26 is young. I know Aaron was kidding around but it hit a nerve in me, because I’m way past 26. The idea that women can reach an age where they tip over some invisible line from young and sexually appealing to old and invisible is something we deal with for all our adult years, and those alarm bells only get louder as you head into your 30s.
Yes, the world has changed. Where once saying someone 26 was “past their prime” would have been accurate, according to society’s standards, these days we’re getting married later, putting off having children to chase careers and refusing to bow to misogynist image standards like “you can’t wear a mini skirt over 30”. Still, it’s hard when you’re nearing the dreaded “middle-aged” to not feel like you’re heading into past-your-prime territory.
Turning 35 was a hard birthday for me. It was the age where I really, really wanted time to slow the hell down so I could hold onto my youth for just a little longer. Who am I kidding - forever would be great. As I near 36, I see “middle aged” right before me. A quick Google search will tell you middle aged is classified as 40-60. I’m four years away.
I’m ashamed to say that middle age was something I was dreading, because I know so many bright, talented, gorgeous and vibrant women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. I know age is but a number. I have seen evidence that turning 40 doesn’t suddenly change your entire personality or set of interests. But when it’s your number it’s really easy to bow to all the sexist, misogynist bullshit the world spews at us daily and start freaking out.
We see middle age as the end of fun. The end of sexiness. The end of the exciting part of our journey in life.
But what is middle aged, really? And, for that matter, what is youth? Yes, there’s the physical aspect of it all - at some point we look in the mirror and there are crow’s feet, smile lines, sagging skin. We can battle it all we like with the aforementioned cosmetic procedures and creams but over time, our bodies will slowly decay (as gross as that is).
But I don’t think we’re scared of our bodies changing as much as we’re scared of what we’re permitted to do with those bodies. When do I have to stop kicking on after a dinner with friends, heading to a club to dance? When do the leather pants have to retire? When do I have to forgo bikinis in favour of modest one-pieces?
I’m 35, going on 36. Career-wise, I’m killing it. I’m in the best relationship I’ve ever been in. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in - aside from the small gripes (netball knees, anyone?) I’m fit and healthy and feel great.
But more importantly, I like myself. Sure, I’ve still got insecurities floating around but nowhere near as many as I had when I was in my 20s or early 30s. Back then I was starving myself to get skinny enough for men to want me. I was sleeping with people for validation, not pleasure. I was morphing myself into whoever my friends needed me to be.
What I’m realising is that all of those positive changes happened after my “youthful years”. It wasn’t really until I was 33/34 when I even started to feel like I was on the race track, so to speak. And that gives me confidence that, contrary to what society tells us, “middle age” is not a period where we are coasting, fading away to be forgotten and ignored. It’s when we really begin to shine.
Still, it’s a battle - you only have to look at Hollywood to see that. Or head to any comments section on the internet when an older celebrity wears something daring to see ageism alive and well. If you want to take hold of your 40s and beyond, you have to push through criticism, because we just haven’t reached the stage of enlightenment as a society yet where we can bloody let a woman over 40 wear what she wants, do what she wants and be who she wants.
But the bottom line is, you actually can do whatever you want. Keep buying mini dresses. Keep your long hair if you love it, or shave it all off. Go grey, don’t go grey. Kiss hot people on dance floors. Get drunk on a Wednesday night. Be “youthful” for as long as you want, because youth as we’ve had it defined for us is a concept, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 61, you can still live an exciting life. In fact, I’d argue that the older you get, the more that excitement is grounded in what you actually want to be doing, wearing, and being. Not grounded in performative fun that hides a world of insecurities.
At 35 going on 36, I am a weapon. And I’m only just hitting my stride.