One day, 40-something Stephanie Dolgoff realized that she had become a “Formerly,” her term for a woman who is not old, but not quite young, either. In her book “My Formerly Hot Life,” Dolgoff shares funny anecdotes about transitioning “to the other side.” An excerpt.
There were certainly signs that something momentous was taking place, but initially, I saw each as an isolated incident:
• Beginning a couple of years ago, salespeople in trendy boutiques, who used to swirl around me like bees over a puddle of orange soda, could no longer be bothered. Evidently they saw me as someone who wouldn’t (or plain shouldn’t) buy their skinny jeans, spiky heels or strappy little camis that are ideally worn without a bra.
• Friends arriving in New York City asked me — a lifetime Gotham denizen and supposedly glamorous member of the fashion and lifestyle media — which were the cool places to hang out. I couldn’t think of one that hadn’t been shuttered during the first 90210 era or that wasn’t now a Starbucks.
• I began to have to wear makeup, or at least a decent tinted moisturizer, to get that same “I’m not wearing makeup” look that I used to get by, well, not wearing makeup.
• One time, in a Pilates class, the instructor had us lying on our backs, pressing our shoulders into the mat. She then told us to raise our arms straight up, at a 90-degree angle from the floor, and then reach to the sky, lifting just our shoulders. We all did: The bones of my shoulders followed my arms vertically a full four inches toward the ceiling. But the flesh surrounding my shoulder bones remained splooged out on the mat. My skin and the thin layer of adipose tissue that normally traveled with my bones and muscles had clearly decided that Pilates was for losers.
• And the real piercing car alarm of a signal — why this didn’t catch my attention I have no idea — came one morning after too much coffee, as I was rocking out in the kitchen to “One Way or Another,” a Blondie song seared into my neuropathways since adolescence. I was horrified when I realized it was the sound track to a Swiffer commercial, blaring from the TV in the other room. I found it especially humiliating that there was a Swiffer, at that very moment, sitting in my broom closet. What’s more, I had recommended it to friends (!!!). I thought about that: I feel strongly enough about a cleaning implement to have recommended it to friends. It didn’t seem like that long ago I wasn’t spending enough time at my apartment to need to clean.
I began to feel vaguely uneasy, but the reason hadn’t yet gelled. Things were going quite well, and my life was more or less exactly as I’d set it up to be: I had lived my lunatic 20s, throwing myself into my career, scaled many magazines’ mastheads and then calmed the eff down and gotten married in my mid-30s. My husband and I had wonderful twin little girls, I had a great job, good friends, and we all were healthy and solvent. There was no crisis. And yet … something was off.
I just didn’t feel like me.
And then, finally, one day just after my 40th birthday, all became blindingly clear.
It was early in the morning and I was on the subway, on my way to work. A sexy stubbly man next to me leaned in and asked me for the time. I braced myself for the pickup attempt I felt sure was to follow. “Eight-forty,” I replied tersely, careful not to offer even a hint of encouragement in my tone.
And then … nothing. Nada. Bubkes. He may have said, “Thanks.” I don’t remember. I do remember that he went back to his book. Apparently, the sexy stubbly guy who asked me for the time simply needed to know the time. He wanted information, not to have sex with me. Imagine! I was shocked. Shocked! And internally embarrassed. Just who the hell did I think I was? Well, I’ll tell you who I thought I was! I thought I was who I had always been: a hot chick, damn it! Big hair, big boobs, big personality, a young woman who (not so terribly long ago) had reason to adopt a slightly defensive posture when men asked her superficially innocent questions on public transportation. (In fact, I met the man who is now my husband on the subway.) I was hardly a supermodel, but hey, even if I wasn’t a particular person’s type, my general appeal was irrefutable. After a few decades of believing this about myself — and usually being reacted to as if it was so — being an attractive young woman simply became part of what I was and how I navigated the world.
But in that instant, an energy-saver bulb reluctantly flickered on over my head, and I got it. Boy, did I ever get it. I was no longer “all that,” perhaps no longer even a little of “that,” whatever “that” is. No wonder things didn’t feel right! I didn’t feel like me anymore because I wasn’t me, at least not the me I had always been.
