One of the early scenes in 13 Going on 30 finds 13-year-old protagonist Jenna Rink locked inside a closet of her own accord, literally banging her head against the wall and shrieking, “I wanna be thirty! Thirty and flirty and thriving!”
It’s no coincidence her assumption — that to be thirty is to thrive — is illustrated by a spread in Jenna’s favorite (fictional) magazine Poise. Women’s media and pop culture are major contributors to the oft-cited narrative that ages 30-39 are a woman’s supposed “prime” — socially, professionally, physically, sexually and emotionally. The resulting stereotypes are endless: Your thirties are when your true friend group finally crystallizes. Your thirties are when the hours of time and mental energy you’ve devoted to your career start to pay off. Your thirties are when you learn to take care of (and even love!) your body. Your thirties are when you have the best sex of your life. Your thirties are when you figure out who you are. Your thirties are when everything just starts to click:
“Turning 30 was really big for me,” Reese Witherspoon told Glamour. “I feel better — so much better now than I ever did in my 20s. I am calmer; I know who I am. And as a result, I feel much sexier. I don’t think I realized [in my 20s] that no one else makes you whole… You have to take responsibility for your own happiness. That took me until I was about 31 to know. ”
“This is such a pivotal moment in my life!” Beyoncé told Harper’s Bazaar the year she turned 30. “I’m transitioning as a woman, and I’m finally able to express myself as I am.”
“If my 20s were pumping it, then my 30s were like the release button,” Lizzie Caplan told Elle Canada. “It was amazing. I’m 32 now, and everything they tell you is true: You just kind of chill out; you become more yourself. It has been a very welcome shift.”
“All through my 20s I spent more time worrying about what I didn’t have than thinking about what I did have,” Shakira told Daily Star. “I wished I was taller, had longer legs, slimmer hips, a smaller bottom, even straighter hair… Now I’m in my 30s, I’m very happy with who I am.”
The extent to which women, famous and otherwise, openly celebrate the revelatory clarity of their thirties has cemented it as a bonafide cultural stereotype, ripe for both sweeping generalizations and confirmation bias. As I approach the decade myself, I can’t help being curious about whether or not it actually lives up to its reputation.
Statistically speaking, there may be some science to back up the stereotype (or at least the illusion of it). A recent Payscale analysis indicated that on average women’s salaries peak at age 39. A study conducted by Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and 50s stipulated that women in their 30s had more orgasms than women in their teens. A study of over 2,000 people in 2014 found that 31 is the age when women felt most comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality. A 2012 study by Friends Reunited found that 33 was the age at which people of all genders felt happiest thanks to fulfillment from their professional lives and their network of family and friends.
Leandra, a recently minted 30-year-old, told me she was “distinctly excited” to leave her twenties behind. “It seems too soon to comment on this with any real experience given that I’m a mere two months in,” she said, “but I can see where and why that stereotype comes from given how I have felt thus far. If your 20s are an exploration phase, then your 30s seem to be the landing phase.”
Crystal, age 37, acknowledged a notable uptick in self-confidence and purpose after turning 30: “I didn’t have some huge awakening that somehow turned me into a proper adult, but I feel much more certain and resolute about the things I want and need out of work, friendships and life in general. I still feel young, but I’ve let go of expectations around where I ‘should’ be and am just focusing on where I am.”
Gina, age 35, relishes being in her thirties because of the authority it’s given her at work: “Being a twenty-something is hard because even though you’re not a kid anymore, you’re still perennially the youngest person at your office. Now that I’m in my thirties, I feel like I’ve truly earned the respect of my peers. That’s not to say I know what I’m doing all the time and never make mistakes, but I’m definitely more grounded in all my decisions.”
Your thirties as a golden decade sounds lovely in theory, but its broader implications are complex: that, as a woman, everything before your thirties is a critical warm-up and everything after is a decline — or worse, an invisible abyss. Moreover, by positioning a woman’s thirties as the era in which her life begins to make sense, it puts a unique kind of pressure on anyone for whom uncertainty persists on the cusp, or in the midst, of this hallowed stage.
