Over the past five years or so, a number of terms have popped up to describe women of a certain age: cougars, MILFs, and now, thanks to author Stephanie Dolgoff, "formerlies," as in "formerly hot." Oh, dear.
Dolgoff explains the term in an interview with the New York Times this weekend, describing how her transition from a 20-something to a 40-something forced her to confront the changes in her life that have come about due to the aging process, noting that the inspiration for her blog-turned-book came from an encounter with a man on the subway, who asked her the time and wasn't, as she'd been used to in the past, trying to pick up on her. In a piece for Self, Dolgoff writes, "In that instant, I got it. Boy, did I ever get it. I was no longer "all that," perhaps no longer even a little of that, whatever that is. I didn't feel like me anymore because I wasn't me anymore. So the question was, Who or what was I now?"
Dolgoff's piece is meant to be a celebration of sorts regarding the aging process, learning to accept that who you were at 21 can't be the person you are at 41, in terms of how you dress and how people respond you, and that that's okay, because there are benefits to shedding a dated identity and embracing who you are today. But there's something relatively defeatist about all of this: Dolgoff accepts society's obsession with youth and the standard definition of "hotness," without challenging the narrow definition of beauty that seems to have swallowed our culture and pushed women in their 40s into an invisible zone where they're expected, as Dolgoff did, to just accept that they aren't "hot" anymore and find joy in other parts of their lives.
But if you're labeling yourself as a "formerly," aren't you still clinging to that past? And aren't you, in a way, allowing the rest of the world to determine your level of attractiveness? Dolgoff's celebration of aging seems to be pretty depressing in that way: "We know our own mind," she writes, "and we're (mostly) done caring too much about what other people think, and we can have a laugh at our own expense. I'm young enough to have fun and old enough to know what fun really is, as opposed to tossing my head back in faux frivolity, as I sometimes did when I was actually hot and supposed to be having the time of my life." Really? Because labeling yourself as "formerly hot," and seems to imply that you care very much about what other people think, and that you're allowing the rest of the world to determine how you view yourself.
It's hard enough for women to age in this world, and submitting to the rigid notion of "hotness" as defined by our teen-obsessed, mass-marketed notions of sexuality and attractiveness is really just waving a white flag: who cares if some guy on the subway thinks you're worth hitting on? Who cares if you can't wear the same mini skirt you wore in college? You don't have be "formerly" anything as long as you are consistently yourself, and proud of who you are, even as you get older and have to deal with the changes that all of us have to face. When we put women into these boxes: cougar, MILF, formerly: we're accepting and celebrating a really messed up idea that a woman's attractiveness and sexuality are linked specifically to their youth, continuing and feeding the very same ideas that lead women to fear aging and to feel as if their self-worth should drop as their age rises.
I'll be 30 soon, and I'm 40 will arrive quicker than I expect it to, but I don't ever want to be a formerly, or a cougar, or a MILF, or placed in any other cutesy-poo box that women are expected to embrace as some sort of empowering term that allows them to be comfortable with their looks or sexuality once they hit a certain age. It's frustrating in that Dolgoff's point, that it's okay to let go of the image you've had of yourself for too long in order to embrace a new one, is solid and fair; she's trying to tell women that it's okay to be upset by the changes but it's also liberating to let go of your past self in order to embrace who you are today. It's a shame then that all of this is being packaged under a term that seems to imply that "hotness" ends at a certain age, as if one can't find a new way of defining hotness once the easy, society-approved way is taken away. Perhaps instead of labeling ourselves as "formerly," anything, we should learn to enjoy the process of shedding our new skins while still celebrating the beauty in our new ones.