Friday, April 12, 2013

Preempting past-it

The past-it-ness of women at or just past legal drinking age is one of the topics-du-jour. Or was, before Ms. Paltrow's riveting occasional tobacco use took its spot.

I'm trying to remember if I felt old at 22-ish, but that was a while ago, and my memory isn't what it once was. With the help of WWPD archives, I learn that in 2005 I found it hilarious that John Derbyshire thought women past 20 were over the hill (as well as disturbing how enthusiastic he was about 15-year-olds). Oh, and that some Northwestern frat boys announced a preference for freshman girls, the point being that any older and the Freshman 15 may have made an appearance. So I suppose it was around this age that I first realized there were, in the world, a subset of adult men, who were not strictly speaking pedophiles, for whom I'd be too old.

But I wasn't losing sleep over this. As a senior in college, I don't remember ever thinking that my peers lacked romantic options on account of haggardness, and indeed this was when some of my female friends got serious boyfriends. Part of this no doubt had to do with the relatively large graduate school, as well as with UChicago undergrads liking grad students. I do remember thinking I looked old when I would commute to my post-college office job, sleepy and in office-clothes. But I also remember fearing I looked too young when, at 24, I started teaching undergrads. Plus, I read the same magazines as everybody else, heard the same anecdotes: One hears of 50-year-old women ditched for absolute children of 36. 'Younger woman' is relative.

I crossed over from Girl to Woman at 26 or 27, when I started getting ma'am'd. That did make an impression. There was no pretending that because of whichever superficial young-person traits I still had/have, the overall impression is such that I could pass for a high-school student.

But from that point on, I probably have been guilty of what is apparently a "SWUG" ("senior washed-up girl") attitude (although I'd never heard of it until skimming that article): assuming, prematurely, that I've reached the age of female invisibility. We're meant to call this "SWUG" thing anti-feminist and offensive, and it may be both of those things (as I said, I only skimmed), but it might also be something real, and experienced beyond whichever clique at Yale.

I suppose part of the appeal of a "SWUG" stance is wishful thinking. Most male attention isn't of the respectful, uplifting, Keanu-would-like-to-get-coffee-with-you-if-that's-OK variety. Some is downright menacing. And once one is wearing the married-jewelry, once one is known to be married online and off, this somehow filters out any flattering/innocuous male attention and leaves over only the creepy and inappropriate, because - apologies to Dan Savage's "monogamish" brigade - that tends to be who hits on the married. Single or coupled, there's something to be said, in certain situations, for projecting "hag."

But some of it is probably also a way of psychologically preparing one's self for the day when one really is, well, old. 29? Not that old. And that's probably where self-deprecation - see the "old age" tag - enters into it. I've heard enough times, not from PUA bloggers, not from contrarian defenders of street harassment, but from reasonable women, and not ones who were once supermodels, that the day comes when the attention stops, and that it's depressing when this happens. Although it doesn't happen to French women, so perhaps one can just move to France. But point being, there is a certain temptation to preempt the whole thing and declare one's general-audience allure kaput before it really is.


caryatis said...

I think there's a tipping point when the majority of your social group goes from being single to being coupled. And seriously coupled. I used to go to parties and there was at least the theoretical possibility of sex with most of the men there. That possibility was present in every conversation. That's not the case when most men around me have wives or serious girlfriends. I don't even notice whether they're attracted to me anymore.

Phoebe said...

That's true, but as true for single men as for single women, presumably. So that isn't really a question of female allure diminishing - or seeming to diminish - with age.

Britta said...

Yes. Most of the "women are washed up after age X" articles assume that women are desperate for literally any male attention, so the loss of a single man's possible interest is devastating. If a man thinks I am "washed up" at 30, he is not a man I would be interested in dating for many reasons. That men self filter actually saves women the work of having to do filtering. This is separate from the issue that men who hit on women who look young tend to be disproportionately creepy, but is true for many "non-sexy" things I'm supposed to worry about, like being a grad student, or being divorced. If any of these are deal breakers on the guy's part, the fact they're deal breakers indicates a worldview which is a deal breaker for me.

