Ever notice how women get noisy as we age? Ever notice how the quiet, deferential, focused good girl hits a certain point and morphs into a combination of Betty White, Bette Midler and Mae West?
That’s because when women start to feel invisible, we decide to become audible.
Over 38, 40, 50 — every woman comes to the stage when she ceases to be the ingenue at a different age — we start making trouble: talking back and speaking up without waiting for anybody else’s cue.
Increasingly political, assertive, articulate and outspoken as we age, many of us become, paradoxically, the girls we were once: wild, hearty, courageous and playful.
I believe this happens once you start calling us "ma’am" and we stop crying about it. We all remember our first "ma’am" moment. Initially it’s a shock to realize we’ve moved from "darlin’" to "ma’am" — and few women want to put that experience on their "best day ever" list.
Yet slipping off feminine propriety is like stripping out of a too-tight dress. And kicking off the goody-two-shoes pretense is like sending a pair of high heels flying across the room after a long day.
The big changes in women’s lives are not menopause or the end of child rearing or any other Margaret Mead anthropological slide show; the biggest thing that happens to any woman is when she stops being the ingenue.
When she hears herself addressed as "ma’am," there’s a kind of emotional Doppler effect: Her identity as the youngest and most sparkling woman around rushes past her.
All she can hear of professional and personal praise she once sought or of the wolf whistles — sought or shunned — she once heard is the sound of silence. And neither Simon nor Garfunkel is singing.
In that silence she finds her own voice and she learns how to use it.
We’ll tell you the truth and we won’t sugarcoat it; we’ll laugh only when your stories are funny; we’ll argue until the sun goes down or comes up again without batting an eye — let alone fluttering an eyelash in a flirtatious attempt to get you to settle down.
We don’t want to settle down any more; we’ve been settled, like some western township, and now we want to kick up the dust and tear down the fences. Not only won’t we settle down, we won’t settle for less than what we’ve always wanted: a good time and a fair fight.
No, this is not an advertisement for menopause or a polemic against a fully realized, string-bikini-wearing youth; every phase of life has its delicious moments. And I’ve always believed that the one unforgivable sin was to wish your life away by trying to hurry through it. When my hair was long and my attention span was short, I was tickled pink to be ogled. Now I am tickled pink to be heard, especially because it’s tough to be ogled and listened to at the same time. Frankly, the whole ogling thing gets old faster than cheap pantyhose.
You’ve probably noticed that you can hear women over 40 even when you aren’t looking. Not that we give up on looking good. For proof of that, just glance at advertising foldouts in women’s magazines declaring how 40 is the new 30, 60 is the new 40, and death is the new life in order to get us to keep buying products made from (but more expensive than) caviar and precious metals. (I’m not even kidding: there are now skin products supposedly created with 24 karat gold extract. I guess if financial times got really tough, you could always pawn your own head.)
What you’ll hear less of, however, are apologies, pleas for favours and requests for permission. Grown-up women understand that what we need is a welcoming place to be exactly and unapologetically who we are. Like every human being, we need friends, significant work and somebody who wants to make sure we get home OK. But let’s not kid ourselves: good insurance, excellent food and great sex are also important and not necessarily in that order.
You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. You just have to live it up.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.
—McClatchy Tribune Services