I live in Los Angeles, where despite my best efforts, I occasionally hear a story like this: A friend knows an actress whose burglar alarm code — 2828 — serves as a reminder to her of the age she must never surpass. (The repetition adds a touch of hysteria, which I like.) Another friend lives next door to a model-actress who, in her late 20s, is considered to be so far out on the ledge of her prime that she was recently cast opposite a 40-something man as the mother of two teenage children. While the age distribution represented is biologically feasible (it’s possible that a woman could have her first child, with a 30-year-old husband, at age 12), child marriage is generally frowned upon even in California.
Not long ago, I watched the pilot episode of “The Mindy Project,” a comedy about a freshly minted obstetrician whose basic human value is called into question by her failure to have married someone — anyone — by her implied, if unstated, deadline. In one scene, Kaling, who is 33 in real life (and playing 31), goes on a blind date with a guy played by Ed Helms, who is 38 (and playing no one cares), when they are interrupted by an urgent phone call from the son of one of her patients. Annoyed at having to take the call, she grabs the phone from the hostess and hisses, “Do you know how difficult it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?”
I have no idea how hard this is, because when I was 31 (I’m now 44), I would have done anything to avoid enduring such an ordeal. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’re meant to identify with Mindy’s desperation and buy into it, to perform whatever mental contortions are necessary to look upon her with pity, and despise her just a little for reaching 31 with nothing to show for it, except, of course, a medical degree. If Malcolm Gladwell is right about it taking 10,000 hours, or 10 years, to truly master the thing you care about most, then Kaling’s character faces the depressing prospect of being over the hill before she even gets within shooting distance of the hill.
“What we see on broadcast television is that the majority of female characters are in their 20s and 30s,” says Martha M. Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, “Miss Representation.” “That is just a huge misrepresentation of reality, and that really skews our perceptions.” In reality, the documentary says, “women in their teens, 20s and 30s are 39 percent of the population, yet are 71 percent of women on TV. Women 40 and older are 47 percent of the population, yet are 26 percent of women on TV.” And the women in their 20s and 30s on TV are too often depicted as freaking out about their age, reinforcing the idea that life ends when adulthood begins.
“When any group is not featured in the media, they have to wonder, Well, what part do I play in this culture?” Lauzen says. “There’s actually an academic term for that. It’s called ‘symbolic annihilation.’ ”
Nobody disputes the fact that age is more cruel to women than men. But why don’t we? Take a look at Facebook, tireless corroborator of the relentless march of time and its startling effect on the boys I knew in high school. The girls don’t shock in the same way. They tend to hang on to their hair. They submit to the torture of Pilates. They can moisturize without inspiring a Morgan Spurlock documentary. They look fine; in other words, they kind of look the same.
This is just superficial evidence of what science seems to be telling us. Suddenly, the news seems full of quiet debunkings of evolutionary psychology’s most cherished chestnuts, not to mention reports on the hazards of middle-aged sperm and hopeful sci-fi tidings about the creation of fertile eggs from the stem cells of Japanese mice.
And yet (mouse stem cells aside), the tragic, grotesque, totally unfair and yet unassailable ephemerality of a woman’s so-called prime is a trope we privilege over any evidence to the contrary. We expect women to submit to its incontrovertible veracity with equanimity and shame, and we expect men to be gracious about it and try not to gloat. Mostly, we expect nobody to notice or question the different ways in which “primeness” is constructed for each sex, which is not based on the same criteria at all. If, as Hegel suggested, ideas are not just ideas but come wrapped in all flavor of attitudes, then this particular idea is a giant, Gorgonzola-stuffed, bacon-wrapped fig of a notion: decadent, cloying, aged, cured in centuries of spin, warmed over and passed around again and again.
I’ve thought about this a lot, because for most of my life, I’ve looked and sounded younger than my age. When I was pregnant, at 40, the nurses at my OB-GYN’s office would look at my chart and do double takes. After my daughter was born, strangers would rhapsodize about the rolling vistas of fertility that stretched before me. At 23, I looked about 16, and not a lanky, dead-eyed, ectomorphic 16, either, but a short, squeaky-voiced, snub-nosed 16; the kind of 16 that gets patted on the head. In job interviews, I clocked the time it took for the initial look of surprise on the interviewer’s face to relax into a look of fond condescension. A potential landlord once hung up on me for asking about the availability of an apartment, the rent on which I clearly would never be able to swing, given my vocal range. While I recognize that it’s probably preferable to the opposite, I can’t say that looking young has been particularly advantageous, professionally or even socially. It never got me much beyond getting carded while buying beer.
