A text comes “Hey Mins, sorry for the late reply. I sneezed and did something terrible to my back!” Why am I not surprised? I think I pulled a muscle in my ear the other day while eating muesli. Who knew that was even possible?
These days, all kinds of unexplained shooting pains, unfamiliar creaks and unexpected wrinkles are possible. This is the routine reality of hitting middle age: that undefined patch of time between the end of youth and the start of old age; not yet in the twilight years, but definitely approaching teatime and thinking about putting the kettle on.
If it’s true that you’re only as old as you feel, I could be anything from 23 to 104 depending on how much sleep I’ve had and which underwear I happen to be wearing. In fact, I’m 50 this year – sandwiched, as one writer put it, between “the fear of everything you have become and fear of everything you have not”.
Middle age, though, is a slippery concept. No one is quite sure when it starts (not now, not me!), or when it ends. New research suggests that old age now starts at 74, with middle age lasting at least nine years longer than once thought.
For many, then, the midway is a summit, not a slump. Perhaps as a result, in some senses at least, this nebulous age has lately been redeemed. While “middle age” is not something we tend to admit to – a bit like having a verruca – “midlife” has become the get-out clause. It sounds brighter, smarter; a possibility, not a penalty. In branding terms, it’s still full of life, not burdened with the slow entropy of age. I even read recently that the midlife crisis has been repositioned as the “midlife passage”, which makes it sound like something exciting, perhaps to be attempted in a canoe.
Personally, and entirely unexpectedly, I love being middle-aged. You literally care less. For every downside, there’s a significant up. Hey, you may not sunbathe any more, but you don’t have to learn to surf! You never again have to consider wearing cut-off jeans. Or puff sleeves. Peter Pan collars. Plaits. You never have to go to an “after party”. Or even a party. Where once you wanted to fly to St Tropez, to Miami, to Rajasthan to ride elephants, now you mostly want to go to bed. Lovely bed! It’s as if there’s a new dispensation to be utterly true to yourself: yes, you can hide when the doorbell rings; no, you don’t have to answer the landline. You are who you are, and the rest of the world can ruddy well deal with it. Not, you now know, that they give a flying hoot. I think US columnist Ann Landers got it right. “At 20, we worry about what others think of us,” she wrote. “At 40, we don’t care what they think. At 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.”
It’s a relief, too, to realise you need no longer compete in the great pageant of youth. These days, being “good for your age” is good enough – brilliant news for those of us who are OK-looking without being stop-the-traffic gorgeous. I like former British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s take on ageing. “It is a huge help to have been nice looking but never very beautiful,” she wrote when she turned 50. “For those whose identities are completely bound up in their good looks, the diminution is terrifying.”This, then, is the bridging zone between youth, with its 20/20 vision, and age, with its fuzzier focus.
There’s irony, I think, that in midlife you can literally see yourself less clearly in the mirror, just as you begin to fade metaphorically from view.At around the age of 46 or 47, I certainly felt a shift, as a barometer might record a change in air pressure; it was a sense of being very gradually but progressively eroded. There’s no denying that your imprint lessens. Your impact declines. It’s true, and quietly shocking, that people start to see through you at parties, as if you’re a pillar or a pot plant.Paradoxically, as your image loses focus, you feel the sharp mechanics of your body more keenly – the viscera, the workings, the joints and junctions; this body, the one you’ve inhabited for five decades, starts to enact small sorties against you, as though it’s swapped sides mid-match.
These days, I regularly wake up looking as if I’ve slept in a hedge, even though I went to bed with the cryptic crossword just after 10.In the past, I’d always been a low-maintenance sort – all bed hair and no foundation, naked nails and yesterday’s eyeliner, which I thought made me look rock’n’roll, like Chrissie Hynde’s younger sister, or a junior fashion editor on French Vogue. Now that I’m old enough to be the grandmother of a junior fashion editor on French Vogue, I just look unwashed and slightly deranged. There’s definitely a moment – I’d put it at around 47 – when “natural” starts to look a lot like flu. And so, you need strategies. Vigilance. High maintenance, permanently, as if tending to the Forth Bridge using only a mascara wand.I’m drawn now to gold-lidded pots of luxury moisturiser designed for very specific purposes (underside of chin, scrag of neck, gulley of décolleté, back of hand), or eye serums in tiny vials that cost more than a whole tank of petrol. There are Pilates classes, not because it makes you feel long and stretchy like a puma, but because it stops you folding in on yourself like a garden chair, collapsing in the middle so that – what do you know? – one day your belly button disappears.
Now, with a few years of middle age under my belt, I’m in a constant state of ninja readiness, armed with a glinting Tweezerman, ever scanning for inexplicable chin hairs and baffling age spots.
There’s more. At 50, a face develops marionette lines, accordion lines, a crazy paving of broken capillaries and those gorges that take up residence at the corners of your mouth and make it look as though you’re permanently sucking on a cumquat. My advice? Do not get your eyes lasered. Do not buy a magnifying mirror. It’s probably best not to know.
In midlife, you know there’s more of the same in the wings. With age, your forehead apparently expands as your hairline retreats. No one gets a memo about this. The fat in your face, which once plumped up those apple cheeks, somehow re-emerges to pouch at chin and jowl, in downy apricot swags, all billowy like Austrian blinds.
