On Turning 30
Age is a weapon society uses against women. Each year that you gain comfort in your own flesh, your flesh is seen as worth less.
Drawing by Molly Crabapple
When I was 24, a curator I hoped to work with told me: "When you're 30, you'll be really ugly, and your boyfriend will leave you. But I'd still fuck you."
I turned 30 in September.
Despite feminism, or logic, I dreaded it—though none of the curator's predications came true.
Age is a weapon society uses against women. Each year that you gain comfort in your own flesh, your flesh is seen as worth less. Thirty, like 40 or 50, is a demarcation line, but a particularly loaded one. Cross it, says the world, and you leave the trifling-but-addictive privileges of girlhood behind. Invisibility this way, ma'am.
I was still 24 when the same curator refused to put me in a show with female artists in their early 20s. They painted girls of a dewy frailty the curator imagined the artists themselves possessed. "You're not a young artist," he told me, when I asked to be included. "Not like them."
As an American woman, you may be a girl-gone-wild, or a biologically-ticking-40. But except perhaps for six months after your 21st birthday, your age is like Goldilocks's porridge. Too young, too old. Never just right.
A man's age, on the other hand, is always right. In Letters to a Young Contrarian, a 52-year-old Christopher Hitchens wondered when he would no longer be called an angry young man. Men like Hitchens go from bad boy to elder statesman.
For me, many of the privileges of getting older have been bound up with getting cash. As an artist, I've done better than most. Each year I've managed to hack together more opportunities, and paint with more mastery, until one day, I realized I was no longer flailing just to stay afloat. Being 30 is sweet. Saying I was 30 I pointlessly despised.
Thirty is supposed to be the beginning of the end of hot girlhood. Sexual attractiveness is too red-raw basic to deny. It's the one power the world grudgingly grants to women. The half-true caveat is that you're on borrowed time. With care, beauty fades slowly. Youth's juicy smoothness fades fast. As you age you gain clarity. You lose what fucks you had to give. For a woman to have experience, but to not be, as writer Chelsea G. Summers describes it, "a shadow woman, gliding gray and ghostly into that good night," is dangerous.
Better to tell women that youth is their best quality—that when their ass starts sagging and their face starts cracking, everything they love will fade away.
I'd tell myself I'm glad I'm turning 30. "I'm fucking terrified," I'd confide to friends. They were mostly women older than me, gorgeously continuing to take up space. "Ha!" they'd snort. "Just you wait."
Weeks later, I'd be reassuring a friend that her life wasn't over cause she'd just turned 26.
By 30 you're no longer a child. What's often admired in femininity is, as the abstinence speakers say, being as fresh as an un-licked ringpop. White girls particularly (I'm half-white, but aspirin-pale), are imagined to posses innocence. Innocence is supposed to be preserved.
Innocence is not doing. Not running off to New York. Not drinking whiskey till 4 AM. Not fucking that boy or girl because they make your heart scream electric, then waking up unpunished the next day. Not hacking a system rigged against you. Innocence is a relic of a time when women had the same legal status as children. Innocence is beneficial to your owner. It benefits you not at all.
I hated being a child. My happiest day was when I left school and started an adult life where I could travel the world, or at least go to the bathroom without a teacher signing off on it. My early 20s, for all their excitement, were a procession of broke-ness and sexual harassment. But being a grown woman is damn fine.
"I wish I were a woman of 36, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls!" the nameless second Mrs. de Winter told her fiance Maxim, in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. Maxim threw a fit. She'd reminded him of his dead wife, the book's namesake. Rebecca, in her 30s when she died, was all posh arrogance, sex and bravery. The second Mrs. de Winter crept through her home like a ghost.
Maxim loved the second Mrs. de Winter because she was naive, young, and powerless. Unlike Rebecca, she couldn't see through his line. At any sign that her innocence might crack- a dress, a smile—Maxim turned to sleet. The book plays this as romantic, but even at 13, I got the real message. To be innocent was to be a victim. A woman of 30 no longer innocent. Thank god for that.
At 18, I had the same dopey attraction as the second Mrs. de Winter. I'd sit at the Barnes and Noble cafe reading books I couldn't afford. Men would ask to sit with me. I was too polite to tell them no. They'd get angry if I wouldn't talk to them. They'd get angry if I did. After conversation, I declined one guy's offer of drinks. He screamed at me: "Why the fuck did you waste my time?"
No one screams at me any more. In November, I walked around Beirut at 3 AM and besides one guy jerking off toward the stars, no one bothered me. Men tell you you'll miss street harassment when it's gone. I don't.
As a broke 21-year-old, I posed for a music video shoot where my job was to writhe around in a bikini while live crickets fell on me. We agreed for the crickets to be poured on my stomach. The grip instead poured them on my face. The band laughed as I screamed. To them, I was a young, sexy girl, and thus disposable. I forced the booker to pay me extra before I would sign a release.
In most fields, men have the power. Drinking the countless cocktails with which I solidified professional relationships, I got used to dreading propositions. When I stopped getting them, the delight of being equal, rather than just fuckable, hit me like a kiss.
The only real thing 30 took from me was the sense of limitless time. I can reasonably expect 30 more years of good health. With luck, there will be 9,000 sunsets to get the great work done, before one starts fearing cancer and death.
More and more I hate the men and women who cling to youth's helplessness. Clinging to youth is understandable. Shooting your forehead with botulism can look lovely, or at least help maintain your place in ageist capitalism. But why hang on to that know-nothing, white-girl vulnerability? Staying alive has power. The years should give you competence and toughness along with the battle scars. You've survived. Fuck anyone who would keep life's beauty from your grasp.
Zora Neale Hurston was one of the last century's great writers. But at 26, poverty and institutional racism had kept her from getting an education. She chopped ten years off her age and enrolled in a Baltimore high school. Hurston went to Barnard and then on to fame in the Harlem Renaissance. She never added those ten years back.
Hurston subverted many things, among them the system that turns time against women. She had the razor eyes of experience, saying "I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." She also took an extra decade of youth.
Like many thrilling things women do—fucking or hitchhiking, being demoniacally ambitious or telling an asshole to stick a chainsaw in his eye—society tells us that growing up leads to ruin. Yes, you get older, but you can also grow tougher, kinder, braver. You can claw out the life you wanted. But as you age, the world will tell you you're less worthy, even if you know that's a lie. If there's one thing society won't stand for, it's for a woman to be content.