My friend Deborah from college loves to tell this story: One of the first times we hung out, we started talking about her solo travels to Burma and assorted other spots in Southeast Asia. I was 19 years old, and like most 19-year-olds, nearly all my friends were people I met through school in some fashion, meaning that virtually all my friends were people within a two-year age range of myself (four years max, though given the dynamics of high school and even collegiate hierarchies, anything more than two years was a stretch). But as she was regaling me with her thrilling tales, I realized she couldn’t have traveled so extensively if she were my age, and it dawned on me that I was talking to someone Older.
I’d heard you weren’t supposed to ask people how old they were—what if they were Old?!—but I couldn’t help myself. I asked her old she was, and she told me, and, according to her, I gasped, fluttered my hand to my chest, and said, “But you look so good!"
Deborah was 26.
I turn 40 this week, and this story, which was embarrassing to me the first time she told it—she had the good sense to wait to relay it to me until I was in my 30s and therefore old enough to appreciate it—has now become hilarious. It’s hilarious that I thought 26 was shockingly old, and that I thought 26 would be old enough to show signs of aging in a way that would be detrimental to one’s conventional beauty. (In fact, it seems that would be anything over 31, if we’re going by sheer numbers here—and while I’m tempted to call bullshit on that, given that people may be more satisfied with their looks the older they get, I also know that age 31 was probably when I looked objectively my best.)
We still don’t really know what aging looks like. Certainly younger people don’t, and everyone reading this is younger than someone. I used to be vaguely flattered when younger people would express surprise when I’d mention my age, until I recalled my own response to Deborah’s ancient 26. It wasn’t that I knew what 26 looked like and that she looked younger than that; it was that I had no idea what looking 26 might actually entail, just that it was older than what I’d been led to believe was the height of my own attractiveness, and that therefore the fact that she looked great at 26 meant she was an outlier and therefore warranted a cry of “But you look so good!" When a younger person tells me I “don’t look 40”—or, my favorite, that I’m “well preserved” (!), I accept it with grace but always wonder if they’ll later recall that moment with their own embarrassment. Because I do look 40, and I'm not particularly “preserved.” They just have no idea what 40 looks like, and it’s not their fault. Until it was within eyeshot, I didn’t know myself.
What we consider older (or younger) is always in relation to ourselves. Older was once my 26-year-old friend; now that my circle of friends has loosened beyond the age constrictions of school and I have friends in their 50s, even people in their 60s don’t seem so old to me. My parents, once hopelessly old to me, I now see as—I can’t say young, but when I wanted to talk about Mad Men with them, my mother said they were saving television for “deep retirement.” Meaning not the retirement they’re in now—my father retired from paid work nearly 10 years ago, and my mother retired from homemaking as well, a feminist arrangement I adore—but a later form of retirement, when they’re too frail to travel extensively as they’re doing now. That is: When they’re Old.
There’s a particular sort of human-interest news piece that takes a person over 70 who is doing something—anything, really—and treats the fact that they are not sewn into a La-Z-Boy as a small miracle. We are supposed to find this inspiring, and I suppose it is. But it is not unique. The fact that younger folk still regard active elderly people as outliers says little about them, and everything about us. We expect old people to curl up and—well, die, I suppose (though our society is still so scared shitless of death that we spend 28 percent of our Medicare dollars in the last six months of life). So when they don’t, we’re surprised, even though we shouldn’t be. There are indeed old people who spend their days mostly watching television and complaining about their aches, but there are young people who do that too. My grandmother, who turns 90 next month, teaches line dancing lessons at her retirement home. I’m proud of her. She is not an outlier.
