Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Premature aging UPDATED

Elizabeth Nolan Brown has an interesting new blog called "This Is 30," which thus far consists of celebrity photos of what 30-year-old women really look like. I'm 29, so I'm listening.

"This Is 30" brings to mind Kate Harding's BMI Project, which sought to show that women (and some men) whose BMIs labeled them overweight or obese looked otherwise. In fact, it showed that the medically overweight do tend to look overweight, the medically obese obese - a separate issue from whether the medical profession is overusing BMI. Affixing photos to these numbers may have helped to humanize the women with whichever dimensions, and to remind us that big doesn't mean unfit or unattractive. But unless one happened to be approaching this imagining that "obese" means an honest-to-goodness crane is needed to extract someone from their home, I'm not sure what surprises were in store.

I fear that the same will be true of "This Is 30, at least if real, non-Botoxed/airbrushed 30-year-old women start appearing on it. I'm 29 and my best guess is, I look it. I'm small, and not a candidate for premature wrinkling. I don't look 50, but I've seen photos of myself from the start of grad school and there's a definite if hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it difference. What I'm saying is, I don't think I've aged especially a lot, or especially badly, but I think virtually all of us would be fooling ourselves if we felt we hadn't aged perceptibly since reaching adulthood.

So it's really Elizabeth's third fact I'm not so sure about: "most 30-year-olds look more-or-less the same as they did in their mid-20s [.]" Aging is gradual, so yes, a 30-year-old doesn't suddenly look different from 25, and is still, given current life expectancy, quite young. While these are tough calls to make on an individual basis, I suspect that few among us would have trouble telling, for example, who are the first-year graduate students, and who's waiting nervously for the job-market info session to begin. (Or is it just that grad school ages a person?)

When it comes to women being 30, I'm reminded of the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, where Lou Grant, oh-so-inappropriately, asks Mary's age while interviewing her for a job. She reveals herself to be 30, then asks, coyly, how old she looks. He pauses for a moment, looks at her, and responds, "30." And it's funny precisely because she-the-actress does, and because it's so clear, in that moment, that the possibility that she-the-character might not only be but also look 30 has not yet occurred to her.

My own realism on this front comes, indirectly, from my line of work: I teach undergraduates, and I've lived in France. Students stay the same age year after year, while their instructors only get older. (When you know full well what 19 looks like, you can't trick yourself into believing that undergrads are actually eighth-graders.) And when I studied in Paris at 20, I was "mademoiselle." At 26, definitively "madame." This before wearing any marital-status-signaling jewelry.

We always feel an age we once were, or maybe a bunch of different ones, but just not the one we are. We remain the same amount younger than our parents, and our peers age as we do. A number - or, more often, a detail - will get fixed in our mind as intrinsically part of our identity. As in: 'I am someone who gets carded. '(Maybe so at 24, but by 38, unlikely, except at places that make a point in carding even the elderly. Not that 38 is elderly! Not that there's anything wrong with being elderly! Gar!) Or - and this is for the laydeez - 'I am someone who wears a size six,', or, 'who takes an A cup.' We often think of our builds as what they once were, and fail to immediately hone in on the sizes/styles most appropriate for our current shape.

And this carries over to celebrities as well, especially stars we remember from their time as child actresses. If we think of Alexis Bledel as that girl from "Gilmore Girls," of course it's shocking that she could be 30. But if we look at the photo of the woman who is 30, not so much. She looks good - famous actresses do tend to manage that - but older than when she was playing a teen.

Thus - I suppose - the expression "premature aging" - it all feels premature.

So some of this isn't even about wanting to be/look young, but more of a pretentious musing on the passing of time. But we also want to look young - and this one's gender-neutral - for reasons not unlike scrappiness oneupmanship, reasons specific to living in a meritocracy. If you've achieved X before you started going gray, or before you noticed those lines on your forehead, then you're basically a child prodigy. For those new at any life stage, there's something amazing about the fact that you do the same thing as that real grown-up over there.

But the obvious one is that we - women, but not only - want to not look 30, or want "30" to look like something other than 30 because of cultural messages we've received about 30 being the official end of attractiveness. Which - as all the drama that goes on among the over-30 set should attest - it does not. All those people writing to advice columnists about their spouses having affairs with coworkers, well, not everyone working in an office is 22, and the 22-year-olds by and large want little to do socially with those much older.

