Sometimes you just have to write…
So today’s my birthday, and it’s got me thinking about telling my age, and about how many women there are who won’t tell their real age.
When I was little, I would ask my mother her age, and she would answer without hesitation “29.” She was 29 for years. I asked her so rarely that it was many years before I remembered long enough to realize that she had given me the same answer as last time. I stopped asking, since it was clear that she wanted to keep her real age a secret.
But why did she do that? Is there something shameful or embarrassing about being past a certain age? Women tend to tell their age up to a certain point, then stop for several decades, and then, once they’re officially “old,” they start telling their age – often as a point of pride – willingly again.
I don’t think it’s about shame; it’s about pride. We consider youth to be beautiful, so we spend an extraordinary amount of time, money and energy trying to stay looking young. If a woman is, for example, 40, when she’s trying her best to look 25, then telling you she’s 40 will destroy the illusion. She’d rather lie and say she’s 30, and hope that you’ll compliment her by saying something like “Wow, I would have guessed younger!” Then she can be proud of what she’s achieved.
One of the arguments about why we have this obsession with youth is the biological: in order to attract a mate and therefore the opportunity to reproduce and pass on your DNA, you have to look like you have many fertile years ahead of you. Middle-aged women, in order to keep the mate they have from moving on to younger, more fertile mates and leaving them alone and unprotected, want to keep looking young and attractive for them.
Obviously, that’s not a complete explanation. Biology can’t ever completely explain human behavior because we so often do things that are contrary to that purely mechanistic explanation. And we don’t need a mate just for protection or for caring for the children anymore. It helps, but it’s not about survival of the DNA anymore.
And why is it so important that we be “beautiful” anyway? Certainly the advertising industry insists on it in order to sell beauty products. But no one seems to agree on what is beautiful anyway: people grow up seeing the image of beauty that the advertising industry presents, yet go ahead and form relationships with people who don’t even come close to that image. In relationships, it’s not about how we look; it’s about personalities and how they interact. Yet, even when we’re in a comfortable, long-lasting relationship, we want to look young.
I don’t understand it. And I decided long ago not to buy into it. I rarely put on makeup, I try not to obsess too much about my skin with its increasing speckles and reducing elasticity, I don’t dye my hair that is beginning to go gray. Think of how much money I save compared to women who do all these things!
Yet, in conversations with other women, I find myself making comments about how lucky I am that my mother and grandmother went gray so late and that I seem to have inherited that trait. I do perm my hair to keep it curly rather than its natural, vaguely wavy shape. And I do spend an awful lot of my life on a diet to fight my distinct tendency to overeat and gain weight. I rationalize that by telling myself that it’s about my health, not my looks, but we all know that’s not the truth or, for the sake of my health, I’d exercise a lot more than I do. It’s not about “keeping my mate” either. He stuck with me when I was 20 kilos heavier and generally disapproves of anything artificial like makeup. Yet here I am, perming and dieting.
So here it is: the big reveal. Today’s my birthday and I’m 51. Ta-da!