This idea that old people—whatever each of us considers to be old—are outliers for not fitting into what we expect of them goes double for beauty. That makes a sort of sense, given that the hallmarks of beauty are so closely associated with youth, so when a woman of a certain age still has some of those hallmarks, it is remarkable. Except: It’s not, not really, given that so much of the attention we do give to famous older women has less to do with their beauty and more with their grooming. Take the case of Helen Mirren, whom the media has long crowned as the sexy senior (which started happening 15 years ago, incidentally, back when she was the same age Julia Louis-Dreyfus is now). She’s a lovely woman, and exceptionally accomplished, but the attention paid to her sex appeal after age 50 has largely been about her refusal to style herself in a matronly fashion. (I don’t know enough about celebrity fashion to say for sure, but I’m guessing that she ushered in today’s era, when celebrities over 50 aren’t afraid to show some skin, and look great in it.) When I walk through this city, I see a lot of older women who groom themselves just as beautifully, and I’m not just talking about the Iris Apfels of the world. I’m talking my gym buddy Lynn, whose loose bun and oh-so-slightly-off-the-shoulder tees echo her life as a dancer; I’m talking my neighbor Dorothy, whose loose movie-star curls fall in her face when she talks; I’m talking real women you know, who take care of themselves, and who may or may not have the bone structure of Carmen Dell’Orefice but who look pretty damn good anyway. Part of the joke of Amy Schumer’s sublime “Last Fuckable Day” sketch was the fact that all of the women in it were perfectly good-looking. We know that women don’t shrivel up and die after 50, but we’re still not sure how to truly acknowledge it, so we continue to rely on outdated conversations about aging. I mean, the opening slide of that Amy Schumer sketch is: “Uncensored: Hide Your Mom.”
There’s a paradox built into acknowledging older women’s beauty: By calling attention to both their appearance and their age, we continue to treat older women who continue an otherwise unremarkable level of grooming as exceptions. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do so; Advanced Style, for example, is near-radical in its presentation of older women, and I’d hate for it to become just...Style. And I absolutely don’t want to say that we should start sweeping older women back under the male gaze; escaping that level of scrutiny is one of the benefits of growing older. I’m also aware of the folly of using the way we talk about celebrities as a stand-in for how we talk about age more generally—the only people whose ages we collectively examine are famous people, whose ages only come up for discussion in regard to looks if we’re all like A) Wow, that person doesn’t look that old (Cicely Tyson, 91), or B) Wow, that person looks way older than that (Ted Cruz, 45). Nobody is like, Wow, Frances McDormand is 58? And she looks it too! Still, celebrities are a useful comparison point for how our notions of age are changing, even if the ways we talk about it aren’t. Anne Bancroft was 36 when she was cast as Mrs. Robinson. A selection of women who are 36 today: Zooey Deschanel, Laura Prepon, Mindy Kaling, Rosamund Pike, Claire Danes. Kim Kardashian turns 36 in October. Can you imagine any of these people being cast as a scandalously older woman today?
Our ideas of age are indeed changing, and pretty rapidly at that, given how much longer people are living, and how much healthier they are during that time. And people in their early midlife seem to be treating their 40s and 50s differently than people in prior generations did. I remember lots of gravestone-themed “Over the Hill” balloons for my father’s 40th birthday; the last 40th birthday party I went to, we kept raging until 5 a.m. Add to that the idea of “extended adolescence” and it’s not hard to see how people might well see their own lives not “really” starting until their 30s, or even later. “Forty is the new 30” was the mantra my high school and college friends chanted to one another ten years ago, when the parade of 30th-birthday celebrations began, meaning that it was okay that we hadn’t yet accomplished the things we wanted to. We were jazzed to be 30, as we’d heard women who were there already assure us that we’d be happier in this decade—that we’d spent our 20s figuring things out and making mistakes (lots of mistakes), and that in our 30s, we’d be hitting our strides. And now that 40 is here, I’m hearing the same things, from the same slightly older women: that my 40s will be happier, more assured, better. I was right to believe them ten years ago—my thirties have been pretty good—so I’m going to believe them now. The biggest difference in what I’ve heard from the chorus of women over 40 as compared with the same women 10 years ago is that in my 40s, I’m less likely to care what other people think of me. I hope that is true.
Even with all those changes, though, there we are, with people in their 20s looking at me and remarking upon how well-preserved I am. We know that what it means to be old is changing. We just aren’t sure what old looks like.