Forty is NOT the New Twenty (Thank God)

I had 20 to myself, twenty years ago. I am content now to celebrate 40 and admire 20 on another generation of women.
Publish date:
June 5, 2012
aging, age, turning 40

I turned 40 last month. It’s a milestone birthday, a time for reflection, new beginnings. I am now older, not much wiser, but about one thing I am quite certain: 40 is not the new 20.

When did this 40/20 bullshit start? It feels like during the past 10 years or so, someone got the bright idea to "rebrand" forty. Like some marketing trick; trying to convince us that it’s okay to be forty, or that forty could still be (gasp) sexually relevant? I’m sure it had less to do with shoring up my self-esteem and more to do with selling me some snake oil or rejuvenating someone’s acting career. Sadly, the phrase stuck.

The thing is, I don’t want to be 20 again.

I hate that this comparison is made, as though it would be desirable for 40 to equal 20. Why? For whom? I did 20; it was great. It was 20 years ago, I'm now prepared to leave 20 to the actual twenty-somethings.

A portrait of Doriana Grey, age 20

Why on earth would I want to go back? I didn’t have the confidence then that I have now. I didn’t know that in relationships, there was no need to have my guard up so high or my standards down so low. I didn’t really know that I was beautiful, smart, funny; that people were lucky to hang out with me. I like myself a lot better now than I did then.

There are many awesome things about twenty. Rolling in self confidence, trusting your gut, taking good care of yourself are sometimes not among those things.

I remember someone telling me years ago that birthday anxiety had to do with fear of not meeting your age-related goals . That’s probably true. I think this was the genius of Diablo Cody’s last film "Young Adult" -- the portrayal of an adult woman caught in an extreme case of adult avoidance. There was nothing cute about Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary, a beautiful 37-year-old woman with pretty extreme age avoidance issues.

Forty does seem to have some special neuroses around it for many women, especially with respect to appearance. Advertisers prefer it this way!

Trying to look young is a sucker’s game, if you succeed, you can bet it won’t be for long. If you fail you’d better be prepared for ridicule.

Between MILF porn and the "Real Housewives," we live in a strange time for the middle aged woman. There appears to be an army of 40-something celebrities "embracing" their forties while doing everything in their power to look like Miley Cyrus. It seems like a Faustian bargain, 40-ish celebrities are expected to look like they’re in their twenties, and if they get it wrong they’re publicly humiliated.

For us “normals,” the herculean effort of trying to look younger appears time consuming, expensive, painful and finally, humiliating. Peels, dermabrasion, facial resurfacing, botox, "fillers" -- I don’t even know what new tortures have been invented to punish the aging woman. Hold me, I’m scared. I can’t imagine trying to compete with women half my age for the almighty prize of “hotness” at any price.

Well, think if I hadnt used that anti-wrinkle crap.

After using "wrinkle cream" since I was a teenager, I still have the wrinkles of 40 well-lived years on my face. This is the natural order. Now I think the most important factors in looking good are the boring ones: genes, diet, avoiding smoking and sun, and judicious use of cosmetics.

At this stage in my life I am perfectly content to pass the baton of youthful beauty to the next generations. I had 20 to myself, twenty years ago. I am content now to celebrate 40 and admire 20 on another generation of women.

People tell me all the time “You don’t look 40” -- I get that this is a compliment. I’ve said it to other women many times without thinking about it.

But what does it mean? I am forty, de facto, this is what 40 looks like. “You don’t look 40” is an unspoken “with luck, you will never look 40.” And how are we to approach 50? Sixty? Onwards and up, I want to be around for a long time. I don’t intend to hobble myself with anxiety about aging.

Forty is not the new twenty. And for that I am grateful.