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Do You Think I’m Sexy?

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RHONA MCAULIFFE explores the theory of ‘invisibility’; the idea that once us women hit middle-age we’re destined for the dark corner of the bar, and become known only by our crude anonyms.

Recently, I went to a Dublin club that I would never usually go to. Not because I had consciously struck it off my late-night repertoire, but precisely because I don’t have a late-night repertoire. We were celebrating a friend’s birthday, had eaten all the food, drank all the wine, and at last, it was time to dance. So off we galloped to the closest place, an elegant Georgian building off Leeson St.

The bar area was already three-deep and as I waited to order, squeezing through clammy shirt backs, I had a chance to take the place in. Groups, for a start, were largely single sex; men huddled in three’s and four’s by the long bar, girls dotted in similar sized clusters against the bare-bricked walls. Most of the men were forty plus; the girls had a mean age of about twenty-five, give or take good lighting and increasingly bad eyesight.

By the time I’d scored a round of margaritas and was back with my herd, on a median strip between the girl and the boy camp, some pro-mingling had already begun. This roughly took the form of one or two renegades from the boy camp striking up playful conversation with several breakaways from the various girl poses, which, with the initiation of the next wave of men and girls, culminated in a fiesta of camp animation and intense sexual energy. Or so it seemed to the village elders, cloaked in our invisible capsule as we were, gripped by the dynamics of this age-imbalanced, precoital flash-mob.

Well, I was. Totally gripped. Until our capsule was penetrated by the red, sweaty mug of someone’s drunk granddad. ‘Are you on?’ He slurred, lids hooded, eyes loose. Between fumbling with his zip – one of the girls sensitively pointed out that he was flying low – and sluggishly reaching for words that made sense, we figured that we too were being wooed. Albeit with far less finesse.

This insignificant scene marked a seminal moment for me. It was the first time I was aware that a certain, relatively conservative, slice of society placed me – us, forty-something-year-old bad bitches – in a category that was ‘other.’ We were now, I saw, an acquired taste on the mating circuit, a MILF, a Cougar or, as I heard a male friend refer to his brother’s marginally older girlfriend, ‘a Nana.’

Yes, I was on the older end of the spectrum at work, where new recruits were younger and more exotically unfamiliar in their elaborate grooming habits and serial dating; I knew that I couldn’t linger near a mirror on a hangover and was absolutely banned from any hint of a rhythmic shuffle in front of my nine year old’s friends. But I still felt the same. I listened to Rap, Grime and selected EDM when I walked the dog; bawled at documentaries about whales, sick children and bereft widows; kept up to date on the world’s most wanted criminals and searched endlessly on YouTube for solid gold stand-up. Just as I always have.

That night, I was initially incensed, ranting about the patriarchy, how women are so easily boxed – written off even – while most men cruise on, rolling as they’ve always rolled.  I pushed harder than I should have into two rounds of No Diggity – special request – and did my best to spark a dance off with some young wans but they fled. Lucky for them.

On the way home, I did my usual hang-out-of-the-taxi-window-like-an-ecstatic-dog schtik, ready to jump-and-roll if the driver got too familiar and wondered: is this even necessary now?

Nursing a Solpadeine the following morning, I tried to pick apart the sense of inadequacy, the feeling of ‘not being enough’ that I’d been hit with the previous night. It wasn’t about the lack of male attention – Father Jack was plenty, thanks – but grasping that we were essentially off the grid, the literal elephant(s) in the room. It wasn’t about how we looked but knowing that we would forever more look good or bad ‘for our age,’ according to some traditionalists. I even questioned if I had now moved into the realms of the mom-dancer – and believe me, I have the moves so that is a ridiculous question – such were my feelings of displacement.

I searched for a positive take-home and some action points. There were two: 1) I never went to clubs like that in my twenties and should definitely step away now, in my forties; and 2) I will never be able to control what other people – or society at large – think of me, so I might as well crawl deeper into my own skin, live my best life, and completely ignore the noise.

And so the penny dropped. I wish I’d always lived by that mantra. I’m not saying I’ll grow my whiskers out, kick-back in a pair of fleece-lined Crocs and let my teeth rot to furry green stumps; but I might. One day. In the meantime, I’ve made a pretty tight decision not to pursue youth. Really, what is the point when we are always setting ourselves up to fail against whose standards?

I wondered if my friends felt the same way and asked a few of them for comments on the ‘invisibility’ theory. Some are single, some are married, some have kids, some don’t. Some are self-employed, some are creatives, some are full-time mums, some work for multi-national companies. All of them, bar none, said that they have never felt more self-assured and liberated from the shackles of ‘polite’ society than they do now. They are more energised and ‘present’ than ever and much more efficient with their time. They have gained a certain level of respect at work or for their work, and know that they are valued employees. All agreed that they are attracted to other women – and men – who project a strong, centred sense of themselves, a person who is interesting, positive and unapologetic about who she is, no matter her age. One of them can’t leave the house for young fellas collapsing at her feet.

So there, it was just me then. Always late to the party.

Now I feel dumb for dwelling. Time to buckle up and get back to the real business of living. As Sarah Silverman said, Mother Theresa didn’t walk around complaining about her thighs, she had shit to do.

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