Bullish: How to Age with Panache and Strategic Awesomeness

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Aging has many benefits, even for women. Perhaps especially for women.

I was 21 when I set up my first real office for the company I had started when I was 19. Being young, I was obsessed with appearing “legitimate.” I wore black suits and low heels, like a lady mortician. I actually had one of those engraved name plates on my desk: Jennifer Dziura — I AM IN BRASS! My degree was framed and hung in my office, but it was in Latin; I would sometimes catch clients squinting at it, trying to puzzle out the year (2000 in Roman numerals is just MM, although if I had graduated in 1988, they would have had to make room for MCMLXXXVIII).

As a young person, I was presumed to be an expert at the internet; however, people were hesitant to trust me with thousands of dollars at a time. When running a company, it is vitally necessary to be trusted with thousands of dollars at a time. So I decided that my “inner age” was 32. In conversation, I would back-date myself a bit. For instance, “That was back in my Desperately Seeking Susan phase — thanks for the safety-pinned fishnets idea, Madonna!”

That is, many women lie about their ages; I’ve just been lying up, because I enjoy money and respect more than I enjoy the presumption of nubility.

The store “Forever 21″ has always pissed me off. If you want to be forever 21, you are a moron, or Mariah Carey. Growing older doesn’t suck if you’ve spent your early years working on something other than your appearance. And if you’ve frittered away your teenage years doing nothing more than worrying about being pretty, then you deserve what you get: a long, slow decline, and possibly fish-lips from your desperate attempt to artificially re-create your youth. (As Karl Lagerfeld says, “What I hate most in life are people who are not really the peach of the day but who want to be young and sexy. You can fool nobody. There is a moment when you have to accept that somebody is younger and fresher and hotter. Life is not a beauty contest.”)

The benefits of being young and beautiful are not as abundant as they might seem. It is helpful in any career to be reasonably attractive, yes, and certainly being young and beautiful can be a pleasure in itself. I was 23 when my cheekbones came in. It was glorious for a season, but I still didn’t have health insurance. Beauty does not translate into money or other actual benefits as directly as one might think. If you are beautiful and also tall and very thin, you could be a model. However, so many women want to be models that the prices are perpetually driven downwards; beautiful aspiring models can be had for free (check the model castings on Craigslist). What else do you think being young and beautiful gets you? (Crickets chirping). More tips as a bartender or waitress? Sure. Lots of other things like that, that involve other types of work, and typically not of the most desirable variety. Any profession that depends on your appearance is one in which your career trajectory is headed downwards. No one gives you a paycheck for being beautiful, and there’s no hope for advancement.

I was 29 (I’m now 31) when I started noticing little crinkles around my eyes when I smiled. I knew I was supposed to dislike them. But they made me look so … trustworthy. You know that feeling when you get a fresh manicure and can’t stop stealing glances at your own hands all day? That’s how I feel when I see those little crinkles around my eyes. It looks genuine, and competent. When I catch a glimpse of myself smiling, I think: you would trust this woman to finish a $50,000 project on schedule. As well you should.

In my current life, I teach the GMAT. That is, much of what I do is teach math to Wall Street bankers. I still age myself up a bit. I don’t lie, but I throw out hypothetical examples like, “If my age x is equal to 37 and my brother’s age y is 10 years younger….” Really, though, my inner age is now about 42. I may have arrived at that by noting that, surely, in the inner sanctum of my being, I am older than Jennifer Aniston, who has gone from being a sympathetic figure to being a somewhat ridiculous one, the subject of articles about whether she is or is not winning a “bikini battle” with 23-year-old swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker. Aniston is 41. In my soul, I am therefore 42.

As an inner 42-year-old, it is very easy for me to negotiate satisfying compensation for projects I commit to. Think of the lives successful 42-year-olds lead. They send children to private school, they have summer homes, they fly to Florida to care for their aging parents. In real life, I don’t have children, and my parents are 52 and 53. But I’m mentally prepared for all of these things. Being secretly, inwardly 42 is far better than imagining your audience in their underwear.

What else gets better as you age?

I commented in a column about How to Shut Down Street Harassers that aging had the added benefit of being able to add “young man” after rebuking misbehaving young people. I do this now, already. I am the woman on the subway platform who demands that little punks apologize to people they have insulted. I may be the MTA’s number one user of the phrase “You have no right to speak to her that way.”

A writer in the Daily Mail comments that, at age 66, she wants to look like a grandmother (rather than be mistaken for her grandson’s mother) so that people will offer her a seat on the bus and open doors for her. She writes, “I want to be told – as my son said me the other day – that I am mad, at my age, to be thinking of climbing up ladders to change the lightbulbs.”

In another Mail article, 79 year old Mary Edmonds — who signed up to teach English in Moldova upon the death of her husband and ended up backpacking and teaching around the globe — says that, despite being a 5’1 woman traveling alone, she never felt unsafe. Of at least one nation she visited: “There’s a real respect for older women in Thailand and I didn’t get any hassle.” (Her book, The Roving Wrinkly, comes out in September).

A recent study suggests that people worry less once they hit 50, and continue to become happier until age 85 (when the study stopped asking).

In the over-85 age category, consider the case of Rita Levi-Montalcini, 101-year-old Senator, professor, and Nobel laureate. Levi-Montalcini was born in Italy before World War I, was persecuted by Mussolini for being Jewish (thus taking her studies from the lab to a bedroom, where she continued her research while finding time to work as a doctor in Italian refugee camps). She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1986, and was appointed Senator for Life in the Italian Senate in 2001. She runs a foundation to encourage African women with the potential for scientific achievement. She says, “Arriving at 100 is a prize for me. My secret? Don’t think about yourself but of others and work with passion!”

So, next time you hear the endless harping about how terrible it is for women to age, consider the source. Is it coming from someone who can’t handle not being the “peach of the day”? Someone who wasted her early years in front of a mirror instead of in a book, or learning a real skill? Someone who Rita Levi-Montalcini could pummel in any battle of wits, achievements, tenacity, or competence as a human being? Part of being a feminist is applying equal standards to men and women, which means acknowledging that some women are simply stupid. Like the ones who can’t handle 35 and are trying to freak you out about it too.

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