How to dress for middle-aged success

Bursitis, sciatica, loss of bladder control: These are not the ailments of youth. Nor are the other complaints my girlfriends and I discuss over lunch. Add in the self-loathing generated by our complaining, and you start to see the full pathos of the aging baby boomer.

These days, I watch firm, smooth-skinned girls walk by with way more lust and envy than my husband does. I want to pinch their perfect flesh. I can no longer discern between a pretty young woman and a homely one because youth alone has become so deliciously beautiful to me.

Ah, if only I had that girl's body, but could keep my current brain. OK, forget my brain, just give me that body. Or my old body back, the one I so foolishly failed to appreciate. Just for a month or two … an hour?

At one recent lunch, my friends and I bemoaned what we had lost, comparing our pains and our financial terrors as middle-aged women (the humans least likely to be hired or valued). The optimist at the table insisted there was a silver lining. She told us that she had begun using "little-old-lady cuteness" where she used to use "cute-girl cuteness" to get her way. She claimed to have gotten a great parking spot at a Dodgers game by calling the attendant "Honey" and telling him she had a sore hip.

But I am not yet ready to embrace my inner granny, at least not until I've got a grandkid to dangle. Still, I've been looking for some upside to this aging business that doesn't involve claiming the early bird senior discount.

I think I've found one. But first, my other realization: that the annoyances of youth linger long after its pleasures have fled.

Take the e-mail I got the other day from a friend, an accomplished woman at the near edge of her 60s. She was writing from her big shiny desk to say that three of her co-workers were getting together for a lunch and didn't include her.

This woman, who should be enjoying her success and competence, instead found herself right back in seventh grade, feeling painfully isolated and awkward. Her hair is thinning and gray, her eyes surrounded by lines, but inside she's still a pimply teenager worried about not being popular.

Those awkward, not-fitting-in-with-your-peers junior high cringes are not that rare, at least for me. Simple costuming challenges can transport me back there in a blink. Whenever I am expected to dress for an event, I am convinced that I have no idea what a normal, mature, contributing member of society wears to, say, her niece's recital.

I write books for a living, and since I communicate with my agent and publisher almost entirely by telephone or text, my requirements for work attire are easily met.

A few years ago, I found I could fill my non-nightgown wardrobe needs at a stall in Chinatown where all shirts are $5. I buy four or five gigantic ones a year and wear them until they dissolve.

But sometimes even the most resistant among us must stumble out into polite society, either to rattle the alms cup, or celebrate something, or graduate, or marry off or bury friends and family. That means appearing among people who have been dressing appropriately every day of their entire adulthood and who don't have to give it a thought.

Whoosh! There I am back to the first day of seventh grade, when wearing the wrong thing could seal my unhipness forever.

Recently, the day before I had to leave to give a talk in Ohio, I found myself rushing from store to store in a shopping panic. I was shown tight, complicated, silly garments made for skinny young people. Get-ups I'd feel and look absurd in. Plus everything had more than quadrupled in price while I'd been out of the fashion game. I found myself wishing I could get my hands on Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.

And that is when I had my revelation: My wish had come true! The one tiny perk of being a frumpy middle-aged woman at whom no one looks twice is exactly the invisibility I've been whining about for the last eight or 12 years. Yes, the invisibility cloak is mine!

As long as I'm not stained or in tatters, as long as I don't smell bad and the worst of my lumps and sags are covered, not a single soul will notice what I'm wearing. I'm free to wear my $5 Chinatown shirts pretty much wherever my shabby nightgown is inappropriate.

This is how I can embrace the aging process and save money and closet space at the same time. I am suddenly excited by the possibilities of flying beneath the radar. Maybe I'll gather a band of generic-looking women-of-a-certain-age to form a crime syndicate. No one will be able to identify our mug shots or describe us to the cops. We will move easily undetected, freely innocuous among the young and firm.

So maybe it's not all backaches and bladder seepage, at least until I hit the rest home at the end of the game. At that point, I'm sure those middle-school concerns will come rushing back. I'll agonize about what to wear to the dining hall. Then, when I get there and attempt to join a table that seems agreeable, I'll be told that the empty seats are all taken.

Amy Goldman Koss' most recent book for teenagers is "The Not-So-Great Depression."

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