Talking of swags, no matter how slim you are, middle age will deliver a dump of flesh to your back – spooned around the bra strap – almost overnight, as if you ordered it on Amazon. My eyelids are looser, too, like bikini bottoms that have lost their elasticity. My 14-year-old daughter likes to pick up my eyelid between grabby finger and thumb, give it a tug and laugh like a loon literally for minutes as it snails slowly back into place.
This is one reason why make-up now makes me look a whole lot worse rather than better: eyeshadow congregates in crepe-like creases and sits there in winking curds. Instead, new products have started to show up in my make-up basket – curious things like RapidBrow (“Put the wow back in your brow”). One friend is considering dyeing her lady garden with Just For Men Moustache & Beard Brush-In Colour Gel, which seems like woolly thinking to me when all she really needs to do is turn the lights out.
At the age of 53, she’s also considering braces, which again feels wrong. You can’t have wrinkles and braces at the same time. It disrupts the space-time continuum. Smarter by far to develop a relationship with a dental hygienist and go to bed, lights out, wearing teeth-whitening bleach trays – after all, you’ve had those teeth for half a century. They could legitimately go on Antiques Roadshow.
Ah yes – Antiques Roadshow. A personal favourite. In midlife, tastes and interests – like teeth and gums – shift too. I have suffered from Sudden Onset Gardening and am debating the purchase of a “kneeler and gloves set”. On one side of the debate, it seems like a good way to protect my whining knees and increasingly reptilian hands. On the other, it makes me want to thrash myself with a switch of pyracantha.
These days, in common with all bona fide midlifers, I shout at the radio in a loud, barky rasp that sounds like a hungry seal. I also shout at the toaster, at adapters and chargers, and at kitchen drawers with too many baking trays in them. I can no longer thread a needle. I’m stumped by Twitter acronyms and regularly find myself stationed at the freezer, peering in and wondering, “Why on earth am I here?” Not in an existential way but in a “Was it for peas?” way. I do worry that in the imminent future I might start fancying a Viennese river cruise or suggest meeting a friend for coffee in a garden centre, since I’ll be there anyway to pick up some secateurs for the pyracantha. Possibly wearing a ruffle-front cardigan.
Which brings us neatly to fashion, where, in midlife, unfamiliar new rules apply. You have to drop your heel height. You just do. When you’re 23, maddeningly glorious extreme stilettos make you a style goddess. At 45-plus, they make you a style slave, perhaps struggling with bunions, overly snug knickers and a nagging pain in the lumbar region that may or may not respond to Voltaren.
Similarly, wearing head-to-toe black makes you look as if you’re off to a memorial service for your lost youth. Navy? Nah. You might as well tattoo the words “middle-aged” on your forehead. You have to watch your figure, too – not its size, but specifically its shape. As one friend said to me the other day, “Yeah, you look great. But why are your boobs in the wrong place?” They’d headed south, as if on a quest to find my lost belly button. Bras are no longer suggestive or decorative; they’re essential scaffolding required to defy gravity.
That said, there’s a glory in knowing, after four decades of endeavour and error, what really suits you. Without the jibber-jabber of trends whispering in your ear, it’s a relief finally to arrive at a set of clothes you can trust. My wardrobe used to be a riot of shrieks, hiccups and burps. Now, it’s a calmer, kinder, more comfortable place, populated with clothes I actually wear – which boils down to about five items and 17 pairs of really good jeans.
I’ve found, too, that a flash of flesh still works, as long as it’s the right flash (collarbone, one shoulder, upper arms on a good day, bare calves, a smidge of knee) and not the wrong one (cleavage, lower back, middle back, upper thigh).
With cleavage out of the running, you come to rely instead on your hair, which at a certain age becomes your prime real estate. There are rules here, too. Never, for example, plump for a sudden bob. Keep the colour in the mid zone – neither brassy nor Hallowe’en-y, just something friendly in between. And, oh my, the roots. For middle-aged brunettes, roots take precedence over everything else in life, up to and including sports days, school plays and sick relatives.
At this age, too, we’re ever on guard against the threat of imminent menopause and its ghastly symptoms – all 34 of them – from sheet-clenching insomnia and DVD (dreaded vaginal dryness) to Waltzer-style mood swings and the possibility of bursting into tears whenever the dog yawns.
What’s new is that the menopause now gets a lot of airtime. Where once there was a conspiracy of silence around middle-age hormone rage, we now have too much information. I find myself reading celebrity quotes about What It Feels Like – my current favourite is Julie Walters and her hot flushes: “It was like a chimney and came from the base of my spine. Every take there’d be, ‘Stop! She’s having a flush!’ At the National Theatre, I’d come off stage for a quick change and have to shout, ‘Garth, the tray!’ And this guy would come with this big tin tray and fan me.” It sounds awful, a prospect made all the more dire because you don’t quite know what you’re going to get, like those jelly beans that taste of either watermelon or snot. I know it’s only a matter of time.
There is a joy in ageing, though, which sometimes gets lost in the chorus of grumbles. Stand still, breathe deep and you can hear it in your deep heart’s core. Instead of panicking about a life half done, I reckon it pays to be adaptable, forgiving and capable of reinvention. It’s the half-time whistle, a time to regroup, embrace the changes and own your years, for now you are older and have peace of mind. Just don’t sneeze too hard.