“How old do you think Terri is?”
My friends love this game and so we play it. A lot.
An awkward pause as the person looks me over. Guess too high and they risk insult. Too low and they’re pandering. Of course, the point of the game is to fail.
“32?” “38?” “41?”
“Wrong!” Everyone laughs. I do the reveal because otherwise, it feels like an accusation.
“I’m 50,” I say.
They knew they were wrong, but didn’t know how wrong. “What? No!” The jaw drops, the eyes widen, the eyebrows shoot up like birds startled off a wire. Then the familiar chorus: “You look great” ― sing it with me now ― “for your age.”
The reaction to an age reveal, particularly when someone’s older than you thought, is universal.
It’s a compliment, a victimless crime, a game where everyone wins. And of course I’m flattered. But while it was cute when I was 39 and people guessed 27, it hits different now that I’m 50. What used to be a fun fact is now met with the kind of shock I wish I’d done something more interesting to earn.
“But how though?” they ask, as if I’ve pulled off some kind of trick, a death-defying feat ― which I guess I have, since, as Seinfeld said, all I did was not die another year.
I’m going to go ahead and speak for women on the cusp of 50 and beyond when I say please, please stop being shocked by our ages. You’re not helping.
First, because we’re already shocked as it is. Every one of us, regardless of how old we are. Aren’t you just a little bit incredulous that you’re the age you are right now? Of course. And just as we’re getting used to the idea of this age, it changes again.
Look, I’m guilty of the same gaping curiosity ― pinging Siri with questions like “How old is Christie Brinkley” (69, if you’re interested) and “How old was Kim Cattrall in Season 1?” (41). TikTok exploded when we learned that the women in the “Sex and the City” revival were the same age as the “Golden Girls” were in 1988. These extremes leave very little room for regular women. The presumption is that you’ll either immediately become Bea Arthur at age 45, or are failing at life if you don’t look like J.Lo (who’s 54).
(Fact: If you didn’t look like J.Lo 20 years ago, you’re probably not going to look like her anytime soon.)
Maybe it’s the shock that’s so telling — because either we’re in denial that we’re aging or we’re terrified, or both. With the average lifespan of an adult in the U.S. hanging strong around 73, and even older for women, it’s not so surprising for any of us to turn 49 or 53 or 60. And if you’re lucky, you will.
The truth is, I don’t just look good for my age. I look … good. Period, the end. Part of it is genetic and part of it is privilege, which has given me access to excellent health care and hair color (and I’ll let you guess which costs more). I also chose not to get married or have children, so that accounts for why I may have less stress and more sleep. Sure, I do my part to maintain a healthy lifestyle, too. In other words, I have a lot of things working for me, some I earned, some I didn’t.
I also have plenty of friends who look fantastic, and they’d sooner tell you how many people they’ve slept with than what year they graduated college. Why? Because they fear breaking the illusion that they’re young and fertile, which we assume will cause our cultural stock to slide. We still believe that the measure of a woman’s vitality and power is to look as though she could get pregnant at any moment.
The roots of this are, of course, patriarchal, which is why we’re also supposed to be grateful that you’d still “hit that” ― or worse, that you actually prefer “mature” women. Gag.
In her book “Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life,” psychologist and mythologist Sharon Blackie points out that until very recently, women barely made it past child-bearing age.
“Now that we are living longer, it’s important to remember that fertility isn’t actually the norm in the context of an entire lifespan,” she writes. “We’re fertile (more or less) from approximately fifteen years old to around forty: twenty-five years out of an average…eighty.” That’s not a big window, and yet we have decided that that’s the shelf life.
No surprise, then, that menopause has for decades been pathologized, treated as a disease, dysfunction, a problem to be solved, rather than a stage we will simply pass through.
If you feel weird about turning 50 (or 30 or 75), chances are it’s because you believe that your power has a shelf life. Of course, that depends on how you define power. Youth has its own brand of power — all fire and endurance, the ability to stay up past midnight. But while some early forms of power may fade, others emerge.
There’s a kind of heft to age that has a power all its own, and it can feel good when you can whip it out to put people who dismiss you in their place. When I did some brand consulting for a major financial institution a few years back, the client (male, white, 70s) asked me if I had trouble getting people to take me seriously when I walked into a room (yes, he said that) because I was so young.
“Bob, exactly how old do you think I am?” I said. (I admit, I loved putting him on the spot.)
“I dunno, 30? 35?”
Wrong, Bob. And that was one of the many times I loved the reveal. Because if he didn’t take me seriously before, he did now.
And it’s not just men — plenty of women do it, too. I love it when a woman says, “Oh, you’re probably too young to remember that reference!” Bonus points if they wave a dismissing hand in your direction.
“Of course I remember The Monkees, Denise. I was born in 1973.” Denise looks at me differently after that, and I kind of love it.
Hear me out: The power we thought we had as young women was the delusion ― on loan from a world that convinced us that its needs should be our aspirations. We are effectively encultured to believe that compliance and achievement are one and the same, and we are celebrated for both ― as long as we don’t get in the way.
Your power and mine don’t come from fooling people into thinking we’re younger; they come from becoming more of who we are, hitting the gas instead of pumping the brakes, being authentically and unapologetically ourselves, and above all, caring about some things more — and most things a whole lot less.
I don’t have any intention of “letting myself go.” But I have begun to let the world go — with all its petty grievances and bullshit, its made-up rules, its infinite chorus of egos and relentless demands. Girl, bye.
Our fear of aging represents not just the iron grip of patriarchal culture, but a limited imagination. If we believe our power stops at turning heads, what we’re actually lacking is vision.
What I’m already loving about 50, and I’ve only just arrived, is that because I’m past the fertility window and no one’s waiting on wedding invites from me, I can focus on what I actually want rather than spending precious energy maintaining others’ illusions. I can imagine what my life might be outside of old roles and expectations.