What does it mean to be “middle aged”? Is it the time when we stop wanting to follow fashion and look for comfort? Wince at high heels and long for slippers? Is it when we no longer worry about leaving the house without makeup on because no one is looking at us anymore?
In the modern era, the term “middle aged” is a protean referral used to denote the extensive period of life following young adulthood and prior to old age. Despite the flexible nature of the referral, we are quick to identify others as middle aged and consequently attach a mass of preconceived ideals in regards to what it means to be at this midway point.
A recent article entitled “Beauty, Ageing, And The Expansion Of Our Sympathies: What George Eliot Teaches Us About The Rewards Of Middle Age”, written by Michelle Legro, explores what middle age meant to one of Britain’s greatest female authors and what we may learn about the nature of beauty and age in our era.
Eliot, the pen name to Mary Ann-Evans, was not gifted with youth or beauty and Middlemarch was a book that was to be about what youth is, in essence, and about middle age. According to one academic, while visitors often commented on her distinct lack of aesthetic allure, her intelligence and charm rendered her beautiful. Eliot perceived middle age as a great expansive period ripe for crafting her longest work, and saw middle age as a reward of youth - for youth was only worth enduring for the sake of middle age. Within this mind-set, middle age becomes ‘life itself’, not a distinct or celebrated period of life, but life, and an expansive and fertile period of life in sum. It was a time learning, self-realization, and personal development - a period for moving beyond one’s own self-centredness and extending our conceptions of beauty and youth beyond the bounds of the flesh, to find pleasure in growing older.
Should we follow Eliot’s example and seek to understand middle age as something to embrace, as a period poised for personal development? A time within the expansive our life important only in so far as we pass through it? Alternatively, should we simply give up, regard ourselves as growing old, and merge into the background?