In past years I have always done a 30 day birthday countdown, giving myself a birthday month essentially. I didn’t do it this year, not by design, but because this year seems to have snuck up on me, like where did the last three months of my life go? How is it April already? How is it the end of April already? Ack ack ack! Rewind, I’m not ready!
But ready or not, here it is, a mere 6 days away, the big 4-0. I have no issues about turning 40. Or rather the issues I have are not the expected ones. Since I was 16 I’ve imagined 40 as being this magic barrier that I would cross and then suddenly be taken seriously as a woman. Surely no one is surprised that that magic barrier is both moveable and non-existent.
For many years I’ve attributed the way I’m treated in the workplace (and sometimes the wider world) as a factor of my youth or my youthful appearance. I have worked hard in sub-par professional jobs most of my adult life, been under employed continuously in relation to my intelligence, knowledge and skills. This, I believe, is a factor not just of my lack of ambition but the economic lows which have plagued my generation. But the longer I work the more barriers I run into that make me wonder how much my gender has also kept me pushed down. I’ve never felt like any employer has given me a chance to show what I can really do. I’ve felt a vague sense of being patted on the head told that I’m cute for working so hard, that it’s resented when I try to wield what power I have, that I’m valued much more for appearance than for my work (or not as valued when my appearance doesn’t meet some standard I’ll never understand). These are things that I’ve started to see as failings of my (mostly male) employers and of society as a whole, rather than my own shortcomings. I find myself in conflict with coworkers merely because I’ve politely asserted myself. I long ago let go of the false persona that tries to please everyone (as women are raised to do) and instead focus on the task at hand and the best way to get it done. I’m told that I’m too brusque and business-like, that I need to make myself sweeter and more likeable (ask my friends, I’m plenty sweet and likeable when it counts). No man has ever been asked to bake for clients to appease them (um, unless baking is his job). On the eve of 40 I can definitively say that it’s simply because I’m a woman that I am told to to be kinder, sweeter and less demanding of perfection at work.
At 16 I had imagined 40 as some marker where I’d be strong, capable and wise, and no longer recognized as a sexual object and therefore able to speak powerfully and be taken seriously. And there is a little truth to this. Very, very slowly it’s becoming more true (thank you, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and strong outspoken women everywhere) but it certainly isn’t cultural norm yet (why are we discussing these women’s hairstyle in the news and not their jobs and qualifications?). Women are still infantilized, particularly in my specific location (in the American South, working in construction, still a predominantly male industry). As a society we have not made the strides toward equality and justice that I expected to see in my lifetime. Growing up in the 70s we were all fed the “truths” that the world would keep changing at an expeditious rate and we could grow up to anything. Which I guess is almost true, assuming you have the right stack of privilege, luck and opportunity behind you. Yes, it’s been great to be alive to see all sexual orientations start to get their due, but what about the rest of us, the people of color, women, all the other marginalized groups? How long will we be stuck in some moderately polished up versions of the historical roles society forces on us?
I meant this to be personal not political, (but the personal is, oh you know…) but I can’t avoid it because at nearly 40 I know much more of the world than I did at 16 and now I can see that the problem isn’t small with only me as its isolated victim. It’s vast and keeping us all down and it’s shaped me over the years to dream of something better for anyone. Where once I wanted to be taken seriously as person, now I wish to be taken seriously as a gender. I want to live to see my sisters equally represented in positions of power. I want our governing bodies, the world over, to truly represent our whole society. Give me 51 female senators and 218 female representatives in my own country’s federal government. Give all my sisters equal pay and equal opportunities or rise to commercial positions of power. Bring us all up and punish those who strive to keep us down through sexual and physical violence, through words and actions, so that we may have justice with equality. For my next 40 years that is my fondest wish, to live to see a world in which women can see a reflection of their true selves.
More easily attainable is my fondest wish for the immediate future: time off to hang out with my friends and family, cute outfits to wear and feel confident in, trashy TV to watch, and maybe a little celebration. I will work on my ability to find ways to always fit those things into my life, because even as half of me always seems to be raging at the system, at the news, at the pit of ignorance our society has fallen into, I am still human and it is the small things that bring me joy. And isn’t joy (not love or money or happiness) what makes life worth living and gives us all the strength to keep fighting for a world where peace is easier to find for everyone? For my part I will continue to redefine beauty and style to be personal and not a mask of society’s creation. I will challenge everyone I meet to judge me for who I am and what I can do and not on my appearance. I will call out those who keep us down in speech and actions. I will volunteer where I am needed, help those who cannot help themselves and try as hard as I can to model the behavior I hope to see from everyone. I will relax sometimes, and enjoy the good still in the world. After all, I’m 40 now, it’s party time on the other side of that magic barrier.