This is an extract from Don’t Sweat It by Nicky Pellegrino, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, $37
I have just stripped off my dress, kicked off my sneakers and am sitting at my desk in nothing but a tiny slip. Thankfully I work at home, not in an office, but the occupants of six other neighbouring houses could potentially be getting an eyeful. Never have I cared less about anything. The hotness of a hot flush is not like any other sort of warmth. It comes from deep within. Often for me it starts with a spike of anxiety (more on that later), then the heat rushes over me in a wave and I feel stifled by it. There’s always a moment when my skin feels as if it has been packed in warm clay, but thankfully I don’t get sweaty so if it weren’t for the sudden manic stripping-off of clothes then probably no one would guess what was happening.
Ah yes, clothes. The change of midlife has even extended to them. I’m trying to clear out the things that don’t suit me anymore and it’s taking a toll on my psyche. Since I’m not a huge shopper, a lot of those outfits have been mine for a long time. Each garment that goes into the bag to be taken to an op shop carries memories of the younger woman who used to wear it, the one who felt good in sleeveless, backless, even body-hugging fashion. It’s a slow process, this saying goodbye to the clothes that the menopause has stolen from me. Sometimes I snatch things back from the departure area and restore them to their original spot in my wardrobe. I like those clothes. I had good times in them. It seems unreasonable that they don’t like me anymore.
It’s not that I’ve gained a huge amount of weight; it’s more like all the fat in my body got together for a party and afterwards couldn’t find the way back to its proper home. So instead, it settled in other spots — my stomach, my back — and just sort of thickened me in places that were never thick before.
I can still fit into most of the things I’m getting rid of. There’s no law against exposing your upper arms after the age of 50, so I could try to love the cellulite-like effect that’s visible on them in brighter lights. Eventually my whole body is going to be pleated like an Issey Miyake dress, so I may as well get used to it. But right now I only want to wear things that I look my best self in. They need to flow past my body rather than cling to it, and cover as much of my arms and legs (veins, cellulite, weird lumpy bits, etc.) as possible. And so I’m saying goodbye to a lot of strappy tops and my favourite black crêpe wrap dress. Deep down inside I still feel like the woman who wore them, the one whose slim arms and great shoulders were her best features, but the mirror is telling me a very different story.
I’m trying to enjoy the process of redefining my style, but it’s fair to say that there have been a few false starts. At one point I decided it would be a good idea to free myself from the tyranny of grooming, so had my longish hair cut into a sensible bob. Then, on a night out with a group of same-life-stage friends I realised that literally every single one of us had the same haircut. This seemed faintly sinister. Like we were turning into middle-aged clones.
My initial attempts to streamline a new utilitarian midlife wardrobe also misfired. I decided that I was going to exist in a pared-down uniform of almost identical clothes — a tactic employed by the likes of Barack Obama and Steve Jobs to free their minds to focus on more important things, which surely contributed to their success. ‘Yes, but they were both already geniuses,’ a helpful friend pointed out. ‘Looking really boring isn’t going to turn you into one.’
And she had a point. Why would I choose for my personal style to be dull just because alien flesh has attached itself to my middle and I’ll never again wear a top tucked into a waistband? Why shouldn’t I look nice? Indeed glamorous, if I’m in the mood for it? Maybe even sexy?
Older women actually are allowed to be sexy, but only if they play by the rules. French women are skilled at this. Vanessa Paradis, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou, Charlotte Rampling (English, but has lived in Paris for decades). Google Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue. She wears a look that is apparently acceptable at any age — pencil skirt, silk shirt, biker jacket — because it is chic sexy.
No one criticises Michelle Obama for being timelessly elegant. Or Dame Kiri Te Kanawa for mastering the art of smart-casual classic. But overstep the line, edge towards overtly sexy, and the judgements will come and they will be gleeful.
Just look at the pasting Madonna got when she showed up on a TV chat show (The Graham Norton Show) wearing a bustier. Yes, there was a lot of pillowy breast on show and she had accessorised with an eye patch, which seemed eccentric. Online forums lit up with misogyny and ageism: she was ridiculous, a total idiot, ugly, tragic. Actually, she was in costume. Plus, this is a woman who has spent every decade of her life so far being creative and pushing the boundaries. If she wants to whip out her cleavage and show a lot of leg, shouldn’t that be up to her? Does Madonna really deserve to be cancelled for looking sexy in her sixties?
