the art of praising 42 year old women
I am soon to turn 42.
In 1999 Esquire came out with In Praise of 27 Year Old Women, which didn’t seem to arouse so much ire. I remember a friend of mine – brilliant and culture-savvy – mentioning the piece over the phone with a pleased expression in her voice. She had just turned 27, and as we began to stare down 30 I think we might have been looking for some kind of reassurance that the universe as we knew it wasn’t about to suddenly end.
But somewhere between 27 and 42 you stop looking for that kind of reassurance.
You have a level of self-knowledge that wasn’t possible in your twenties, and along with self-discovery comes greater self-esteem.
A marker of self-esteem, as Gloria Steinem notes in her book REVOLUTION FROM WITHIN, is seeing yourself from the inside-out instead of filtered through the perspective of a hot-or-not culture. It’s the difference between wanting to be wanted, and knowing what you want (and feeling comfortable in your right to go and get it).
It’s the difference between perceiving power as sourced outside of yourself – which primes you to seek external validation – and trusting your natural, inner authority.
“No matter who we are, [the journey to self-esteem] follows similar steps: a first experience of seeing through our own eyes instead of the eyes of others (for instance, the moment when an Algerian first looked in defiance at a French soldier, or when a woman stops being defined by the male gaze); telling what seemed to be shameful secrets, and discovering they are neither shameful nor secret (from the woman who has survived childhood sexual abuse to the man whose bottomless need for power hides weakness); giving names to problems that have been treated as normal and thus have no names (think of terms like homophobia, battered women, or Eurocentrism); bonding with others who share similar experiences….
…and finally, achieving a balance of independence and interdependence, and taking one’s place in a circle of true selves.”
I was in a relationship with a man who would let me know if I was wearing something that displeased him. I tended not to mind, because I was interested in his opinion and respected his taste. If I told him I was planning to wear it anyway, he would say, “Okay, but you’re wearing something that I don’t like.”
One afternoon I made a playful comment – I can’t remember what — about his outfit. He ignored me.
“Okay,” I said jokingly, “but you’re wearing something that I don’t like.”
He whirled on me – I was sitting down – and slammed both hands on the table, making it a point to duck his head so that we were eye-to-eye.
He said, “I….don’t…care.”
And I realized that this was about more than appearance, but the balance of power between us. The one with the most power is the one who cares the least. As a woman, this man seemed to believe that I was obligated to care. But as a man, he was not.
There’s a kind of universal law that girls learn at a young age: never admit that you are pretty, or else people will think you’re conceited and stuck-up and they will hate you (and assure you that you’re much uglier than you realize). Instead many women share a kind of willed insecurity, cataloging all their physical flaws, deflecting or downplaying compliments.
Learn to beat yourself down in one area, it becomes easier to beat yourself down in others.
Confidence, on the other hand, exudes power (including sexual power); to know that you’re the boss in your own unique and stylish way means you don’t have to seek validation from others (in fact, they might have to seek validation from you).
And power implies that you’re a threat, which is the one thing a woman is not supposed to be.
By the time you’re 42, you’ve wrestled with these issues on some level. Chances are that you’ve figured yourself out for the complex and remarkable creature that you are, and you’ve learned to deeply identify with aspects of your womanliness other than your fuckability (or lack thereof). You’ve learned that giving away your power is a loser’s game; instead of keeping you small and safe, it allows you to get eaten alive. You’ve done this – and keep doing this – despite voices in the culture that would very happily cut you down to size.
Female self-esteem is hardwon – and thus fiercely protected.
Rebecca Traister tells of an anecdote in Tina Fey’s BOSSYPANTS:
“Amy Poehler, then new to “Saturday Night Live,” was engaging in some loud and unladylike vulgarity in the writers’ room when the show’s then-star Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to cut it out, saying, ‘It’s not cute! I don’t like it!’ In Fey’s retelling, Poehler ‘went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him,’ forcefully informing him: ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.'”
Claiming your personal power doesn’t happen just once, but over and over again, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. You are taking your place in a circle of true selves.
There’s beauty in that, and she doesn’t have to care if you like it.