I turned 40 a few weeks ago and I will freely admit that it has been a difficult mental transition. While I certainly haven’t been in the ‘young’ category for a while now (the most desirable demographic being 18 – 34 after all), I could at least cling to the fact that I was in my 30s and being in one’s 30s means you at least still have a toehold on youth. But turning 40, there’s no more denying it: I’m middle-aged.
Women today certainly have much more potential and opportunities than previous generations. However, the culture of youth and beauty is still pervasive. Everywhere little girls look, there are messages telling them that it is important — perhaps the most important thing they have in this life — to be young and pretty. At the same time they are getting these messages, they are also being bombarded with the notion that they never will actually be young enough, pretty enough or good enough. Women’s magazines are a parade of articles telling us how we can be skinnier and sexier, advertisers touting make-up and skin creams to maintain our youth, and pictures of models photoshopped and surgically altered to unachievable perfection. Even if you manage to avoid the magazines, it’s still everywhere you look: billboards, tv shows, movies. Some of it is in your face but most of the time, the message is insidiously subtle. If media portrays a smart women, she is almost always smart and beautiful. If they portray a strong women, she’s tough and sexy. We’re taught to desire beauty but are never made to feel like we can attain it — no wonder most women have distorted body image and self-esteem issues.
So, getting back to my most recent birthday. I will never claim to be the most beautiful person in the world but the sight of me has never caused eyeballs to burst in their sockets out of disgust. I’ve had my issues — depression, eating disorder — but I have never seen myself as ugly. Ugly on the inside, maybe, but I could never deny the fact that outwardly I have always earned at least a thumbs up rating. Overall, genetics have served me well: I’m slim, tall, not entirely stupid and generally pleasing to look at. Having said that, I haven’t ever traded on my looks. Not consciously, at least.
The thing is, though, the world treats you differently based on how you look. As a decent-looking woman, doors have been held open for me. People have gone out of their way to help. Shortcomings have been more easily overlooked. Second-third-fourth chances have been freely given. I wasn’t particularly cognizant of it until the natural progression of aging started to take some of that away.
I’m not saying that a woman cannot be beautiful after a certain age. But when society has set you up for decades to believe in the importance of youthful beauty, something hurts inside when you look in the mirror, see the lines on your face and know that your appearance is only going to go downhill from there. That you’ve passed your peak in this one arena and that there is no way to achieve it again. That the doors aren’t being held open any longer and there are no more double-takes. You’re just a middle-age woman and you begin to slip from notice.
‘But 40 is the new 30!’ I find this such an insulting notion, a notion that continues to reinforce the belief that you absolutely, positively must stay young. If 40 is the new 30 and 30 is the new 20, does that mean 20 is the new 10? Of course not. People only say ‘This is the new that’ when they are trying to comfort someone or take the edge off some bad news. And that bad news is that you’re middle-aged now, sweetheart. Deal with it.
This post has been incredibly vain and insensitive on many levels (How about those who are older? Unattractive? Disabled? Marginalized? Oppressed? How does this post make them feel? OH, PRETTY FIRST-WORLD WHITE GIRL PROBLEMS, WAAAAH.) Being aware of this compounds my feelings of guilt over my distress about getting older. I shouldn’t feel bad about this. I have so much to be thankful for and proud of: I excel at my job, am paid well, live comfortably, have a boyfriend I love, and don’t really want for anything. I shouldn’t feel bad but I do.
There. I admit it.
I know I won’t feel this way forever. I am in transition and, at some point, I will realize how silly this all is and how society has been lying to me all these years. Being young is a mental state and beauty comes in many forms. I think I would have realized this sooner if I had children — from what I have observed, vanity goes out the window once you have kids. Not just because you no longer have time to fuss over such things but your perspective — the things you hold important — change when you are responsible for a little human being.
I’ll get there eventually.