Much like the BMI Project, "This Is 30" could be helpful in showing us that yes, 30 looks like 30, but looking 30 isn't a disaster. Anything that gets us away from images of the overweight as permanently gloomy and eating fries from a drive-through, anything that gets us past the idea that at 30, all women go from fun and lighthearted to haggard, worn-out from family life or, conversely, cougar'd up in desperate search of a man, I suppose can only help.

And I fully agree with Elizabeth's fifth point, especially re: 30-year-olds looking better than they did at 16. We-as-a-society seem incapable of comprehending that while the very prettiest of 16-year-olds are what our culture deems most attractive, most individuals at that age have bad skin and the wrong haircuts for their hair type or facial structure. Yes, young girls get more street attention than grown women, but this is less because men prefer the barely-pubescent than because that's who's most readily intimidated on the street, that's who one can get a rise out of.

(MucinexD-fueled) UPDATE

This was to be my response in the comments to one commenter, then another, then all, so I figured I'd throw it here. But basically, my question to all who say that they looked forward to turning 30, that 30 is really quite young and not so different from 25, etc., is what our goal is here. As in, is our point to say that our entire societal conception of age is messed-up and misogynistic? Or that while 30 isn't old, some other age is - be it 40, 50, or just 35?

Bringing up - sorry! - another sitcom reference: the episode of "Absolutely Fabulous" where Edina turns 40. Edina refuses to acknowledge this fact, and stays upstairs for most of her own 40th birthday party. Meanwhile, downstairs, the new, New Agey wife of one of Edina's ex-husbands is holding forth on how happy she was to turn 40. At which point Edina's mother (think a British Betty White) asks her, "And when will you be 50?" Which sends her into full-on panic mode, at which point the ex-husband dude says, "She hasn't started 50 therapy yet."

Point being, one way is a feminist rejection of social constructions of age, the other simply moving up the age at which a woman becomes "past-it." The latter isn't necessary anti-feminist, and is to a certain extent just common sense. 30 these days isn't, at least in some milieus, what it once was. Yes, yes, fertility remains fairly set, but a) not every woman wants to have biological children (or can, even at 20), and b) the vast majority of situations a woman will find herself in have zilch to do with her capacity to bear a child. But to point out that 30 still constitutes "youth" isn't exactly a feminist message, because it doesn't change the terms of the debate.


Flavia said...

I actually have a really hard time distinguishing among "ages younger than me" now. Partly that's because, well, 18 is a lot further away now, so it's genuinely harder to distinguish 18 from 22.

But it's also because, although few of my students are officially "nontraditional," in a typical class they range from 19 to about 27. And in those little tablet desks, in casual clothes, eager to please (or sullen and resentful), pretty much everyone reads as "early twenties." I've mistaken 28 or 30-year-olds for roughly 24, more than once, even when I was myself 32.

At the same time, life experiences can be aging. Twentysomethings with kids generally still look like all the other twentysomethings out there (unless they're also living in poverty, or leading high-stress lives, or whatever, in which case they can look older than I do). But the same is not true for most thirtysomethings with kids. In general, I'd say that the mid-thirties seem to be the point at which there's a real divergence, with some people looking much younger and some looking much older than their chronological age--and that accelerates in the 40s and 50s. Some of that is surely the result of the genetic lottery, but another part is life and lifestyle.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

I wonder why there's still that idea out there about 30 being the beginning of the end, when NOBODY I KNOW actually feels or thinks that way, handful of douchebags aside. Literally every woman I'm friends with felt and looked better at 30 than she did at 20. Why is this idea still out there?

I was floored when I learned that Anne Bancroft was my age--36--when she played Mrs. Robinson. I believe she was made up to look older (didn't she have a gray streak?) but still.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I can't tell exact age, either, when it comes to those younger or older than I am, or the same age. I tend to assume all my students are freshman, largely because our orientation when I began teaching (understandably) focused on The New College Student Lost In NYC, but now they all look 18 as far as I can tell... and then I'll learn that some are seniors, some non-trad ages, etc.

