It started happening around the time I turned 27 years old. I’d be out on a pleasure-seeking mission, testing the limits of my liver and my sense of rhythm. At some point, I’d get just tipsy enough to pause my hip gyrating and talk to a stranger. After working my drunken charms on them, they’d ask me how old I was. Still safely in my mid-twenties, the question had yet to harbor any baggage, so I’d exclaim, “27!” whilst performing a high kick.
Their reply: “Really? But you look so young.”
Translation: “Wow, you sure fooled me old lady.”
Had this backhanded compliment crossed my path once or twice, I could’ve dismissed it. But it kept happening, over and over. One conversation stands out in particular. I was out to coffee with a coworker who’d recently moved to Hanoi, where I was living at the time. Here’s a snippet from our conversation:
Girl: So, how long have you been living here?
Sarah: Three years.
Girl: Wow, that’s a really long time.
Sarah: Well, I only planned on being here a year or two, but it’s flown by.
Girl: Huh…I guess at your age three years isn’t really that long, relatively speaking.
Sarah: [Face contorts into befuddled look before slowly morphing into death stare, which proves ineffective at killing or even maiming Girl, the smugness of her youth shield being too thick to penetrate.]
At the time of this conversation, I was 28 and she was 22. Let’s do the math, shall we: those three years represented roughly 11% of my life at the time and 14% of hers. Was that 3% such a long bridge to cross?
Passing the 30 year mark has only intensified this experience. When I recently told a twenty-something guy that I graduated from college in 2005, he blurted out, “What are you, 49?” Kids these days. Not even polite enough to mask their disbelief over the fact that I managed to escape the house for an evening. Shouldn’t I be tied to a baby somewhere? Reading Ladies’ Home Journal in a snuggie…unironically?
Is the lesson here that I should stop associating with people born after 1985? Well, that’s no solution; they’re so pretty to look at! And let’s face it, they’re significantly more likely to go out with you for a night on the town or spur-of-the-moment road trip. No, the real lesson behind these encounters is what they reveal about our unhealthy relationship with aging. It’s pretty bad when we start viewing both ourselves and others as old in our late twenties and begin panicking as we reach 30. What collective insanity is this?
I find the anxiety around turning 30 to be depressingly neurotic and self-pitying, worthy of being added to the heaping pile of first world problems. Despite feeling this way, I fall prey to it more than I’d like to admit. I toss around self-deprecating jokes about my body’s decline, I feel overly nostalgic of the past (read: 3 years ago), and so on.
Am I simply internalizing our culture’s hysteria over aging? Line up the usual suspects: Hollywood, advertising, the beauty industrial complex, all the appropriate -isms (ageism, sexism, individualism, ableism, and let’s throw in racism too for good measure).
Or am I just going through a transition, and true to form, failing to do so gracefully? I’ll concede that some of the anxieties associated with turning 30 are understandable:
Beauty Hang-Ups: As a female, I am contractually obligated to place most of my self-worth on my level of attractiveness. I believe the fine print of this agreement states that roughly 70% of my self-esteem is to be determined by my level of hotness in relation to the gold standard (Beyoncé circa 2010). Aging only increases the already vast distance between myself and this ideal.
Reasoning that I have a maximum of two or three “hot years” left, I’m more preoccupied with my appearance now than I have been in years. The horror. I’m mildly obsessed with the inability of my laugh lines to disappear once I stop laughing. I’m equally dismayed by the failure of makeup to hide these lines, since makeup has always faithfully hidden my skin’s flaws in the past. Fears about my decreasing dateability creep in every time someone flirts with me. “Focus Sarah, this won’t happen to you anymore post-hot years. Bask in the attention while you still can! Bask I say!” While the consequences of declining sex appeal are more severe for women, men struggle with it too. Grey hair may pass as “distinguished” on men, but balding seems to do a number on the ego.
