My Second Puberty

hair twirl
By Gina Easley

By Eileen Bordy

I worry about how my feet look to the young Thai woman giving me a pedicure. I don’t have any bunions, but my nails have this whitish tinge that I’m ashamed of. The woman sands my weathered heels with a porous, pistachio-colored block.

Across the room, I can see Jennifer Lopez’s face glowing on the cover of InStyle magazine. Her skin is golden and shiny like a flan. I Google her on my phone. She is eight years younger than I am. I take comfort in the fact that, even eight years ago, I never looked that good. I pick up the People magazine on the chair next to me but recognize none of the starlets in the pages. The one actress I do know—Melanie Griffith—I barely recognize. She is no shiny dessert. Something has gone wrong on her face. Her lips are bulbous, cheeks lumpy, eyes startled and buggy. She is building a wall of fillers and neurotoxins to hold back the tide of aging and it isn’t working. I Google her on my phone. She is eight years older than me. I am exactly between Jennifer and Melanie. I wonder if eight more years will do to me what they’ve done to Melanie. I realize that her extensive plastic surgery and too much time in the Hollywood sun may have aged her prematurely, but I also have first-hand experience of how the aging curve isn’t so much a slope, but a cliff. Three years ago I had perfect eyesight, and now I can’t read a book, let alone an aspirin bottle, without my glasses.

My body is beginning to soften and wear out. The skin on my neck is what I heard a woman describe as withering. It’s beginning to look like my mother’s neck, a fine, wrinkly mesh of powder-soft skin. When I see it up close in my magnifying mirror, it startles me. I think there is a stranger in the bathroom. Melanie must know the feeling. My knees hurt after I run, and I understand why Anne Lamott calls her thighs her “aunties.” When I look at mine they seem like relatives. They are dimpled and jiggle when I pat them, like my cat’s belly.

While my physical shell becomes more foreign, there are other changes going on that are all too familiar. I’m increasingly anxious, emotional, and squirrelly, and this woman is no stranger. It’s me at fourteen. Now fifty-one, I’m embarking on my second great hormonal shift. My body is betraying me at the most inopportune times—meetings and crowded trains—but instead of bleeding, I sweat. Hot flashes are disruptive and a total bitch and I have sworn off turtlenecks, wool, and pullover sweaters. Luckily, the hot flashes strike only five to eight times a day—whereas the mood swings go 24/7. I have no control over my emotions.

They are mercury—fluid and slippery—vacillating between anger, worry, and indecision. Like the teenager I was thirty-five years ago, I’ve lost my confidence and not just about my looks. I used to feel strongly about things—the color of a wall, the wording of a headline—and now I second-guess everything. I’ve started buying the same food at the grocery store every week. I thought confidence was supposed to increase with age and experience, but mine seems to be dwindling away along with my muscle tone and eyebrows.

It’s too soon for me to be able to label my fifth decade, but if the first year is going to set any precedent, this decade seems as if it’s going to be one of change. I hate change. My friend calls this transition the second “tweener” stage.


For most of my life, I had a clear purpose. In my twenties, I was focused on my career, dating potential mate material, and drinking as fast as I could. In my thirties, I had two children; that was enough. In my forties, I was busy raising those kids, getting sober, getting divorced, and trying to jumpstart my dead career.

What does a woman do in her fifties? I’m too young for retirement. I’m too tired to harbor exhausting illusions of setting the literary world on fire. I’m no longer eye candy for letches at the gym. I’m done procreating and almost done parenting; my children need my financial, and occasional, moral support, but I could disappear for a few days and they wouldn’t notice. (Really. Last Sunday I returned home from a well-planned girlfriend’s weekend. When I popped my head into my son’s room to say hello, he pulled off his headphones and asked where I’d been.)

When I was younger—like forty-two—I imagined that in my fifties I’d be coming into some Gloria Steinem–style glory, my feet solidly planted, full of knowledge about myself, and secure in my place in the world. I did not expect to feel like a shivery sixteen-year-old girl with wrinkles. Before my divorce, this was going to be a time of my life when I enjoyed a lot of butter, not when I still worried about what I looked like naked.