But it's little things like "madame," or just who feels the same age, who feels older or younger. Often I get the sense that when people my own age tell me something like 'I look 15,' this is something they've been repeating since they were 18, and it's now habit, but they'll actually be 35 and look 32, so younger, but not as young as they might imagine.

Re: stress, kids, absolutely. This actually came up in a Facebook thread about "This Is 30" - someone commented that this varies by socioeconomic class, i.e. that if you had lots of kids/became suddenly overweight/work three jobs/etc., you will look different than if you worked in publishing and then went back to law school. Which brings us to...


I think it's about life stage, what 30 used to mean, and what it now means only in some parts of the population. A 30-something can be a grandmother. Or a 30-something can be hearing from her friends (or Dan Savage!) that you shouldn't settle down until you're past that age. But there's now this huge population of women at a life stage we used to associate with being 16 - or that didn't exist, I suppose - who are only even getting out of school in their mid-20s or later.

caryatis said...


I can imagine the "This is 30" might be useful for 16-20 year-olds --you know, that age when you really don't know anyone who isn't either below 22 (friends) or above 45 (teachers, parents). I remember being rather frightened by the thought of turning 30 at that age. But once you graduate from college, you start meeting 30-somethings and they start seeming like your peers.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I kind of see where you're going with this, but I'm not sure why it's a problem if 23-year-olds see 30-year-olds as peers, but 16-year-olds see them as ancient. I mean, if you're 16, 30 *is* ancient - too old for a partner, likely too old for a friend. And I'm also not sure why 16-year-olds wouldn't know 30-year-olds. Are all teachers over 45? What about other family members?

My sense of this blog is that it's about reassuring women at or nearly at age 30 that 30 does not mean washed-up. I can't imagine 16-year-olds caring what 30 looks like. 27-year-olds, however...

PG said...

And I'm also not sure why 16-year-olds wouldn't know 30-year-olds. Are all teachers over 45?

I had kind of a shock when I realized the school counselor character on "Glee" graduated from high school the same year I did. I'm now the peer group of the characters expected to be old and wise.

Moebius Stripper said...

Yeah, what Autumn said. I don't know anyone who openly dreaded 30. I'm definitely among those who looked better at 30 than at 16. What I wasn't prepared for, though, is that I can no longer take my body for granted, which I could in my 20s. I though it wouldn't be until I was much older that I'd have to do various exercises in order to keep certain aches and pains at bay.

At 34, I've been taken to task more than a few times for using the staff restroom at the postsecondary where I teach, which I take to mean that I look younger than I am. Part of that is genetics, to be sure, but part is probably because I don't dress and groom myself the way adult women are expected to. I don't wear makeup, I don't wear formal workwear, and I wear my hair very long and unlayered - things that, incidentally, us ancient 34-year-olds are advised to avoid, as such things are not age-appropriate.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, the problem with 16-year-olds seeing 30 as ancient is that the 16-year-olds will be 30 someday, and they're afraid of it. At least I was. In college, I couldn't imagine myself as 30, because I didn't distinguish between 30 and 40 and 50. I think it would be preferable for young people to be at least able to imagine themselves as older. Why else would they start saving for retirement or training for a serious career?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"things that, incidentally, us ancient 34-year-olds are advised to avoid, as such things are not age-appropriate."

I think the reason women are told this, other than a kind of blanket The Patriarchy or life-is-unfair, is that past a certain - variable - point, it's thought to make a woman look older to be dressed younger. As in, maybe until 25, or 40, or 60, depending the woman, long hair and jeans means looking younger. But then at some age, boom, all of a sudden the distinction between the age from the back and the front is jarring and the world actually comes to an honest-to-goodness end because of it.

So when women *do* "dress their age" or overshoot the mark, this might be because they're young and want to be taken seriously. But it might also be that they don't want their controllable traits (hair, clothing) to make their faces, demeanor, whatever, read as relatively old.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Still not 100% following. 30, to a 16-year-old, is similar to 40, in the same way that to a 30-year-old, 16 looks basically like 13 or 23. Age will always be relative, and 30 will never seem like a peer-age to a 16-year-old. Nor should it - a lot comes between the two. But do 16-year-olds need to act differently, in ways that take their future 30-year-old selves into account? Should 16-year-olds save for retirement? Much of what they do, ideally, is the usual 16-year-old stuff that ends up being a prerequisite for being functional at 30 - graduating from high school, say, or having awkward social/romantic encounters that allow for far smoother ones later in life.

