She Let Herself Go

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I was recently at a bar for a work function, eating pot stickers and talking to a colleague about synergy and alignment and economies of scale or whatever, when I overheard a conversation at the table behind me. There was a man in his mid-40s sitting on one side of the booth across from three young women, all of whom were hovering around 23. He was dressed like a mix between Steve from “Blues Clues,” a part-time club promoter, and a fax machine technician. He spoke in a nasally and grossly self-assured voice.

“Here’s the thing, women let themselves go at 35.”

Why these three women were hanging on to Mr. Xerox’s every word remains a mystery. At any rate, they giggled at this declaration. They giggled because when you’re 23, 35 seems distant and irrelevant.

Now, to be fair, there is a pretty big difference between 23 and 35. When I was 23, everything in my wardrobe was made of polyester and I had a cardboard box full of tiny “travel sized” bottles of Jim Beam under my kitchen sink, which I reserved for chugging on the subway at room temperature on the way to concerts sponsored by Red Bull. Sure, I was skinnier and dewier and could bend over and tie my shoes while wearing low rise jeans, but I also bought Sum 41 tickets. On purpose.

Therefore, nothing warranted the ageist, sexist disparagement this guy was sputtering between bites of jalapeno poppers. I, of course, wanted to wallop him. It was a futile, emotional reaction, but it’s hard to keep a level head when you’re being subjected to the human equivalent of a refurbished Motorola Razr.

I happen to be 35. And I can say with confidence that I most certainly have not let myself go, at least not in the way he meant it.

That said, here is what I have let go of:

  • Suppressing my snorts when I laugh at something extremely funny. I will let those suckers rip any time, any place.

  • Pretending at parties that I actually know the rules to football. I have watched so many football games and I still have a barely cursory understanding of what’s going on, except that we celebrate 10-yard increments. But don’t worry, you can still invite me to your playoff parties. Like a woman powering through a lukewarm one-night stand, I can expertly fake my way though all the right moments if needed.
  • Attempting to walk in any heels higher than 3.25” or with a diameter of less than an inch. Life’s too short to wobble around like a top-heavy baby colt. Give me a pair of block heel loafers and I will out-dance you at a wedding, out-walk you on a pub crawl, and out-run you during the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
  • Mastering the art of dicing tomatoes and onions. I like homemade salsa as much as the next person, but when it’s time to chop delicate produce, my hands turn into hammy hulk fists and I have the fine motor skills of a fat baby.
  • Learning how to change a tire. I get that it’s supposed to be a “Life Skills 101” type thing, but if you thought I was bad at handling a beefsteak tomato, wait until you see me with a scissor jack.
  • The impulse to deflect compliments. Yes, this is a fabulous blouse, and the fact that I bought it at TJ Maxx and it has no lining and the armpit seam is being held together by a series of conspicuously placed safety pins is not information that needs to be shared right now.
  • Lying about my weight on my license. I used to lament over how bad my license photo was until one day, my youngest looked at it and said “But mommy, that’s how you look.” To his point, we all know what I look like and it’s definitely not 5’8, 140 lbs. If I ever get kidnapped and forced to openly participate in some sort of religious cult, I want the authorities to be looking for the correct full-figured girl blinking twice for help.

“Letting go” has made me happier, and if I wasn’t stuffing my 35-year-old lady face with ½ priced apps, I may have turned around and told him so.

(That’s the other thing I’m learning to let go of. Bar fights.)

Besides, in another 12 years, those three women will be where I am today – happily snorting their way to the top in a wrinkle-resistant, all-season herringbone blazer, with nary a thread of polyester blend in sight.

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The Myth of Finding Yourself

Adulthood, Coming of Age, Party Animal

I was always a somewhat practical young woman. When the movie Hostel came out in 2005, my first reaction to the plotline of two college students backpacking through Europe and then being tortured and killed by a maniac at a transient lodge was not “Despicable! Torture porn!” It was “How entitled do you have to be to take all that time off to wander around another continent? Don’t they have loans to pay and a projected graduation date to work towards?” Backpacking anywhere was such a foreign concept to me, considering I overzealously graduated from college a semester early and jumped into the glamorous world of The Corporate Desk Job. I got a serious boyfriend right away too. We fell in love, got married and popped out my first child by 25. Four years after that, I had purchased my first house, popped out my second kid, and curated this suburban working mom identity for myself. I was hitting milestones like a detonation cord – BOOM BOOM BOOM.

pregnant

Sometime between the first and second kid, though, I began to harbor feelings of regret in having missed out on my own magical hostel story. In my version, of course, I would trade the mutilated toe plotline for, say, a photo op of me learning how to pour the perfect Guinness in Dublin, but basically the same thing. I had missed out on finding myself, I fretted. That’s what your 20s are for, everyone says. Your 20s are for making mistakes! For falling in and out of love! For jumping from job to job like that’s not a total red flag to recruiters! Well, Practical Rachel knows well enough that making mistakes leads to a paper trail, and paper trails lead to unemployment, and unemployment leads to foreclosure. How was I to find myself if I was too busy begging the Wells Fargo call center for a mortgage payment extension? It was an existential crisis.

