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Written by Katy Harrington
Katy Harrington is Stylist’s commissioning editor and acting deputy digital editor.
Where did the concept that a woman has a few, fleeting “best” years, then it’s all downhill come from? And why do we so readily believe it?
As a young, bright-eyed journalist, I once asked an older, more experienced male editor if he had any advice for me. “Never turn 40,” he said, unhelpfully. Many years later, I did in fact turn 40, but his words have always stuck with me. The inference, amitriptyline hcl 50 mg for sleep I believe, was that as a woman my best days would happen pre-40, and after that, no one would be interested in me or what I had to say.
I’m not the only woman to come up against this antediluvian thinking. The belief that we have a “prime” time goes back decades – centuries, even. The Greek philosopher Plato said: “What is the prime of life? May it not be defined as a period of about 20 years in a woman’s life, and 30 in a man’s?”
Today, the idea that we have one or two decades allotted as our “peak” – usually our late 20s or 30s when we are, presumably, at our most fertile, financially stable and fun – is still hailed as our prime. Those years when we’re in great relationships, our careers have taken off, we look our best, feel our best and are generally unstoppable. Indeed, surveys and studies love to declare our 30s as our happiest decade. A recent study published in the international Social Indicators Researchjournal found that the “likelihood of achieving the happiest period in life increases substantially between childhood and the ages of 30–34, where it achieves the maximum. From then onward, the probability decreases, though it does so more sharply for women than for men.”
On TV, a woman’s 20s are often depicted as wild and messy (think: Girls, Conversations With Friends, The Bold Type), and our 30s the time for fun, figuring out finances and who we should be fucking (Fleabag, Love Life, New Girl). Off screen, celebs espouse the joys of their 30s: Beyoncé, Helen Mirren and Olivia Wilde have all touted them as their best years. This all plays out on social media, too. Search #Thirties on Instagram and alongside posts filled with the ubiquitous oversized 3-0 balloons sit idealistic proclamations about what life is like once you reach 30. One reads: “30 is an attitude… You’ve never been stronger or wiser or [more] ready for adventures than you are right now… welcome to prime time.”
But romanticising one decade above the rest, believing it to be the one time when everything magically coalesces socially, sexually, professionally and physically, not only lacks evidence, it doesn’t fit with women’s real lived experiences – certainly not mine. While parts of my 20s and 30s were wonderful, they never corresponded with the model of being young and carefree before gradually progressing to some mythical apex of being sorted and stable. I’m not married; I am dating. I don’t have kids (by choice). Financially, I’m in roughly the same position as I was a decade ago, and to be honest, I still feel as young as ever. In my experience, each decade comes with its own magic and its own mess. And whether it’s having kids, going back to study, leaving well-paid careers, escaping the rat race or living their best life over 40 – everywhere I look, the women I know are defying the idea of a prime decade. So why on earth does the idea persist?
Sex, lies and stereotypes
One big (biological) bone to pick is with reproduction. Medical journals and scientific studies have found that women have the best chance of getting pregnant in their 20s, with fertility gradually beginning to decline in our mid-30s, according to The British Fertility Society. Of course, huge progress in fertility treatments such as IVF means women are now having children later in life. UK census data confirms a steep upward trend: in 1974, women were having babies at 26.4 on average; in 2021, the average age is now 30 while, according to the ONS, more women than ever before are choosing not to have children at all. And there will always be those who defy the odds – Halle Berry gave birth at 47, Susan Sarandon at 46.It’s no coincidence that the concept of a woman’s prime corresponds with her ability to have children, but having a constant “ticking clock” warning is toxic. After all, it’s 2022 and valuing women based chiefly on their ability to reproduce has perturbing Handmaid’s Tale undertones.
There is also a huge gender gap to consider. Men are often free from scrutiny or deadlines to achieve their goals. Plus, how many times have you heard that men get better with age? I thought it was undeniable, but actually it is a scientific fact that men age faster, but can reproduce for longer – the latter may be the key reason we don’t pigeonhole men in the same way. The idea that their looks last longer (where’s the silver fox equivalent for women?) is patently untrue, but that doesn’t stop people saying and believing it.
It feeds into the “sexual prime” trope that suggests a woman’s sexual peak is around 30, while for men it’s 18. But that alone is “bullshit”, according to Dr Sally King, a PhD student in the department of global health and social medicine at King’s College London, who specialises in gender studies. “I would suggest this mainly relates to male stamina, fitness, libido versus the time it takes for a female, especially heterosexual cis woman, to find out or feel empowered to demand better sex?” She’s right. If you ask Google: “When is a woman’s sexual peak?”, a raft of articles mostly points to – you guessed it – your 30s, nicknamed the “dirty 30s” for all this wild sex women are (again) presumably having during that decade.