I’m not talking about one guy’s opinion, of course. In retrospect, all the indications that my head-turner days were receding in the rear view were there (in addition to the aforementioned, fewer men who drink 40s on apartment stoops made vile sucking noises as I walked by; and I was ma’amed on several occasions when I was not in the Deep South). Together, along with all the other signs that had nothing to do with my looks, it made sense. Over the last few years, while I’d been busy working and having twins and not sleeping and getting peed on and eating and yelling at my husband and maybe not taking such good care of myself — and oh, yes, that pesky passage of time thing — I’d become a perfectly nice-looking 40-year-old working mom doing the best she can. Which is totally not the same as a hot chick. That in itself is not a problem. The problem was that my self-definition had yet to catch up with the reality of what the world saw when it looked at me.
Lucky for me, I had my then-4-year-old daughter, Vivian, at home to give my self-definition a good frog-march forward. That very same evening, she snuggled close to me on the chair-and-a-half in her bedroom while I brushed her hair after her bath. Abruptly, she turned to me.
“Mommy, what are those?” she asked, her face just millimeters from mine, so close that her eyes were crossing. She was fixated on my nose.
“What are what, honey?”
“Those. Those round things.” We’d been over this. That Japanese book, The Holes in Your Nose, about nostrils and boogers and which body orifices you might stick your fingers in and which you are firmly discouraged from sticking your fingers in, had long been a favorite in our house. I reminded her that they were my nostrils and that she had them, too.
“No, not those. Those smaller ones. Some of them have little hairs growing from them.”
Sigh. Vivian, of course, was referring to my pores, which in the last couple of years had been expanding like crop circles on my face. I’d hoped no one had noticed the little hairs. I can only see them in the 153 magnification mirror I masochistically keep in the bathroom.
I felt that familiar wave of … not shame, not humiliation, exactly — you can hardly be ashamed of your pores in front of your child — but of what I’d imagine a toad would feel if he were cognizant of being dissected: laid bare, with the cool, objective, curious eyes of a scientist seeking data. This same scenario had repeated itself many times in the last year with little variability, except regarding which of my previously unremarked-upon flaws was being scrutinized.
So I did what I did the time her sister, Sasha, pointed out — entirely without judgment — that my belly looked like a tushy on the front of my body, or the time she said that there were bumpy blue worms under the skin of my legs: I chuckled wisely and said something mature about how bodies are fascinating and change as they get older and went and got the 153 magnification mirror and showed Vivian her own (invisible to the naked eye) pores. I then explained the function of pores in cooling the body. Vivian was riveted. I was proud of myself for being such a good mommy, for recognizing and acting on one of those “teachable moments” you read about in the parenting magazines.
And then she asked this:
“But why would there be hairs in your pores?”
Yeah, you know, Vivian, I’d like to know the same *(^&(*[email protected]*&^ thing!!! Maybe it’s because there is no God, Vivian. Maybe it’s because your mommy did something really, really naughty in a former life. Maybe because the body is just randomly gross for no reason and we’re all basically still monkeys and some things are simply better examined from a distance. “I just don’t know, sweetheart,” I answered. And then I put her to bed, and took the 153 magnification mirror with me to see what I could do with a tweezer.
That pair of entirely un-fun epiphanies indicated that there was a seismic, unacknowledged transition afoot. It felt like a smack upside the head and a relief at the same time. I didn’t know what I was turning into, exactly. I didn’t act, look or feel what I’d imagine a middle-aged person would look, act or feel like, and I certainly wasn’t old. I just knew that I wasn’t what I used to be. I had been unsubtly hot, and now, I supposed, I wasn’t. I began jokingly calling myself Formerly Hot. At least I had a name (albeit one I made up) for that strange, uneasy, dissonant feeling I was having, and why I was having it.
Formerly Hot. Yes, that felt right, and it made me laugh at myself, which seemed the better alternative to standing in front of the mirror scrutinizing my multiplying crow’s-feet. And although I didn’t yet grasp the extent of this new state of affairs, I had a feeling that there was much more going on than the blush falling off the rose, and that I couldn’t be the only one experiencing something like it. If years of writing and editing stories for women’s magazines has taught me anything, it’s that if you’re going through something, odds are excellent you’re not that special — quite often in a good, comforting way.
I began to carry my new self-definition — that of Formerly — tentatively around with me like a just-in-case sweater, and threw it over my shoulders whenever I had that chilly feeling of being an adult “tween” — i.e., too old to be young but too young to be the kind of person who asks about the availability of parking at her destination before agreeing to go. “Formerly” fit nicely, and now that I had a name for it, I found myself tripping over evidence of my transition everywhere I went and in every interaction I had.
