I was thinking about things this past weekend while changing out my earrings for February and regretting the Coke I’d downed earlier with a huge bowl of nachos (no regrets on the nachos, thankyouverymuch). I used to abuse my body with alarming regularity before I got smart and realized exactly what was causing my skin problems (mostly corn syrup), and while my body was young enough to weather the abuse then, it’s older now, and less tolerant of poor choices.
But changing my earrings out – seven of them – for the season reminded me of the first time I had multiple piercings in my ears, between when I turned eighteen and could sign for such things myself, and my mid-twenties when I cut my hair off and decided the original seven piercings didn’t go with the new “do”, and looked too “out there” for the professional look I thought I needed back then. Or did need, rather. I was “homogenizing” myself, blending in with the workforce and trying not to draw attention to how I looked, so people would hopefully focus on what I said and did. I was young, and looked younger, and I was learning a lot and trying to prove myself in my job.
Yes, plenty of people choose to do that with visible tattoos, piercings, funky clothing and hair, etc. And more power to them, I say. But I don’t regret adopting a more conservative look and demeanor for myself during those years. It made things a lot easier on me, I think. With every small change I made, I noticed measurable differences in how people treated me. Wearing my hair up more often, then cutting it off. Dressing more professionally/less casual and wearing makeup resulted in a very noticable difference in how people responded to me when I was talking or trying to explain something. Those things made it easier for me to sort of “grow into” my job with less barriers due to my physical appearance – mostly with people outside my own department.
Adopting a fairly professional demeanor at work was a way of protecting myself too. My very first job as a teenager and on through college went about as you’d expect, with a lot of personal sharing among staff, and also a lot of backstabbing and personal vendettas that left a rather sour taste in my mouth. I was so tired of it all and hurt that people who had acted friendly toward me actually didn’t like me much at all that I was determined not to ever let something like that happen again. So I put up a wall – separation of work and personal life, and for the most part, I did that by adopting a professional demeanor that did its job well. Maybe a little too well, I’m realizing now. But at the time, it’s what I needed.
I’ve mentioned before (I think) that I stopped getting tattoos because my husband doesn’t particularly care for them. I was taught that wives are to be subservient to their husbands, and even though my own personality and feelings are somewhat different than that (*ahem*), it’s hard to leave all that ingrained teaching behind. I felt like subjugating my own wants and needs for those of my husband was just what a good wife does. Turns out, it’s a great way to lose yourself and become resentful of the limitations that you’ve placed on yourself (my husband never once even hinted that I should stop getting tattoos – it was all me).
What does all this have to do with a mid-life crisis? Basically, I spent years “toning myself down”, blending in, acting “normal”, and keeping a safe, professional distance from people. I kept my appearance neutral, my tone moderated (for the most part), and focused on doing whatever I could to…not be “liked”, really, but to be an “acceptable” person for people to be around. I kept the most real parts of myself to myself, hidden under layers of virtual “beige”, assuming that’s what I needed to do in order to be tolerated and get things done. And for awhile, I think it was (the real “me” is not always the easiest to be around – I am rather…quirky, to put it nicely).
The thing is, you can only do that for so long. Eventually it starts to wear on you, and you start thinking about how you used to be. And you question if that old “you” was the real you, or if the beige “you” is the real one, or if you’re not either of those things, but something else entirely. Did I make the right decisions? Did I marry the right person? Did I do the right thing staying in the job I have, or should I have looked for something better? What if I’d chosen a completely different life – would I be happier? Or would it be worse? Maybe the same, in a different way?
I was between thirty-five and forty when these questions and other unsettling thoughts started plaguing me. I thought I was too young for a mid-life crisis, until one day during the tail end of it, I came across a couple of articles that said women often experience one right in that general age-range. And the key thing for a lot of us is…we’re trying to figure out where we lost that piece of ourselves that’s missing. Often, the search for that starts back in the high school/college years.
This is long, and there’s quite a bit more to the story. So if you’re interested, stop by next week for another slice.