I mean, I had eaten, prayed, and loved, but not all at the same time because who has time to for that? Maybe Julia Roberts in her Anthropologie cardigan, eating and praying and loving her way through Indonesia. I ate and prayed at the Target food court during my son’s soft pretzel-related meltdown. I loved, but only on anniversary and birthday nights after a bottle of Prosecco and before our daughter sleep walks her way into our bedroom. But doing all three at once? This was the luxury of single people who go to things like Bonnaroo and foreign film festivals. I began to have emotional, self-doubting reactions to vapid Elite Daily articles featuring pictures of blonde 22-year-old girls dancing in the rain, presumably listening to Passion Pit while discovering their calling to fashion merchandising. Talk about an identity paradox! Me, a confident Alpha Female, feeling excluded by a website that describes itself as (verbatim, I must note): “The Voice Of Generation-Y; news from your world delivered the way you want to hear it.”

Gross. Just typing that out gave me vertigo. You couldn’t be more stereotypically Millennial if you stuck Lena Dunham in an American Apparel pop-up in the middle of Coachella.

Then, one rainy Saturday morning, I sat on my couch at dawn, eating a bowl of Kix as my kids watched Cartoon Network (we do these things unironically in my house). “I should sign up for Second City classes,” I thought. I had been talking about joining the Second City writing program for nearly 10 years. Why I didn’t go chase that dream when I was childfree, I have no idea. Maybe if I had watched Hostel through another lens – “Look at those young people! Their arms are being severed by a rusty handsaw, but at least they died a slow and painful death knowing who they truly were inside!” – then maybe I would have signed up earlier.

This was it, I thought. I would finally find myself, and myself would be Amy Poehler. Or Bonnie Hunt. The heads of Second City would call me to their offices and say, “We don’t normally do this, but we see in you what we saw in Tina Fey. We’re going to fast-track you to Saturday Night Live and you’re going to bring your feminine mystique to the Weekend Update desk.” Yes, this is an actual conversation that happened in my head after I pushed “MAKE PAYMENT” button on Second City student registration site.

And now, a year later, I have found something. I found that I am not Tina Fey. I’m not Amy or Bonnie. I am Rachel. I am the same Rachel I was when I was 22, when I was 15, when I was 5. And as I started to write sketches in my classes, drawing from my varied life experiences, it dawned on me that the whole time I was worrying about finding myself, I was living out the experiences that made me who I was supposed to be all along. How could I have written a sketch about two c-suite executives on a date who can only talk dirty in corporate jargon if I never worked for The Man? How could I have written a sketch about sanctimonious cavewomen shaming one another for working in and out of the cave home if I never became a mom?

How could I have written this thought-provoking essay on how a bloody horror film framed up my life’s philosophy if I hadn’t spent 10 years of my life toiling over this crap?

I think this whole modern concept of finding yourself is a myth crafted by people trying to sell you overpriced tickets to three-day music festivals. You were already “you” even if you didn’t celebrate Oktoberfest in Germany, or if you haven’t had an absinthe-fueled one-night stand with a sexy snowman at SantaCon, or if you haven’t danced around in a culturally-appropriated tribal headpiece at an electronica festival. You’re still you if you’re perpetually swiping left on Tinder, or if you’re one half of a boring couple who is eating delivery pizza during a “Big Bang Theory” marathon instead of dry humping strangers at a nightclub. In all of these scenarios, you should be doing these things because you want to, not because you think it all feeds into some grandiose concept of being a 20- or 30-something as illustrated by a series of animated GIFs in a Buzzfeed list.

girls gif

Because, dear Millennials, when our parents held us in their laps back when we were just drooling piles of baby fat rolls, and looked deep into our round little eyes and told us that we were special snowflakes, they didn’t mean “But only if you travel to Ibiza as a house DJ, then build a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand, then buy a brownstone in Brooklyn or else you will have failed.” They really just meant you were special because there’s only one of you and they were glad you came along. That same pile of baby fat rolls is who you are today, just (hopefully) a bit more evolved. Stop chasing some romanticized identity of what you “should” be and seize the authentic moments you’re living right now, cool kid-approved or not.

Whether you want to accept it or not, the real you has been calling the shots all along. Own it and embrace it.