for me at the time. I was 40. I was getting old. What is appropriate for an older woman to wear and not look ridiculous?
Yes, as women get older things change. I am blessed to have a group of amazing middle aged friends who I have gone through a few decades of change with and we all have some great laughs over what is going on with our bodies. Well, it’s not all laughs of course. Any female who has gone through hot flashes will tell you that. What we have experienced however is that all of us are different. I was fortunate in that my hot flashes did not last too long. For me, it just felt like someone turned the heat up. REALLY HIGH. So at work, my sweater would come off, go back on, off, on, off, on…….I would actually put my hair up in a tie right in the middle of a counseling session. I found most people are understanding and kind of get a chuckle out of it.
At bedtime, I feel like we all had our own methods of getting through the night. For me, I would go to sleep with one leg in PJ’s and one sock on, a heavy button-down shirt half on, half off. Quite a sight to see, but for some reason, it worked for me (I tended to go from cold to hot to cold to hot, others just experience HOT). Anyway, made it through that period, now on to the next issue.
I think all women going through this wonder: how does the fat move from one part of your body to another???? It is a very subtle thing and happens over time. If you don’t have any major body image issues, that helps, but most women have what is called “normative discontent”. In other words, it is pretty normal to look in the mirror and be dissatisfied with something about your physical appearance. It is a rare woman who looks in the mirror and goes “Dang, I’m gorgeous!”. We all have something. When I was young (high school) I was much bustier. I hated it and used to slump over to hide it. Then, after several years, getting married, nursing three children and running around like crazy with those kids (all under the age of 5), I no longer had that problem, and in fact, the opposite, which gave me another issue. I could not fill out my normal size bra anymore, and I became somewhat self-conscious about wearing anything too low-cut. There was nothing there! Most of us have something, and it is normal. But for those with weight issues, yo yo dieters, disordered eating, well, thinking gets even more distorted and going through middle age changes with the shifting body fat can be very difficult (if this is you, and causing you to restrict or diet, I suggest getting the help of a therapist because at any age, excessive dieting is dangerous and often a symptom of masking another issue). Anyway, with middle age, I now fit into my normal bra again : )
One kind of funny example of normative discontent is my wonderful amazing mom. She has the energy of someone half her age, and does it all. But, as she went through her middle years, I remember her complaining about needing to “lose 5 pounds”. It actually became a joke between us because she knows I am against talking about weight and bodies like that, but she did not like that her weight was situated in her tummy….just like most middle aged and older women, her hips and butt used to have more fat on them, and eventually it migrated. Anyway, after going through a stressful time with my dad being ill (he is doing better now, thank God), she told me “guess what? I lost 5 pounds! But why is my stomach still there?” We both laughed out loud. I convinced her that as long as she was not planning on posing for Playboy, she probably should not worry about it.
The reason my mom and most older women have a tummy, even when their weight really has not changed is because of our hormones. Women’s bodies tend to store fat in their hips and thighs during their child bearing years to support the energy needs of breast feeding. After menopause, we just don’t need fat there anymore, and with hormonal changes fat just tends to accumulate in the midsection. Of course, a healthy lifestyle, being active and eating healthy will help to prevent any unhealthy excessive weight gain. It is normal to gain 5 pounds or so (some gain more or less, we are all different), but a lot more than that may be more than hormones and may negatively affect health. That does not mean you need to diet (and a life time of dieting actually can cause even more weight gain as we age), however it does mean paying attention to important lifestyle changes such as decreasing physical activity, inadequate nutrition, poor sleep habits, and increased stress. Some women develop hypothyroid conditions and need medication to correct it (I know many women who have felt tired all the time, exhausted, and once getting diagnosed, and start taking medication, they feel like a new person). Bottom line is, focus on health, and try to ignore that tummy (easier said than done, I know).
Besides the shifting body parts, some other things occur, such as when you go to touch your toes and you can’t. Unless you have continued the yoga you used to do in college, good luck with the toe touching. I remember when I was able to lie on my stomach and bend my knees and flex my back and touch my feet to the back of my head. Now, well, I can’t figure out a way to touch my feet to my head (and I admit I just tried to… and actually was able to graze my big toe to my forehead by lifting my foot up on the couch to my head…..yikes). Besides losing flexibility, your strength starts to diminish. It is really sad when you can barely open your own bottle of wine. I do lots of housework, yard work, mowing, carrying groceries, etc. But still, my arms feel spaghetti-ish. My husband (and my energetic mom) always blab about how important it is to lift weights. I struggle with that because it is not fun to me to lift and count. But as time goes on (and I really don’t want to need someone to pull a cork out of a bottle of wine) I know I need to start doing something.