Finally, I really believe a lot of being washed up is an attitude thing. Maybe I am just arrogant, but I don't consider myself less hot at my current age than I was 5 or 10 years ago (if anything, it's the reverse), nor do I even consider than men who I am interested in wouldn't be interested in me because of my age. At 30, I recognize that 20 year olds might not be attracted to me because I look old, but I'm no longer attracted to them either, since they look about 12 to me. I get there do exist men who want trophy wives, or who "trade in" at 50, but it seems far more common as a cultural trope than as an actual occurrence. Anecdotes aren't data, but I can't think of a single instance of this in real life, and n is in the hundreds, factoring in family friends, friends' parents, and my mother's extended social network. In my experience, men want someone around their own age or maybe a bit younger, and there are single men at all ages, and, as you point out, young is relative. A 50 year old woman can find a 50-60 year old man, a 70 year old woman a 70-80 year old man. It might be harder to be a 40 yo woman who wants to seriously date 25 yo men than the reverse, but AFAIK there aren't that many women looking to do that.

But...anyways, this is a long way to say that, IME, if one thinks one is old and undesirable that often can be a self fulfilling prophesy, one has very little to do with any objective reality of men not wanting to date hags over 25. I know women with very conventional gender views who are desperate for LT relationships and who feel they're over the hill and missed the 'sweet spot' for landing a man (mid 20s). While these women are beautiful and have some amazing things going for them, their attitude towards dating (desperation, pessimism, a sense of fatality, & bitterness) is such that they have no success, reinforcing their viewpoint.

Britta said...

On the SWUG phenomenon more specifically, it's hard to think that anyone older or more mature than a 21/22 year old could come up with this. Playing mindgames with men because one can? Trying (literally) to be one of the bros? These women seem old in the way I thought I looked "adult" by putting on my mother's makeup at age 11.

Petey said...

"Maybe I am just arrogant, but I don't consider myself less hot at my current age than I was 5 or 10 years ago (if anything, it's the reverse)"

Well, there is the compensation women get when they hit 30 in exchange for having less selection, namely that they tend to be entering the peak of their sexual pleasure capabilities.

I've always thought allah played a somewhat cruel joke on us all in so dramatically separating "peak of sexual pleasure" from "peak of sexual pull". Males' peak of sexual pleasure comes around 20yo when they find it hard to compete for selection against all the older males. Females' peak of sexual pleasure comes in their 30's when they find it hard to compete for selection against all the younger females. It all seems a poor design decision to me.

Britta said...


I've heard this theory before (e.g. that 30 year old women must compete disadvantageously with 20 year olds), almost always from single men, except I've never actually seen this exist as a thing in real life. Beyond armchair musings, is there actually any evidence that this is a phenomenon outside of countries where women are supposed to marry young to bear as many children as possible? Personal experience would indicate an upward slope of desirable males hitting on me. (Yes yes, I get hit on by fewer homeless men or threatening drunks than I did at 17, but it's made up for* by getting hit on by more attractive, employed men around my own age.)

*To the extent I like being hit on at all, which is not very much.

Phoebe said...


In terms of "hag" being self-fulfilling prophecy, part of what I was getting at was that sometimes women seek that out. If you're not looking for a dude, you might simultaneously want, in the abstract, to be attractive, and not actually want to attract. Or you might be a woman who wants to attract in some but not all settings, and projecting "hag" in a professional environment, say, might seem useful.

Britta, Petey,

The truth is somewhere between both of your takes. 30-year-old women do, in a sense, have fewer options. Of course, so do 30-year-old men. Not being in college anymore is a big deal for both sexes. There isn't this great pool of 20-year-old women interested in dating 45-year-old men with nothing much going for them, so this is really about the relative options of a super-powerful 45-year-old man vs. his female equivalent. (Britta, my sense re: how common it is for men to ditch their same-age wives for much-younger women likely relates to where I grew up. This was very much a thing. But overall, maybe less common.)

Also, it depends what one means options for. Much-older men interested in 20-year-olds tend not to want to settle down, thus the appeal of 20-year-olds. Older men who want 20-year-olds because they have the most fertile years ahead of them... might exist in some fundamentalist religious sects, but are mostly part of some pick-up-artist fantasy of how the world works. And the most attention does tend to be received by the very young - 12 to 17, say - but this doesn't tell us that all men, were it not for the law, would go for that age range. It tells us that young girls are the most easily intimidated, and the goal of street harassment is to get a rise out of someone.

Britta said...

Ironically, I know a 50+ man who married his 30-something year old secretary, but this was after his wife left him for another man. I also know a few men who've left their wives for other women, but the other women tend to be around the same age as the husband and previous wife. Among baby boomers in my social network, there was a rash of divorces at about 30 years of marriage (I can think of 6 cases off the top of my head), and in all but one the wife was re-partnered as fast as or even sooner than the husband, to a partner of equal or higher value, in PUA/ev psych terms (i.e. high wealth and status).

