The truth about mid­dle age: the au­thor of The Fast Diet, Mimi Spencer, finds the joy – and hu­mour – of be­ing 50

This year, Mimi Spencer turns 50. Now the woman be­hind The Fast Diet has writ­ten a sur­vival guide to mid­dle age, start­ing with chin hairs and back fat.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Atext comes in. “Hey Mims, sorry for the late re­ply. I sneezed and did some­thing ter­ri­ble to my back!” Why am I not sur­prised? I think I pulled a mus­cle in my ear the other day while eat­ing muesli. Who knew that was even pos­si­ble? These days, all kinds of un­ex­plained shoot­ing pains, un­fa­mil­iar creaks and un­ex­pected wrin­kles are pos­si­ble. This is the rou­tine re­al­ity of hit­ting the mid­dle: that un­de­fined patch of time between the end of youth and the start of old age; not yet in the twi­light years, but def­i­nitely ap­proach­ing teatime and think­ing about putting the ket­tle on.

If you’re as old as you feel, I could be any­thing from 23 to 104 de­pend­ing on how much sleep I had last night and which un­der­wear I hap­pen to be wear­ing. In fact, I’m 50 this year – sand­wiched, as one writer put it, between “the fear of ev­ery­thing you have be­come and fear of ev­ery­thing you have not”. Mid­dle age, though, is a slip­pery con­cept. No one is quite sure when it starts (not now, not me!), or when it ends. New re­search sug­gests that old age now starts at

74, with mid­dle age last­ing at least nine years longer than once thought. What­ever the spe­cific pa­ram­e­ters, there are an aw­ful lot of us about. And, on the whole, we’re a happy, ac­tive, com­fort­able bunch.

For many, then, the mid­way mo­ment is a sum­mit, not a slump. Per­haps as a re­sult, in some senses at least, this neb­u­lous age has lately been re­deemed. While “mid­dle age” is not some­thing we tend to ad­mit to – a bit like hav­ing a ver­ruca – “midlife” has be­come the get-out clause. It sounds brighter, smarter – a pos­si­bil­ity, not a penalty. In brand­ing terms, it’s still full of life, not bur­dened with the slow en­tropy of age. I even read re­cently that the midlife cri­sis has been repo­si­tioned as the “midlife pas­sage”, which makes it sound like some­thing novel and ex­cit­ing, per­haps to be at­tempted in a ca­noe.

Per­son­ally, and en­tirely un­ex­pect­edly, I love be­ing mid­dle-aged. You lit­er­ally care less. For ev­ery down­side, there’s

“There’s a mo­ment when ‘nat­u­ral’ starts to look a lot like flu.”

a sig­nif­i­cant up. Hey, you may not sun­bathe any more, but you don’t have to learn to surf! You never again have to con­sider wear­ing cut-off jeans. Or puff sleeves. Peter Pan col­lars. Plaits. You never have to go to an “af­ter party”. Or even a party. Where once you wanted to fly to St Tropez, to Mi­ami, to Ra­jasthan to ride ele­phants, now you mostly want to go to bed.

Lovely bed! It’s as if there’s a new dis­pen­sa­tion to be ut­terly true to your­self: yes, you can hide when the door­bell rings; no, you don’t have to an­swer the lan­d­line. You are who you are, and the rest of the world can ruddy well deal with it. Not, you now know, that they give a fly­ing hoot. I think US colum­nist Ann Lan­ders got it right. “At 20, we worry about what oth­ers think of us,” she wrote. “At 40, we don’t care what they think. At 60, we dis­cover they haven’t been think­ing of us at all.”

It’s a re­lief, too, to re­alise that your face and frame need no longer com­pete in the great pageant of youth. These days, be­ing “good for your age” is more than good enough – bril­liant news for those of us who are okay­look­ing with­out be­ing stop-the-traffic gorg. I like former Vogue ed­i­tor Alexan­dra Shul­man’s take on the ben­e­fits of age­ing. “It is a huge help to have been nice-look­ing but never very beau­ti­ful,” she wrote when she turned 50. “For those whose iden­ti­ties are com­pletely bound up in their good looks, the diminu­tion is ter­ri­fy­ing.”

This, then, is the bridg­ing zone between youth, with its 20/20 vi­sion, and age, with its fuzzier fo­cus. There’s irony, I think, in the fact that in midlife you can lit­er­ally see your­self less clearly in the mir­ror, just as you be­gin to fade metaphor­i­cally from view. At around the age of 46 or 47, I cer­tainly felt a shift, al­most as a barom­e­ter might record a change in air pres­sure; it was a sense of be­ing very grad­u­ally but pro­gres­sively eroded. There’s no deny­ing that your im­print lessens.

Your im­pact de­clines. It’s true, and qui­etly shock­ing, that peo­ple start to see through you at par­ties.

Para­dox­i­cally, as your im­age loses fo­cus, you feel the sharp me­chan­ics of your body more keenly – the vis­cera, the joints and junc­tions; this body, the one you’ve in­hab­ited for five decades, starts to en­act small sor­ties against you, as though it’s swapped sides mid-match. These days, I reg­u­larly wake up look­ing as if I’ve slept in a hedge at a mu­sic festival, even though I went to bed with the cryp­tic cross­word af­ter watch­ing the TV news.