What does pay the big bucks (although apparently not as often as we think) is this trick of looking 30ish while actually being 13, as long as you are also very tall and able to maintain the body mass of a cricket. This has always been the case, but recently it has become even more so, making it harder to ignore the question of how young is too young to dedicate your life to trudging down a glorified auction block on your way to the fashion abattoir. Runway models provoke the same kind of dissonance as toddler beauty pageants, which similarly ask us to hold two irreconcilable messages (sexy baby) in our minds at the same time, and thus produce psychological discomfort by subconsciously calling attention to the cultural practice of systematically replacing images of adult women with images of kids in old-lady drag.
Still, the issue hadn’t seemed particularly pressing until I read a series of Op-Eds in a New York Times Room for Debate series about a guideline by the Council of Fashion Designers of America that suggests a minimum age requirement of 16 for runway models.
“Note that the gender-neutral models that need protecting here are implicitly girls, not boys,” wrote Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of pop culture and gender sociology at Boston University and the author of a book about the economics of modeling, in her Op-Ed. “Partly this stems from the entrenched celebration of women, not men, on display, and partly because male models in fashion tend to be older than their female counterparts. A 16-year-old boy on the catwalk would be as rare a sighting as a 35-year-old woman.”
Of course I already knew this. Everybody knows this. But sometimes you’re blinded to the reality of something by its sheer, naturalizing prevalence. A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar when I stopped to look at a guide titled “Fabulous at Every Age” — detailing how to look stylish in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s-plus. Mostly, the guide was made up of pictures of garments laid flat against a background, unviolated by human form. But each decade was also accompanied by a large photo of a model and a small insert of a nonmodel (half of whom were former models) representing her age group. The whole thing seemed fairly inclusive and democratic. (They went all the way to the 70s and older.) But the discrepancy between the models and the “real people” grew more jarring as the ages advanced, so that by the time we arrived at 70-plus, a small photo of Barbara Walters was dwarfed by a picture of a 16-year-old girl who could have been her great-granddaughter, looking sad in her dowager costume.
Pairing pictures of adolescent girls with adult men, or of young women with middle-aged men, to suggest age parity produces cognitive dissonance on a mass scale. So does constantly reinforcing the idea that a 33-year-old woman like Kaling is somehow “older” than a man who is seven years older than she. By locating the aspirational ideal squarely in the past of nearly everyone who consumes it, it puts almost all women and most girls in an ontological double bind from which nobody emerges unscathed. The most insidious thing about it, however, is that it promotes a false equivalence between youth and worth, between adolescence and adulthood. As one commenter on the Room for Debate series wrote: “Looking at children as examples of my adulthood feels wrong.”
It’s funny that they made that Barbie who said she thinks “math class is tough!” Girls love math. We never stop doing it. When I was 12, I often lay awake in bed frantically performing mental calculations to help me figure out when, exactly, I would get to live my life as an adult. If I finish graduate school at, say, 28, that leaves me six months to a year in which to work/live before having children by the drop-dead cutoff of 30.
This was around the same time that I waited breathlessly for the twice-yearly arrival of the newspaper fashion supplements that had row after row of small photos from the clothing collections. Something about the monastic severity of the models spoke to me. They looked so grown up, so deadly serious in their exquisite, artful, status-conferring garments, signaling discretionary income, power and leisure to burn. I guess that what I thought I was looking at was a kind of ideal of adult womanhood in its most fully realized state — unencumbered, sophisticated, youthful in outlook and yet mature, witty and cosmopolitan. I would have been so surprised to learn that the same girls, off the runway, might have been just a couple of years ahead of me in school.
For years, I worried that I would be dismissed for being too young right up until the moment when I started being dismissed for being too old. That means I spent a disproportionate piece of my 20s and 30s thinking it was all over. I remember crying to a male friend that my time was running out; that I didn’t think I would be able to squeeze it all in before my built-in expiration date. I was 24. Meanwhile, my 23-year-old roommate would languish on the couch wailing, “I feel like a piece of fruit rotting on the vine!” I look back at this now — at how bad, how ashamed I felt for letting myself turn 29 — and I can’t believe how much of my youth I squandered on feeling old.
This article first appeared in the New York Times magazine