I mean, I agree that as a society we value youth for beauty, but I feel like most people in life don't solely seek to maximize beauty in their relationships, and also tend to seek out other people who are similar to them in many ways, including looks. Maybe an analogy is a male 6-pack? Like, I admit that 6-packs look good, and that they're more socially desirable than a flabby stomach, but it's not something I really expect or seek out in the men I date, and it's highly possible a man with a 6-pack would be incompatible with what I want in a partner, so I wouldn't even necessarily be happy if I discovered a guy I like had a 6-pack. Certainly, it's not like men without 6-packs are really suffering in the dating market.

Britta said...

I forgot to finish the last thought. If a normal sized man is having trouble in the dating world, the benefit he'd get from focusing on a 6-pack would not be worth it, and he'd do far better to spend that time learning a hobby, working on his social skills, or just going places where he could meet women. Maybe an analogy of the analogy is, if you get a 1550 on the GRE and don't get into the grad school of your choice, your time would be far better spent beefing up the other parts of your application than retaking the GRE, even though, theoretically, you could improve on that. I feel like age is something like that. Being unhappily single as a 30 yo woman is like having a 1550 GRE score. Maybe there's one or two programs that will rule you out, but more likely, there's some other reason you're not successful.

Also, since I haven't monopolized this conversation enough, I would say that men are very bad at guessing ages. I also think that men tend to assume pretty women are younger than they are, because youth = beauty is very common idea. So, chances are, once one doesn't look pubescent, men hitting on a girl on the street or in a bar can't really place her age within 10-20 years or so.

Phoebe said...


The male six-pack... is a funny question, because so many men seem to think it matters on the dating market, whereas it so plainly does not. And it's a kind of time-consuming endeavor, no? So a woman with a guy with one of those will know he's going to need to set aside a *lot* of his free time so as to maintain it. But it really is among the few aspects of male (conventional) beauty that men have any way to control. A man can't make himself taller, broader-shouldered, believably non-bald, etc., can't wear makeup to improve his facial features without seeming to be cross-dressing, etc.

As for men not guessing age... here, alas, is where I must take the unpopular but ultimately, I think, non-tragic view, which is that men and women alike almost invariably look their age. (And, yes, tend to go for same-age-or-thereabouts partners.) That doesn't mean people look worse older. It means they look older older. Maybe better, maybe worse. I mean, consider Ms. Ageless herself, Gwyneth Paltrow. In (presumably) non-airbrushed shots, she looks conventionally attractive, absolutely, perhaps more so than when she was younger, but she couldn't pass for 30, let alone 20.

Petey said...

"The truth is somewhere between both of your takes. 30-year-old women do, in a sense, have fewer options. Of course, so do 30-year-old men. Not being in college anymore is a big deal for both sexes."

Well, if we tease out the (significant) not-being-an-undergrad-anymore factor, I do tend to think 30yo men are around their "peak of sexual pull", which isn't the case for 30yo women. But again, 30yo women are around their "peak of sexual pleasure potential", which isn't true for 30yo men. Weird and complicating essentialisms, to my way of thinking.


Tangentially to this thread, I started reading Anna Karenina right before this post went up. (I've previously read all the Dostoyevsky, but none of the Tolstoy.)

Seems nicely relevant reading material, somehow.

Phoebe said...


Britta and I addressed you claim, at length. And you've responded by... repeating your original claim. Who are these 30-year-old men "pulling"? And how do they have more options than 30-year-old women, who may have fewer 20-year-olds to choose from, but will also plausibly appeal to the 35-100 set?

Phoebe said...


Petey said...

"Britta and I addressed you claim, at length. And you've responded by... repeating your original claim."

Shoulda just added the Anna Karenina tangent, rather than trying to briefly respond prior to having the third cup of coffee necessary to explain my position more coherently. But to briefly and incoherently try again anyway:

"Who are these 30-year-old men "pulling"? And how do they have more options than 30-year-old women, who may have fewer 20-year-olds to choose from, but will also plausibly appeal to the 35-100 set?"

Marriage market dynamics make the difference here. said...

To the comment about Ms Paltrow not looking 30: exactly. But she looks good. It doesn't really matter how old she is, or if she looks her age, she just looks pretty damn good. Or Julianne Moore. Or Rachel Weisz.

