Why, in an era when we are succeeding in so many ways, do we buy into sexist tropes about aging?
Last week, I wrote a column about millennials and beta-marriages: young people, like me, who want to beta-test their relationships before they commit to “forever” — by way of temporary marriage contracts. It led to an interesting response, in particular, from a five-times married, 71-year-old television host who posts semi-nude selfies on the internet.
Appearing on FOX to discuss the piece, Geraldo Rivera noted, to stunned female hosts, that what a woman brings to a marriage “more than anything else” is “her youth.”
Yes, “her youth,” Geraldo continued. Because a woman’s youth, he explained, “is a fragile and diminishing resource.”
Geraldo’s logic went like this: If a woman were to invest two precious years into a beta-marriage, and then, God forbid, have her man reject her (his words, not mine), she’ll have wasted her most valuable asset. The thing that is, obviously, going to determine not just whether a woman will have a family, but whether she’ll have a husband, and live happily ever after, at all.
I spent all week trying to ignore that comment. Honestly, who gives a sh-t about Geraldo Rivera? And yet I couldn’t get it out of my head. Like the ticking of that clock, I kept hearing it, reading about it, stumbling on it everywhere I turned: Your youth. Your youth. Your youth.
Women have been hearing this argument since the dawn of time. And since the dawn of time, part of it has been true (youth means fertility). But Geraldo’s sin was not simply that what he said was impolitic. It’s that he put bluntly one of the most insidious and persistent smears: that women come with an expiration date.
It’s a concept that is still pounded into us at every turn, from media to pop culture–and not just by septuagenarian TV personalities. It is there, almost tauntingly, in a recent article in Esquire, which seemed to bask in its own generosity by proclaiming that a woman could still be hot at 42–as if that were a reason to reconsider their value. It’s there in the endless media blitz by Susan Patton, the “Princeton Mom,” who’s managed to create a “mini empire,“as Salon recently put it, from “one crazy op-ed” about how women need to hurry up and find a man.
I’m 32 (though I’m always tempted to shave a year or two from that number). I’m surrounded by other unmarried women in their 30s who are ambitious, career-driven, attractive.Intellectually, we know that the longer we wait to settle down, the more likely our relationships will be successful. (We’ve read the studies.) And we know that when we do decide to tie the knot, we’re going to bring a whole lot of benefits to the relationships – things like advanced education and money-earning potential — that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago.
We also know we’re going to do all of this while slathering our faces with anti-aging cream. Pricking our smile-lines with Botox. Lying about our ages. And cleaning up after everyone in the house (even breadwinning wives still do the majority of chores). And on some strange level, we’ve accepted it.
The thing is, reality no longer conforms to those old tropes. Women now get the majority of college degrees. We have careers. We are living longer than ever. We can freeze our eggs to buy us biological time.
And yet our conception of what makes a woman desirable and valuable in society hasn’t caught up. From every angle, we continue to hear that we need to “rush.” That we should make it easier and more comfortable for the men around us. That our youth — not necessarily even our fertility — is our most valuable asset.
And as if that wasn’t already our worst fear, we have people like Geraldo hammering that home.
On Tuesday, while this story went viral, my 33-year-old friend was having her eggs frozen, then tearfully coming over to my house, bloated and emotional, worried she hadn’t bought herself enough time.
On Wednesday, I had a half-hour conversation with another friend, about how many years she was allowed to shave off of an online dating profile — because, she feared, nobody would want to date a woman over 30.
On Thursday, I cried to my therapist, about the clock that was ticking in my head. “But is it really even your clock?” she asked. “Or is it just the pressure you feel from everybody else?”
The youthfulness we’re chasing is not about biology, and it’s not solvable by science. It’s a cultural message. And we need to stop listening to it.
So thanks for the reminder, Geraldo — but I’d rather not listen. Here’s hoping that the fifth time’s the charm.
If not, there’s always the beta-marriage.