Yesterday was my birthday, and I turned forty. I have been dreading it since the day that I turned thirty-five and knew that I was officially closer to forty than I was to thirty. I've had five years to get used to the idea, and it has taken me that long to do so. At thirty-six I was feeling some mild anxiety. By thirty-seven, the anxiety had escalated. By thirty-eight, I felt anxious and panicky at the thought of being two years away from forty. At thirty-nine, I felt mostly dread about the thing that was coming that I had no way to escape or control.
And now that the day has come and gone, I actually feel no different than I did two days ago.
The day itself was a pretty standard. The world didn't stop rotating on it's axis. Kids still needed to go to school and daycare, needed me to wash their clothes and make them their meals and give Ibuprofen and TLC for viruses. More birthday celebrating will commence over this coming weekend, but the day itself was pretty quiet and uneventful. I was blessed with beautiful weather and a full hour to sunbathe interrupted in my backyard while my sick little guy napped (that NEVER happens). So all in all, it was a pretty good day.
What is it about turning forty that seems is so daunting? I think it's the number itself that is scary. I feel like I am no longer a young woman. I am a middle-aged woman. I am affected by this and feel insecure more than I like to admit. Do I look forty? What does forty look like? All the rules that I've heard all my life about how to dress, how to wear my hair after forty, are swirling around in my head. This makes me angry and sad at the same time - why do these rules even exist and why are they taking up space in my brain?
When I turned thirty-five, I made the big, brave decision that it was time to put my anxiety-laden relationship with food to rest. I was trapped in a cycle of restricting and binge eating (as a response to the restricting and also as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable feelings) that had plagued me for most of my life. I decided that this was going to be the year that I would put that behind me once and for all, and being finally in a place of readiness, I put in the emotional work to accomplish this. Acknowledging the five year anniversary of this decision is a truly amazing feeling.
Yet, even five years later, I am sometimes discouraged that my own issues with body insecurity continue to hang on despite my best efforts to shake them loose. It hurts to think of how our culture conditions women to feel like so much of their worth is based on their appearance and being conventionally attractive. I remind myself that the work that I am doing, so beloved to me, will hopefully help another woman be in a different, more accepting place than I find myself in when she turns forty.
A lot of those old issues have resurfaced in recent months, most likely because my birthday and the passage into the next decade have been on my mind. I find the parallels to the diet cycle ironic - just like dieting to lose weight leads to a constant preoccupation with food, the anxiety around turning forty has laser-focused my attention on all things age-related. And since our bodies are often our dumping ground for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, a lot of the anxiety around mortality and aging has been funneled into my own body insecurities.
It feels strange and wrong to admit out loud that I have body insecurities. I feel like I am not supposed to because of the type of work that I do. I spend my days coaching people, mostly women like me, to be kinder, gentler, and more appreciative of their bodies functionality and less concerned with the aesthetics. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and we need to reject the cultural stereotypes of the perfect body that is unattainable to most - and learn to embrace our own strength, beauty, uniqueness, and the other dimensions of our wholeness beyond our appearance. I wholeheartedly believe this to be true. So it feels shameful I guess, to admit that I also struggle with insecurities about my appearance, how my body is changing as it ages and my impulse to control this, and the image that I project to the world.
It feels shameful, and yet I don't think I should be ashamed of it because I think it is a product of how I have been groomed and conditioned to feel about myself as a woman. It's not a result of my own shortcomings or inability to change. I think that this has been largely out of my control, because I do try very hard to consciously reject the cultural expectations of weight and beauty that surround us, and believe me, this is not an easy thing to do!
I also think that I am not the only woman to feel this way, to secretly harbour this shame and guilt. To care about (and hate that I care about) my appearance and the persona that I allow the world to see. To feel somewhere deep in my core that how I look DOES matter and I DO need to be worried about it. That being attractive is a part of my identity that I feel afraid of losing. I HATE that I feel these things. I KNOW that they are not true. I also know that knowing something intellectually and feeling it on a deep, emotional gut level are two entirely different things. And like the clients that I counsel through these challenges, I am also not immune to this struggle.
So today, while life continues to hum and surge forward, and despite the fact that my life right now is full of challenges and good things that fill me to the brim with love and contentedness, I feel a little unsteady. My inner voice that is dripping with judgement and criticism has been a little out of control lately, and it's taking a toll. In times like these, I think about how I would advise my clients if they were going through the same thing, and my thoughts turn immediately to self-compassion. I reach for self-compassion to get me through a patch where I feel a bit fragile and shaken. I know that it will pass, and I know that there are lessons to be found in vulnerability. I know that hating that I feel a certain way - in this case not feeling jubilant, confident and comfortable with turning forty - doesn't help me to feel differently. Feelings are there for a reason, and need to be acknowledged - ignoring them only makes them louder and more obnoxious.
I would tell my clients that in times like these, the best thing they can do is to flood themselves with self-care and compassion instead of turning away from the feelings that they are ashamed of. Embracing our humanity by being open about our struggles is how we can feel connected and seek comfort in the fact that we are not alone.