Grey Hairs and Lessons Learned: What We Count When We Turn 30 as Women
This fall I celebrated my big 3-0. As celebrations flourished on my week-long birthday fest, I also could not help but mourn the end of my twenties. As with every new decade, we feel like we leave a little behind that we’ve grown fond of and look forward to living "our best" years ahead. But there is a reason why I juxtapose my birthday experience like this, turning 30 – for many of us women – is a bitter sweet rite of passage.
And we don’t realize it until we are hit in the face with the reality that in just a few days/weeks we will no longer be … well, everything we “are” when we are in our twenties. But what exactly are we in our twenties?
I can’t speak for everyone, but from my existential societal and historical analysis, in our twenties, particularly us women, well, we are …
I hate to put it like this, and I welcome being challenged, but our traditional gender roles, outside of feminist movements, are unfair to women. The younger we are, the more coveted we are, albeit personally and often professionally. When I think about being "coveted while young" I immediately remember the egregious dating formula for men I once heard in passing. I’m not sure where I picked up this pointless piece of garbage but it goes something like this:
If you are a man interested in dating women, the ideal age that you should be searching for can be calculated by:
Taking your age, halving it, then adding seven, and voila. So for a 40-year-old man, a 27-year-old woman is the ideal age.
As ridiculous as that sounds, when we really think about our global gender gaps, that formula isn’t that far-fetched. We get sold youth as the equivalent of beauty. We get sold beauty as the equivalent of self-worth. And our sense of self-worth is our driving force for both professional and personal success.
“Be confident.” “Be you.” “All natural.” “Woke up like this.”
It is no wonder many of us women talk about our age with anxiety. In fact, a few years ago while I was 28, I had a conversation with an ultra-successful-beautiful-kind work colleague about her age. As she was approaching her mid-forties, she shared that many people are surprised by her age because she looks younger than she is. I naively told her that she does that but she should be proud of being a woman in her mid-forties. And she told me something I won’t forget,
“Jackie, you are 28. Age isn’t an issue for you. Wait till you get older and you’ll see how others start to see you differently.”
So for the past week, I have been half-jokingly obsessing over my growing grey hairs (yes, I have a lot) and my inevitable eye wrinkles. And the funny thing is that never before had I cared. In fact, I care little now but I feel like because now I’m 30 I need to start caring. The pressure is on.
And it isn’t like a switch immediately went on the day of my birthday but I did start to notice a change in how I viewed myself and my position in this world. The big 3-0 after all is a symbol more than anything, but a powerful one that stands for loss and opportunity.
While I think that society is generally unfair to older women, I also think that as women we have a choice in how we view ourselves and thus invite others to view us. And so rather than obsess over my grey hair and my growing lack of sexual relevance for the opposite sex, I want to think about the opportunities that the big 3-0 is granting me.
You see most of my twenties were spent in crisis, drastic change, emotional instability, and career anxiety. I’m not saying any of that is a bad thing. I am bipolar after all, and emotional instability is part of the illness. And during my twenties I was also developing my professional identity as I earned a master’s degree and moved across the country and abroad looking for opportunities.
That turmoil comes with the territory of personal and professional evolution.
But as I neared the end of my twenties, I also became more grounded in my identity. Who I was then was always a source of profound analysis and uncertainty. However, with the passing of years and the strife from my chaotic past decade, I have become much more comfortable in my skin.
Let’s take my body image as an example. During my early twenties I suffered from a serious eating disorder that almost landed me in the hospital. From the stress of my studies, my personal life, and my negative feelings toward my body, I stopped eating meals and adopted an anemic diet of kale and carrots. It wasn’t until I got some blood work done that I was warned by the medical specialist, “if you keep this up, you’ll end with leukemia.” That became my wake up call to get my act together.
Since, I have learned that food is a healthy part of our daily routines. And now as a 30-year-old, rather than have a negative relationship with food, I embrace it and eat to nourish my body. I no longer obsess over calories and cut entire food groups from my diet. Instead, I focus on healthy AND regular eating. But I would not have learned this if it were not for the experience and the rude wake up call I had to have.
My professional identity has also changed. To me my career has always been a priority. I chose not to have children because I wanted to devote my life to my profession. What that is has evolved over the years. Regardless of my job title, it’s always been important to me to be involved in movements that provoke social change in some way.
Now that I am more established in my career, I feel a confidence that I did not have before. After I graduated with my master’s, I felt … inadequate (in a way, that’s what academia makes you feel). Every meeting I walked into, I was intimidated by the PhD-MD-holding senior staff. But I worked hard to learn and improve. As I did this, I began to speak up, confidently, as I realized that I was the expert in the room in my field and that I had something worthwhile to contribute.
Back then I was intimidated by what I did not know. But now I feel confident in voicing that I am in fact, inadequate and that I have a lot to learn. As I have gotten more professionally “seasoned,” I have learned that we all add value in our own unique ways.
There’s so much that transforms in our outlook as we live experience after experience. And as millennial, experiences are our new currency. I read somewhere that for many millenials, our thirties are the new twenties. With the global economic uncertainty and the rising cost of living, that statement does not surprise me. It takes us a bit longer to get “established” in our careers and/or with a family.
But what I think I mourned the most after my birthday was not so much the issue of not being “relevant” anymore (which can be debated!), but the notion that I am getting older and my hard self-attributed expectations go unfulfilled. With the turn of the century, the pressure to be better, bolder, bigger, greater is always on. We hear story after story about people in their twenties jumpstarting successful startups, traveling all over the world, winning genius awards, and becoming millionaires.
So what happens when we turn 30 and we haven’t accomplished any of that? It’s so easy for us to compare now. We are one click away from feeling worthless after we scroll through our Instagram feed and Facebook wall. Everyone is getting married, promoted, starting projects, traveling, having kids and we are … scrolling through Netflix with a box of wine on Friday nights, cuddling with Fido and Fufu on the couch.
We get embedded that success starts early and that the peak of genius and physical strength is at 21 or 22 (true story, heard this in a movie once about a mathematical genius). But that indoctrination is wrong. We all have different walks of life.
In fact, as I am writing this I am reminded of something I recently read about “not giving up.” Throughout his life, Coronel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, was a “failure” by our bogus standards of success, of course. He was fired from job after dead-end job, failed at entrepreneurship multiple times, lost a son early, divorced, moved in with his mom. It wasn’t until his 60s, after yet another encounter with an unrewarding job that he out of desperation began to sell fried chicken (cooked from his secret recipe) door to door. After 1,009 rejections, his recipe was finally accepted by a restaurant. At age 80, he became a millionaire.
Sanders’ story teaches us that success has no age. This is why we should reject societal pressures based on empty appearances and instead embrace how our own experiences teach us to be our own versions of better, bigger, bolder, and greater. On my end, I’m not any wiser for turning 30 as I won’t be when I celebrate my 40th birthday. But what I am is more at peace with my life journey. I’ll get there when I get there.
In the meantime, I’m going to let my grey hairs thrive.
The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: A Blog on How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Covers all topics including relationships, coping mechanisms, entertainment, and everyday resources
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Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!