In her new New York Times best-selling book, Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis, author Ada Calhoun makes a compelling—and incredibly validating—argument for why Generation X women are feeling particularly anxious, stressed, and under-appreciated, despite being the first generation encouraged to "have it all." Through the stories of hundreds of women and with compassion and humor, Calhoun weaves together the societal and economic forces that set up this cohort of women (born between the years 1961 and 1981) for the maddening predicament of having no right to complain while having lots they'd like to complain about. Even better, she offers perspective and relief. The expectations of how GenX women are supposed to look as they get older is only part of what it means to be a middle-aged woman right now. Below, is an excerpt from her book, out now.
One afternoon a colleague of mine sat down across from me looking ashen. “Someone in the elevator just congratulated me,” she said. “She thought I was pregnant. I said, ‘No, just fat!’ and tried to laugh it off, but everyone in the elevator was mortified.” And that is why you should never congratulate someone on being pregnant unless you see the baby coming out of her. Only then, at the crowning, may you say, “Oh! Are you having a baby?”
Needless to say, I felt her pain. Many Gen X women like she and I, raised to “have it all”—advanced careers, thriving families, fulfilling social lives, sexy relationships—subject our bodies to the same high level of determined attention. We grew up thinking that with enough hard work nothing was beyond our reach, even washboard abs. Everyone middle-class and middle-aged that I know seems to be trying various combinations of exercise regimens, supplements, and serums to get their aging bodies “under control,” and every season brings a whole new raft of advice about how some new method of self-care will finally get our bodies and faces where we want them.
This isn’t mere vanity. For many women our age, the stakes feel high: a lot of women I interviewed for my book told me they felt they had to look younger so they blended in better with the millennials next in line for their jobs. And yet, Gen X women often try to exert control over their bodies at midlife only to find that the middle-aged body is remarkably effective at resisting control. “The illusion that each person can have the body that he or she wants is especially painful for women,” writes Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, “and especially in societies, like ours, in which the ‘ideal’ body is extremely thin.” Our mothers and grandmothers dealt with the same hormone-related physical changes at midlife, but for those currently in midlife—Gen X women—the anxiety this inspires seems to be amplified.
“I’m not looking for inner peace,” a friend quipped when I asked her about why she skipped the resting stage of shavasana at the end of a yoga class. “I’m looking for outer hotness.” She is far from alone. In the past two decades, there’s been an increasing focus on self-perfection, with the use of cosmetic procedures like fillers rising and the age people indulge in them falling.
So much of the advice older women receive when we express dissatisfaction about our lives in general is about bringing our bodies in line. I look at the women my age on treadmills at the gym—so determined, grinding away. From morning television to the evening news, experts tell us to make chore charts, to save a certain percent of our income, to clean out our closets, to get our BMI under twenty-five. Nothing stimulates the economy like women feeling bad about themselves. And yet: “The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable,” as Oliver Burkeman writes in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
But the last thing women of this generation need to hear is that we have to work harder still. The Fitbit, which so many women of our generation have strapped to their wrists, monitors literally every step we take, and renders a verdict on how we’ve done. As young women, our bodies often attracted appraising comments. Now, they attract a different kind of attention: concerned scrutiny. Our bodies are under constant surveillance—and we are both the guard in the watchtower and the prisoner.
Asheville! Come see us tomorrow at @littlejumbobar at 3pm. #Repost @iamdenisekiernan with @get_repost ・・・ A couple of #GenX gals tackling midlife crisis with a bit of vino cure-all. More tomorrow from me and #WhyWeCantSleep #author @adacalhoun @littlejumbobar in #asheville .#CRAFT @malapropsbookstore #writersofinstagram
A post shared by Ada Calhoun (@adacalhoun) on Jan 25, 2020 at 7:14pm PST
The barrage of “self-care” advice we receive can reinforce an idea Gen X women do not need reinforced: that we have to do more, work harder, try ever more classes and cleanses and programs. Professor Judith Houck, author of the history of menopause, Hot and Bothered, tells me that the ability to control a woman’s body shades into a sense that one has an obligation to do it. When the truth is, even the most blameless dietary or fitness routine won’t necessarily get anywhere near where the trouble is. Our bodies are a red herring. In brief: because of the timing of our birth, our generation has had terrible economic luck and now faces high costs of living, high debt, low savings, little job stability, and higher caregiving demands while going through perimenopause and being told to lean in. Attaining a “yoga body” is unlikely to change this.
So what if when it came to obsessing over our bodies we just… didn’t?
Houck thinks that women should cut themselves some slack during this phase of life. Self-denial is not inherently a virtue, she told me: “This idea that you get some sort of points for saying no to chocolate — where does that come from?” Why can’t we be pudgy, grouchy, or mad?
“I remember after my second kid was born,” said one friend of mine, “and putting on three pounds every year, and thinking, Huh, this isn’t that great… Okay, these are the things I’m going to do to work out and blah, blah, blah, and then at some point being like, Can I actually just be a mom? Can I not have to be a MILF? I’m just about to hit forty, so I’m solid MILF material, but also could I just be a squishy mom? Do we ever get permission to just be old? And not even old, but ‘Yeah, I popped a couple out, give me a break.’ I don’t want to have to go to Pilates. I don’t remember all our moms looking that good at forty.”
GenX women are “lucky” in the opportunities we had, compared to our moms and grandmothers, but with those possibilities came pressure, and when it comes to body image, we might not be better off. We can do more in the workplace and more at home and more in the community and yet a lot of the women I spoke with told me they felt they also had to look hot doing it. Second Wave feminist activist and writer Carol Hanisch told me that in some ways life for women in the 1970s may have had some advantages: “Whether women have it better now is debatable. Certainly, there are more women in professional jobs, but on the other hand, we weren’t pressured to shave our genital area and wear spike heels.”
But not all Gen X women are buying into this idea, and many in middle age are finding peace they didn’t have when we they were younger. A woman in Michigan told me that it’s only in midlife that she’s finally been able to let go of her body shame. “In my twenties, I was a bartender,” she told me. “I had a boob-job fund. And people would tip me extra money because I had really little tits. I raised thousands of dollars, setting aside this money because I was going to buy boobs, and thank God I had some little voice in my head that was like, ‘No.’ I spent it on a couch and a refrigerator. And I’m so glad. I remember this lady saying, ‘Oh, honey, don’t do it. As soon as you hit forty, they’ll get bigger.’ And she was right. I’m a little chubbier now, but she was right.”
When I look into the unforgiving camera lens on my cellphone I see someone who looks very tired. But you know what? I am very tired. Maybe it’s okay to look like that. I’ve started to think that there might be something in “letting myself go,” an expression that has at least two meanings, both of them liberating.
And when you think about it, very few of the people who’ve done good in the world also looked like models. I think about my heroes, the people who made a difference to me, whether teachers who were encouraging or writers I’ve hoped to emulate. Not one could be mistaken for a model.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world,” Houck told me, “to be living with a body that’s a little bit out of control."
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