*Editor’s Note: This post is part of SBF’s first weekly series, “MILFs, Perimenopause, and Silence,” about how media do–and don’t–talk about people, specifically female-identified folks, in our 40s and 50s in terms of sexual and reproductive health.]
It used to be that reaching middle age meant being viewed as disposable and irrelevant–especially for cisgender women. But 40 isn’t what it used to be. Even the big 5-0 has an appeal it didn’t just two decades ago, when Molly Shannon’s character, Sally O’Malley, drew laughs on Saturday Night Live for being so damned exuberant about being active and an “old”. But no one is laughing at 44-year-old Jennifer Aniston, 47-year-old, Halle Berry, 47-year-old Salma Hayek, or 55-year-old Angela Bassett. They are viewed as attractive and vibrant women. If not young, at least not old. In fact, in a recent Harris Poll, Americans said they would rather live in good health at 50 than any other age.
Thank the Baby Boomers, who once didn’t trust anyone over 30, we can all be younger longer. But there is a trade off for holding on to our youth: silence about the changes human bodies–even the still acceptably firm and sexy ones–go through with age. Based on celebrity culture, for cisgender women (because the myth excludes other female-identified people) that means maintaining the illusion of fertility.
In the public consciousness, female fecundity = youth = attractiveness. Gossip and celebrity media illustrate this point by being as obsessed with the illusive baby bumps of 40-something women as they are with 20-something ones. In recent years, the media has been obsessed with the fecundity of Jennifer Aniston, and that obsession has only increased with her engagement to Justin Theroux. (The idea that all women must want children is a whole ‘nother discussion.)
If Aniston wishes to have children, I wish her well, but missing from this baby watch is the acknowledgement that a woman’s fertility begins to decline in her late 20s and chances of becoming pregnant drop off dramatically after 35. A 40-something woman can become pregnant (indeed, Halle Berry will soon give birth to her second child), but is not as likely to without medical intervention. Perimenopause, or menopausal transition, can begin as early as a woman’s 30s, but more likely in her 40s.
But hot flashes, insomnia, and infertility aren’t fun, young, and sexy. It is better to pretend that a woman in her mid-40s is just one hot night away from being knocked up. And there is benefit for actresses to be complicit in this subterfuge, because their very livelihoods depend on maintaining their youth. Michelle Pfeiffer recently said, “It is what I never thought would happen when I was in my 20s and 30s, hearing actresses bitch about not getting any work when they turned 50. Now I understand it, it is just different. In a lot of ways, [Hollywood] a very superficial place.”
(And it is worth noting the some actresses of color may feel this pressure more keenly, as Black and Latina women are rarely afforded the innocence and lightness of youth, even when we are girls.)
Pop culture watches for signs of pregnancy on 40-something actresses and shows us 50-something women strolling with their school-aged children, as if those situations are the natural order of things. Meanwhile, topics like women’s health and changes in reproduction are barely addressed publicly.
Because no one will acknowledge that changes in fertility are natural and not catastrophic, everyday women in their 40s and 50s can feel alone in perfectly normal physical changes that needn’t dampen their vitality or worth or, dare I say, attractiveness.
This is a downside of the cult of “forever young.” Thank goodness we are understanding that middle age doesn’t mean retiring into sexlessness and sensible slacks. But there is a difference between maintaining a thirst for life and denying the realities that aging brings.