I mean, there always needs to be a balance, right? On the one hand, you don't want to do anything at 20 that ruins your life at 40, or, you know, makes it so you don't make it to 40 in the firs place. But we also learn from our mistakes. Meaning, we need to pass through whichever age-appropriate obstacles before becoming responsable adults.

Jena said...

Phoebe! (First of all, much hello and catching up.)

This is wonderful, and so very timely.

Am I the only one of our peers who's been actively looking forward to being (and looking) 30 since about 23? I seem to have this odd idea that I might start looking like an adult and being treated like one somewhere about now. Being taken seriously is really very nice.

It's the same feminist killjoy argument I like to keep making when someone says I should be happy that people think I am younger than I am. You know - I'd rather live in a society that values age, experience, competence, and wisdom.

(Aside: yesterday, in the mall, an older woman with a thick accent cooed "Nice girl" at me. I said, "Excuse me?" She said, "You are a very pretty girl. Shouldn't you be in school now?" I said, "Excuse me?" She said, "How old are you, dear?" I said, "Nearly thirty," and she sort of ... jumped, really.)


Moebius Stripper said...

Phoebe - yeah, that's more or less what I was getting at, but you said it more clearly. Basically, that once she's "old enough", a woman is expected to present herself a certain way. So if she doesn't, one possible interpretation is that she is not in fact "old enough". Which, as you say, works for a limited time only - but that deadline, I think, comes closer to 40 than to 25. (And I'm quite sure that the world will not come to an end if I don't get a proper haircut in the next decade: for a long-haired woman to look much younger from the back than from the front, assumes that said woman's hair looks like it does in the commercials, and certainly isn't at all *grey*. The jarring back-vs-front distinction, in my experience, doesn't apply to, for instance, middle-aged, long-haired Indian women.)

Anyway, it amuses me that my laissez-faire personal style, such as it is, has allowed me to achieve through apathy what women of a certain age are told requires huge amounts of time and large sums of money. (Not a brag: to be clear, I'm not a natural beauty by any stretch; "looking younger" does not translate into "looking hot" in my case.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Hello and catching-up to you too!

As for the downside of being thought younger, it's out there. But... not to get too bogged down in privilege-talk, but it *is* a form of privilege for a woman especially to be thought attractive, and in our society, if you look 23, you're considered more attractive than if you look 30, even if - as "This Is 30" emphasizes - our conceptions of what it means to look 30 can stray from what 30 actually looks like.

Being told anything unsolicited about what you look like (and my guess is this mall woman was insane, because that just sounds like an odd situation) is unpleasant, and we need to assume women are sincere who complain about being told by strangers/acquaintances that they're very thin/young-looking/straight-up attractive. (This isn't even getting into the issue of catcalling.) I do think there's a way in which those of us who were told we looked young at 24, say, continue to repeat those stories, force-of-habit style, for years, past the point at which they say anything true about how we now look, but yes, because we all might pass for a bit older or younger than we are, women our age do get the occasional 'are you in high school'? This dwindles over time, and so doesn't stop immediately upon one's 18th birthday.

But not liking what being thought young entails doesn't (necessarily) mean one *does* want to look older. It's entirely possible both to dislike the not-taken-seriously aspect of being a young woman *and* to greet the first signs of aging with something less than enthusiasm. In fact, I'd guess that this is the most common situation for women our age. And it's perfectly normal, considering that one can be marginalized as a woman both for attractiveness and for unattractiveness, for youth and for age.

caryatis said...


Not that 16-year-olds should act like 30-year-olds, but that they should act with their futures in mind. Yes, graduate from high school, be planning their future careers, and starting to save money. 16 might be too early to open a retirement account, but 18 or 20 is not. In contrast, I'm thinking of friends of mine who literally were 25 and in the workforce for several years without having a savings account or knowing what an IRA is...

PG said...

