I turned 40 recently, and you may find this difficult to believe, but my knees did not suddenly give out. I did not get a crick in my neck. I did not suddenly get fat, go grey, or sign up for 6 a.m. water aerobics.
I get that turning 40 is symbolic in our culture, that 40 is the beginning of midlife. It’s when we start taking stock and noticing we can’t drop 10 lbs. as fast as we could when we were 22, that aches and pains feel more urgent because of the very real prospect they could be permanent. But I take issue with the popular notion that 40 is old, that my youth is behind me, and it’s a downhill slide into snap-front housecoats and teeth in a glass on the nightstand from here on out.
I’ve noticed this disturbing trend among some of my friends recently, whereby any ailment, any ache, any pesky weight gain or insecurity about appearance is accepted as just a fact of aging. “Well, we are 40″ is the stock response to any complaint these days, a sort of age-related version of that other annoying hands-thrown-up-in-helplessness response, “It is what it is.” Meaning there is absolutely nothing to be done but sit back in your Barcalounger and wait for the AARP card to arrive.
This, I am here to say, is kind of bullshit. Yes, the milestone birthday is a bitter pill to swallow—it feels like a dividing line between young and old, and when you tell your 25-year-old coworker you’re 40, you can see the flicker of horror flash across her face before she says, “Oh, that’s cool,” and tells you her mom is not that much older than you are. Aging is happening. But isn’t 40 a tiny bit young to start acting old?
In our 20s, we felt like kids a lot of the time; we wanted to be taken seriously but had a sense that we were not old enough or experienced enough for that. But for many of us, we’ve been feeling like adults for a while now—maybe it started when we bought our first car, got married, had a kid, got a mortgage. It’s almost like adulthood has gotten so comfortable that we’re eager for the next phase—old age—long before it’s really arrived. I sometimes think my friends are acting old because it’s something to bond over, it’s a handy excuse for some of the things we don’t like about our bodies but never had any valid culprit to attribute them to before.
It’s true that my knee hurts if I don’t exercise for a few days, but that has been happening since at least 35. I found my first grey hair at 27. I can’t lose weight easily now, but I’ve never ever in my life lost weight easily. But there are some things I have noticed that have definitely changed in the last year. I never felt like I had a hairstyle that really suited me until I got bangs last year. I’ve never enjoyed exercise as much as I have since I started taking barre classes and doing the 30 Day Shred a year ago. I’m having more fun, more good sex, more spiritual fulfillment, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to dress for my figure, so I’m sort of prettier now than I’ve ever been, too.
I know there are people who might read this and say “Oh, well isn’t that nice for you,” or “This is a woman in denial,” and I hear you. I do. And believe me, there are indeed things that have gone wrong since 40, but I don’t blame 40 for it. Sure, things are drooping, but they’re going to droop a lot more in 20 or 30 years, so I’m going to try and appreciate them for what little elasticity they have now. But can we stop for one second and agree to stop acting like 40 is one sprained ankle away from life support? Drew Barrymore is 40. Eva Longoria is 40. Kate Winslet and Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie turn 40 this year. We’re in pretty good company, my friends.
Water aerobics does sound kind of fun, though.