It’s not that I wasn’t prepared for any of this—people age and get divorced, children grow up—but it still surprised me. Even though the path I’m on is worn from the footsteps of generations of women who have gone before me, I feel lost.

I thought I was a hip mom, the kind who stayed abreast of fashion, trends, and technology. I may not know who Leighton Meester is, but I listen to The Shins. And yet, there are things about my kids I don’t understand. I wouldn’t call it a generation gap, maybe a generation crack. The day I turned sixteen, I ran out and got my driver’s license. It was a rite of passage for me. But my children, now sixteen and eighteen, have no interest in driving. When I prodded, my oldest said, “Why would I want to contribute to the demise of the Earth, which you’ve already destroyed?”

This same son has a friend who is a girl. The first time I walked into his room and found the two of them passed out—one sprawled horizontally on the bed, the other vertically, a “T” for teenagers—I gasped and backed out of the room quietly. Although I had purchased a large tin of condoms for my son—hip mom!—I was shocked. A part of me felt that this was wrong. Should I worry about the young girl’s honor? I definitely felt I should notify her mother and did. She knew. She reassured me that our children were just friends. “All the kids have co-ed sleepovers now. It’s great,” she said, clearly the hippest mom of all.

When I ask my boys how to take video with my iPhone or what SnapChat is and why Facebook would pay millions for it, they give me the look I gave my father when I found out he didn’t know how to use an ATM—that he was a cantankerous footnote in the path of progress. This was not going to be me, and yet this is me.


My anxiety has always been kept in the wings by the grace of youth, knowing there was time to fix things. I miss that grace. People I know and love (some of them my contemporaries) are dying, and I forgot to save for retirement and college and my days are long with work and commute and gym and cooking and cleaning and weed pulling and worry. Now that I’m awash in hormones, my anxiety is center stage, delivering a soliloquy. It’s titled, “You don’t know what you’re doing and your life is almost over.”

I’m standing at my kitchen sink, fanning myself, when outside my window I see my neighbor, Leta, in her yard. She’s two months from turning 102, yet still drives her brown Chevrolet sedan to the market and plays bridge several times a week. Leta’s struggling with an umbrella the wind has blown over. I run over to help. We both decide the umbrella is done for and I close it up and set it on her patio. We sit around her table and she tells me who she’s lost since the last time we spoke: her brother; her friend, Claire; her friend, Nita. She is grateful that she feels good and doesn’t have to rely on a live-in caregiver who might steal from her like Nita’s did, cleaning out her jewelry box and driving off in Nita’s car.

Leta is twice my age. She has been through the tweener and second tweener stages. And yet, she doesn’t really have any wisdom for me. “Life just is,” she says. “You make the best of it.”


A friend invited me to house sit for a week in Mendocino, and my older son said he wanted to go with me. I told him that I’d be reading and writing and walking a lot, that I wasn’t planning on doing a lot of talking. He said that suited him just fine. He was leaving for college in the fall. This would be our last “normal” summer.

At dinner our first night, I expected to sit in silence, but he asked questions: how was my book going, what was my friend’s book about, what did I like to read? He told me he liked abstraction. He liked the fried calamari that he recently had in Berkeley. He liked the book he was reading, The Woman in the Dunes. He was on the other side of his first tweener stage and enjoying his new confidence. All these opinions! “This is who I am,” he was telling me. For now, it is who he is. And this is who I am: a moist, sweaty woman in the middle of a change. It will be okay.


EILEEN BORDY lives and writes in Northern California. She’s almost down to one kid, but she’s up to three cats. She has her fingers, toes, and everything else crossed that her first novel will be published soon.

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When I Was Madonna

By João Carlos Maganin/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

Come on, girls. (I know you know this.) Do you believe in love? (I know you do.) I have something to say about it. (Of course).

It goes like…this.

