the art of praising 42 year old women



I am soon to turn 42.

I’ve been following the backlash to the recent Esquire piece In Praise of 42 Year Old Women, which is pissing off the very women it wants to celebrate .

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.

Gloria writes:

“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.

Jul 20, 2014

21 comments · Add Yours

Fuck, yes. It is maddening that you have to keep doing it over and over again…except that, each time, there is added power in the “I didn’t ask you and I don’t care whether you like it.” Having just stepped into my early-mid 40s myself, I wonder what the exponential increase in confidence and self-awareness will feel like in another decade, and what the intersection of decreased fuckability and increased personal power will look and feel like. I’m kind of looking forward to it.


“The one with the most power is the one who cares the least”. That reminds me of that famous quote which goes something like, “The opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference”. But seeing as the man in the story overreacted and had to make a point of not caring – does that mean he secretly really did care that you didn’t like his outfit? (Did he stop wearing it from then on?). His behavior sounds awful. That kind of hypocritical arrogance drives me nuts. I still don’t understand why it’s taboo for women to appear to be threatening in any way, when we’re the physically weaker sex. What is the actual threat?


@Wendy Oh, it wasn’t really about the outfit. And if he’d been in a good or happy mood, maybe his response would have been different. Admitting that you care makes you vulnerable because, like you said, it means you’re invested in the other person and they have that power over you, that ability to potentially hurt you. Some men find it difficult to allow themselves to be that way, but without vulnerability there can’t be true intimacy; the relationship becomes this kind of shadow dance, and there’s a power struggle around who leads and who follows.


@Wendy Oh, and as for the threat — I think it’s because men are expected to be powerful and women are expected to be warm. It’s difficult to be both, since warmth and power tend to undercut one another. So if a woman is perceived as a threat, she’s violating those gender expectations, and people tend to react pretty strongly to that. It works the same way with men — they get slammed if they’re perceived as weak/vulnerable.


Re: “And power implies that you’re a threat, which is the one thing a woman is not supposed to be.”

I’ve been used to being a threat for a long time, but I notice I still shrink myself about sharing about knowing what I know.

I don’t want to feel that gaze of judgement of others. Yes, I’m still a work in progress, always probably.

I’m 46 and just getting started, I’d say.

re: “You are taking your place in a circle of true selves.”

Love this!!! Yes and yes.


I love your blogs. This one is particularly powerful. Thanks!


At 60, I am more sure of myself and less concerned about what others think than I’ve ever been. Sadly, this hard-won self-confidence and self-esteem does not make me more attractive to men because they are not looking at 60-year old women. It’s as if we’re invisible.


@Michelle But the point of hardwon self-confidence + self-esteem is not to make you more attractive to men (that reminds me of that line from bridget jones’ diary that goes something like, ‘Act like I am happy without boyfriend in order to attract boyfriend’).

And sometimes I wonder about the invisibility/visibility thing. Are we entitled to be ‘visible’, to be ‘noticed’ on the basis of appearance alone? After all, a lot of women grow up never being ‘noticed’ for their looks, and they learn other ways to distinguish themselves, to earn admiration, to find fulfilling relationships. Being looked at is not — has never been — the same as being listened to.


Thank you Justine for giving words and a platform for things laying in wait under the surface, bubbling and waiting to vent…

I am 50 years old and my daughter will turn 27 this Sunday and I am reminded here of the book, Searching for Mercy Street, My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, by Linda Grey Sexton. Anne Sexton at 40 writes a letter to her young daughter, trying to explain all of this above, to be opened on her 40th birthday if I recall correctly. A very powerful read.

And yes, I will admit in my 20’s my significance was wrapped in my sexuality, perhaps due to the sexual abuse I endured as a child.

I am a very average looking woman, but have experience at least some attention in my life from the opposite sex. It is all a matter of what gives you significance…Is it your accomplishments, your sexuality, your love of humanity or your service to others, etc…?

Male attention wasn’t always important as I have been married for 30 years. I tried my best to instill in my daughters that looks are not important. It really is all about what you want out of life or a situation and what gives you significance…knowing that is powerful.

I have experienced that beautiful friend getting all of the attention purely for her looks. Man theoretically bowing down to her and felt a little jilt inside from the experience, but
The Truth Is…(and I didn’t learn this over night) No one can give you power or take it away…no one can hurt you with the things they say. It is always your choice to feel either negative of positive…You have to take control of your emotions and empower yourself, and then names will never hurt you. Know who you are and be resolute and realize that no one makes you feel anything, it is all up to you! You choose to be happy, sad, powerful or weak. There is no reality only perception and it is your perception that creates your reality. What makes you significant? Answer that and the battle is won. © 2014, Carly Compass Author
A side note Justine: Can I ask what plug-in you use for your email subscriptions? Thank you.