There are other changes besides the belly and flexibility and strength….such as endurance. I have always been a jogger, but now I guess I would call myself a walker. Yes, I can jog. But I am so worried about doing something to a knee or pulling a muscle or hurting myself that I mostly walk with occasional jogging (like when my daughter who loves to jog comes to visit) or when I just have too much energy and walking won’t cut it. I remember when my good friend Marion and I planned to do a marathon when we turned 40. We were both runners (always doing the Manchester Road Race in Manchester, CT for many years) and we thought this would be a great goal. But as the year approached, and she turned 40, then I did, well, we both changed our minds. We both knew people who had bad knees or other injuries who could no longer exercise, and we did not want to be one of them. So instead, we took our bikes on a trail and went for a long ride, then stopped into the local Mexican restaurant for a Margarita and dinner. It was probably a smart move for us as we have not had an injury yet and continue to do some marathon activities (mostly to do with shopping).
So what advice do I have for my fellow middle aged female friends regarding our bodies and all that we are going through? I can only speak for myself as to what has helped me deal with all the changes. But, as they say, with age comes wisdom. And with a big birthday coming up in a few weeks, I do feel qualified to give some recommendations regarding women and middle age:
- Connect with your friends. Friends are so important because they help give you a reality check. You are not the only one feeling the way you do and it helps to talk about it.
- Choose comfort. If you have a partner, they love you for who you are, not what you are wearing. If you don’t have a partner, or live alone, should you care about what others think or do you want people to connect with you for who you are? In other words, even if you are looking to find a partner, don’t you want someone who knows you don’t wear leather and suede mini skirts? This is a time I have found many of my friends and I are changing our styles. We no longer need to wear “business” outfits, because some of us are no longer working. Who needs blazers? On the other hand, we don’t want to be boring either. I have one friend, Barbie, who is the essence of simplicity. She looks stunning in whatever she wears, be it a simple tank and jeans or jean skirt and sweater, little or no make-up and her beautiful smile. Another friend, Katie, is still working in her career, always stylish, and even when we meet for happy hour has an elegance about her that women half her age will never have. She takes the time to buy clothes she loves. My friend Pat works hard as a physical therapist and lives in her scrubs it seems. But when we get together, she is a combination of Barbie and Katie, stylish yet simple. She somehow knows how to put together the perfect colors and styles that are young but appropriate. And then there is Marion, my old college room mate. She brings out the hippie in me. We have a habit of meeting for lunch at an outdoor shopping area we love, and then we walk around and hit our favorite stores (Black and White, The Loft and Anthropology). We often both love the same outfits and end up buying them. The shorts we call “happy shorts” and the sweaters we call “happy sweaters” because when we put them on, they are so comfortable, you just feel happy. And that is important. As a middle aged woman, all your clothing should make you feel good. We love our happy clothes! And then there is Debra, my friend from New Mexico. When she comes to visit, it is almost like a celebrity visiting when we go out. She is a true westerner, and it shows with her cowboy boots (she owns dozens, that’s what they wear out there) and her turquoise jewelry. Debra is a natural beauty, a horse rescuer, a dog lover, a grandmother with spiky blond hair, she is just plain cool. And Caroline. A successful woman, who dresses with a flair of sophisticated artistic hippy…..if there is such a thing. An inspiration, a person who maintains humor despite the most terrifying of circumstances. Humor, the most important ingredient of a happy middle age, if you ask me, and Caroline taught me that. I love my friends, all middle aged, all fabulous. As for me, my husband calls me Punky Brewster……I wear almost anything that is comfortable, whether if matches or not.
- Forget the scale and focus on your health. Accept the fact that you can’t control where your body fat goes. What you can control is the lifestyle you have. Be active. Do fun things! Hike, dance, swim, play, bike, garden, have fun. My goal is this: if my car breaks down on the highway, I should be able to walk at least 5 miles to an exit. And, if I fall down, I want to be able to get up without calling 911. Get into cooking and learn to make healthy food taste good because it does affect your health and how you feel, and eating should be an enjoyable part of life. Don’t ignore your mental health. If you find yourself feeling sad or depressed, get help.
- Get regular check-ups. My eye sight has changed a lot. I finally got disposable contacts and this has changed my life (I can now see the exit signs at night. This is a good thing). Get a bone scan, colonoscopy, and all the other fun stuff your doctor recommends. See your dentist, too. Catching things early is important.
- Sleep. Sleep helps everything, so if you can’t sleep, find out why. Ask your doctor for a sleep study and if you don’t have sleep apnea, maybe you just need to get more physical activity, drink less caffeine or decrease your stress level. But don’t ignore it. Sleep is a major concern and you need to fix it.
I am sure I will think of more advice because, I might have forgotten. Memory is one more issue I forgot to mention. Forgetting…..happens everyday. Walking into a room and forgetting why you went there in the first place. Finding your coffee cup in the pantry or linen closet. Losing things and finding them. Getting ADHD later in life, or feeling like you have it.
But all in all, getting older is much more fun than being younger if you ask me. You pretty much can do whatever you want to do. You can actually wear that leather and suede mini skirt if that is what you like (even if it was not my taste, you might love it). If your are blessed to make it to middle age or more, then you have gone through enough to learn about yourself and what makes you happy. If you have been tormenting yourself about your body, or your tummy, could it be time to stop?
PS. Forgot to mention that if my dad had not gained a bit of extra weight later in life, he would never had made it through his cancer treatment later in life. That extra weight was truly a blessing.