The video for “Express Yourself” came out when I was in eighth grade. I watched it a million times, splayed out in the recliner with a Diet Coke in one hand and a remote glued to the other. Madonna was on a video gold streak with her “Like a Prayer” album. I watched, captive to MTV, as she pranced in front of burning crosses, frolicked on the beach with mermen, and sat atop a high-rise art deco building, her cropped blonde hair stirring in the breeze.

I didn’t buy her albums or read glossy magazines to follow her antics. There was no need. To a young person then, the Madonna juggernaut mingled with the particulate matter in the air we all breathed.

So it was unremarkable when I, at fifteen, channeled Madonna just by sitting on a stoop on a gray January afternoon during crew practice. Being on the crew team was the one thing that got me off the recliner and away from the TV. At school I half-assed it; there was no half-assing in crew. Ponch, our coach, made sure of that.

Our team had its winter conditioning at a dilapidated former Catholic school. The room that housed our medieval weight machines had a pressed tin ceiling, and when we did bench presses, I’d stare up at random patterns that water stains had made on the peeling white paint. Ponch—who did, in fact, have a paunch—had instructed the girls in my boat to run sprints up the fiercely pitched sidewalk outside while he oversaw the varsity girls’ weight training.

We all felt sluggish that day. After a few halfhearted sprints, I flopped across one of the large stone posts flanking the school’s entrance. And then the Spirit of Madonna entered me, as abrupt and ecstatic as the fiery tip of a spear. Unlike St. Teresa, I did not swoon. I rallied. “Come on girls!” Pause. “Do you believe in love?”

My teammates laughed. I kept going with a catlike crawl on the sidewalk, mimicking what Madonna does later in the “Express Yourself” video. The video has a plot, I think: Madonna, a pampered concubine sequestered in a factory, liberates herself by seducing a strapping, cosmetically dirt-smudged factory worker/male model.

Energized with my impromptu performance, we all attacked our sprinting with newfound vigor. When Ponch sent us out to do sprints again the following day, I sensed my teammates looking at me expectantly. That’s how the Madonna act became a regular feature of crew practice.

At our public high school in rural Southeast Ohio, crew was a sport not for preppies, but for savvy misfits. All of the athletic hippies and punkers and unclassifiables—my tribe!—rowed. Crew girls trained hard and goofed off harder. Practice was one of the few places where I could be myself, and apparently this meant imitating Madonna daily. Once spring came and we took our shells on the water, I modified the act for the narrow confines of our eight-woman shell and did Madonna bits when Ponch’s launch was well downriver. A shell sits only inches above the water, and its slenderness limited dance possibilities, so I’d mainly flail my arms and caress my sports bra before grabbing my crotch as a grand finale. “He’s coming!” our coxswain, Cecelia, would warn me. “Three, put your shirt back on!”

I rowed in the women’s varsity lightweight eight. We were ferociously devoted to each other in the sweet but maddeningly intense way of teenage girls. We spent hours together every week, training our bodies and minds to meld into a collective organism. In the confines of our rickety wooden shell, emotions ran high, and we bonded as snow or sun pummeled us, and we channeled our rampaging energy to tear our boat through the polluted froth of the Ohio River. Often delirious with hunger from the starvation jags we went on in order to get our weights under the dreadful 120-pound limit to compete in the Lightweight division, we elevated incidental bits of nothing—the plastic head of a bunny figurine, the yellow shorts our bow’s crush always wore, most of the words that came from Ponch’s mouth—into elaborate inside jokes. Blisters mottled our palms; black smears of slide grease stained our claves and the backs of our cutoff sweatpants. We practiced six days a week. The only single place I spent more time than the boat was in bed, sleeping.

Madonna quickly joined our complex network of good luck charms, superstitions, and pre-race rituals: the wearing of lucky underwear, the application of temporary tattoos, the stringing of matching beaded necklaces. It worked; we won, and won. Being Madonna was my duty to my team.

“You rowed good today, girls,” Ponch, sporting smudged aviator sunglasses and ever-present black stubble, would tell our boat as we came into the dock after a race with a triumphant outcome. He didn’t dole out compliments often, but we loved it when he did, bad grammar and all.