There are a few preternaturally youthful women like J.Lo and Halle Berry who seem to get away with baring midriffs and cleavage, but they are the exceptions. Remember how New Zealand TV presenter Hilary Barry was scolded for baring one shoulder? ‘Please encourage Hilary to dress properly,’ complained a viewer. ‘Exposed shoulders are for the young.’
My cleavage long ago retired from public life, and I’m okay with that. But I reserve the right to be sexy in my late fifties and for as long as I damn well feel like it. Why should foxiness be the province of the young? Whose decision was that?
Unfortunately, fashion designers aren’t doing everything they can to help the midlife woman. A lot of them might prefer it if we didn’t use their clothes to skim rounded bellies, conceal swollen knees, cover dimpled arms and veil wrinkled cleavage. Once, for a magazine article, I interviewed a designer (of expensive, high-quality clothes) who begged me not to give her age because she didn’t want to turn younger customers off. That designer might have been missing a trick. A great many middle-aged women have more spending power than ever before in their lives. If we care about looking good, we can afford to.
While age is changing the way we look, inside we still feel young. It’s only when I catch sight of myself unexpectedly in a mirror and wonder what my mother is doing there, that I’m reminded of what time is doing. I was never beautiful — as in so many other areas of my life, I was always just kind of average. But I did notice the moment when I became quite invisible. It wasn’t that I missed being wolf-whistled at when I walked past building sites — more that suddenly I realised that people were looking past me, blocking my way or even crashing into me. I’m 1.85 metres tall, a skyscraper of a woman and easily spotted, but suddenly I was like some sort of zombie lifeform walking unseen among the masses.
It really hit home one night when I visited a downtown Auckland bar, one of those places that is full of wealthy guys, glamorous women and gorgeous young bar staff. Neither me nor my fortysomething friend could get served. We might have died of thirst except that I waylaid a barman, saying ‘Excuse me, but who do I have to fuck to get a drink round here?’ I have never seen a person pour two glasses of wine faster. He was wide-eyed and visibly pale. Possibly he is now getting therapy.
It seems to me that a woman today has two, maybe three, routes to take. She can enter midlife looking like she actually belongs there, so a bit frayed around the edges and effectively invisible. Or she can fight for visibility with every weapon at her disposal, restricting calories, doing all the exercise, smoothing wrinkles and plumping lips with Botox and filler, and then risk being labelled a cougar and vain. The third possible option is to go down the Advanced Style route. This is the name of a blog by New Yorker Ari Seth Cohen that showcases older people who are stylish and often flamboyant, like the very fabulous Iris Apfel. I did try route three for a time. I bought lots of bright bangles, a bold necklace and a pair of purple suede boots, but I couldn’t pull it off. In the words of Lady Gaga, you have to be born this way.
The modern menopausal woman has it easier than her nineteenth-century Pākehā counterparts who, with their changing bodies, and hairier chins and upper lips, were considered to be unwomanly viragos. Menopause back then was viewed, at least in some cultures, as the decline of life, a time to be dreaded, and becoming unattractive to men was an unprecedented disaster in any female’s life.
The male gaze isn’t quite so celebrated these days. We’re not supposed to want it as much. The modern feminist view is that the way a man views a woman shouldn’t define her, and I think we’re all behind that 100%. But lots of midlife women I’ve spoken to said they had enjoyed their time basking in the male gaze and they missed it now. One woman described walking down a street and realising that not a single passing man had bothered to glance her way. ‘They stepped around me as if I were a lamppost. It was like a slap in the face,’ she told me.
Others admitted to worrying that they were losing their value along with their youthful beauty. ‘If a woman is a trophy, then what happens once she is tarnished?’ asked one. Did you gasp, reading that? I’ll admit I had a sharp intake of breath when she said it. I can’t say that I’ve ever thought of myself as a trophy. But I have spent decades wishing that I was thinner and prettier, with glowier, unblemished skin and no cellulite. Blame the patriarchy, my upbringing, the beauty industry or glossy magazines, it doesn’t much matter — I didn’t stop wishing for any of those things just because I turned 50.
