Last week a friend of mine called up sounding distraught. Given that she is generally a ‘glass is half-full’ sort of person, I thought that there must be a major crisis in her life. As it turns out, I was right. She was suffering from a serious case of mid-life crisis, sparked off by a visit to a five-star hotel loo.
It happened thus. She walked in and found a gaggle of excitable 20-somethings gibbering excitedly amongst themselves. They were still gathered around the sink when she emerged to wash her hands. And then, lipstick liberally re-applied, they started trooping out when one of them stopped and asked: "Whose bag is that?"
Without missing a beat, the other replied, pointing to my hapless friend, "That’s aunty’s."
Yes, you heard right. It was that dreaded ‘a’ word. Aunty.
My friend, a well-preserved woman in her 40s, is used to seeing people do double-takes when she reveals her age and assuring her that she looks at least a decade younger. So, the ‘aunty’ bit was a fell blow that left her catatonic for the rest of the evening.
When she called me the next morning, she still sounded devastated. Did she really look so old that 20-something young women would refer to her as ‘aunty’? Did this mean that she was well and truly middle-aged now? Were the best years of her life over? Was she now on a slippery slope heading inexorably downwards?
I have to confess that I wasn’t terribly sympathetic. As someone who acquired her first niece at the age of 12 (in my defence, my sister is 15 years older than me), I have become accustomed to being called ‘masi’ or ‘bua’ over the years. So what, I asked my friend, was the big deal about being called ‘aunty’? After all, technically speaking, she could have given birth to any of those young 20-somethings. And her kid’s friends called her ‘aunty’ anyway, right?
That wasn’t the point, said my friend. "Standing there at the sink, I had this sudden epiphany. Now when people looked at me, they no longer saw me as an attractive woman. They saw an ‘aunty’. They saw someone who was well past her sexy-by date. And as I stood there, I realised that soon nobody would see me at all."
Yes, that’s a fear that all of us harbour at some level, don’t we? That as age takes its toll and nature wreaks its worst on us, we will turn into invisible women. The women whom nobody pays attention to; who are looked through at parties; ignored as they try to make purchases at a store. The women whom nobody leaps up to open the door for. The women nobody wants to chat up or flirt with. The women who are no longer seen as sexual beings.
In other words, the women who fit into the ‘aunty’ category.
And, for obvious reason, this is especially hard for women who have been considered beautiful or sexy in their dewy youthfulness. They are used to being the centre of attention in any room they walk into. They are accustomed to being treated with
deference. They are used to being objects of desire. They are conditioned to think of themselves as special. So suddenly being reduced to ‘aunty’ status comes as something of a shock.
And to an extent, it was this ‘Beautiful Woman’ syndrome that lay at the root of my friend’s trauma. It was a bit like the jolt an actress feels when she’s first told that she was not being tested for the heroine’s role, but for the role of the hero’s mother.
But part of it was also down to the fact that ours is the generation of women who refuse to age. We are unwilling to let nature take its course when it comes to our appearance. Instead, we rely on extreme medical procedures to keep looking young for as long as we can.
Ours is the generation that embraced Botox and fillers, treating them as lunch-time procedures. Ours is the generation that treats cosmetic surgery as an essential beauty aid, treating face-lifts as extreme facials. And not surprisingly, ours is a generation that looks much younger than our mothers did at our age.
We exercise and diet so that we weigh the same as we did in our 20s. We wear the same clothes as our grown-up daughters. We colour our hair every five weeks to get rid of those greying roots. We slather on the anti-ageing cream last thing at night.
We look in the mirror in the morning and we see a young person staring back at us. Yes, the jawline is a little slack, there is incipient creping of the neck, and the laugh lines run a little bit deeper. But hey, nobody would put us down for 40-somethings. We don’t look a day over 35!
And then, you walk into a five-star hotel loo and a 20-something calls you ‘aunty’. That’s when you know that the game is well and truly over. You have tipped irrevocably into
middle age – and there is no coming back.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
From HT Brunch, March 25
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