A few months ago, I underwent an enormous existential transition. In a trifecta of life changing events, I went from being a married woman in her 30s, working full time and unsure of what the future held, to being pregnant, 40 and separated from my mate.
Now that's a lot, I know. But like all things in life, even though it may all land at once, we can only sort through one thing at a time. The first thing I want to look at is the smallest thing – not small in its impact, but small because it is just two little characters forming one scary number: the number 40.
Here is some stuff people think about 40:
Your life is half over.
The productive and creative part of your life is past.
Your best years are behind you.
Your youth, beauty and sexual magnetism have fled.
Here is what I think about 40:
Its not old. Its probably not even middle-aged where I am concerned. The life expectancy of the women on both sides of my family is well above 80.
At 40, a life is only half over (if that).
The productive and creative part of life is never past. As for me, I have more focus and more depth than I did at 35, 30 or, certainly, 20.
I hope my best years are ahead. I really had a rough time the last two decades.
My youth has fled, and with it, my youthful ignorance and arrogance. My beauty has changed, deepened and become more interesting, as have my tastes and aesthetic. My sexual magnetism is, sadly, not attended to much at the moment, but it certainly hasn't waned one iota. In fact, all that business about a woman's sexual peak being after 35 might be true after all...
Perhaps this is old news to most people, but many of the negative cultural associations we have regarding turning 40 are archaic. These feelings of fear and loathing that wait at the top of the proverbial hill are rooted in a much shorter life expectancy than we currently experience.
Oddly, even as our life expectancy has steadily expanded, we in America have continued to reinforce the idea that youth is a commodity and that those who have it possess more value than a person with age or wisdom could ever hope to harbor. What is this unconscious conspiracy? In most other cultures, age and wisdom are something to be respected. The elderly are treated with a certain deference and are listened to as the voice of balance and reason. In France, women and men of all ages are perceived as sexual beings, rather than being symbolically neutered the minute they form a smile line. Here in America, we say age doesn't matter, but our national obsession with health, fitness, weight loss, hair color and texture, makeup and fashion reflect a different set of values.
Ironically, a good many of the qualities we collectively value as youthful and beautiful, in fact, simply reflect fertility: large eyes, fringed by thick lashes, full lips, large breasts, broad hips and narrow waists for women, a muscular physique for men. These are all attributes that are consistent with natural selection and mating for reproduction. Studies have been conducted which correlate a woman's hip to waist ratio to her fertility, as measured by her estrogen levels. These studies go on to conclude that a female's objective level of attractiveness to the opposite sex goes up when her hip to waist ratio implies a high level of fertility.
“Women with a WHR of 0.7—indicating a waist significantly narrower than the hips—are most desirable to men. And an analysis of hourglass figures of Playboy models and Miss America contestants showed that the majority of these women boast a WHR of 0.7 or lower. In general, a range of 0.67 to 1.18 in females is attractive to men, Singh concluded in a 2004 study. . .What exactly is encoded in the hip ratio? A big fat clue to whether the person will have enough energy to care for offspring.”
I say this is ironic because in contemporary society, most people in their 20s – the decade of youth – and even well into their 30s, are taking measures to avoid becoming pregnant. Yet, we still value fertility and its hallmarks above the more useful and practical attributes of those beyond their childbearing years. And, as such, more and more women are getting Botox, Restylane, lip collagen injections and the like as early as their 20s, 30s and 40s to restore or sustain a more youthful appearance. Lindsay Lohan was rumored to have preventative Botox when she was 19 years old.
Meanwhile, as so many people play the never-aging game so as to stave off being seen as socially, culturally or sexually obsolete, healthier diets and a greater emphasis on exercise and healthy living have actually insured that today's post-40s population are not the middle-aged people of yore. My grandmother on my father's side was a tiny, cute, white haired woman who baked and wore sensible shoes. She looked approximately the same, like a little old lady, from age 55 to age 81 when she died.
Today's grandmothers wear very high heels, flat iron their hair and attend Zumba classes. So I guess it would seem that on the one hand, times have changed. On the other, we are stuck in the past where age and desirability are concerned.
Still, if fertility is the measure of youth, and if, because of medical advances and strides in health and wellness, more women are conceiving after 35 and 40, then doesn't that prove the recently popular adage that 40 is the new 30?
It seems the fountain of youth may have many tributaries. We may still value youth in America, but all signs now point to the idea that what used to be middle-aged may now officially be thought of as young. After all, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck. Even if some of the duck has been augmented with cosmetic-grade botulism...