But research (and women) say different, including one in-depth BBC Futures investigation that concluded “neither sexual desire, nor sexual activity, fall off very quickly until well into your 50s”.
Pop culture doesn’t help the stereotype and Hollywood is perhaps the most notorious example of exclusively sexualising young women before forgetting about them completely. Meryl Streep (who previously believed her career would be over at 40), Geena Davis, Taraji P Henson and reams of actors have been vocal about the abominable lack of leading roles for women over 40 – and research backs them up. Analysis by economists Robert Fleck and F. Andrew Hanssen found that after 40, male actors bagged 80% of the leading roles available, with just 20% given to women.
That said, Dr King explains that the idea of a prime is tightly connected to gender norms and roles and applies to both women and men, but it differs in regards to sexuality and fertility. “Both binary genders are subject to similar ideas about ageing as a negative regarding physical strength, fitness, attractiveness, the best time to have kids and to work in certain roles, but for women this is further confined by reproductive and fertile age parameters.
The positive news, she says, is that these patterns are “shifting relatively quickly as women gain greater equality in society, especially the workplace, and crucially since the invention of female contraceptive medications, devices and IVF”. Interestingly, she argues that “having knowledge of our time-limited fertility is not sexist in itself (and can be useful for family planning)” but the concept in general “simply reinforces the erroneous idea that getting older is a societal or personal problem – rather than a natural development with positives as well as negatives [and] contributes to the idea that women should try to look or act young in order to remain ‘attractive’”, particularly to men.
Which brings me to the male gaze. Along with being fertile, another major factor that encourages society’s obsession with thinking women are “best” in their 20s and 30s is because men think that’s when we’re better to look at. (I know: sigh.)
The New York Times bestselling book Dataclysm, which drew data from major sites including Twitter, Facebook and OKCupid to investigate human behaviour, provided evidence that men at every age are consistently most attracted to women in their early 20s. With this cliché in mind, it’s vital to separate science (it’s inescapable that women have a cluster of years when we are most biologically set up to have a baby) from the sexist, patriarchal and social construct of valuing women based on fertility and appearance – and consider who is perpetuating this idea of our prime. And who is it even serving? Not us.
Calling time on prime
The concept of having a prime is clearly outdated, not scientifically sound and also harmful to women. In her work, Dr Claire Plumbly, an independent clinical psychologist specialising in anxiety and trauma in women, sees the damage this myopic theory is having. “In the therapy room, I see the difficulties this idea presents to women all the time, of all ages. It can show up in the form of anxiety, social withdrawal, overthinking decisions or regrets, low self-esteem, over-working as an avoidance technique or being overwhelmed by this feeling.”
Indeed, for Rachida Benamar, 35, leaning into the concept of a prime was dangerous. “A few years ago, I believed in this sort of crap and I think it’s why I clung onto bad relationships,” she says. Benamar bought into the idea that she was in her “best years” and didn’t want to run the risk of being left “on the shelf”. Looking back fills her with sadness. “The pressure to accomplish what others expect of us within a certain time frame is tragic. I naively thought my life would be linear and believed in being in your prime because people around me would repeatedly tell me I needed to hurry up if I wanted children.”
Like me, the idea of having everything sorted in your 30s couldn’t be further from the truth for her. “I don’t have a group of solid friends because they keep moving abroad; I run a business so finances are always up and down, and when it comes to sex, I discovered I loved sleeping more! This idea of a prime is pure fiction.”
LA-based psychotherapist Brooke Schwartz, who specialises in critical self-talk and uncertainty about values or next steps in life, says the concept of a prime limits us to view certain behaviours and phases of life as good and bad rather than seeing them for what they are. “It assigns value to certain periods of life rather than finding the value in all periods of life,” she adds. “It sets people up to have expectations of what should be in life and consequently run the risk of being disappointed if what should be isn’t.”
I couldn’t agree more. One of the most liberating things I felt leaving my 30s was the crystallisation of who I am, what I like and who and what I care about. That clarity, missing in my earlier years, has given me impetus to do more of what I love and cut the stuff I don’t (mainly spending time with, sleeping with or working for the wrong people). As I wrote in a friend’s 40th birthday card this week: “Yes, the hangovers get worse, but almost everything else gets better.”
Our 20s and 30s can be glorious and should be celebrated, but no one should fear the end of their prime at such a young age. As Polly Angelova, a writer with a special interest in feminism, tells me: “Every age has its peaks and its challenges and we’d all be much happier if we took life at our own speed.” In my 41-year-old opinion, it’s better to stop praising one or two decades of a woman’s life and stop underestimating or ignoring the power women have in the second half of their lives. Instead, let’s pour that energy into giving women the opportunity to work, earn and contribute in every way and on every level until they – and no one else – decide they are done.
Images: Getty/BBC/Robin L Marshall/WireImage, Taylor Hill/FilmMagic.
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