The other day someone asked my age, and when I told them I was about to turn 30, they replied “oh wow! You don’t look it!”
I absolutely do, but more to the point: what’s the rest of my life meant to be like if 29 is already an age that I shouldn’t want to look? Shall I just hop into a freezer now and save us all some trouble?
However sulky I am about such well-meaning comments, the assumption that I would want to look younger than I am doesn’t arise in a vacuum. From Hollywood, where actresses’ careers peak at 30 (vs men’s at 46), to the incel corner of Twitter that cackles gleefully about famous women – Emma Watson, Aubrey Plaza – “hitting the wall”, from teens talking casually about Botox, to the checkout attendant at my local supermarket whose pantomime of asking for my ID when I pop in for a bottle of wine makes my heart sink.
Life is brimming with voices jostling to remind you that, as a woman, your stocks are about to plummet; that is, if they haven’t already. If I’m under pressure to look younger at 29, how are women in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond supposed to feel?
Society’s fetishistic appetite for youth is doubly cruel, because not only does it glamourise going backwards (to smoother skin, sure, but also to a time when we were less powerful, less interesting), but it steals the pleasure of moving forward too.
With my 30th birthday just a month away, my excitement about leaping into a fresh new decade should surely be soured; after all, aren’t I about to hit the wall? Aren’t I about to become invisible, and redundant? Despite the comprehensive messaging, dating back to childhood fairy stories about mean old witches persecuting pretty princesses, I am delighted to report that I have found no shortage of advantages to ageing thus far.
Between the ages of, say, 19 and 27 (when a certain global emergency threw everything out the window), my priorities were limited to getting very drunk, looking very cool, and smoking a roll-up at any given opportunity. Now I have milk in the fridge, nicer olive oil and flowers in the flat, which I clean more than once per tenancy.
These are pleasures you could not have convinced me of before my prefrontal cortex had finished developing; now I’ve got the hang of my new neural faculties, but I’m still not entirely over the novelty. (Did you know, for instance, that if you water a plant every week, it will probably survive? I am delighted.)
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m settling down, cleaning up my act, or any other euphemisms for being quiet and behaving myself. On the contrary, my world feels larger than ever. A large part of that is down to the most resounding upshot of getting older – that is, being taken seriously.
Honestly, the world is one big gaslight for a woman in her early twenties – it wouldn’t matter what she was saying, the battle to be heard and considered a whole person is so huge that it can feel like it’s not worth having.
While to a degree, that will never stop entirely (I might be getting older, but I’m still female) the last year or so has brought with it a feeling of coming into focus; a sense that I am increasingly visible to people, which in turn has made me feel increasingly present. Quite apart from fading away as Hollywood threatened, I am more here than ever.
A culture that conflates youth and beauty values women for how they look rather than what they do. But I’m delighted to report – from the deep hinterlands of 29 – that life is better this side of the watershed. Don’t waste your time paddling against the current; it’s a lie designed to tucker you out; the joy is in the doing, not the looking or the longing. Besides, there’s no time.
I’ve always been rather taken with Oliver Burkeman’s idea of counting a life in weeks: 4,000, that is, around 80 years. Put like that, doesn’t even an objectively good innings sound unbearably short?
A thousand weeks until your 20s (at least a hundred given over to the agony and indignity of puberty), at which point society would already like you to be panicking about looking old even though your brain hasn’t finished cooking. By my count (touch wood) I’ve got just over 2,400 weeks left; I’m not wasting a single one wishing I looked younger. I’m too busy buying flowers.