There's a common refrain I always hear among women forty-five to fifty-plus. Never mind if we're single, married with kids, or divorced with same. By the time we hit fifty most of us stop caring so much what so many people think of us. We flip our middle fingers at the shoulds and shouldn'ts that used to tyrannize us. We focus on the essential. In short, we finally feel we've earned the right not to give a damn. How very liberating.
How very unfortunate, on the other hand, that this freedom comes so late in life. Every time I speak with women my age about this, I can't help but wonder what life would be like if we grew up from the get-go not giving a damn about being all things to all people, or if we didn't wait half a century to question things that ultimately conspired against a sense of self or personal freedom.
I got agitated by this notion years ago when I lived in France, an older culture where grown-ups seem to have all the fun. Myths and misconceptions about the French abound, but the "sexy older French woman" endures partly because she's real. Even with the inevitable vagaries and tribulations of age, older French women are often unapologetically self-possessed and enjoy life with less guilt bogging them down (guilt: the American woman's evil step-sister). They also don't fret about so many things that tie us Anglo-Saxons in knots, sex being high on that list because, lucky them, they do grow up not giving a damn.
This hit me with a vengeance and spawned a fair amount of writing after I gave birth to my daughter in Paris. I started paying attention to the cross-cultural dogma thrown at girls on both sides of the Atlantic. And it occurred to me that the mandate to be liked and BE like everyone else is hard-wired into the American girl's brain at a terribly young age -- along with the twin burden of being/looking perfect, finding the perfect mate, and having the perfect life. Maybe that's why it takes so long to shake the mindset. The heft of life has to stretch our seams to the limit and make us crazy before, like the movie, something's gotta give.
Raising young kids among cranky but pleasure-loving Gauls, I realized that if French women are so different, it's because as girls they have the opposite mandate hardwired into their brains: If you don't fit a standard mold, you're alluring. If everyone likes you, something suspicious is going on. Being opinionated is actually a good thing. And there's no girlhood pressure to achieve princessly perfection because perfection (and sameness) is boring in France. Lest we forget the French had their share of real princesses and Marie Antoinette's head ended up in a basket. How liberating for them.
The French have tons of baggage, but not our kind of baggage, so it's no surprise that girls grow into older French women with an almost defiant sense of self - older women who generally enjoy the freedom that comes with self-knowledge and experience. And isn't this particular kind of well-seasoned freedom the very thing that gives the older woman her classic allure -- be it for older or for younger men?
How many younger men throughout time gotten their share of carnal knowledge with an older women? One can only guess. I can't help but think of Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, teaching Dustin Hoffman a few things about life. A lot has changed since Mrs. Robinson brought her boozy, high-brow grown-up angst to our silver screen, but we can all recognize her pursuit of passion, no matter how louche it was. She was, in a sense, the first American cougar, full of pathos and vodka.
There are no cougars in France unless you count the ones behind bars in the Paris zoo. That said, many older French women are naturally "cougars" without the glitz and gloss, or the strained heavy-lifting one senses behind the fifty-is-the-new-thirty hype. (Mrs. Robinson was spared.) In a country where flirtation is both a civic duty and the national drug of choice, most French women are ready for love and sex no matter what they look like or what their age might be - or the age of their mate, for that matter. They also don't believe in rules, how-to advice and moral dos-and-don't because their culture largely rejects them. No wonder they don't seem to care about being liked.
Of course there's nothing wrong with trying to be liked. This pleasant national trait makes us Americans among the most civic-minded and friendliest people on the planet, unlike the French, who are too busy not giving a damn. Still, there's a certain freedom -- and often a lot more fun -- that comes with this mindset. And wouldn't it be nice, coming full circle, if we didn't have to wait to be grown-ups to get it?
Follow Debra Ollivier on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@debraso