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LIFE HONESTLY

I’m 37. Am I supposed to lie about that?

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Women are under particular pressure to lie about their age. But it’s time we stopped, says Poorna Bell

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By Poorna Bell on

I can’t remember which aunt it was, only that we were in a living room of sorts, tucking into cake and biscuits. Wriggling with the suppressed boredom of an eight-year-old not being included in adult conversations, I finally burst out with: “Auntie, how old are you?”

There was a gasp. The room went quiet. The poor aunt I’d asked refused to make eye contact and instead examined a cobweb in the corner. Finally, someone broke the silence by saying: “Poorna, it’s not polite to ask a lady her age.” Then, just as quickly, conversation resumed and I was left wondering what I had done wrong.

Over the years, I would hear many versions of this play out and the message never wavered. That it was not polite to ask a woman – specifically – her age and, at some point, you reached a point where you stopped telling people how old you were, because for some reason that was a bad thing.

Until recently, I never felt the need to do either. In fact, the reverse – because I look younger than my age, I usually tell people how old I am, so they’ll take me seriously.

I’ve also never really felt my age. Although my metabolism has slowed and I can no longer inhale seven kebabs without negative consequences, I’m way fitter and stronger than my twentysomething self. It left me wondering: was I ever going to reach that point where I felt compelled to lie about it? Surely not, I thought, until I did on my 37th birthday a few weeks ago.

Funnily enough, unlike other birthdays, it wasn’t preceded by any telltale signs of a freakout. For instance, while turning 25: will my career ever take off or will I be a failure? Twenty-eight: I haven’t met my soulmate and I’m going to die alone. Thirty: I’ve met my soulmate, but I’m decrepit and old. Thirty-five: FML this is the halfway point to 70 – why was I moaning about turning 30?

On my 37th birthday, I woke up feeling remarkably calm. I ate a good breakfast, did yoga and drank beer on the beach as the sun was setting. But then, after telling the bartender it was my birthday, he asked: “Which one is it?” And I hesitated. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to tell someone how old I was. “Oh, you know,” I mumbled, “old enough.”

There is a tough realisation: while I may feel capable and free, the rest of the world doesn’t see me like that

At first, I couldn’t figure out why I felt like this. I am in the middle of a career break and am feeling – for once – empowered about my own life choices. But then I realised that, even though I’ve had some amazing experiences while travelling alone, because I’m not the average twentysomething backpacker I’ve also had to explain who and what I am to more people than I care to remember. The reaction has been mixed – I can tell some of them are surprised, puzzled, wondering when I am going to grow up. To them, I am fast running out of time, already on a highway to 40, with 38 and 39 merely service stations along the way.

Apart from other people’s expectations of where you should be in life, age also hits a low when it comes to dating. Nowhere else is the unfairness and inequality of the sexes so evident than in romantic arenas, where older men are seen as dashing and carefree, while older women are desperate to settle down. Yes, I realise there’s the matter of a woman’s biological clock, but the default expectation that I want kids just because I have ovaries is sexist, isn't it?

So, there is a tough realisation: while I may feel capable and free, the rest of the world doesn’t see me like that. Society’s mirror when it comes to women getting older is not a kind one – it reflects back the things it believes we can’t do, rather than the things we can. But while I realise it’s hard to buck the system because we’ve been listening to that terrible playlist of stereotypes around ageing, it’s no longer acceptable to pander to this system that believes women ageing is a worse thing than men ageing.

Maybe once upon a time, when we were forced to rely on a husband for our livelihoods, it was more important to retain our looks for as long as possible. But as one of millions of working women who earns her own money, I am no longer going to be cowed by this threat. Any guy who is going to arrogantly assume they have the advantage of choice because I must be desperate to settle down can do one. Any other people who think I am running out of time to achieve my life goals clearly haven’t got the memo that people don’t usually die at 60 any more.  

For a start, I can focus on what I’ve gained, rather than what I’ve lost to youth. As far as I can see, I make bold, confident decisions about my life not because I’m worried about dying, but because I’m older and wiser. I’m inspired by other women doing the same because it chips away at this set idea we have of age and life markers. And I can certainly do something about not propping up a pretty flawed and antiquated system by actually being open about my age. It’s a risk because there are idiots who assume you are past it and are making irresponsible choices about your life. But I’ve also seen how being honest about yourself and your decisions – whether that’s changing careers or embarking on an adventure – encourages other women to be brave.

So, we have to put ourselves out there and stop tiptoeing around outdated gender norms. Because how can we talk about society viewing older women as invisible, if we refuse to be visible?

@poornabell

Sali Hughes is away

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