There’s a TikTok trend that haunts me lately, finding its way to my phone every chance it gets. In the short videos, posted by hundreds of fresh-faced, beautiful young girls, I watch as they struggle to answer the question “How old are you?” In between the question and their answer, they gag and try to squeeze out the words “twenty-five” from their tiny yet perfectly plump lips, never able to fully say the dreaded words. They do this over and over again, signaling the fact that they are disgusted with themselves, absolutely mortified by their barely aged bodies and faces. They’re hiding behind the shame of what they’ve let themselves do—get older.
Every time I see this clip, I swipe past it before I have time to face it. I’m 29 today, I’ll be 30 on January 22nd, now only 3 short months away, and I have beetles crawling through my veins at just the thought of it. I know this isn’t a revolutionary thought, this dread I feel as I inch closer to thirty, to three-zero, further away from my days binge-drinking out of a vodka handle and making out with men who certainly will not be my husband (but that’s okay! It doesn’t matter! because I’m too young to care!). But this feeling is universal. It’s shoved down my throat every day with glazed-donut skincare and girlies in low-rise jeans who are rolling their eyes at how “cheugy” I am.
Today, I am the nearly 30-something woman who flies home from Los Angeles every few months and tries to talk to her college sister about blow jobs. The woman who is seriously and not so seriously talking to her boyfriend about a wedding ring and children and also still asking herself if that’s what she wants, really, while googling how soon she’d have to freeze her eggs for it to all still be worth it. Simultaneously, I am as grounded as I’ve ever been. As sure of how I want to spend my days, as certain about what fills me and as I am about what doesn’t. Still, I get a sense from the internet, and my darkest thoughts by proxy, that I should be willing to trade in my stability and peace of mind for my youth, that both things can’t exist at once. That once I’m settled I’ll be boring, and monotone, and wearing skinny jeans for the rest of my life.
When I share these thoughts, conflicting and confusing, with my best friend, Ellie, who floats around the world with a child-like wonder I envy, she tells me that I need to lighten up. “You’ve been saying you’re thirty since we were like, twenty-five,” she jokes. And she’s right, I do need to lighten up. But I can’t figure out how to make what everyone tells me is the end of my youth easy to swallow.
Maybe that’s because, from an early age, I’ve been taught that staying small was the secret sauce to life. That the only thing that would give me what I wanted was to be forever young. I was 13 and performing in The Lion King on Broadway when the director told me my contract wouldn’t be renewed because, in just 6 months, I had grown 2 inches, the exact right amount to make me “too tall” to be young Nala anymore. Even the New York Times reported my failure, quoting that “For Natalie there will be no renewal of the six-month contract(…) the girl was clearly “taller than Simba, and that’s not a good thing, probably.” I was mortified, seeing the shame of my growth in print like that.
From that day on, I remember spreading my legs wide around the producers to make myself look shorter, bending my knees ever so slightly when they came around with hopes they wouldn’t notice how I’d sprouted up. But unfortunately for me, I couldn’t hide from the way I was growing, from my maturation, from the budding tits that stuck out just enough to make the audience wonder if I was innocent enough to be up there, dancing around on a stage like that. And once that was said and done, and I bowed my last curtain call, I carried it with me, this idea that for a woman in the world, it’s better to be smaller, shorter, younger.
From then on, every birthday to me has felt like a death sentence. I over-exaggerate my love for it, forcing days-long celebrations from my loved ones. But somewhere deep down, the anticipation of it all kills me, makes me lean over with grief and guilt that I haven’t achieved enough to earn my way to another year on this planet. What a sight it must be for the fly on the wall, watching me on the eve of my birthday at 23, 24, and 25, pacing the room and staying up all night asking myself who will I be once the clock strikes 12, asking myself what my worth will be if not the most impressive young person in the room.
In her novel, Writers and Lovers, Lily King has this line about not being the youngest kind of adult anymore. “These BU students, they’re too young to have ridden a banana bike. It’s strange, to not be the youngest kind of adult anymore.” And I think that’s who I am now – the girl, or woman, in the room who remembers the banana bike. Not so young that you’re staring at me wide-eyed and spitting game about all the possibilities of my life. Not so old that you’ve totally disregarded me. In some sort of purgatory hell nearing an expiration date. I’m the milk in the fridge that you’re sniffing before you swallow down. Or at least I’m telling myself I am.
So here I am at almost thirty, trying to kick my body back into feeling 22. I’m waking up an extra hour early to get to Pilates because I can finally start to feel my body changing, the way it bloats in the morning if I eat after 9 p.m. The way I can’t stay up past 11 without feeling it behind my eyes in the morning. The way I can’t drink more than two glasses of champagne without feeling at least a little bit queasy the next day, and the way I certainly can’t forget to stretch without my lower back feeling like it’s on fire.
Beyond the physical though, I’m hyper-aware that the choices I make today will impact what’s possible for my tomorrow. Or as my little brother would say, I’m like “really an adult now. I have to get my taxes right and everything. I just can’t hide from it anymore.” I read that in America, the average age to buy a house is Thirty-Three. Every day I’m checking my bank account to see if that math will add up for me. So far, I don’t think it will. I’m stuck in this cycle of iced coffee or home ownership, and my younger self keeps slurping down that cold caffeine while the 30-year-old in me beats her to a pulp at night.
What scares me about the way I’m aging the most though, more than wrinkles or morning bloat, is how deeply I am part of the problem. How I am the spitting image of these 25-year-old girls I hate so much on the internet, gagging at the thought of myself, despite the fact that it’s a privilege to get older. I’ve read that many indigenous cultures have holistic views of time and aging, one that aligns more with a circular or cyclical understanding of life. Western thought tends to think of it in a more linear fashion. The beginning is sharp, full of possibility, full of questions, and full of people who are A-okay with you saying you’re still figuring it all out. In the end, we all pay our respects. We look at the people lying on their deathbeds and we say things like—they were the kindest, the greatest, the most special soul who was full of life until the day they died. It’s in the middle when we are cruel to ourselves and to each other. It’s in the middle, at age (almost) thirty that we start coming to terms with our mortality and hating ourselves for it.
I know what you’re going to say, or at least what I wish you’d say, what I’m probably writing this piece begging you to tell me—that I’m so young, that I still have my whole life ahead of me, that I need to calm down.
But do you believe that, really? And if your answer is still a resounding yes, then why does it feel like I’m soon going to be drowning in a whirlpool of ghost souls without pigment, all wrinkled up and soulless like that scene in the animated Hercules movie? Regardless of your response though, according to all these kids on the internet, I’m running out of time. To them, I’m officially in the age of cement, and so it feels like one way or another, I better decide what kind of sculpture I’m meant to be.