A few weeks ago, I turned 39.
I get excited about birthdays, believing that age is cumulative, as “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” I think of new ages as adding experiences and insights while keeping all the previous ones: I’m still my toddler and teenage selves, and now I’m adding multiple adult selves into the mix. I joke that “I’m greedy and want all the ages” as a way to affirm and reclaim the joy of aging.
And I do see joy in aging—in experiencing more of life, in growing into different embodied identities—despite the prevailing cultural messages that denigrate the very young and old alike. With awareness of how ageism constructs and constrains ideas about aging, this year’s birthday felt significant for at least three reasons:
First, I’m not freezing myself at 39.
I remember being conditioned in childhood to see 39 as a benchmark, as the age when adult women “freeze” themselves in place. When asked their age, older women would respond, “39, of course!” Laughter and cautious reminders would ensue: “You know better than to ask a lady her age.”
Witnessing these interactions taught me a lot about the intersection of ageism and other -isms: women, particularly able-bodied, cisgender white women seeking class standing in the United States, didn’t want to be associated with older age. Thirty-nine (and later I’d hear 29) was the last desirable age.
As a young girl who already understood how adultism made me seen as less-than, I took note of this form of gendered ageism. Before I had the language to describe myself as a feminist or to play the rebel, I’d made a promise not to freeze myself at any age. I looked forward to reaching 39 and all the ages to come.
Second, I’m reclaiming feminine strength expressed in 39 (a multiple of 13).
I grew up seeing the number 13 as unlucky until learning a few years ago that 13 has a long history of being associated with goddesses and the divine feminine. It’s not just that aging (moving through cyclical stages of maiden, mother, mage, and crone) has been interrupted and interpreted negatively (hence, women being frozen at 39). It’s also that whatever is considered “feminine” (from intuition to caretaking) takes on negative associations: in this case, 13 has literally become the basis of many superstitions and prophesies of bad luck.
What if 13 conveys good luck instead?
Luckily, 39 is a multiple of the number 13. As I count up by 13s (13, 26, 39), I recognize ages that have signaled important turning points for me and ages that feel powerful for reclaiming and integrating characteristics considered “feminine.” I’m particularly excited about 39 being a time to become more fully human—not limited by gendered expressions but able to reclaim what’s been cast off and to heal what’s been broken.
Third, I’m making choices that break from what’s “age appropriate.”
Throughout childhood, I also learned cultural scripts about what’s expected at what age. I questioned these scripts, especially when I realized as a pre-teen (around ages 11-12) that I didn’t want to have children. I had so few models for women pursuing lives of learning and activism that I looked to the few I saw on TV and thought briefly about becoming a nun.
Despite my recognition that normative age expectations do harm by reinforcing whiteness, heteronormativity, and other parts of “the mythical norm” (and thanks again to Audre Lorde for this language), I’ve still found myself internalizing scripts about what’s possible at particular ages. Like internalized sexism and white superiority, these scripts involve internalizing class superiority and then denying the privilege and power it carries. What if instead of denying my class privilege and the choices it allows (choices to follow or to break from what’s considered “age appropriate”), I locate my choices within the finding that “white families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families”? What if I recognize privilege as possibility and, moreover, responsibility? What is I see power as not to be hoarded but to be yielded, wielded, spent, and transformed?
The more I work on releasing myself from age expectations (and expected timelines), the more I am called into action. Currently, as I enter 39, I’m making major career changes and a cross-country move, which involves downsizing to roughly the amount of “stuff” I had when entering college at age 18. It’s seemingly a move backward to move forward. A move that involves giving myself permission to “retire” from a career in academia. A move to pursue commitment-driven “passion projects” that I’ve been allowing to backslide for too long.
Realizing that I’ve been holding off on passion, I’m hoping to course correct mid-stream. I’m hoping that “retirement” at age 39 allows me to act on the enormous privilege to pursue my heart’s desires. It might not be age appropriate, but it sure feels age-igniting, inviting, and inspiring …
This year’s birthday (my 39th) has me asking a range of questions, which I hope might to speak to others whenever you’re experiencing age:
- What if we think differently about age and aging?
- How might we interrupt aging timelines and other age expectations?
- How might better understandings of ageism mobilize understandings of other -isms (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, sizeism, nationalism, +++)?
- What possibilities come with redefining ages and our associations with them?
- How can we do more to interrupt ageism and its limitations on who we are allowed to be, what we are allowed to do, and how we are allowed to play?
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books,” “Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose,” “‘We’re All the Ages We’ve Ever Been.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!