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The biggest surprise for me on turning 40 is how much it feels like being in junior high again. Suddenly, the women in my world are spending hours in front of the bathroom mirror, fiddling with their hair and micro-examining their complexions. They fret over their bodies in ways not seen since eighth grade. And even highly intellectual friends, who used to think nothing of showing up at conferences in drip-dry suits, have begun to give to fashion magazines the same scrutiny they give research papers. At parties or even at the playground, I'm aware of the x-ray stares checking out my outfit, my shoes, my hair, followed by the silent registration of approval -- or disapproval. Women always do this to each other, of course, but at 40 you're aware of heightened inspection: "Hmm, she's looking older. Is her hair lighter? She looks very 'rested' -- maybe she got her eyes done?"
And I find myself casing other women, even total strangers, much more than I did five or 10 years ago, when I truly, barely thought about such things. I've noticed that, as in adolescence, there is the re-emergence of Popular Girls, those style leaders or, as I've come to think of them at this stage of life, the High-Pressure Friends. They are the ones who stand out at parties in some fabulous outfit you never would think of wearing. They are the ones euphemistically described as "tanned and relaxed." They are the ones married to boyish executives (the midlife equivalent of high school quarterbacks), who have lovely houses and money with which to redecorate, whose children are neatly dressed, polite, and actually seem to enjoy their piano lessons.
And in the company of a High-Pressure Friend, you simply can't relax. It doesn't matter what you really look like or how much you've accomplished. Her hobbies assume a buzz more exciting than your own career ("Can you believe National Geographic bought my photograph of those polar bears from our family vacation above the Arctic Circle?"). She always seems to be getting invited to parties and benefits, while every Saturday night you're hanging out at Blockbuster in the chick-flick alley, because at this age, even your own children don't want to spend time with you. You curse yourself for obsessing -- for being so superficial! -- but you can't help it. In short, you become 13 again.
There are a number of reasons why this happens to a woman in her 40s (and seems to end, mercifully, by her 50s -- readers out there, correct me if I'm wrong). First, many of us are just coming out of childhood as we were when we were teenagers -- except now, it's the childhood of our children. Our "babies" are growing up, entering their own adolescence. They've gone off to skulk in their rooms and listen to terrible music, but at least they can now go to the bathroom unassisted and pour their own glasses of juice. A woman becomes aware of herself again as a person (as opposed to servant, nanny, cook, personal assistant, chauffeur), and can resume her adult life. It's a little like coming up for air after dwelling many years underwater. Gee, it's light up here! I can breathe! Look at all the things there are to do!
I imagine that women who don't have kids go through a similar feeling of re-emergence: "I survived my 30s. I've put as many hours as possible into my work/marriage/trying to find the right guy and settle down/trying to have children, and now it's time to figure out how I'm going to live the other half of my life." The trouble is, you're a little older than when you submerged, and only now do you have the time to notice it -- let alone do anything about it. And boy, is there lots to do. Aside from changing your wardrobe to fit your new interests -- be it going back into the workforce or buying all the gear for that triathlon -- there is that haircut whose sole aesthetic virtue is that it can be worn wet to carpool or dried by those pathetic little dryers they stock at business hotels and gyms. It is at this moment, too, when a woman notices that her body has begun to settle exactly like the walls of her house: Overnight, it seems, there are new cracks, new surfaces that should be level but aren't. And you may notice that your actual house has probably sunk to a state that a Realtor might describe to a prospective buyer as its "original condition." You remember, dimly, that you once wanted to sponge the dining room walls, and do something cunning with fabric and wood for a master bedroom headboard, but these plans got shelved along with everything else you had hoped to do, back there in your 30s.
This frenzy of self-awareness leads to the second aspect we used to dread in junior high: revived competition from other women. I know lots of women who suddenly are feeling insecure about their marriages -- even if, on the face of it, there seems absolutely nothing to be insecure about. It's Boyfriends in High School Redux: "Okay, like, he seems happy, you know, but what if, like, he isn't? Omigod, what if he, like, dumps me -- for no reason?!" But at this age, we can't console ourselves with the thought that in just a few years we'll (pick one): have breasts, be better-looking than we are now, be way smarter and more successful than the head cheerleader. As women in our 40s, we have to confront the fact (and forgive me if I put this bluntly) that our market value is less than it was 10 years ago. Yes, we're wiser, and happier with who we are, and terrific wives and mothers, and everything else Oprah tells us about women after 40; but if we're not willing to confront this other fact -- and if our husbands are remotely successful, there will be many younger, single women who will force us to confront it. Unfailingly, doubts start to creep in: "Sure, so-and-so's new younger wife is pretty, but she's really dull and not very smart, don't you think, hon? Hon?"
Before we know it, the next renovation project is ourselves. Yet self-renovation doesn't have to be done in a spirit of competitiveness, dejection, or fear. The very fact that we are older and wiser means we can approach the task with more assurance than we possessed when we were 13. I know many of my friends have taken to renovating themselves, and their lives, in the spirit of taking a last big kick at the can: I will buy that miniskirt! I will spend the next week emptying the house of junk, and call the architect about the kitchen renovation! I will take the next bonus and put it toward a romantic vacation for just my husband and me! Yes, I will finally heed the message of all those dreadful Disney movies to which I've been subjected over the years, and "follow my heart." I will (circle all that apply) ask for the promotion/look into volunteer work/get my eyes done/take up bungee jumping.
When you reach this point, you've just stumbled onto the answer of how to cope with your High-Pressure Friend. While the Popular Girl of our youth often fueled envy and insecurity, now I find my High-Pressure Friend (and no, I'm not going to tell you who she is) to be a source of inspiration. For what she has decided is: I'm not going down yet. They'll have to carry me out. And her example is proof that it is possible to be a happier, more accomplished, and dare I say, even better-looking person in our 40s than in our 30s.
The High-Pressure Friend is engaged in the same struggle we are all engaged in, and how we react to her influence tells us a lot about the older women we will become. The deep-down reason we envied Popular Girls in high school was not because they seemed blessed with everything we didn't have, but because they seemed so relentlessly self-confident. This self-confidence is far easier to come by in one's 40s than in one's teens. For all our new insecurities at this stage, at least we know the person we've become: our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes, the dreams we still harbor and those we're willing to let go.
I've been told that the 50s for women is the age of self-acceptance -- you are who you are, your marriage is what it is, your children are what they are, your house is what it is, your life is what it is. It can be good or bad, but you accept it. The women I know who have most gracefully crossed the rocky road between 40 and 50 are those who most resolutely refused to notice the bumps beneath their feet. This final burst of self-awareness and competitiveness in our 40s, this sudden quest for self-improvement, is a good thing if it pushes us to be better versions of ourselves, and ultimately, selves we can accept in the long run.
So maybe, instead of scrutinizing your High-Pressure Friend the next time you see her, ask her how she does it: Where did she get that suit, how does she manage her time, how does she get her children to listen to her, is everything well with her -- truly well? You might receive some genuinely helpful information. Or you may be reminded again, like that time you came across the Popular Girl crying her eyes out in the girls' locker room, that happiness is entirely subjective.