It can be to teachers' benefit that kids don't know what various older ages look like. I was talking to someone recently who's 23 and doing TFA, and she specifically won't tell her students her real age because she doesn't want to be too approachable (since many of them will have older siblings her age). If they guess she's 40 or 50, she'll cheerfully agree.

If you want people to think about retirement accounts, it's less important that one be realistic about 30 (when almost no one is retired) than to be realistic about just how long and expensive old age is now. Though perhaps not with *too* much detail, given that the speed at which assisted living can chew through even a half million in savings might leave some people simply in despair.

Jena said...

You reminded me.

I'm okay with receiving unambiguous compliments from strangers ("I like your hair" or something). I'm less okay with "You look young" or "You look thin" as compliments, because I don't automatically consider "young" or "thin" positive. Am I making a very odd distinction here? (I'm sure you've thought about this tons.)

Flavia said...

I'm with Jena: I always wanted to be older and wanted to be an adult (not in the settled-down-with-kids kind of way, but in the sense of being old enough to have the life and love and career experience--and the money!--to be the person and do the things one can't at 23). Turning 30 felt like the symbolic proof that I was there, or on the verge of being there. I threw a big old party.

Forty, on the other hand, does seem old to me (though my spouse & plenty of my friends are already there; it's not about them, it's about me). I suspect I'll need all the years I've got until then to reconcile myself to it.

My point, I suppose, is that different people imagine different ages as "ideal," and though it's usually the younger half of one's life, some people idealize the teen years, some the 20s, and some the 30s. And for at least the past 10-15 years (I'm thinking of the Sex and the City era and onward), the wider culture has actually provided plenty of affirmative models of thirtysomething womanhood.

i said...

And I'm with Jena and Flavia. I've wanted to be in my 30's since I was in my early teens. Actually, I really wasn't excited by the thought of being in my 20's, probably because my main media exposure to people in their 20's was Canadian beer commercials. That life didn't seem that appealing. Also, I tended to think men were most attractive in their 30's. But mainly, I wanted independence, the kind of freedom that comes with having my own money and not having to explain to anyone what I do with it.

Then again, this should be taken in context: when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a lawyer so I could wear navy suits. Go figure.

To my surprise, my 20's were actually very fun. Very little because of the Coors Light lifestyle (though I did jump in a lake once or twice), much more because of financial independence. And due to living in a foreign country. There's something really fabulous about knowing you can get in a car or on a plane and go somewhere, and not have to report to your parents about it if you really don't want to. Getting a job has been more of that. But I do have to admit that having a kid has left me feeling some kind of old -- there is a weight of responsibility, combined with looking like crap because of sleep deprivation, that makes me feel eons older than I did a year ago. Strangely, my mom says I've never looked younger than in pictures with my son. So I'm in an in-between place!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I also definitely looked forward to financial-independence-age, but it would never have occurred to me to place that at 30. I assumed it would come in two stages: first, having spending money from my own part-time jobs while a student, and later, after college, from full financial independence. It was really only once I was already in college and getting paid (not much, but enough) in grad school that I learned that dependence or quasi-dependence on parents in young adulthood was basically the norm in the milieu I grew up in, and that I might well be the aberration (in that milieu, not in the country!) for thinking post-college meant this, and that any slip-up from that ideal was somehow shameful.

i said...


Actually, I didn't place financial independence at 30 either, but rather a bit earlier. It was more that the 20's seemed distasteful somehow, like, unless I was in a club wearing a bikini or something, I wasn't doing the 20's right. When I was 16, it never occurred to me that 25 year-olds would still be financially dependent on their parents, and I certainly did everything I could to avoid that fate.

Flavia said...

Re: your update:

But basically, my question to all who say that they looked forward to turning 30, that 30 is really quite young and not so different from 25, etc., is what our goal is here. As in, is our point to say that our entire societal conception of age is messed-up and misogynistic? Or that while 30 isn't old, some other age is - be it 40, 50, or just 35?

Well, obviously the former. But what I'm saying is that despite whatever general bias there may be in our culture toward imagining the teens & twenties as the perfect age, there are people who have never been interested in that ideal. And having a greater range of age-ideals available for public consumption is doing some of that work of challenging agism/age-related misogyny, even if that isn't its primary intention--or the intention or goal of a particular woman who idealizes 35 over 25.

