I really believe that looking into a mirror and thinking, “who is that old person?” is something that every middle aged person has done at one time or another. Some of us do it on a regular basis, if not daily. But the reality is that the older we get, the harder it is to identify with the image we see reflected back at us, especially in a well-lit bathroom mirror that emphasizes all the wrinkles and sags. Middle age means no longer looking nearly as young as we feel, and knowing that it’s only going to get worse, not better, from here on out. Talk about depressing!
Luckily, middle age brings other, more positive, changes than just the physical ones. My body may be aging in all kinds of negative ways, but my sense of self is actually improving. I have a very good memory of my childhood (which is kind of amazing, since I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday), and one thing I know very clearly about my early years is how hard I always worked at “fitting in.” I paid attention to what the other kids wore, what games they played, and what they thought, and did my best to imitate that so that I wouldn’t be excluded. Later, as a teenager and young adult, I did pretty much the same thing, doing my best to make sure that I looked and acted as much as possible like everyone else. It wasn’t always easy, and I certainly didn’t always succeed, but I can honestly say that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be.
I can’t say exactly when “fitting in” stopped mattering so much to me, because it has been a gradual process, and one that I am still working on. I’m sure reaching middle age had a lot to do with it, because the issues women deal with in middle age (menopause, empty-nest syndrome, aging parents, etc.) are a constant challenge to our self image. Somewhere along the line, I have stopped caring so much about what others thought of me, and started caring a lot more who I really am, and who I really want to be.
It’s possible that this change is just a natural part of the aging process, now that I am at a point where I have to make intentional decisions about what I want to do with the years I have left. Or maybe I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me this long to learn what is really important in life has nothing to do with conformity, and that the people I actually care about have no problems accepting me just the way I am. But whatever happened, I’m grateful. I may not always recognize the old-looking woman who looks back at me from the mirror these days, but I am getting to know the “real me” a little better every day. And that’s a trade-off I can live with.