In all this analyzing we’ve been doing of the Paradox of Declining Female Happiness study, and the subsequent spinning of it courtesy of Marcus Buckingham and Maureen Dowd, there’s one point we’ve been pretty quick to gloss over: age.
Not for long.
I promise not to whine. But it does seem worthy of being addressed, don’t you think? I mean, two of the study’s key findings are that women grow less happy with their lives as they age, and that, by the time they reach age 47, they are overall less happy with their lives than are men with theirs. Hmmm.
For all his postulating, Buckingham didn’t bother giving the issue any more than the most cursory of acknowledgments:
Male mid-life crisis? [Ahem, Buckingham, read this.] A youth obsessed culture that is harder on women than men? The hormonal fluctuations of menopause?
Yet with that he drops the whole subject like a hot potato. Hardly unexpected: after all, the only thing less sexy than an unhappy 47 year-old woman is talking about why that unhappy 47 year-old woman is so darn unhappy.
(What? You think I’m going there? Maybe in a bit…)
But first, the requisite media scapegoating: Last week saw the premiere of a charming new show, which focuses on a single 40-something woman as its main character, and calls itself “Cougar Town.” Single female lead-of-a-certain-age notwithstanding, Cougar Town is no “Maude” (no “Weeds,” no “Closer”…): here, our heroine comes in the form of an amazingly well-preserved, stick thin, uber-beautiful Courtney Cox, on the prowl for a taste of much-younger man candy. (For the record, the leads on Weeds, the Closer, and any other modern-day show featuring a 40-something woman all seem to abide by one single, golden rule: sure, she can be 40-something, she just can’t look it.) Not that there’s anything wrong with seeking out some hot sex with a (very) able-bodied partner. On the contrary. But somehow, the message is off.
So, let’s review. Here’s a 40-something woman–beautiful, successful, self-sufficient. She has a sweet, healthy son, with whom she has a pretty good relationship. And yet. Here she is, measuring her worth in terms of sex appeal. Approval from the boys. Post-40!
(And, given all of that, back in the real world we’re supposed to be shocked about last week’s revelation of New Jersey’s Millburn High School’s “Slut List”–and the fact that the girls it named considered such dubious recognition a compliment?)
Problematic cougar messaging aside, let’s get back to the whole happiness goes down as age goes up thing. I haven’t even gotten into the gender inequities of aging (older men are sexy and distinguished while older women are saggy and without a sex drive; men having children into their 80s like Charlie Chaplin make for adorable anecdotes while older moms are considered selfish and reckless), because I don’t want to get caught up in the unfairness of it all–although it is, of course, wildly unfair. I think the more important point is this: when you live in a culture that doesn’t value older, naturally-aged women–to the point that the popular culture refuses to even show us what one looks like, it’s entirely possible that you’re not going to be so happy about becoming one. You might, in fact, be a little bit pissed off. (Again, why, exactly, is it called a Paradox?)
Then again, a lot of women claim to really come into their own with age. To be much happier; much less concerned with what anyone – let alone the big bad society – thinks.
But getting there is scary – probably, and maybe counterintuitively, scarier for us the younger we are. Why? Well, consider this: when you’ve absorbed the message that your value does nothing but go down as your age creeps up, every decision you make becomes that much more loaded, that much more stressful when played against the backdrop of a ticking clock. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s a huge part of why women’s decisions are so tough. We’ve gotten the message: Time is short. Choose wisely. And fast! You’re only going to be relevant for so long.
Of course, it’s up to each one of us whether we’re going to succumb to that or not. Lest you start worrying over your back-of-elbow fat, I’d like to leave you with a gem, courtesy of the New York Times’ Judith Warner:
“Cougar Town” – the whole Cougar phenomenon – perhaps taps into many women’s worst tendencies: their fears of getting older, losing sexual power, ending up on the slag heap of social desirability. But most women, I think, end up taking these feelings in stride. Most women in their 40s, however conflicted, however sometimes confused, aren’t actually spiraling into self-doubting despair, but are actually working their way toward some greater degree of self-acceptance. Many experience – along with the shift in body mass that pulls things down and pushes them sideways – a kind of psychic shift that frees up some of the energy that once went into external appearances. Many come into their own, creatively, professionally. And in motherhood, in friendships, in romantic relationships.
I’ll roar to that.