Last June, I turned forty. A dubious milestone no woman strives to achieve but like most unpleasant things in life, aging is completely unavoidable. I took it on the chin. I didn’t take to my bed in a blubbering fit of self-pity, or trade in my 4 door sedan for a zippy Maserati, or wake up with a tequila hangover and a mystery tattoo. Being the boring mature adult that I am, I opted to celebrate with a quiet dinner, a glass of wine, and a Daniel Silva novel.
The first time my age came up in casual conversation, I was honest and straightforward. There’s no shame in forty. Anyway, I don’t really feel any different from when I was 39, even if the elliptical at the gym insists that I somehow burn fewer calories for every forty-five minute workout since my birthday. The evil work of some abstract algorithm, I’m sure.
“You’re forty?” said the young optician measuring my pupillary distance for my new “no-line” bifocals. “You don’t look forty.”
“That’s very generous of you,” I said.
“No, seriously. You look good. I hope I have such good complexion when I’m your age.”
I assured her there was no mistake. I’d seen my birth certificate – born 1972. It had an official seal and everything. At the time, I accepted her declaration as a compliment, vowed to continue using the overpriced anti-aging cream from that high-end department store I loathe, and went on my merry way with a little extra spring in my step. Yes, vanity is a sin; and yes, I’ve been guilty of it on more than one occasion. Sue me. In the seven or eight months since, others have echoed her disbelief, but the initial boost to my ego has waned. I should probably feel jubilant, over the moon even, that I appear to look so young and vibrant – especially, for someone of my advancing years.
I’ve said it before – I am a personality fraught with flaws. The list is endless. Near the top, just beneath chronically phobic is: tends to over-analyze life, often prone to bouts of irrational suspicion in others, and is perpetually awaiting the other shoe to drop. A dangerous trio that makes it impossible for me to let these benign bits of frivolous flattery roll by without further examination.
What does it mean when people say I don’t look forty?
What is forty supposed to look like?
Is there some predetermined criteria?
Am I somehow deficient?
Like most women of any age, I look at myself in the mirror every morning and cringe. I am no great beauty – perhaps passably pretty, if we’re feeling generous. I run on the wrong side of average, with thick thighs and flabby arms. I have to sweat a lot to maintain a consistent weight in the mid-120’s, and I’m not known for my overt fashion sense. My mouth is flanked by laugh lines, the delicate skin around my eyes crinkle ever so slightly when I smile, and every six weeks the silvery-grey hair I work hard to hide winks at me from beneath the glare of the bathroom lights.
It’s an image I’m quite familiar with, and it is an image that has gone virtually unchanged over the last few years. I find it strange that no one commented on how good I might look for my age when I was 37, or 38, or even 39. It’s only after I have reached the pivotal age of forty that I am suddenly an oddity in the eyes of my peers.
This inconsistency makes me wonder by what standard forty is judged. From my own experiences, there seems to be some preconceived notion of one’s physical appearance once a certain age threshold has been crossed. It’s as if at forty, one abruptly reaches the apex of physicality and is then expected to begin a rapid downward spiral into the dark abyss of crippling old age. I am, after all, now traditionally considered “over the hill.” Or so, I’ve been told. But am I really?
A quick internet search told me that in ancient Rome, a woman’s average life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years depending on her social status, the age she married, and the number of children she bore. According to Sarah Woodbury, women living in the Middle Ages fared slightly better reaching an average age of 40. This was, of course, provided she survived infancy, avoided contracting some sort of plague, and didn’t perish giving birth to her own offspring. During the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England, life expectancy hovered around the upper 30s, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, those numbers rebounded to a staggering 50. This upward momentum continued through the 1900s, and today women living in the United States can take comfort in the fact that, on average, they may live to be 82 or so.
I have long wondered what it might be like to live in another time period. Now, I know. It drives home the true meaning of the old adage “life is short.” While I am grateful to have been born in twentieth century, the numbers do paint a sobering picture. At forty, I am now truly middle-aged.
Over the hill. Long in the tooth. A mutton dressed as a lamb.
Perhaps that Maserati isn’t such a bad idea, after all. I wonder if it comes in red.
Even so, this depressing revelation doesn’t answer my original question:
What am I supposed to look like at forty – you know, now that I have statistically reached the midpoint of my life?
Should I have developed a hunch back? A stilted gait? A weather-beaten face?
Should I suddenly forget how to apply make up? Allow my hair the freedom to convert back to its natural gray streaked frizz?
The more I think about the answer to this question, the more I’m convinced that age is simply an outdated societal construct designed to confine individuals to easily discernible categories in order to dictate acceptable behavior. Generally, in our twenties we are considered young and beautiful with carefree spirits and the luxury of worldly ignorance. In our thirties, we are plagued by the pressure of conformity, the harshness of reality, and the need to settle into designated career and familial roles. By forty, any hint of the youthful spirit and beauty of our twenties is thoroughly eradicated and replaced by the exhaustion of motherhood, the cruelty of gravity, free-falling metabolisms, wrinkling skin, and mom jeans. By fifty, we are destined for the early bird specials at the local pancake house and an AARP lifetime membership. Fifteen years later…well…it’s all over but the crying.
Do these categories represent reality? Perhaps there is a measure of truth to be found somewhere floating in the depths of these stereotypes, but I certainly do not believe that we, as individuals, fit into such nice neat boxes. I don’t wear mom jeans, drive a minivan, or feel the weight of motherhood bearing down on me. I did all of that in my early thirties. Now, at the tender age of forty, I am on a wondrous journey of self-discovery and have never felt more alive. This proves to me that I am right in my belief that age is a relative concept. You are only as old as you perceive yourself. I do not perceive myself as old, over the hill, or long in the tooth. Therefore, I am not.
So, what does forty look like?