The Death of Sexy?

Some women go gently, others retreat, still others go kicking and screaming into that great night — the ever-darkening realm of late-middle age and beyond

Three things happened. First, I read a story in the New York Times last month about feminist icon Gloria Steinem turning 80. In it, she revealed she didn't much mind the dwindling libido that comes with aging; in fact, she claims she's focused more efficiently on her work without the distraction of raging hormones. Hmm.

Second, I noticed two ancient ladies in town while I was stopped at a red light. They were animated, engaged, laughing. One had painted red lips. The other wore a snazzy scarf. They hugged each other fiercely goodbye. As I drove away I wondered: Who did they used to be? And, if either had been standing alone, would I have even looked twice?

Third: I watched the season finale of HBO's "Girls" (I know, I was behind). Jessa, the show's Rapunzel-haired, drug-addicted, raging-id of a character, supplies illicit pills to her boss, a wheelchair-bound artist who laments being rendered "invisible" as an older woman, and who wants to die with young Jessa's assistance.

Some women go gently into that great night, and by this I mean the ever-darkening realm of late-middle age and beyond. Others retreat from view — or, in the case of Ms. Steinem, from sex — to find a new freedom that expands identity and, yes, even self-satisfaction. Still others go kicking and screaming, desperately whipping their ever-thickening bodies into compliance, welcoming the needle and knife in a vain attempt to appear as they did in their prime. And all to fight the inevitable "invisibility" that women, I think, both beckon and resist.

We never asked to be defined by our exterior alone. Yet, after a near-lifetime of such limited assessment, of catcalls and unwanted, sometimes scary, ogling glances, we've forgotten what's it like not to be judged by the shape of our figures and the flaws — or lack thereof — in our faces.

And it can be threatening, this disappearing act, as if sexiness is a measuring stick for vitality, for life itself.

I asked a few of my friends how they felt:

Rachel told me she had "one of the most wonderful moments of the past few years" when she went to a friend's birthday party sans husband and a great-looking guy tried to pick her up at the bar. "I've definitely felt invisible since I had kids, and I've missed the attention," she admits.

Tamara* confessed she'd briefly coupled with a man 15 years her junior and was thrilled with her conquest, but ultimately couldn't cope with his fawning admiration of a photo of her much younger, hotter self. "I felt queasy," she said. "Would he see [me as a former] twentysomething when we were in bed? Before I could figure it out, he slept with a 27-year-old friend of mine. That was all the evidence I needed."

Then there's Susan. As a young lawyer back in the early '90s, she recalls how "the opposing party told me he'd settle the case because I had nice legs. I loved it, because I looked like a skilled attorney when I told the [firm's] partner. However, there were many more times in my career when I wanted the gray hairs in order to be taken seriously. I'd meet attorneys I admired in my field who looked at me everywhere but in the eye."

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Carla* shared that her father often remarked with withering derision that "women age faster than men," which is why her otherwise feisty, Midwestern mother — a woman who could "skin a squirrel and make a stew" with it back in the 1960s — agreed to get a face lift. Now Carla is considering following suit, all these decades later, even though her own husband loves her just the way she is.

Finally, Erica was shocked by the question — and her subsequent epiphany. "It never occurred to me I wasn't hearing catcalls because I was less appealing!" she said. "I'd noticed there weren't any, and figured it was the result of a less-sexist society. Thanks for the cold splash of water!"

I would never suggest one can't be 50, 60 or 70 and still attract the opposite sex. There are the shining stars of such allure: Madonna's made a career out of it (although there have been reams of detractors as of late, regarding her obvious plastic surgery); Jane Fonda has long silenced her own haters.

Gorgeous Gloria, who's forever been forced to defend her intellect due to her near-perfect outer package, must fend off ardent suitors with a stick, I'd be willing to bet, even as an octogenarian. But these are women in the spotlight, women who clearly work hard on their images. In the HBO documentary "Gloria: In Her Own Words," even the ultimate feminist is perfectly coiffed and made-up under butter-soft lighting as she speaks to the camera.

Most of us mere mortals, however, are born with average DNA, and do not have a glam squad at the ready. We ditch the heels, except for special occasions, because we can't be bothered. We get lumpier and slower. We begrudgingly accept, if never fully appreciate, the double chin and the hands that suddenly look like Grandma Mary's.

Yet, if we're really being honest, most women wrestle with mixed emotions. I, for one, am thrilled I'll never again have to endure a college drinking outpost populated with frat boys who hold up scorecards — one through ten — in the windows to rank every passing female. And part of me dies inside thinking how something similar will likely happen to my daughters when they go off to university. Make no mistake: Something fundamental withers within women when they are reduced to mere meat for inspection.

And I definitely don't miss the daily onslaught of unsolicited commentary. I always wondered, Does this guy imagine by complimenting my "beautiful tits" I'm going to leap into his arms and say, "Thank you! I'm all yours!"? Yet, I admit I do miss the appreciative turning of a head when I enter a room and the electric flicker of eye contact from a new admirer.

I even mourn my forever-husband occasionally mistaking me for the sofa, or failing to comment when I put on a new dress for some big event. Because, just like those ancient lady friends who I just happened to spy hugging on a street corner (but normally would never notice), it's not just strangers who stop seeing women of a certain age. I think we all do.

* "Tamara" and "Carla" are not their real names, to protect their privacy.

Tags: aging