In the past, I’d al­ways been a low-main­te­nance sort – all bed hair and no foun­da­tion, naked nails and yes­ter­day’s eye­liner, which I thought made me look kit­ten­ish and rock’n’roll, like Chrissie Hynde’s younger sis­ter, or a ju­nior fash­ion ed­i­tor on French Vogue. Now that I’m old enough to be the grand­mother of a ju­nior fash­ion ed­i­tor on French Vogue, I just look un­washed and slightly de­ranged. There’s def­i­nitely a mo­ment – I’d put it at around 47 – when “nat­u­ral” starts to look a lot like flu. And so, you need strate­gies. Vig­i­lance. High main­te­nance, per­ma­nently.

I’m drawn now to gold-lid­ded pots of lux­ury mois­turiser de­signed for very spe­cific pur­poses (un­der­side of chin, scrag of neck, gul­ley of dé­col­leté, back of hand), or eye serums in tiny vials that cost more than a whole tank of petrol. There are reg­u­lar Pi­lates classes, not be­cause it makes you feel long and stretchy like a puma, but be­cause it stops you fold­ing in on your­self like a gar­den chair, col­laps­ing in the mid­dle so that – what do you know? – one day your belly but­ton dis­ap­pears. Now, with a few years of mid­dle age un­der my belt, I’m in a con­stant state of ninja readi­ness, armed with a glint­ing Tweez­er­man, ever scan­ning for in­ex­pli­ca­ble chin hairs, baf­fling age spots, the march of crow’s feet.

There’s more. At 50, a face de­vel­ops mar­i­onette lines, ac­cor­dion lines, a crazy paving of bro­ken cap­il­lar­ies and those gorges that take up res­i­dence at the cor­ners of your mouth and make it look as though you’re per­ma­nently suck­ing on a kumquat. If you go too close, it’s like a Google Earth map of the Grand Canyon. My ad­vice? Do not get your eyes lasered. Do not buy a mag­ni­fy­ing mir­ror. It’s prob­a­bly best not to know.

In midlife, you know there’s more of the same in the wings. With age, your fore­head ap­par­ently ex­pands as your hair­line re­treats. No one gets a memo about this. The fat in your face, which

“At 53, she’s con­sid­er­ing midlife braces, which feels wildly wrong.”

once plumped up those ap­ple cheeks, some­how re-emerges to pouch at chin and jowl, in downy apri­cot swags, all bil­lowy like a set of Aus­trian blinds.

Talk­ing of swags, no mat­ter how slim you are, mid­dle age will de­liver a dump of flesh to your back – spooned around the bra strap – al­most overnight, as if you or­dered it on­line. My eye­lids are looser, too, like bikini bot­toms that have lost their elas­tic­ity. My 14-year-old daugh­ter likes to pick up my eye­lid between grabby fin­ger and thumb, give it a tug and laugh like a loon lit­er­ally for min­utes as it snails slowly back into place.

This is one rea­son why make-up now makes me look a whole lot worse rather than bet­ter. Eye­shadow con­gre­gates in crepey creases and sits there in wink­ing curds. In­stead, new prod­ucts have started to show up in my shop­ping bas­ket – cu­ri­ous things like RapidBrow (“Put the wow back in your brow”). One friend is con­sid­er­ing dye­ing her lady gar­den with Just For Men Mous­tache and Beard Brush-In Colour Gel, which seems like woolly think­ing to me when all she re­ally needs to do is turn the lights out.

At 53, she’s also con­sid­er­ing midlife braces, which again feels wildly wrong. You can’t have wrin­kles and braces at the same time. It dis­rupts the space-time con­tin­uum. Smarter by far to de­velop a mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ship with a den­tal hy­gien­ist and go to bed, lights out, wear­ing lit­tle teeth­whiten­ing bleach trays – af­ter all, you’ve had those teeth for half a cen­tury. They could le­git­i­mately go on An­tiques Road­show.

Ah yes – An­tiques Road­show.A per­sonal favourite. In midlife, tastes and in­ter­ests – like teeth and gums – shift too. I have suf­fered an at­tack of Sud­den On­set Gar­den­ing and am de­bat­ing the pur­chase of a Cath Kid­ston “kneeler and gloves set”. On one side of the de­bate, it seems like a good way to pro­tect my whin­ing knees and in­creas­ingly rep­til­ian hands. On the other, it makes me want to thrash my­self with a switch of pyra­can­tha.

These days, in com­mon with all bona fide midlif­ers, I shout at TV hosts in a loud, barky rasp that comes from an un­known place and sounds like a hun­gry seal. I also shout at the toaster, at adapters and charg­ers, and at kitchen draw­ers with too many bak­ing trays in them. I can no longer thread a nee­dle. I’m stumped by Twit­ter acronyms, would never dream of in­sta­gram­ming my break­fast and reg­u­larly find my­self sta­tioned at the freezer, peer­ing in and won­der­ing, “Why on earth am I here?” Not in an ex­is­ten­tial way but in a, “Was it for peas?” way. And if it was peas, why did I come here for peas? I do worry that in the im­mi­nent fu­ture I might start fan­cy­ing a Vi­en­nese river cruise or sug­gest meet­ing a friend for cof­fee in a gar­den cen­tre, since I’ll be there any­way to pick up some se­ca­teurs for the pyra­can­tha. Pos­si­bly wear­ing a ruf­fle-front cardi­gan.