Yes, agism is a problem, regardless of what age is being stigmatized. But if combating agism is one's goal, I'd argue that pushing back whatever age counts as "old" isn't the worst strategy; certainly, it's as good as pointing out amazingly youthful-seeming individuals who are (gasp) 30--or 40, or 50, or 67 (holy hell, Helen Mirren!).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That makes more sense!


That's an interesting way to look at it. I guess I was seeing it more as, if you decide 30 is OK not because all ages are and aging is inevitable so we might as well get used to it, but because 30 is "young," this merely sets a new age at which haggard commences, and makes 40 all the more frightening.

So I think your way makes sense in terms of addressing the comments from women who prefer/prefer the idea of 30 to 20 or 16. But I'm not sure about where pointing out the surprisingly youthful enters into it. Helen Mirren indeed, but that's not what whatever age she is generally looks like, even if we restrict the pool to people currently or at one point paid for their looks. I'd prefer an approach that acknowledges the range of what whichever age looks like.

Not a perfect analogy, but I see the young-at-any-age approach as something not so far removed from fashion mags showing that women of all races can be attractive... and then offering up only the lightest-skinned, straightest-haired, smallest-nosed examples of each. I'm not sure this type of approach makes people feel better about themselves.

Flavia said...

Sure, I don't disagree with you (and the analogy with the limited range of faces/body types one actually sees from "women of all races" in fashion mags is a good one).

But I don't think it's a bad first step. Celebrating a small handful of sixty-something women as sexy still seems like a good thing to me, especially since sixty-something women are by definition going to be celebrated for stuff OTHER than just their looks (yes, Helen Mirren looks amazing, but if it were just about looks a mag would put a much younger woman on the cover).

Celebrities are by definition outliers, with freakishly good looks, freakishly good careers, etc. But if we're able to recognize a sixty-something woman as hot--and more importantly, as interesting, with a satisfying career and love life and a wicked sense of humor or whatever--I think most of us are able to "translate down" to what this might mean for us non-celebrities.

I don't expect to look like Mirren when I'm 67 (my mom is 66 and does look terrific, but it's ordinary-person terrific, not movie-star terrific). But having Mirren around challenges those of us who are younger than sixty to think differently about what's possible at that age, and to imagine ourselves as still being vibrant and relevant in our (non-show-biz) personal and professional lives. Maybe actual sixty-something women sit around complaining that Mirren sets an impossible standard, beauty-wise, but I doubt it; the greater problem is when older women get written out of the picture entirely. If a freakishly hot older woman is still getting roles, then there are more older female characters on stage & screen.

As I say, this isn't a full or adequate solution, but it isn't a bad early stage.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

While I consider how best to get my class enthusiastic about ordinal numbers, a break to respond to this...

"Maybe actual sixty-something women sit around complaining that Mirren sets an impossible standard, beauty-wise, but I doubt it; the greater problem is when older women get written out of the picture entirely."

With age, or race, I'm not sure whether the greater evil is near-total absence, or inclusion as an outlier. I'd like to think most women Mirren's age are mature enough not to lose sleep over their non-Helen-Mirren-ness (I know that my own vanity peaked around late middle school/early high school). And when those bikini pictures came out, it was undeniably fun to see a woman of her age going around being hott. (Maybe even hottt.)

But I also know that I find it grating - not tragic, but grating - whenever someone reminds, as if it will somehow please Jewish women, that Bar Refaeli, and Scarlett Johansson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alicia Silverstone... and it's like, point taken, but the fact that Jewishness doesn't prevent a conventionally attractive blonde from being a professionally conventionally attractive blonde is of no great comfort to me personally. I don't find it any great setback to be a Jewish woman who looks give-or-take how one would expect a Jewish woman to look, but I know that it's not society's ideal, and this just reinforces it.

Being reminded that a Jewish woman can look stereotypically WASPy/Nordic/whatever is valuable insofar as it's fair game to point out that not all Jews have dark hair or what-have-you, but it isn't, I think, of any great comfort to Jewish women who do look stereotypically Jewish. By the same - or a similar - token, maybe it's good for society to remember that not all people aged X look haggard or wrinkled or who knows, but I'm not sure it doesn't make individuals who are age X and do look that way feel worse about themselves.