Mortality Hang-Ups: Adding insult to injury, it’s around this time that your body starts sending you little reminders of your mortality. Assuming that disease and death were tragedies that happened to other people, you used to drink and smoke and chug bacon grease with wild abandon. Now, your body makes you pay for these indulgences, ruining your insides for days at a time.
Achievement Hang-Ups: Once you hit 30, you start feeling the pressure to make something of yourself. You’ve had plenty of time to figure out your adult life, so let’s see what you have to show for it. Oh seriously? You still don’t know what you wanna be when you grow up? But you see, you are grown up, so this thing that you’re doing now? This is it. Yup. Deal with it. Stop waiting around for your life to start, dummy.
The Fade Away: To me, the most distressing aspect to getting older is not declining beauty, body ailments, or career dilemmas. It is the fear of fading away. In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill writes:
“We applied our muzzy intellects to a theory of light. That all are born radiating light but that this light diminished slowly (if one was lucky) or abruptly (if one was not). The most charismatic people – the poets, the mystics, the explorers – were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of this light that was meant to have dimmed. But the shocking thing, the unbearable thing it seemed, was that the natural order was for this light to vanish. It hung on sometimes through the twenties, a glint here or there in the thirties, and then almost always the eyes went dark.”
This is what good writers do. They crack you open and show you what your insides look like. This theory of light gave me a good, hard punch in the stomach because this is something I grapple with: the fear that the best times have already come and gone, the fear that my best self has already come and gone, and the fear that whatever potential I did possess I’ve wasted foolishly.
Believing this theory, however, requires a revisionist interpretation of the past and a giving up on the future. Examining my younger years more frankly, I find plenty of thrills and adventures, but also a great degree of anxiety, confusion, and self-doubt. Basically, I was a neurotic mess, freaking out over my identity and others’ impressions of me. Every age has its own set of challenges. Observing my niece as she navigates going to school for the first time, negotiating with her family and peers, and figuring out what it means to be a girl, I see that even being a five year old is no picnic.
Just like there are advantages to being young and sprightly, there are also advantages to getting older. So far, I find that the biggest gift of my thirties is having a greater awareness and acceptance of myself for who I actually am, not who I wish I could be. I still struggle with it and I strive to be better, but I’m easier on both myself and others. Although slow, I do feel my focus starting to shift to the larger questions in life and how to make it count. I doubt I’ll ever stop chasing after pleasure, but it’s becoming more important to also chase after meaning. These days I’m just as likely to marvel at the man on the bus telling me stories about his granddaughter as I am the killer dance party I just went to. Perhaps that is what is meant by aging gracefully – rather than getting set in your ways, clinging to the past, and panicking over frown lines, you allow time to soften you and open you up. You use the experience and resources you’ve gained over the years to achieve things you couldn’t have before and to live more fully.
So perhaps the theory of light needs some tweaking. Maybe the light doesn’t have to dim. It only dims if you fail to redirect it. Light thrives when you respond to and harness its energy as it changes over time. An optimistic theory, I realize. I’ll get to work trying to convince myself of it.
“Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.” ― Maya Angelou
Footnotes, because I overuse parentheses enough as it is, and I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace lately:
- Granted, self-deprecating jokes are my favorite kind of jokes, so I’m jumping at the opportunity to exploit this whole new area as a means for making fun of myself.
- See, I can’t help myself. I’m even making fun of myself for making fun of myself. It’s out of control.
- Is this why people have children? Because they radiate light? Reading this, I realize that my own theory has been that when you have a child, you transfer your light to them. Light is a finite resource, and being reluctant to give mine up, I recoil from the whole enterprise. It seems equally likely, however, that having children simply assures that you always have a source of light nearby. So if your own light dims, you’re never too far from brightness.
- In my case, getting older means being in my thirties, which I do recognize isn’t that old. So, any forty-plus-something readers, please know that I acknowledge and accept your eye rolling at my attempts to comment on the phenomenon of aging.