April 9, 1996 in Features

Be Prepared, The Wild Girl Will Be Returning Soon

Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syn
 

The best gift for making a conscious, disciplined trip through menopause is “postmenopausal zest.” This is a special, buoyant sort of energy, fueled in part by the hormonal change in ratio of testosterone to estrogen.

Once a woman has come through the menopausal passage, she can say good-bye to pregnancy fears and monthly mood swings. No longer confined by society’s narrow definition of woman as sex object and breeder, she is freer to integrate the masculine and feminine aspects of her nature. She can now claim the license to say what she truly thinks.

Often, when I interview women in their 50s and urge them to recall the girls they were at 10 or 11, they begin to cry. The wrenching change from the freewheeling, funny, fearless tomboys they once were, before being initiated into what writer Anna Quindlen calls the “cult of the nice girl,” is revived in all its painful intensity.

TV producer Linda Ellerbee was warming up as a girl to play third base for the New York Yankees. Told she would have to be very good, she said, “I’ll practice.” Told she would have to grow up, she said, “I’ll wait.” At 12 she was given the real reason: “You have to be a boy.”

Most preadolescent girls show just as feisty a Seeker Self as do boys. Before their periods started, they loved to climb trees, make forts, play touch football, express loud opinions, challenge rules and fight back with boys. But something changes drastically around the ages of 12 and 13.

“Girls dummy up at 12,” affirms model Lauren Hutton. Most of my interviewees agree.

A ground-breaking five-year study by Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown at a Cleveland girls’ school pinpointed the collapse of the Seeker Self. Girls between 7 and 12 were “candid, confident, psychologically astute and shrewd.” But under the weight of societal pressures to be “nice” and “fit in,” that outspoken and purposeful personality was self-censored at 12 or 13, and gradually girls stopped trusting their own perceptions. They began to falsify what they knew and saw and felt. The persona that emerged modeled itself “on the image of the perfectly nice and caring girl.”

After menopause, be prepared for a comeback of the wild girl. A lust for adventure and often a resurgence of athleticism become apparent in women experiencing the Change of Life. I wish I had a penny for every postmenopausal wild girl who’s told me she’s off to climb a mountain or track gorillas without her husband, or she’s resuscitated her tennis game and is now entering tournaments. Risk-taking in their careers and love lives is also more likely.

Writer Linda Francke was a horseback-riding hellion at 11 and 12 and very comfortable with herself. I asked her if there was any correlation between the way she acts now, at 50, and the wild girl she left behind. “Yes, when I was 45 I had a hysterectomy, and that completed the new passage. It returned me to the … focused self I’d inhabited as a young girl. What I’m doing now is more of a mirror of what I was doing when I was 11 or 12. Hormones take up so much of the time in between!”

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The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syndicate


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