I turned 40 last week, so age has been on my mind more than usual. Specifically, I’ve found myself navigating thanks-but-no-thanks commentary about age and beauty, with the top age-related comment I tend to get being, “But you don’t look 40!” I do look 40, actually, and so do most of my 40-year-old friends—none of whom exchange these “compliments” with one another, because we know that while we might look good, we also look 40, and we understand that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
The whole phenomenon has made me wonder exactly what it is that makes us say someone doesn’t look her age (especially because it can be logically argued that if you are an age, that’s what the age looks like—as Gloria Steinem put it in 1974 when someone said she didn’t look 40, “This is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?”). Part of it is a mangled attempt at a compliment, born of centuries of equating youth with beauty. Part of it is that our image of age has shifted now that we’re more aware of what makes one visibly age; we know about sunscreen and retinols, and we no longer expect women over 35 to have “mom hair.” Part of it is people simply not knowing what aging actually looks like. (Virtually every person who has told me I don’t look my age is younger than I am. Older people look at me and are like, “Yup, she’s 40.”)
Part of it, though, might be joy. I’m intrigued by this study out of University of Missouri that set out to test whether there was a connection between perception of age and emotional expressions. Turns out there is: Faces showing expressions of happiness were judged to be younger, and faces showing expressions of sadness were judged to be older. But it’s the third finding here that makes me connect this back to the idea of aging and compliments: It took study respondents longer to evaluate the age of happy old faces, and of sad young faces, than it did faces with neutral expressions. That is, it took people an extra moment to connect happiness with age, or sadness with youth, because it goes against what we expect of our emotional lives in regard to age.
None of the study’s findings are related to beauty per se. Still, from my own experience, when people comment on my age it’s nearly always couched as a comment on my looks. It’s not that I don’t seem 40; it’s that I don’t look it. And when people say I don’t look 40, I know they think they’re giving me a compliment. So this study makes me wonder whether people are telling me that I don’t look my age because I don’t look sad enough to be entering middle age. When we say someone looks younger than their actual age, we may be complimenting not their face or their youth, but their emotional lives.
The possibility that our emotional lives are up for comment is particularly loaded for women, who are encouraged to look happy at all times. Sometimes we’re even ordered by complete strangers to smile. The happiness imperative rides alongside the beauty imperative for women—and that’s not merely coincidental, as a 2011 study showed that women with happy facial expressions are seen as particularly attractive. (The most attractive expression for a man to wear? Pride.) Happiness (or at least the display of happiness) and beauty can both feel like responsibilities to women, directly tied to the emotional work that “good” womanhood entails. Aging, in this context, complicates the idea of traditionally “good” womanhood—a good woman is still a young one, even as we’ve expanded our range of what qualifies as young—in a way that’s potentially subversive. We expect happiness, beauty, and youth to coexist. We don’t expect happiness, beauty, and maturity to do so quite as naturally. When people tell me and my 40-year-old friends that we “don’t look 40,” they’re commenting not on our actual skin or features, but on their own expectations of age. We’re too carefree to “look 40,” perhaps, or too unburdened (I’m happily child-free, and may indeed look younger than I would if I had children because I don’t have that particular stress), or too silly, too playful, too happy. By simply substituting age for youth in the happiness-youth-beauty equation, we’re subtly disrupting the formula. Certainly I’m no prettier than I was 10 years ago. But I am happier—par for the course as we age, including feeling more satisfied with our appearance—and that happiness is perceived by others as youth. The formula, for me and for so many women entering middle age, continues to shift. Perhaps eventually it will shift enough to demolish the notion of the “good” woman.
One takeaway here could be that, hey, if you smile, you’ll look younger, and “better,” to boot. But that’s an unsatisfying conclusion. If we get happier with age, by one measure we also look “better”—but we still refuse to really start seeing aging in that light. Remember, people were slower to connect happiness with old age than they were happiness and youth, even though the studies that show people are happier later in life have been publicized well enough that most of us aren’t surprised to hear that happiness increases with age. Instead, we still insist that beauty equals youth, and youth equals happiness, even though there’s an argument that age equals happiness, and happiness equals beauty, so with age comes beauty. And the ways we actually look at age today reflect that, to a degree. One of my favorite age factoids is that Anne Bancroft was 36 when she was cast as Mrs. Robinson. Kim Kardashian turns 36 in October. We know full well that people over 35 aren’t “old” by our outdated definition of it. But our mental math still messes up the equation.
Of course the mind doesn’t work so logically as to equate age with beauty because of the happiness factor. Our perception of beauty is far more nuanced than that, and part of the allure of human beauty is that there’s an element of mystery to it. But if we come closer to aligning our perception of age with what we know to be true of aging, perhaps we’ll come a little closer to incorporating our lived experience of aging and happiness with our spoken ideas about beauty.