It quickly became clear that no longer being hot was merely the most obvious Formerly I was experiencing. I was also Formerly Groovy, Formerly Relevant and Formerly In-the-Know. I noticed that marketers had stopped trying to sell me cutting-edge, exciting sparkly things and tried to get me to take my children on a Disney cruise or consider baking with Splenda. Physically I felt fit and well (if lumpy and misshapen from childbearing), but I had lost enough energy for it to be noticeable; I no longer felt like staying out all night, and the truth was, I really wasn’t sure I could party past 2:00 am these days even if I wanted to. I liked to get out and do things, but I needed a guarantee it was going to be more fun than staying home, or else why bother? I wasn’t crotchety, yet I was irked by things that I used to let roll off me, like rude people and having to sleep on a futon. I started a blog about this, formerlyhot.com, and it clearly struck a chord. I and my agemates were formerly a lot of things, a big bunch of Formerlies. It was a veritable groundswell.
Still, the transition to Formerly was, and is, a process, and for quite some time there were moments I’d forget that I was a Formerly entirely, or that any time had passed at all, really, only to be snapped back to reality. One time on the train (again on the train!) I saw Mike, a guy I knew 15 years ago. He was a bandmate of a guy I was dating at the time, and he looked precisely as he did when I’d last seen him, across a nasty basement club on Bleecker Street that no longer exists: thick-framed retro-nerd glasses, the kind that only the least nerdy among us can pull off. He was short but had a swagger, and always seemed to feel that he was more talented than the rest of his band and that no one realized how egregiously they were holding him back. He had his axe strapped to his back, which I took as a good sign — perhaps he’d made it as a working musician, despite the odds.
I snaked across the crowded car to say hi, but the closer I got, the clearer it became: It wasn’t Mike, but Mike 2.0, the 2009 model of Mike. It was the guy who is now playing the role of Mike — the short, somewhat arrogant guy in the band who is a friend of someone’s boyfriend. He was Mike’s replacement. The real Mike, wherever he was, probably no longer looked or acted like Mike. I just knew deep in my gut that the life this guy was living mirrored Mike’s in every way, except with a few new bells and whistles, like a nylon backpack contraption to hold his guitar (as opposed to those heavy hard cases they used to carry back in the ’90s) and an iPod instead of a Walkman. It was entirely possible that he was wearing Mike’s actual motorcycle jacket, as I imagined that Mike’s wife donated it to the Salvation Army when he was out of town selling bathroom fixtures or whatever he now does to pay for, say, his daughter’s speech therapy. It felt as if the real Mike and the real Stephanie, the ones we used to be, were abducted by aliens and simply replaced by the new Mikes and Stephanies who populate the F train just like we used to.
These kinds of old-friend sightings were truly startling to me, but I suppose I needed to learn, again and again, that after several decades, I was in a different life phase. How bizarre that I was excruciatingly aware of every droopy body part, every pucker, each stray hair and both nasal-labial folds on my own person, but I imagined somehow everyone else was frozen in time, going about their lives as if nothing had changed. I mean, I knew they were not, and yet when I saw these updated versions of people I used to know, and was reminded in such a Twilight Zone manner that time marches on, it was unsettling.
Once I realized Mike wasn’t Mike, I saw myself through new Mike’s eyes: He didn’t see the early ’90s hot Stephanie coming toward him through the throng, but some harmless lady in yoga pants and sneakers clearly chosen for function over fashion, carrying a child’s rolled-up collage with glitter and feathers peeking out of the top. He probably thought, I must be blocking the subway doors because I can’t imagine she’d have anything to say to me. And it turns out he was right.
The Formerly years hit me when they did because my late 30s were the first chance I had to look up from what I’d been doing and take a breather. I think this is true of many people like me who got on the hamster wheel in high school and kept running until career success or giving birth or something else made us want to (or have to) slow down. You don’t feel as if much has changed in some ways — you still look, dress and socialize as you always did, more or less. But you’ve slowly been taking on responsibilities and time has been passing and your parents have been getting creaky and you’ve likely even married and had kids (it’s nice that you’re a cool parent who appreciates the Killers, but time is still passing). I, for one, took each of these things in stride as I experienced them.