And, as a woman in my later 30s, I have a suspicion that a lot of younger men are pretty clueless and, unless you tell them, aren't operating on the "good for her age" but just "good looking." I certainly do not look 25, but I guess I don't look like what a 25 year-old dude thinks a 35+ woman looks like, either, which tends to be some caricature that certainly doesn't have anything to do with what the women I know look like.

Phoebe said...


Re: marriage, I addressed this as well. If men have the most options in that area at 30, women do at, what, 28? 20-year-old women have exceedingly few viable options in that area, aren't looking for that, but even if they were, the sort of men who are interested in 20-year-old women (i.e. early-20s men, older men not ready to settle down) aren't interested in marrying those women.


My sense is that men and women alike can readily see, in most cases, who's older or younger than they are, but that this doesn't necessarily rule someone out, esp. not for something casual. Men and women seem to prefer more or less same-age partners.

The problem with assessing what one's own cohort looks like is, we can't really see what others do. My sense is that a lot of women (and men!) my age think they look just like they did in high school, and haven't changed in any readily identifiable way (hair color, wrinkles, weight) but if they were to stand next to actual high school students, it would be immediately obvious that they were pushing 30. My preference is to remember that it's fine to look one's age, not to pretend that age is invisible. My preference is also to remind that men look their age. Because, they do.

Britta said...


Yes, that was my point. No that attractive 30 year olds look 20, but that a man's image of what "30" looks like doesn't necessarily match up to what an actual 30 year old woman looks like. I've found that men are absolutely terrible at guessing my age and the ages of most women, depending on the age of the guy. For example, when I was 26 I got hit on by a 14 yo, who placed me at about 17. My guess isn't because I look that young, but just that I looked older than him, and to a 14 yo, an 17 & 26 yo probably look roughly the same. I've found men are similarly bad at guessing women's heights and weights,* whereas women are pretty good at both. I think we're trained to observe and measure these sorts of things, so we know what, say, 5'5" vs 5'3" or 5'7" looks like, or 110 vs. 150 lbs. Likewise, we can probably distinguish between a 23 vs. 28, but I doubt many men can.

Not that there isn't something to the dewiness of youth, but I think men use youth as a proxy for 'hot,' because it's easier to quantify or nail down. It's easier to say '20 year olds are hot' than to identify some other trait as hot.

*not to mention bra size. I think most men still think "D cup" means enormous, not 'somewhat larger in proportion to ribcage than A-C.'

Phoebe said...


I'm cursed with being cynical about such things. Like when that "BMI Project" came out, and we were supposed to be shocked by what "obese" looked like, and to say that these women who were technically obese looked not obese in the slightest. And my thinking was, no, they look obese, but that doesn't mean they're not attractive. But it wasn't enough to say that an obese woman might be pretty. One had to say that "obese" was some kind of myth, that one could literally not see the difference between a woman of 100 and another of 300 pounds.

Flawed analogy, but I think it goes the same with age. Yes, a younger guy hitting on you will estimate your age closer to his own, but of course the same goes when older guys hit on much younger women (or girls) - the 'I thought you were at least 25, you're so mature for your age' line.

All of this is separate from whether anyone, male or female, can accurately guess anything so exact. I personally am hopeless at that sort of thing.

Britta said...

But the point is that men can't guess a woman's age. To a 60 yo, a 30 yo and a 20 yo look the same. Ditto with a 15 yo. Men within a marriageble age range (let's say 25-40), can't distinguish all that well between a 25 yo and a 33 yo, so they assume a conventionally attractive woman is younger, because youth = beauty, when it's really beauty = beauty. This isn't true for women, because we've been trained to notice subtle details that distinguish age. I can tell a 30 yo looks 30, and so can you, but Mr X writing on a PUA blog about how men want young women because they're nubile probably couldn't pick out a 30 yo women from a lineup.

It's like height/weight. A woman can guess the height and weight of other women pretty accurately, whereas my boyfriend first guessed that I weight 40 lbs more and was 4 inches taller than I really am. He also describes other women equally as inaccurately, but is pretty good at getting men's heights. I've noticed this phenomenon with other male friends being just wildly, laughably, off when describing women. They know women are generally shorter and lighter, but not what that really means. Somewhat, but not quite the same, men know women are supposed to get uglier as they age in some abstract sense, but not what aging is really like. Relatedly, I know a lot of people who use shorter = younger to guess ages, which is also usually very wrong.