Twenty Years a Friend: How My Longest Friendship Has Helped Me Accept My Age

“We’ve been friends for over twenty years!” I heard my best friend shout into the crowd as she introduced me to her neighbors.

I cringed and shrank back a little. I’d never heard it put that way. Never considered the possibility that I was old enough to have a friendship last that long. I like to deflect when I’m uncomfortable, so I said, “That’s right! We’ve known each other since we were fetuses,” which was rewarded with conspiratorial chuckles from her other guests.

She and I turned thirty-nine this year. That still feels too young to have a friendship that spans two decades. I mean, I’m still young. Right?

I’ve noticed that men don’t tend to bristle over remarks about their age the way women do. I’m sure that has something to do with the differences in the way men and women are socialized about aging. Men are often told they should expect to age like fine wine, while women are often told (or, we even joke among ourselves) that we age like milk. We are assaulted from every direction by messaging that tells us we begin incrementally losing our worth and value after the age of twenty-nine, with a sharp decline at forty. Naturally, we want to distance ourselves from that stigma as much as possible.

It’s why we say things like, “I’m celebrating the tenth anniversary of my 29th birthday,” or “a lady never tells her real age.”

It is a form of shame avoidance: shame about getting older in a culture that doesn’t value us as we age, shame about being of “lesser value” than we were in our “prime” (another term I’m sick of), and shame about the way our bodies are changing both inside and out.

And it is a shame we should never have to feel.

I’m currently working on my second book, tentatively titled Brave Beyond Thirty: Aging Defiantly in a World Obsessed With Youth. As I’ve researched for the book, I’ve discovered just how pervasive and engrained these ideas about aging are in our collective female consciousness. Even those of us who are trying to embrace our age still hit stumbling blocks, still feel self-conscious, still grapple with questions about Botox and fillers, breast lifts, and more. Many of us have complicated feelings around the changing ways men interact with us. On one hand, we are relieved to finally be free from the oppressive form of the male gaze that followed us around when we were far too young for it to be appropriate. On another, we grapple with questions about our beauty and worth when we find that we don’t draw men’s eyes the way we used to. Of course, the answer is that no woman should want the attention of a grown man who prefers to gaze at barely pubescent girls than at women his own age.

But that’s a conversation for another day.

I want to heal from the bullshit that living in a patriarchal, youth-obsessed world has put on me. I want to embrace my worth and value at every age, regardless of the suppleness of my skin or the perkiness of my breasts. But that work is hard. It is difficult to yank out the threads of indoctrination that were woven so deeply into our self-image.

It’s a work in progress.

Where I think it begins is in realizing what an absolute goddamn privilege it is to get older. I am a fundamentally different person than I was in my twenties—in every way for the better. Life experience has brought perspective and wisdom. Therapy has brought healing. Heartache has brought growth. Every trial I’ve undergone was a chisel that carved away parts that weren’t serving me. And yes, that sort of debridement hurts. But you can’t get to the good stuff without stripping away some of the bad.

I don’t want to be the person I was before life shaped me into who I am today. I’m still a work in progress, that’s for sure, but what a damn lot of progress I’ve made! We forget to celebrate the gifts that age and experience give because we were taught only to focus on the things age takes away.

And I want to shift that narrative.

I’m proud to have a friendship that has lasted two decades. I’m grateful for the hard lessons life has taught me over the years. I’m forsaking the lies that tell me my worth declines with each passing year, and embracing the truth that I’m just getting started. I’m just hitting my stride.

For many of us (I’m looking at my fellow Millennials and the Gen-Xers, too), that might be a journey that comes with setbacks. We have a ton of garbage to sift through that was dumped on us from girlhood. That stuff can stick—like that Bandaid that has mostly detached itself, except for that one piece that’s clinging to your skin for dear life. It needs to come off. It just doesn’t seem to want to, no matter how hard you try. We may all have those Bandaid moments as we heal from the lies we were told about our value as we age. But I believe we will get there.

And it starts now.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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