“I feel old and frumpy.”
I saw Casey staring at herself in the mirror on the wall as I came into the living room. I set the two mugs of tea carefully down on the coffee table, then stood up again and frowned.
“Why in world would you think that?”
“Look at me.” She touched her hair and pulled at her sweatshirt. “This is what a middle-aged woman looks like. I’m starting to look like my mother.”
“You don’t look like your mother!” I sat down on the sofa and patted the seat next to me. “It’s just that mirror. Even I look weird in that mirror. It’s for making the room look bigger, not actually looking at yourself.”
“A mirror is a mirror,” she said. “And this is what I look like in my mirror, too. Old and frumpy.”
Casey wasn’t even 40 yet. She had two kids, and she’d been divorced for three years. She made it work somehow. She dropped the kids off at school, went to work, picked them up from the after-school program, then came home and made dinner and packed lunches and helped with homework. She hadn’t had a vacation in years, though she kept a small Disneyland fund in the hope that someday things would change.
Casey dropped herself onto the sofa with a sigh. “Thanks for the tea. I’ve got to drink more tea. Isn’t green tea supposed to help you lose weight? I could use that.”
“You’re fine. You and I should start going for walks together.”
“When? It’s not like you have the time. Or I have the time. Let’s plan for it when the kids are 18. Then I’ll get my life back.” She laughed, but her laughter had a hard edge.
“Feeling frumpy at 40” is so common that Google suggests it as a search term. The message boards at Netmums are full of mothers complaining about feeling either fat and frumpy or old and frumpy.
One commenter vows that she’s “determined to turn from a fat frumpy forty something failure … into a fun fit fashionable fifty something.” 
Harsh words. But they reflect a feeling many women have in midlife. Their energy is low, they can’t seem to budge those extra pounds, they don’t feel sexy anymore, and life just doesn’t feel fun anymore.
The internet is also full of “miracle cures.” Get your hormones checked. Start a bucket list. Get a Fitbit and hold yourself accountable for 10,000 steps a day. Try this diet. Use this beauty cream.
But there’s something simpler to try first…
And it’s what I suggested to Casey.
“How about dressing up every once in a while?” I told her. “You used to love to dress up. I don’t think I’ve seen you in anything but sneakers and jeans for years.”
“Dressing up is for kids.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I don’t have the body for it anymore.”
“You’d dress up if you had a man in your life.”
“Well, yeah, of course. But I don’t. It’s just me. And the kids don’t care what I look like.”
That’s exactly it.
Most of us will make an effort with our appearance for other people. If we’re going out or seeing clients, we’ll do our hair and makeup and put on something presentable.
But if it’s just us, we’ll slip into comfy yoga pants and slippers. No need to care what we look like. Only how we feel.
What Casey was wearing was certainly comfortable—a sweatshirt and forgiving jeggings—but was it contributing to the sinking feeling she felt when she looked in the mirror?
“What if you wore a dress every once in a while? I know you’ve got some gorgeous ones in your closet.”
“I’d feel weird. I dress up if I’ve got a reason to dress up, but if I dressed like that in everyday life everyone would stare at me.”
“Maybe that might be nice.”
“Nice?” Casey snorted. “I’d be the laughingstock of the office. Everyone would be asking me if I had a new man in my life.”
“So you can get away with looking nice if you’re in a relationship, but single people don’t have the right to dress up? Can’t dress up if you don’t have anyone to dress up for?”
“No!!” Casey laughed. “Well, yeah. I guess. I don’t know. What are you getting at?”
What I was getting at is this…
All of us have this idea about when it’s appropriate to make the extra effort with our appearance.
When do you have the “right” to dress up?
Do you have the right to dress up when you’re a certain dress size?
Do you have the right to dress up when you’re under a certain age?
Do you have the right to dress up only when you’re going out?
What gives you permission to make the extra effort?
Back in my late twenties, I shifted directions from farm work to creative work. I’d spent most of my adult life in loose jeans and work shirts, with muddy shoes and hair shoved under a baseball cap. But now I was working downtown in a centrally-located office. And I didn’t look the part.
I didn’t have gleaming black boots or a long black overcoat. My hair hadn’t seen the inside of a salon in years. My entire wardrobe could (and had) fit into two suitcases.
I was told that my professional success would depend on my ability to convey a certain image. People would form opinions of me based on how I looked. I needed to dress differently if I wanted to project confidence, authority, and expertise.
So I began the slow process of building up my wardrobe.
And it was slow. I started out with cheap black boots and every few years invested in a slightly better pair. I got a cheap black coat that served me until I could afford a better one.
I began to dress well. And I discovered that dressing up made me feel good. I could look sexy as well as polished. The confidence I’d always lacked in my looks started to grow.
Since then, I’ve been conscious of how my wardrobe choices make me feel. That split-second decision in the groggy hours of the early morning—what to grab from the closet—determines the rest of my day. If I wear loose, comfy clothes, I don’t feel as sexy. I feel kind of blah.
But if I grab a shift or a silky top, I feel more confident. I’m more poised and outgoing. Especially if I add some mascara or a swipe of bright lipstick.
I call it “fashion magic.” Because it really does turn my mood around.
Now, maybe you’re nothing like me.
Maybe the clothes that make you feel sexy and confident are jean shorts and a t-shirt, without a stitch of makeup.
But the result is the same.
When you present yourself as your sexy best—even if no one is going to see you, even if no one cares how you look—YOU feel better. You like what you see in the mirror.
“Old and frumpy” is a look. You don’t have to own it.
So go through your closet. Ask yourself: “Does this make me feel frumpy or fabulous?” If the answer is frumpy, don’t keep it. If you can’t bear to get rid of it, stash it in a bag somewhere so you won’t see it when you’re looking for something to wear.
And if everything makes you feel frumpy, you may need some professional help. More and more large department stores are offering personal shoppers as a free service to customers. Find one near you. Take advantage of a free makeover at the makeup counters of Nordstroms, Macy’s, etc. Expand your vision of what a woman your age looks like.
Don’t let your kids or your age or your weight stand between you and the life you dream of.
Maybe all that’s holding you back is your look.
And that’s a lot easier to update than you imagine.