No, it wasn’t the milestones I reached that made me feel older. For me it was when I began to not feel like the me I once was. In my case, my self-image as a young, attractive, relevant, in-the-mix woman started to feel wobbly, and probably affected the way I carried myself and behaved. Perhaps because I didn’t exude as many young, attractive, relevant, in-the mix woman vibes (and because I looked like the overwrought working mom with no time to tweeze her eyebrows that I was), people didn’t treat me as such, and so I didn’t behave as such. It was a self-perpetuating cycle and soon I didn’t recognize myself anymore. It made me feel a little cuckoo.
In actuality, most of the physical changes my body and my face had undergone over the last decade or so were gradual and fairly subtle. My ass, for example, which I’d never really paid attention to because, well, it was behind me, was all of a sudden crying out for a bra — I could literally feel it against the backs of my thighs, threatening to merge with them unless I found a way to lift and separate. The people who saw me every day (those would be the people I cared about most, the only ones who should matter) didn’t notice anything different. I looked fine. Each of these little changes (did I mention my upper arms have recently begun to flap in the breeze like Grand Opening flags on a car dealership and that I must daily scan my chin for guy-caliber whiskers or else grow a beard?) didn’t keep me up at night.
But in aggregate, and because they all added up to my being in a brand-new category of person — that of the not-young woman — they bothered me. A lot. Was I really so vain that I cared about what complete strangers thought?
Why, yes, yes I was! Which was yet another blow to my self-definition: After overcoming an eating disorder when I was a young adult, I’d been proud to be someone who didn’t dwell inordinately on my looks. I certainly cared, and I liked to look good, but especially compared to some of the fabulous folks I worked with at various women’s magazines, I didn’t get nuts about it. Now it seemed that this was only because I looked good without having to get nuts about it, not because I was so secure. Ouch.
I quickly learned that being Formerly Hot was not something it was wise to go around complaining about. Talking about losing your looks, especially when you’re the main person who notices, smacks of a fishing-for-compliments trip, which was not what I meant to be embarking on. I knew rationally that I looked fine, and if I didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world. But I wanted to talk about why it sometimes felt as if it was, and about similar shifts in identity — the loss of a self-definition, be it the whiz kid, the wild girl, the people pleaser — I knew from my blog that many people were experiencing. The larger life changes (going off to college, getting married, becoming a parent) had been scrutinized, written about and researched to death in the hallowed halls of this country’s most esteemed institutions of higher learning. Not so the more subtle life shifts like the one I was experiencing, which are deceptively difficult to deal with, superficial though some of them may appear to be.
Now that I’m a few years into being a Formerly, I get that the phenomenon is about getting older in general and not as much about any specific aspect of it, such as how your looks change. Everyone gets older at the same rate, of course, but ten minutes seems like a squirmy, intolerable hour to my daughters, who are waiting for me to be done with work so I can pay attention to them; to me, it’s a millisecond. Things merely seem more accelerated as you age, and when I think of it that way, the transition to Formerly feels like any other, best dealt with one day at a time.
So I’m a Formerly. What of it? Most of the time, it’s kind of terrific over here on the other side of young. There are legions of us, and we’re an amazingly cool group of women (and men, by the by, with whom we may have even better relationships than when we were younger). By and large, we know our own minds, are done with caring too much about what other people think of our opinions, and can have a good laugh at our own expense. I love being a Formerly because I’m young enough to have fun, and old enough to know what fun really is, as opposed to tossing my head back in maniacal mirth in order to seem like I was having fun because I was young and hot and hence supposed to be having the time of my life. I also know that if I’m not having fun, I can just leave, something that never would have occurred to me when I felt as if I had so much to prove. I’m surrounded with friends who have my back, and the family I’ve built is the family I’ve always wanted. I even like the family I was born into now, because everyone’s had a chance to get over that whole episode with the Cuisinart, which I maintain wasn’t my fault. It’s a tremendous time of life, weird limbo transition between young and old notwithstanding.
I’m even coming to terms with leaving the hot girl behind. Except when I’m not. That would be when I’m venting about it on my blog, fantasizing about some magical way to restore my former fabulousness or whining to my husband, who, fortunately for me, is blind or deluded or smart enough to insist I’m as dewy as the day he met me (for this reason alone I will not divorce him). Clearly, I’m still adjusting, but having so many women around me going through the same thing makes it easier, as does, of course, having a bit of perspective. Conveniently, that comes with age.
Excerpted from “My Formerly Hot Life” by Stephanie Dolgoff. Copyright © 2010, excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.