Secretly, I cooked up a Madonna performance for the hotel where we’d stay during Midwest Championships. The genesis was a very elaborate black lace bra I’d recently persuaded my mom to buy me at Victoria’s Secret—my first actual article of sexy lingerie, something I’d never have considered pre-Madonna. “Justify My Love” had recently come out. The video took place in a hotel. It was too perfect.

The week before, I’d rehearsed in my bedroom instead of studying, because a successful debut of my Madonna routine was undoubtedly top priority. For the costume, I wore the Victoria’s Secret bra and a flowing black silk chador my dad had brought back from his deployment in the United Arab Emirates. My awareness of world affairs was such that I did not recognize the absurdity of adapting Islamic dress for a Madonna impersonation.

I quietly spread word to my boat to come to room 112 after our charter buses brought us back from dinner at the mall. Jittery with nerves, I couldn’t eat a bite, though that was probably in my favor, as I was always tipping the scales at weigh-ins. My boatmates all heaped on the hotel room’s beds as I readied myself in the bathroom. Then I signaled Cecelia to cue “Justify My Love” on the boom box. That tense, confessional beat came on—a countdown—and the stupidity of the situation that I’d constructed hit me. But my boat was out there on the other side of the flimsy bathroom door, waiting. This was my duty to them.

I opened the door, terrified, and it happened again, just like it did in front of the Catholic school: the fiery point of the spear, a force outside of me triggering the intense urges inside of me. Worlds away, the Material Girl herself looked down upon me and smiled. I gyrated. My boat howled.

But my moment was cut short. After the first third of “Justify My Love,” several guys from the men’s junior varsity eight and then a grumbling chaperone crashed the party; panicking, I bolted to the closet, and the crowd scattered. The whole thing lasted all of a few minutes, but writhing in front of the crew team in my new black bra, I had found my bliss. (Where were your coaches? you ask. Where was Ponch? Why, in the hotel courtyard, doubtlessly wearing his threadbare “U.S. BEER TEAM” t-shirt, with a lawn chair and a cooler full of Miller Lite, gladly oblivious to our shrieking shenanigans.) As Sara Bir, I was brash and awkward and clumsy. Boys fled from me; I wallowed in angst and longing. But as Madonna, I was brash and desirable and powerful. It took a long time to fall asleep that night.

Madonna only grew in scope. My audience was receptive, and god knows I was willing. I straddled the sawhorses we rested out shells on; I strutted on ramp pretending to grind my oar; I vogued in the boat as the seven other girls leaned into their oars to keep it set.

For our hotel stay at Nationals the following season, I came up with something more polished and provocative, showcasing a black mini-dress with a built-in stretch satin corset I found at a trashy fashion outlet. I made breast cones out of foil-covered birthday hats and attached rhinestone-crusted spheres to dangle from the tips. It was a bondage-meets-glam masterpiece.

And that second year, when boys turned up our room along with the girls, I didn’t mind. If it took dressing like a sci-fi hooker for them to pay attention to me, fine. They were there, on my terms, and for the ten minutes that followed, I owned that hormone-packed hotel room. With the lights dimmed, I slinked out of the bathroom to a few lines of “Justify My Love” before throwing off the chador to reveal the corset. Cecelia flipped the light switch on, cued up “Like a Virgin,” and everyone sang along as I busted out my amateur choreography. My best friend videotaped the whole thing. It was a hit.

Afterwards, I was all riled up, and so a few of my boatmates and I slipped out to walk around the hotel grounds and see what happened when Madonna mingled with the public. What happened was a fleeting, micro-Mardi Gras. Two boys from another team had their pictures taken with me as they grasped my cone-breasts. It was the first time boys touched me there, and I was thrilled, even if they were groping hollow cardboard and not my actual body.

Tall, slouchy and slight, I didn’t resemble Madonna at all. Fortunately, her attributes were so iconic that it took only a pronounced dot of eyebrow pencil above the lip and a brassy attitude to evoke her. The breast cones didn’t hurt, either. I was a drag queen trapped in the body of a teenage girl. In my mind, I wasn’t imitating her. She and I acted in tandem; we were peers, fellow entertainers. Even back then, in my self-absorbed fog, I was onto her ruse: using this persona is cathartic, a tool.


