Monday, July 20, 2015

The Perils of Being a 20-Something Woman

At my bachelorette party - age 29 - with my gorgeous friend Sara. 
Not feeling particularly pretty myself.

There is one thing I'm grateful for every day of my life: that I'm no longer in my twenties.

While commercials and ads constantly try to remind me that my impending 40th birthday is a cause to panic and spend hundreds of dollars in "anti-aging" products, all I ever really feel is gratitude for this age, and for the wrinkles and gray hairs and jiggly skin that accompany it.

This weekend, Dave and I went to a very popular local music festival. As we jockeyed for any sort of spot that would provide the least amount of cigarette smoke for my poor asthmatic lungs, I noticed a group of young women. There were three of them, each in their twenties, each lovely. Two were very, very thin - their long, tan limbs snaking out of tiny shorts and crop tops, bangly bracelets and long necklaces adding the right punctuation. They sported long, lustrous hair that looked salon-fresh, despite the boiling hot temperature and sadistic humidity.

The third woman was lovely, too. She also had beautiful hair and skin that looked like it didn't contain a single pore. Unlike her friends, she was not teeny tiny. She wasn't a large woman at all - probably a size 8 or so - but her upper arms had a bit of flesh, and her thighs looked muscular and strong. She wore more clothes than her friends, and had a habit of pulling at her shorts, as if willing them to cover up more and more of her. The way her head darted around, it was painfully clear to me that she did not feel wonderful about how she looked, and she couldn't stop comparing herself to her friends.

I desperately wanted to pull her aside and give her a pep talk. I wanted to reassure her of her beauty, and remind her that she's not in a competition with her friends. I wanted to tell her I know how tough it is to be her age, to not know where your life is heading and who - if anyone - you'll share it with.

But I just stood back and watched. Her friends danced wildly and sometimes suggestively. She bounced carefully and self-consciously. When everyone needed a beer, she was the one to run off and get them. When her friends talked to guys, she hung back and pretended to listen to the band.

I used to be her. When I look back at pictures of my younger self, I'm struck by how conventionally pretty I was. I had no clue. I felt big and awkward and cumbersome. I felt like I could never compare to my friends' beauty.

I've always loved to dance and frankly, I'm quite good at it. But I can't tell you how many times I went to concerts or similar events and barely moved. I lived in fear that my breasts would bounce too much, that my stomach might peek out of my shirt, that someone would make fun of me.

And these fears were not unfounded. When you're a woman in your late teens and twenties, your appearance is up for public judgment. As men walk past you, many of them either eye you appreciatively, or make grossed-out faces to show how horrible you are, or - worst of all - laugh and poke fun at someone who looks like you daring to have fun. My weight has fluctuated a lot in my life, so I've been at the tail end of every single one of those reactions. And every single one infuriates me.

Going to this event as an almost-40-year-old woman is a very different experience. It's almost like being invisible. Men's eyes glazed right over me on their way to find young women. When I wanted to dance - I danced. People looked, because people always look at you when you dance, but nobody seemed to care once they realized I was not part of the meat market. I was just a goofy older woman shaking her butt to Houndmouth.

I can forget for a moment about the rampant sexism and objectification and sometimes even misogyny that are still just a huge part of our culture.

Until I remember that Stella will have to deal with it one day. And then I get angry all over again.

I'm so grateful not to have to be in that place anymore. To not feel ugly and awkward and unworthy of love. But I also feel motivated to try to change this place enough so that maybe, possibly, hopefully, my daughter can be able to enjoy her 20's more than I ever did.

Being the kooky middle-aged woman who loves to dance and is annoyed by all the smoke.

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