Aging, Sexual Currency, and the Midlife Crisis
by Anne Liu Kellor
I used to want to be invisible. Or rather, I didn’t want to be seen primarily for my face and body. By the end of high school, I’d had enough of that preoccupation. Like many young women I obsessed daily in front of a mirror, religiously combing my hair and applying black eyeliner and red lipstick; working on getting a tan; and doing sit ups to try to tame my soft round belly—which of course, now, twenty-some years later, I look back on and see as thin.
This is all pretty normal for an American teenaged girl, right? No one told me that it could be otherwise. No one handed me a feminist manifesto on self-empowerment or self-love. Instead, my mother handed me sunscreen and admonishments that I’d thank her when I was older. I found my way to feminism on my own in college, mostly through reading and learning how to spend time alone. Buddhism taught me to notice my thoughts and thus to see how much I worried about how others saw me or how much I judged others. I also spent a transformative summer working at a fish cannery in Alaska where I rid myself of my eyeliner habit, and the following summer I hiked alone every week while working in bear country in Glacier National Park, feeling stronger than ever before. Those adventures launched me into years of traveling, mostly in Asia, growing ever more confident in my solitude away from a safe circle of friends or fixed identity.
In my early twenties, I also began to shun the male gaze, actively working to refute the impact it once had on me as a girl—the way it made me self-conscious and reduced me to an idea of myself, once removed, always looking on, seeing my body and hearing my words through a judgmental filtered delay. My third year in college I started wearing thick glasses again, along with baggy clothes, my favorite item being my long woolen poncho. And it worked. Men rarely looked at me in my androgynous attire. My breasts were still large and my face still pretty, but not in an attention-grabbing way. As an introvert, I was fine with quietly observe from the sidelines. And as a woman traveling alone, I felt safer this way too.
Over the years, and especially once I met a partner who respected me in my complexity, I found a comfortable middle ground. I eventually started wearing contacts again, as well as eyeliner and form-fitting clothes. Coupled now, I felt safer to display myself; I didn’t have to worry about how to treat advances, for I knew I’d turn them down. In turn I could appreciate anew the increased attention I got, though I was still too distrustful of its affects on me to dare to flirt with it. I still preferred to stay under the radar, not caring to show cleavage or wear much makeup or heels or to otherwise draw more attention to myself, for I still did not want to be constantly reminded of my womanly image. My relationship to the male gaze and what I would allow the public to see of me was still too tainted by all those years when boys in middle school laughed as they made sexual comments about my body, or when creepy older men in cars whistled at me at age 11 or followed me down a street to my hostel at age 21. I wanted to be seen on my own terms, but I certainly didn’t want to go back to that.
Now, I am 43 years old, technically middle aged. It used to bother me that I always got carded well into my thirties and even forties, but now, something has seemingly shifted overnight in how I want to be perceived. For so long, being seen as young felt synonymous to not feeling like I was taken seriously. Multiply being young with being Asian, and being a woman, and you get a triple dose of feeling like others see you through their own reducing lens.
And yet now that my aging process seems to be speeding up every year—whether in the form of a double chin, grey hairs, bags under my eyes, or an ever more bulging belly—I realize that I don’t want to give up being young and beautiful. That I still want to turn the heads of men, even younger men; that I still want to be admired and to enjoy this, precisely because I felt I had to shun it for so long. Even if I have long prided myself on being low maintenance when it comes to my hair or makeup or clothes, I still must concede that I have always cared about the way I look, that of course I’ve never lost my awareness of the male gaze, and that as much as I scorned it in the past, I have also grown to appreciate it. For now, I finally know myself deeply as not just a beautiful woman on the outside, but a woman who radiates loveliness from within. Now, I finally feel a greater ease when walking into a room full of strangers, rooted in my own sense of gravity. In the past, I felt my power in public largely reduced to my sexuality, and because of this, I never coveted this sexual power; instead, give me intellect, give me creative genius, kindness, nurturing—1000 ways I’d rather be admired. So the irony, of course, is that just as I have finally arrived in a place where I feel my inner sense of self-worth and power peaking, society’s collective gaze is telling me that I have passed my prime.
I am 43, I have been writing continuously for over twenty years, and next year I am finally publishing my first book. My son is eight. Three years of nursing, three years of sleep deprivation, five years of staying at home with him for most of the week, and five years of a strained marriage and mild off and on depression made it hard for me to produce much writing for a while, even if motherhood also showed me all the ways in which I was more dedicated to my work than I ever trusted before. In the last three years, my son’s been in school full time and I’ve finally found more time to teach, to write, and to know myself again as an independent woman. In a sense, to go back to where I left off when I gave birth, to go back to all of my projects and aspirations, time and space to think deeply, the ability to set multiple goals and work on multiple books, to dare to be ambitious. As a mother, I now know myself as even tougher, more generous, and more resilient than ever before.
