The High-Pressure Friend
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.