Aging can be difficult, even for the most hardy. Our hair follicles die, our bodies ache, and our skin sags. A few weeks ago I went to a concert and had to stand for five hours and my feet still hurt (and so does my left hip). And recently I've noticed I have to be very careful with my chin placement, especially in photos (it's either that or demand Photoshop rights from all of my friends and family), because if I don't, my once proud chin collapses into a series of smaller, less proud "chins," sliding right into my neck.
Aging can be difficult for everyone, but I think it's particularly difficult for women. Of course, many middle-aged men struggle with aging as well, but I do think middle-aged women have it worse. Maybe I believe this because I'm a woman, but I really do believe this.
Women experience more pressure to remain youthful, both in physical appearance and spirit. We may be well into the newest millennium, but men still have the advantage of more vocational opportunities, greater personal freedoms, fewer social stigmas, more mentoring opportunities, and more social outlets than women.
Society dictates that women are pretty much washed up by the time they're 50, and if we have the "misfortune" of being single, well then, forget it. In fact, a 1986 Newsweek article entitled "The Marriage Crunch" coined a phrase that may forever be cemented in the minds of anxious middle-aged single women everywhere, when it satirically sounded the dire warning that a never-married, college-educated woman over 40 was more likely to be "killed by a terrorist" than get married.
The article was based on the misinterpretation of a 1985 large-scale research study examining U.S. marriage patterns. The study is now considered pretty sexist because of its underlying assumptions about women who postponed marriage to focus on their education and careers, but despite that knowledge, and Newsweek's formal retraction and apology, the damage was done. The "killed by a terrorist" prediction became an indelible part of single female folklore everywhere.
Some middle-aged women don't seem at all phased by the aging process and are generally unaffected by the many stigmatized aspects of getting older. These women don't believe for a second that the universe is closing doors in their faces or that it's too late to begin anew. They successfully glide through the aging process with optimism and hope in tact. I admire these women, but I must admit that I am not always one of them. And according to a recent Gallup poll, neither are most of other 50-something-year-old women out there, most of whom reported feeling invisible, depressed, lonely and completely stressed out.
Many middle-aged women I know do pretty well most of the time, until they don't. The downhill spiral is typically sparked when they survey their lives and make comparisons with their "should list" (I should have, I should be), and they aren't always happy with what they find. Or when they log onto Facebook and see all those photos of youthful and happy people surrounded by loving family and friends, and wonder, what's wrong with me? Why don't I look this youthful? Why am I not this happy? Why don't I have this many loving family and friends?
A century ago there was a pretty clear template for aging -- the human life expectancy was about 48 years, and women's roles were generally fixed and predetermined. "Older women" had few choices in life, other than relishing their grandparenting years before they died (if they lived that long). These days, women, particularly those living in Western cultures, can expect to live well into their 70s and 80s. And we have choices; a lot of them in fact!
We can travel where we want, work where we want, marry who we want, have kids or not, divorce if we want. We can dress how we like, we can shave and wax, or let our hair take its natural European course. And the last time I checked, we still had almost complete control over our bodies. Yes, life is pretty good for women these days, particularly for women living in countries that support our freedom and our choices.
The absence of a clear-cut life template, while freeing, has also left somewhat of a vacuum in the lives of many middle-aged women. We're fortunate not to be controlled by the prescriptive life template of previous generations, but what we tend to lack now is the guidance for how navigate all of these choices in a way that results in a fabulous post-50 life.
So while we have a multitude of choices laid out before us, we don't necessarily have a healthy and supportive template for how to navigate through all of them. Perhaps the real problem with being a middle-aged woman these days is that there are so many choices available to us that we're imploding under the pressure of making the right ones, for ourselves, and for those people we love. And the result is a bunch of middle-aged women who have no idea whether to turn right or left, to stay put, or jump ship. So we flounder and many of us end up never fully realizing our potential, even though opportunities abound.
This kind of reminds me of Martin Seligman's terrible experiment in the 1960s on learned helplessness, where he put some poor dogs in cages and locked the doors, and then shocked them repeatedly. Eventually, the dogs stopped trying to escape and learned to accept the pain and their captivity. Seligman controlled whether the dogs could escape into another, shock-free, portion of the cage, and what he learned was that unlike dogs who had never been held captive, the dogs that were shocked while captive didn't try to escape once the opportunity arose because they'd been conditioned to feel helpless. When Seligman repeated this experiment with humans, he saw a similar dynamic: people who had gotten used to pain and captivity, didn't try to escape once there was a clear path to freedom.
I believe that middle age can provide enormous opportunities for transformative change in all areas of our lives. Middle-aged women may be written off by some segments of society, but our increased longevity can be used to recreate ourselves in positive ways that were impossible in our youth, and in previous generations. It may not be easy, but it is possible to create the life we've always dreamed of after 50 -- to expect more, to live larger, to achieve more, to create more, to love more, to have more passion, and more joy. Of course there are limitations, depending on our own personal circumstances, our willingness to take risks and live outside of our comfort zones, but ultimately the choice is ours.
All we need to do today is take the very first step out of our proverbial cages. We can take one small risk today. We can do one thing differently than yesterday. We can create a shift in our lives and in the universe, and then we can just wait and see what happens. It could be glorious, you never know.
This post was originally published on Dr. Martin's website, www.agingnaked.com.