I went to an all-boys school. Really, I did. I was in the first class of girls admitted to a fusty old private school, and our first year, we had to change for swim class in the nurse's office. It was the very definition of old-school: Before we arrived, the boys swam in the nude, like they did in Sparta.
Until our year graduated, former students were known as "old boys." When they were confronted with the possibility of the less attractive sounding "old girls," the school switched into seventies neutral and renamed us all alumni.
But seriously, what are old girls supposed to be called? Is there an acceptable name for those of us no longer delectable enough to be called yummy mummies, and who would rather not be referred to as cougars?
No one I know likes "mature," "advancing" or "seasoned". The last, made famous by Gail Sheehy, is truly silly. A new production of the Nightwood Theatre company opening this week in Toronto calls us "Extreme Women" (a BBC reviewer describes one of the playwrights' themes as "the inability of women to fully come to life in a world where they are painted over with stereotypical images").
There's such confusion out there about who and what we are that a new online "community" (sponsored by the makers of the cosmetic filler Restylane), launched this week for women to "share their mindset on aging," is actually called www.defineyourself.ca.
According to the Body Shop, which, like everybody else out there, is busily targeting our demographic (smart, when you consider that our credit limit is probably right up there with our desperation), we are Wise Women. Its new Wise Woman Skin Care Collection, a "celebration" of mature womanhood, is based on global research that found "when many women reach their 50s and 60s they hit a 'well-being peak,' when they often experience higher level confidence and emotional and spiritual contentment" (life's little consolation prize for those who must soldier on without wolf whistles).
Apparently once we get there, we Wise Women will "know who [we]are, what [we]want and … how to go about getting it."
What we want might be a $35 Wise Woman day cream that reduces fine lines or a $26 Wise Woman eye cream that reduces dark circles. Never mind how stupid we must be to believe that red clover, wild yam and starflower oil will make us look unscathed by our lives. If we're so damn smart, why do we feel nameless?
I asked around, and my friends, all of "a certain age," were stumped. "How about 'woman?' " one suggested. "Lady seems outdated and we are not girls." (The problem with "lady" and "girl" is that one can immediately hear them drawled in a dismissive tone - in the first case by fed-up male mechanics and in the second by nasty gym teachers. Otherwise, I'd be all in favour of reclaiming "lady," although I do take her point on "girls.") One friend, perhaps inspired by Douglas Coupland - or more likely feeling beleaguered - offered "the YYY [why why why]Generation."
Another was earthier. "We're more interesting than we were in our 30s, and more confident. We're at our sexual peak! We have younger lovers. We own our bodies and we're comfortable in our skin. I think we're the va-va-boomers!" (By and large, my friends are strangely upbeat about the cruel chain of events that has landed us in an unnamed position.) Observing that women our age are increasingly dominating the conversation, one girlfriend waxed literary. "I think we women in our 40s are louder than we used to be, and it is an improvement," she said. "Men have to go and hang out in the kitchen now to talk. I therefore suggest thinking of us as 'whistling women,' from A.S. Byatt's book A Whistling Woman. It was inspired by something her grandmother used to say: 'A whistling woman and a crowing hen is neither good for God nor men.' " Taking all of this into consideration, I've come up with my own tag. From now on, as far I'm concerned, they can call us "fortissimas" (or if we wanted it on a vanity plate, 4T-SIMA). It seems to sum up the take-no-prisoners attitude of the 40-plus divas out there.
Our mothers said names can never hurt us. The hard truth, however, is that if we think names don't matter, we're fooling ourselves. Being nameless is just a symptom of our confusion over who we are now and what we want to be.
And every one of my friends, accomplished alumni though they may be, still remembers the pinch the first time they were called "Madam" by a salesperson instead of "Miss."