The Dawning of the Age of 40, Part 3: The Tragicomedy of the Shelved Woman


This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the third vignette.

One of the aspects I have seriously dwelled on about turning 40 is what it means to be a woman at this age. I have felt heavy hearted about posting this article, uncertain whether it could offend, strike a negative chord or be considered anti-male. In the end, I decided it would completely defeat its purpose if I felt I had to censure myself or chose my words carefully. These are my personal experiences and observations and sharing them validates the truth in them.

It was at some point in my early 20s when I developed the rude realization of the notion that women are supposed to have a shelf life and that our identity should very much be wrapped up in our looks and our appeal to the opposite sex. A series of both trivial and headline events both in the news and in my personal world awakened me to the seemingly perplexing and cruel status quo.

I was 23 in 1998 when the world sat back in its chair with a box of popcorn to be entertained by the spectacle of the Monica Lewinsky – Bill Clinton affair. During that time, I myself was an intern in offices of the German parliament. Having only one or two degrees of separation with such political heavyweights and in such a male-dominated world is not only a surreal experience, but also bewildering when you are completely new to navigating the real professional world and trying to find your own adult identity. I didn’t know how to react when hearing overtly sexual jokes told sometimes on my or other fellow female interns’ expenses about us being the “interns”, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Throughout my 20s, I continued to feel similarly perplexed and stung whenever I heard male peers and coworkers confide and lament about women trying to wield their power by flaunting their sex appeal with the latest dress accessory or by likely sleeping their way to promotions.

While I unconfidently tried to decipher my own professional identity and what that would entail as a woman, I also attempted to navigate the world of dating. It was also at 23 when a concerned male friend explained that I wouldn’t have many years to waste if I expected to marry. Sharing insight with me about the role of women and men in his own country, he calmly and matter-of-factly explained that women past 28 would be considered too old to marry. Unfazed by his warning, I thought, “Well, that’s not the world I live in and it’s not the 1950s.” Then one day when I was 26, a male family member only a few years older than myself made a passing remark about a female acquaintance of his looking pretty good for being in her late 30s. I implored him to clarify just what he meant by, “looking pretty good for her late 30s”. Like being hit by a speeding freight train, I suddenly reached that gross revelation that even within my so-called modern, progressive world, women seemed to have a shelf life. As I ventured onto online dating sites, this was reinforced to be true. How else could the countless profiles of late 30-something single men who desired women between the ages of 20 to a year younger than themselves, be explained?

While living in China during my late 30s, I witnessed the tragicomedy of the shèngnǚ (剩女), or “leftover woman”. Unmarried by her late 20s, and too educated, independent and busy to nab herself a husband, the sheng nu has been cited as a “threat to social stability” while also being the subject of both positive and negative media attention, TV shows and movies. In 2007, the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education officially proclaimed sheng nu age to be 27. Four years later, I was several years deep into sheng-nu age status and newly single at 36 when yet another male friend explained to me about the sheng nu. I felt an immediate affinity for my Chinese counterpart and even though I knew I wasn’t directly the object of the concern, rage and curiosity by the Chinese government nor my family, I began to develop the idea that my identity did not have to be interwoven with that of a man or husband (or lack thereof).

Outside of China and even in 2015, just in time for my 40th, the shelf life of a woman still exists. Women’s magazines and TV commercials targeted towards the 30-50 female demographic feature 36 year-old female celebrities modeling anti-aging and anti-wrinkle creams. So that we too can achieve such lovely, youthful looks, the magazines love to dish out to us mortals the exercise, beauty and diet regimes of famous 40-something female celebrities, who in spite of their age, look amazing! Even the celebrities themselves are not immune to the double standard of the shelf life. A few months ago, 37 year-old actor Maggie Gyllenhaal shared her dismay with having been turned down for a movie part as the love-interest of a 55 year old male costar on the grounds of being too old. A video skit featuring comedians Amy Schumer, Tina Fay, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette perhaps best portrays the absurdity of women no longer being “f*%kable” after a certain age, while their male counterparts never have to face such a time. I can’t help but feel jaded about these implied messages that women should really work hard to look amazing after 40 because otherwise, we will become invisible because clearly our looks are our most prized keepsake.

These days I'm letting go and am more comfortable in my own skin

These days I’m letting go and am finding my own self worth

The surprising irony for me is that I started to finally come into my own around 36, an age dangerously close to (or past) shelf life expiration. While it’s true I feel chuffed if someone thinks I look much younger than my actual age, I don’t miss the awkwardness of my twenties. I am now comfortable in my own skin, body and with my own sexuality. I look in the mirror and see a woman I love, for all of her different features and imperfections. This self-love and confidence also seep into other aspects of my life. For years, I struggled with proving myself capable in my various jobs. Of course I still sometimes have uncertainty about my future career path, but these days I am more confident in my abilities and contributions and seem to be taken more seriously than in my younger years.

So, today I reject the notion that I will someday be shelved and become invisible. I reject that my worth and value as a human being should be tied to my looks and ability to attract the opposite sex. Some may think because I’m 40 that my shelf life expiration date is near, but I’ll chose to ignore it and will simply determine my own terms of my value and worth.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 4: Swimming 40 Lengths

For further listening and reading:

2012 Foreign Policy article: The Startling Plight of China’s Leftover Ladies

Inside Amy Schumer’s Last F**kable Day

Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk: The Price of Shame

Robin Korth’s 2014 Blog post: My ‘naked’ truth


One response »

  1. Dear Stepho: It is an honor to read your fine essay. And as your Uncle Mark, it has been an honor to watch you from afar over the years. Maturity? Wisdon? Those words don’t do justice; the best words I can suggest is merely the stages of life. And let me observe that older men also become invisible, unf%#*able, irrelevant in our society. I never was perfect or one of the beautiful, but I am me years after the Beautiful People have been determined as faded. Read Oliver Sacks’ OpEd in today’s NY Times and know the stages of life as well as the irrelevance of society’s definition. My dear, (said the older man) beautiful is not a strong enough word; you are gorgeouss.

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