Perhaps because she feared my Madonna habit was compromising my academic well-being, Mom eventually hid the costume from me. I easily found it crammed in the back of her dresser, upgraded the cones with red velvet, and wore it to school on Rock-n-Roll Day for Spirit Week. I donned the costume at the crew team camping trip, then my freshman college dorm, and then at the run-down lodge in Colorado where I cleaned rooms one dreary summer. (My mother, whose position had softened a bit, kindly sent it at my request).

In my twenties, I kept the costume, which became my backup for Halloween parties, but it elicited disappointingly mild responses, even from the man who is now my husband. Maybe I wasn’t feeling it anymore. Maybe I needed my boat, the best audience ever. So I kept it in my closet, where once a guy who was over for our first date caught a glimmer of cone and corset in the corner of his eye. He got the impression I was into scenes I was not into; it was also our last date.

The Madonna costume itself held up impressively after many moves from apartments and rental houses. The cones would get smooshed a little each time, but with a little cajoling, they’d pop right back into their pointy glory with a resilience worthy of Madge herself. More amazingly, I could still fit into the thing, even after having a kid. But its potency had faded somehow; I had no inclination to wear it. Even for kicks or kinks. In a fit of closet-crap purging, I took it to the Goodwill last year for some lucky vixen wannabe to snatch up. I assumed it couldn’t serve me any longer.


My husband and I have been married for almost ten years. Theoretically, that means I have access to unlimited sex. It means I could make out with the same person every single night. How incredible those prospects would have been to me at sixteen! And how incredible the prospect of making out seems to me now, or to anyone who’s been married for longer than three seconds. Who the hell has time for frivolities like that?

Now I get it. I need that Madonna costume because I have invoices to send, recipes to revise, emails to cull through. There’s a ring of crud around the toilet bowl, a car tire with a slow leak, and a menacing, colorful heap of mismatched little girl socks. There’s a credit card balance that makes mismatched little girl socks positively alluring by comparison. Sometimes I wake up and put together stylish outfits with giant baubles of jewelry and pearly lipstick shades, and it helps, but I consider those piles of neglected tasks and I might as well be shuffling around in fraying pajama bottoms. The prettied-up version of me is still me.

Even Madonna has her own Madonna version of these problems. Even Madonna needs a Madonna costume! Because Madonna Time is not what you do for other people, even if you are dancing right in front of them. It’s not about a spouse or partner, or even your boat. Madonna Time is for you. I want my Madonna Time back. There are no toilet bowl rings in Madonna Time. There are no tire leaks or accounting departments who “never received that invoice.” In Madonna Time, things happen because you make them happen. You are sexy. You are powerful. You have a physical need to be outrageous in public, and you have no issue with that whatsoever.

After I did my youthful Madonna routines, friends would tell me how brave I was. “I could never do that!” they’d confess. But I could never not do that. I grew up and found out that, as adults, our most daring performances are not about what we reveal, but what we successfully cover up.

My best friend still has that videotaped hotel room performance squirreled away somewhere, and thank god I know she’s trustworthy enough not to post it on You Tube, or I’d see a loudmouth teenager with bad makeup and a beaky nose wriggling around half-naked in a desperate plea for attention from her peers. And I’d be massively embarrassed, and also a little proud, because when I was insecure and vulnerable, I was not repressed. I was irrepressible.

They sell birthday hats at the dollar store. I probably have some red velvet fabric somewhere, some tacky glue. Maybe I should ask my best friend to send me that videocassette. It’s time to feel shiny and new again. It can’t be that hard to find a black corset.


SARA BIR, a writer and chef, lives in southeast Ohio. You can read more of her writing at She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

The Sexy Problem

By nvk_/Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.

I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.

Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.

While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.

In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.

I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.

When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.

I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.

But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.

Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.


SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.