I met three friends from primary school for dinner a few months ago and one of them declared, as we settled into our seats: "Everyone still looks the same!"

I took that as a grand compliment.

We last met about five years ago at a wedding, so we already had a good idea of how we all turned out.

But this was the first time we were catching up after crossing over to the wrong side of 40, so there was scope for surprises. Luckily, there were none.

It used to be that I would be thrilled only by comments that were clearly positive. "You are looking good", for example.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

But after hitting 40 last year, I've been making little mental and physical adjustments here and there, often without realising it.

It is as if, after clambering over the symbolic barrier that heralds the start of "over the hill", I have rebooted my expectations and redrawn my boundaries, even if I don't feel the least bit middle-aged.

Now, I will happily settle for looking the same.

I've stopped addressing every friend of my parents as uncle or auntie by default, as we were trained to do from young as a sign of respect for our elders.

At a funeral wake last year, my mum introduced me to a church friend of hers and I bit back the word "uncle" just in time as I took in his unlined face and dark hair.

"I've reached a new milestone," I told my mum later. "I no longer have the luxury of assuming that every friend of yours is older, or that much older, than me."

She laughed. "You will get used to it." And so I have. I'm now on the receiving end of the "auntie" label, and not just as a greeting uttered by children.

Once, after I expressed my weakness for kueh lapis with prunes, a younger colleague made a face and delivered a damning verdict: "That's so auntie."

To this day, I'm not sure what gave me away. Was it the kueh lapis or the prune bit? I'd been too surprised - and hurt - to ask.

But while standing at the supermarket check-out line the other day, I struck up an easy conversation with a woman behind me, who had spotted four packets of blueberries in my shopping trolley.

"So many? Cheap ah?" she asked with a smile.

"Yes," I replied. "There's a promotion."

We proceeded to look over the contents of each other's trolley and swop information on the best buys that week.

"That was an auntie moment," a friend agreed when I shared the incident to illustrate my climbing auntie index. "I do that all the time at the wet market too."

So bit by bit, I am making new discoveries beyond the usual sprouting of fine lines and grey strands that sound the death knell over my youth.

The radio station I once skipped for its unfamiliar oldies now plays songs that I grew up with, only they have been rebranded classics.

I've grown used to scrolling down, down and then down some more for the correct year when filling in my date of birth for various online services.

It no longer feels right for me to be fangirling over the latest crop of Hollywood and Hallyu leading men, seeing that many of them are at least 10 years younger.

I can't bring myself to use texting shorthand like "idk" and "imho" either, because it connotes a certain lazy, carefree flippancy that I'm too old and proper to feel. I struggle even with "lol".

What comes easily, though, is the tendency to lament about "young people these days" for their lack of drive, manners and resilience - the same complaints the previous generations had about us.

Unlike our mums and grandmas, however, women my generation aren't bowing out without a fight.

Perceptions of middle age have changed. Forty, said USA Today, is like the new Sweet 16, a milestone marked by giddy parties and merry getaways.

It's more a mid-point awakening than a mid-life crisis, a second shot at making good unfulfilled dreams or newfound hopes now that we have more resources and, hopefully, wisdom.

A recent study found that women grow comfortable with themselves only at age 42, after spending their 20s and 30s worrying about what others think of them.

The study, commissioned by consumer giant P&G as it launched a new online community and magazine aimed at older women, polled 1,000 women aged 50 and over.

A spokesman for the new portal said: "Your younger years may be more fun and energetic, but they are also full of insecurity and worry as you try to navigate early careers and relationships as well as learn what you enjoy and what suits you.

"But as you reach your 40s, you settle down into your own skin and begin to feel completely comfortable in what you do, what you look like and what others think of you."

Friends around my age have taken up new hobbies, exercise regimens and/or diet plans to keep their minds and bodies in shape.

Two took up running in recent months and say they have never felt better. Another halved her daily carbohydrate intake, signed up for a K-pop fitness class and made an ecstatic announcement on our WhatsApp chat group when her weight finally dropped below 50kg.

We don't necessarily want to look younger. But we want to look and feel our best, for ourselves, for as long as we can.

Hopefully, when we next meet, my primary schoolmate can still say with conviction that I look the same.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Life after 40'. Print Edition | Subscribe