Which brings us neatly to fash­ion, where, in midlife, un­fa­mil­iar new rules ap­ply. You have to drop your heel height. You just do. When you’re 23, mad­den­ingly glo­ri­ous ex­treme stilet­tos make you a style god­dess. At 45-plus, they make you a style slave, per­haps strug­gling with bunions, overly snug knick­ers and a nag­ging pain in the lum­bar spine that may or may not re­spond to heavy meds.

Sim­i­larly, wear­ing head-to-toe black makes you look as if you’re off to a memo­rial ser­vice for your lost youth.

Navy? Nah. You might as well tat­too the words “mid­dle-aged” across your fore­head. You have to watch your fig­ure, too – not nec­es­sar­ily its size, but specif­i­cally its shape. As one friend said to me the other day, “Yeah, you look great. But why are your boobs in the wrong place?” They’d headed south, as if on a quest to find my lost belly but­ton. Bras, you come to re­alise, are no longer sug­ges­tive or dec­o­ra­tive; they’re es­sen­tial scaf­fold­ing.

That said, there’s a glory in know­ing, af­ter three or four decades of en­deav­our and er­ror, what re­ally suits you. With­out the jib­ber-jab­ber of trends whispering come-ons in your ear, it’s a re­lief fi­nally to ar­rive at a set of clothes you can trust. My wardrobe used to be a riot of shrieks, hic­cups and burps of blar­ing noise. Now, it’s a calmer, kin­der, more com­fort­able place, sparsely pop­u­lated with clothes I ac­tu­ally wear – which boils down to about five items and 17 pairs of Re­ally Good Jeans. I’ve found, too, that a flash of flesh still works, as long as it’s the right flash (col­lar­bone, one shoul­der, not two, up­per arms on a good day, bare calves, a smidge of knee) and not the wrong one (cleav­age, lower back, mid­dle back, up­per thigh).

With cleav­age out of the run­ning, you come to rely in­stead on your hair, which at a cer­tain age be­comes your prime real es­tate. There are rules here, too. Never, for ex­am­ple, plump for a sud­den bob. Keep the colour in the mid-zone – nei­ther brassy nor Hal­loween-y, just some­thing friendly in between. And, oh my, the roots.

For mid­dle-aged brunettes, roots take prece­dence over ev­ery­thing else in life, up to and in­clud­ing sports days, school plays and sick rel­a­tives. I see my colourist more of­ten than I see my mother. There are bril­liant midlife weapons at our dis­posal here, too – chiefly Bum­ble’s hair pow­der to mirac­u­lously dis­guise the stra­tum of slate grey that erupts al­most tec­ton­i­cally overnight. friends reg­u­larly colour in their hair with crayons. I have a last-re­sort hat, hauled into ser­vice if the sa­lon is shut.

At this age, too, we’re ever on guard against the threat of im­mi­nent menopause and its pha­lanx of ghastly symp­toms – all 34 of them – from sheet-clench­ing in­som­nia and DVD (dreaded vagi­nal dry­ness), to rad­i­cal mood swings and the pos­si­bil­ity of burst­ing into tears when­ever the dog yawns. What’s new is that the menopause now gets a lot of air­time. Where once there was a con­spir­acy of si­lence cloaked around mid­dle-age hor­mone rage, we now have too much in­for­ma­tion. I find my­self reading celebrity quotes about What It Feels Like – my cur­rent favourite is Julie Wal­ters re­mem­ber­ing her hot flushes: “It was like a chim­ney and came from the base of my spine. Ev­ery take there’d be, ‘Stop! She’s hav­ing a flush!’ At the Na­tional, I’d come off stage for a quick change and have to shout, ‘Garth, the tray!’ And this guy would come with this big tin tray and fan me.” It sounds aw­ful, a prospect made all the more dire be­cause you don’t quite know what you’re go­ing to get, like those jelly beans that taste of ei­ther water­melon or snot. Just yes­ter­day over lunch I said, “Is it hot in here or is it me?” I know it’s only a mat­ter of time.

There is a joy in age­ing, though, which some­times gets lost in the cho­rus of grum­bles and gripes. Stand still, breathe deep and you can hear it in your heart’s core. In­stead of pan­ick­ing about a life half done, I reckon it pays to be adapt­able, for­giv­ing and ca­pa­ble of rein­ven­tion. It’s the half-time whis­tle, a time to re­group, em­brace the changes and own your years, for now you are older and have peace of mind. Just don’t sneeze too hard.

Mimi Spencer is find­ing the pos­i­tives of grow­ing older.

Mid­dle age, says Mimi, is the bridg­ing zone between youth and age.

Recipes ex­tracted from Mimi Spencer’s lat­est book, The Midlife Kitchen, with Sam Rice, Ha­chette.

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