Nevertheless, emerging from the cloistered life of early motherhood has left me hungry—hungry to make up for lost time. Hungry to reclaim myself. I also feel a renewed surge in my sex drive, a drive that pretty much disappeared for years. I don’t doubt that a large part of this comes from my own renewed sense of a complex self. I am not “just” a stay-at-home mother now; I am a writer in the world, a teacher, an adult at a bar, a non-sleep-deprived vibrant human being. I interact on occasion with other men besides my husband and I enjoy the brief flirtation, my own ability to smile and exude warmth and confidence without the old underlying fear of how others judge me or interpret my smiles. I am an adult woman who has earned a degree of wisdom, who has something authentic to offer the world. I am a woman to be taken seriously.
It is a beautiful thing to feel older and wiser, to feel more confident in what I know and say. To not second guess myself before I speak out. To dare to speak out at all.
What ails you, I asked my people on Facebook recently. Let’s talk about aging and midlife crisis. I was surprised by the wealth of response I got from women of all ages, but in large part from my “cohort” of women in their forties—women who are just starting to encounter this phenomena in a more pronounced way. On my post, I said I don’t want advice, just commiseration, for of course I already know all the things I can do to stay healthy and younger-looking for longer: eat better, stop drinking, exercise more, go to sleep earlier, use face lotion, etc. And of course I know all about things like good camera angles, flattering colors or cuts of fabric. I wish I could be bothered to pull off lipstick or eye shadow more often, but I’m working it the best I can.
I didn’t want to talk about beauty tips or health regimens on Facebook, even if others went there. Instead, I wanted to examine our feelings about aging, the ones we don’t like to admit. For as my double-chin and belly fat continues to grow, there’s also something kind of depressing about me suddenly caring more about how I look. Something kind of desperate as I put on makeup, a tight black dress, and jewelry one night, then taking selfies out of a restless boredom from being home with my son all week. We’d been having a two-person dance party and I ran off to change. “Wow,” he said when he saw me emerge, my son my greatest admirer. Together, we made silly faces for the camera as I tried to get a good shot with no double-chin to post on Instagram, something light-hearted and not trying too hard, but let’s face it, I had to try pretty hard. There’s something quietly panicky about realizing I am slipping over the peak of my youthful vigor into middle age. Of course I love being older, more confident, wiser, sassier, kinder, less worried about what people think. And. I have to admit I’m more vain than I realized.
I was surprised by how many people expressed gratitude for the conversation, even calling my post “brave.” I don’t think it’s that brave to admit all these things, although I do worry that some will think me shallow or roll their eyes at my relative youth—just you wait until you are 50. 60. 70. Etc. But what I realized is that we, as women, must not have the opportunity to talk about aging enough. Or else we talk about aging, like so many topics, in binaries, as in—either aging is bad and we do all we can to avoid it, or aging is natural and let’s embrace it! But how about the middle ground, I say. How about, yeah, I know, aging will happen to all of us, as will death, and we women need to embrace our beauty and wisdom in old age and give a big middle finger to the youth-edifying culture we live in that makes women above 40 or 50 feel irrelevant. But, let’s also be open to talking about how it’s hard. For as much as we feminists may not want to buy into the sexist, ageist culture that we live in, we nevertheless have had to adapt to it.
Women: we are allowed to complain about our aging bodies; we are allowed to express our bewilderment at this process. With each year we grow wiser, and we also grow more aware of our impending death. If we are lucky, we will learn how to let go peacefully at the end. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to hold the space to mourn the passing of each phase, and the questions that accompany any kind of death, whether gradual or sudden. Am I enjoying my life? Am I doing what I’m meant to do? Am I giving enough? Am I worrying too much? Am I living my fullest?
“I’m not ready to let go of my sexual currency,” a friend wrote, and that was just it. I didn’t want that sexual currency as a twentysomething; I resented it. Yet now that this “currency” is in decline, I’m a little sad. I don’t want to be the stereotypical aging “cougar lady” that our society portrays, stuffing her body into too-tight clothes and trying to keep up with the young ones. And yet, I’m also wishing I could pull off more of those sexy, outrageous outfits that I didn’t dare wear before, back when I didn’t want to attract more attention, back when I just wanted to be left alone. Now I want more than anything to be seen by the world, and I wish I had more energy to stay up past 11, to go out and laugh and roar on the dance floor in full Goddess display, to socialize more often and enjoy the magnetism I exude— while not being concerned with trying to get anything from it. I want to take advantage of all the sexiness and youth that I still have while I got it. I want to hike and travel and speak and publish and connect and inspire. Because I can handle the attention now more gracefully. I can take a compliment and know it doesn’t define me.
Yes, I am okay with aging and I am resistant to aging. I think most of all I just want to feel redeemed for all those years where I judged myself so harshly. And in a someday utopia, I want for all of us women to finally be honored and seen for the sacred Goddesses that we are. I want for all of us, at any age, to be able to go outside and walk safely and dance and speak and lead with heads held high, to be able to put our fears aside as we shamelessly hold forth our beautiful minds and bodies in full display.
Anne Liu Kellor is a multiracial writer, teacher, editor, and mother living in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), Fourth Genre, Vela Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Literary Mama, and more. Anne has received support for her work from Hedgebrook, Jack Straw, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Her memoir explores themes of language, love, and belonging as she migrated between America, Tibet, and China during her twenties. To learn more visit: anneliukellor.com