Many midlife women I spoke to missed looking good effortlessly. Being attractive was a part of who they were, and now it took a lot more time and work before they could smile at themselves in a mirror. Not everyone feels like this, obviously, and I did speak to women who weren’t remotely worried what they looked like — but they were the rarer ones.
While appearance might not be the most important thing, it still is important. And invisibility tends to come along at the same time as a series of other events. Fertility declines, kids leave home, parents age and die. All of which coincide with a change in oestrogen and progesterone levels bringing on the symptoms of peri-menopause. You gain weight, you sweat, you burn, you palpitate; your body odour changes, for goodness’ sake. You get anxious, you lose your confidence, you can’t sleep, your fingernails break and your muscles ache. The least you could ask for is a good hair day, but it’s greying and thinning, so good luck with that. (Here’s a life hack you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re one of those people who always deletes the unflattering photos of themselves, then don’t. Keep a few for a more realistic future reference, so that when you’re looking back you don’t think ‘OMG I was a supermodel then, what’s happened to me?’)
It’s very easy to blame everything on hormones at this time of life. I’m bloated . . . bloody menopause . . . I’m angry . . . bloody menopause . . . I’m tired . . . bloody menopause . . . I have a headache . . . bloody menopause . . . I keep sneezing . . . bloody menopause. There can be other reasons for all those things and it’s worth exploring them, but chances are that whatever the source of the problem, hormonal chaos will be making it worse.
The menopause transition sneaks up on you. Perhaps your periods get heavier and more irregular, or your skin gets a bit itchy, or some days you feel tearful for no reason. Probably this starts to happen in your forties, but potentially it begins earlier and it’s very easy to miss what’s going on. It’s not as if a piece of ticker-tape comes out your ear saying ‘You’re officially peri-menopausal, expect shit to happen.’ Perhaps you always had bad PMT, or endometriosis or terrible menstrual flooding. Maybe your skin was always sensitive and your moods a bit swingy. If you’re really busy, then naturally you’ll feel exhausted. If you’re stressed, you can’t sleep. If your partner is driving you crazy, then obviously you won’t want to have sex with him. And that’s how the change can begin without you really noticing.
I can’t pinpoint when my peri-menopause began exactly, but looking back there were signs that I missed at the time. I started to get a sensation like the skin all over my body was itching and crawling. One day I was at a friend’s place and I could hear her kids playing but couldn’t see them — that entire spot in my vision was missing. I thought I’d had a stroke, so it came as a relief when my head started to hurt and I realised it must be a migraine. Oh yes, and the other thing — please look away now if you’re squeamish — the spectacular menstrual clotting. One clot was so big I thought I’d lost a minor organ.
Because I was busy, I tried not to think about any of it too much. As a journalist I reported on health for years while wilfully ignoring my own. This affected my life — my periods were brutal, my iron levels plummeted, I got sick more easily as a result, and there was at least one day a month when I had to remain within 100 metres of a toilet.
I used to feel solidarity with other women I came across in workplace lavatories who were tearfully trying to scrub the leakages of blood from the backs of skirts and trousers. ‘I’ve been there,’ I’d say, offering them free access to my desk drawer stock of giant-sized pads and super tampons. We were a secret society, us heavy bleeders, although hopefully that is changing. The actor-turned-lifestyle-guru Gwyneth Paltrow spoke in a Goop podcast about her peri-menopausal flow being so heavy she once had to wear a sweater tied around her waist to get off a plane.
If I had a time machine, then on the way back to assassinate Hitler and persuade Donald Trump’s mother to use birth control I would stop off and whisk my younger self to the gynaecologist who had suggested I have a Mirena inserted. This hormonal intra-uterine device releases small amounts of levonorgestrel, a synthetic progestogen, which reduces the monthly growth of the lining of the womb and so reduces the monthly blood loss (it’s also an effective contraceptive). Despite having friends who said it changed their lives, I hesitated because it seemed icky. Now I would grab the chance to give my past self a decent talking to and explain a few of the things I’ve learned over the intervening years about what goes on inside a peri-menopausal woman’s body.
This is an extract from Don’t Sweat It by Nicky Pellegrino, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, $37