Eons ago, I ran into a work colleague and his new girlfriend in the elevator. She didn’t smile when he introduced us, but gave me a super slow once-over. I was more amused by the scrutiny than annoyed, but then the new girlfriend caught me off-guard. “How old are you?” she asked, arching an eyebrow. What a weird thing to want to know, I thought, but I answered anyway. “Oh,” she smirked. “You look great for 27.”
You look great for 27. For years, I’ve been telling that story – seventeen years to be exact, I just turned 44 this month – and every single time, her response seems more and more ridiculous. Wow, you look amazing for 8 1/2! Seriously, I’d never have believed you were an embryo!
Absurdity aside, it’s true that as we age, the question “How old are you?” can take on a more pointed and loaded feel. In my mind, each time we answer honestly, we’re combating sexism and ageism just by being ourselves. But other good things happen when we’re upfront about how old we are, the older we get:
1. We take control of our own individual stories
Our age is simply a fact. We were born on this day, this many years ago. Yet society imbues that fact with such a convoluted web of expectations, assumptions, and judgements that we risk psychological paralysis within its sticky constraints. I’m 30, I’ll never find the right partner. I’m 40, I’ll never be a mother. I’m 50, I’ll never write that novel. I’m 60, I’ll never be attractive to anyone, ever again.
These dispiriting scenarios are why so many of us sheepishly joke about having “yet another 33rd birthday” or just flat-out refuse to say how old we are: this belief that aging is all about loss. Loss of looks, loss of influence, loss of infinite potential.
Maybe we can’t change cultural norms singlehandedly, but we can start re-writing the scripts we follow for ourselves. We can start to define in our own minds and in our own lives what it means to be loved and loving, be mothered and mothering, be creative and creating, be desired and desiring. Being honest about our age is an integral part of that ongoing, transformative process.
2. We lead the way for our younger sisters – and celebrate our older ones
When we speak our age candidly, easily, and without apology, it gives us power. It communicates: This is who I am. I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’m grateful to have come this far, on my own terms. This is the kind of legacy we want to pass on to our daughters, nieces, younger colleagues and friends. They need – and deserve – older women in their lives who refuse to kowtow to cultural misogyny and fear.
Embracing our age also aligns us with a deep, honorable tradition of women pushing the boundaries long after youth has faded. Julia Child, who published Mastering the Art of French Cooking at 49. Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University, who became the first African-American to lead an Ivy League school when she was 55. Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature when she was 88-years-old.
3. We honor those who don’t have the same luxury we do: of living and breathing
Some aspects of aging are undeniably difficult and the hardest one of all is losing people we love. Denying our own advancing years and inevitable mortality is not just delusional, it’s the worst form of vanity.
Julianne Moore, who won her first Oscar last year at the age of 53, understands this: “You have to embrace it [aging]! You have to, because there is no alternative. It’s simply a fact of life, and it’s a privilege to age, not everyone gets to. We’re lucky to have the life that we have. So I think every year that you have is a blessing.”
We literally don’t have time to be bullied into a corner when it comes to aging. There’s so many things for us to tackle and savor and master, that we can’t afford to waste a single, precious second pretending to be someone or something we’re not. No matter who does the asking or what their motivation – a curious stranger at a cocktail party or a suspicious new girlfriend in an elevator – we should all answer with effortless self-assurance. How old am I? Old, and wise, and fierce enough to absolutely have no problem answering that question.
Angela Uherbelau is working on a memoir about being the only woman on a self-guided, 25-day raft trip down the Grand Canyon – in February. You can read more of her work at angelauherbelau.contently.com or follow her nascent Twitter exploits at @girlwonderau.