I love your take on this.

When I was around … oh 28 or so … I was working for one of the big credit card companies.

There was an executive (my boss’ boss’ boss) that used to come around our department every 2 months or so to check up on us, discuss process improvements etc.

And I loved her visits. She was confident, professional, and after a while we became friends.

One day she asked me where I saw myself in the company now and where I would like to be. She asked what I perceived as barriers to all of that.

Near the end of the talk she said something to me that changed my professional life. We were discussing how we were both assertive, knowledgeable, and had people “pushing back” to us.

She said “Honey? If we were men? No one would question our behaviour.” And she smiled.

From then on I kept that in mind. I’m not being the push over nicey nice “lady”. I’m a professional, I’m in charge, I know what I’m talking about, so I will stand toe to toe with you.

Unfortunately, a lot of men and women don’t like this type of woman. Well too bad. :D




seems like this could be a great birthday present to yourself, Justine.
Missing you – N


My husband says that I’m a ‘shark disguised as a dolphin’. I love that analogy. It protects my warmth and femininity, but recognizes an underlying power. I ‘bring my shark out’ in high stakes meetings, or when I am interfacing with another shark. It’s useful for my employees and clients to know that I have a shark within, but use it only when necessary.


Love this!


Um, I love this. I need to figure out how to impart that confidence onto/into my 9 year old daughter…I am definitely one that puts myself down and do NOT want my kid doing the same damn thing.

And I turn 42 soon, too. Next month. How did that happen, dammit?


I have to say “amen” to Michelle’s comment. Despite the wisdom and greater confidence (in some areas) of older age, aging is hard, especially when you have been used to being noticed. And when you aren’t noticed, you’re often not heard.

That said, I hope you have a glorious birthday, and may there be lots of cake!


@Queen Celeste I agree; aging is definitely a challenge for both genders. There’s a difference between attention + recognition, and if you want to protect against becoming unseen + unheard, I would think one effective strategy would be to become as masterful as possible at whatever you have chosen to make your life’s creative work, soul work. To pursue recognition rather than attention — to be so badass that they can’t ignore you — but this, of course, is what women are, in a myriad of subtle ways that accumulate over the years, dissuaded from doing (or are never really taught to do in the first place). Even if the recognition isn’t forthcoming, there’s a deep rich satisfaction in mastering a skillset or subject matter that you care about — to know something down through its bones — we love what we know deeply, after all. Life does not have to revolve around the fulfillment of a romantic myth — which is, after all, a myth.


Thanks for the reply, Justine. Beautifully said. So many of us have been deeply influenced (Indoctrinated?) by the myth that it can be pretty hard to shake. Recently a friend (a great beauty) told me that men don’t look at her anymore. We commiserated about that, and I reminded her about Brigitte Bardot saying how she gave her youth and beauty to men, but wisdom and love to help animals (my soul work).

This came up again while reading the biography (highly recommend this book!) of Clare Boothe Luce. In her late fifties she lamented the fact that men didn’t look at her in the elevator. She had been an editor, playwright, war correspondent, congresswoman, and ambassador (to Italy), adviser to presidents–a supremely accomplished woman, but was devastated by the loss (in her estimation) of her looks. (It didn’t help that her husband took a mistress half his age.)

I’d love to read more on this from you, as this is a topic of interest to, I’m sure, many, many women.


You’re lucky to be in a career where you’ll never face age discrimination. For many women — and men — who are over 40 (or even 35) that’s not the case. Not everyone has the luxury of not caring what someone else thinks, and although self knowledge and confidence may manifest itself with maturity, it’s not difficult to find the exact same thing in someone younger. Few people suffering long term unemployment have the state of mind to say “I don’t care” with confidence, even more so if a family depends on his or her income.


Yes, I am lucky, and that is exactly why I can write things like this with impunity. Tacit acceptance of age discrimination means it will never ever change. Also “not caring what someone else thinks” doesn’t mean you go around acting like an obnoxious (or unprofessional) moron. It means you don’t let them dictate the shape of your self-esteem. Anyone who does that — woman or man — is in trouble.


I am 41 and this is exactly what I needed to get me through today. All the reading about Maggie Gyllenhaal at 37 being “too old” to play a 55 year old mans love interest was really bumming me out. The last couple of years have been really eye opening for me. Everyone tells me “wow you don’t look 40” which is not really a compliment to me anymore. I want to own it, and I’m still learning. Thank you Justine- for writing this.


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