“On the morning of my 28th birthday, I woke up and cried,” my mom, now 57, told me when I asked about her relationship to her thirties. “I had the expectation that my life would have greater direction as I approached my thirties. I think I was more focused on marriage and starting a family than many young women of today would be, and even though both of those things ultimately came to fruition, at that point neither seemed close to being a reality.”
Another woman I spoke with, Sarah, now 55, acknowledged a similar consciousness of these milestones as she reflected on her thirties: “Leaving my twenties and entering my thirties, I felt relieved that I had hit all the ‘checkmarks’ — married at 28, pregnant with my first child at 30 and a homeowner.”
Sheryl, now 51, experienced the repercussions of hitting some milestones but not others: “My thirties were traumatic because when I got married and had a baby, I felt like my social life stopped. It was hard for me to maintain balance and juggle life and career as a professional model. The baby made my body look different, and I had stretch marks. It was great being a mother, but very stressful. I thought I would become more sexually fulfilled, but it didn’t happen even though I was married. It was depressing. I constantly felt like I needed to be accomplishing more.”
Eva, now 40, was also surprised by how “unsettled” she felt in her thirties: “Growing up, I figured I’d be ‘settled’ by 30, married and with some sort of foothold into a career. I spent my 30s in total upheaval. First Law School, then a real whirlwind romance (married and a mom within nine months of meeting each other), then a cross country move. Starting over in San Francisco at 35 was humbling.”
While generational differences could conceivably contribute to these pressures, a number of women who are currently in their thirties today expressed familiarity with them as well.
“I was really anxious about leaving my twenties,” Crystal told me. “I didn’t think I was where I was supposed to be by ‘traditional’ standards, and I struggled with that quite a bit. My mom was married with children and was a successful business owner in her early thirties, so I was anxious that I hadn’t achieved that yet myself.”
Women’s media and pop culture work in tandem to position a woman’s thirties as her moment of true clarity and success. The Cut published an “Ode to Being Almost 30”. Inspired by an Instagram of Rihanna wearing a T-shirt that read “Don’t trust anyone under 30,” Elle put up a slideshow of “31 Reasons Your Thirties Are Your Best Decade Yet, According to Rihanna and Beyoncé.” Shows like Sex and the City, The Mindy Project and Girlfriends depict a version of 30-something womanhood that, although not devoid of hurdles, is decidedly aspirational.
Simultaneously, this messaging reinforces the notion that failing to meet certain expectations during this stage is an indication of failure. Personal essays written by women with headlines like “I’m Freaking Out About Turning 30 — Here’s Why” and “The Friends Episode That Made Me Feel Better About Turning 30” abound. Bridget Jones Diary tells the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown because she is 32 years old, single and childless.
Considering no one is immune from the pressures, triumphs and pitfalls involved in the process of growing up, it’s interesting that the cultural ideology of thirty-something transcendence (or acute lack thereof) appears to be largely targeted at women. I spoke with a handful of men about what their experience was like approaching 30, and many of their answers mirrored those of the women with whom I corresponded.
“I was not too thrilled about hitting 30, which loomed large over the second half of my 29th year,” Avi, now 32, told me. “Turning 30 felt like some sort of milestone where you were obligated to stop and reflect on whether you had steered your life in the direction you wanted. Something about my future felt ossified to me, as if large swings in the direction of my life were no longer possible and I would only be able to make minor course corrections from then onward; and I did NOT really like my life’s direction.”
The reality of his thirties was a lot better, however. “I’m still an anxious person but have learned to cope better and appreciate myself more,” he said. “I’m a much less moody friend now, and feel pretty satisfied socially. Professionally I’m doing better, and now have a better sense of the importance of a ‘good’ job in my life. Sexually, I feel in my prime, too, in that I am much more fulfilled by sex and feel less social pressure as it relates to it. Emotionally, I’m the healthiest I’ve been, which is easy for men because we’re mentally teenagers until 30.”
George, age 35, experienced the same transition: “I definitely got my act together more in my thirties,” he told me. “I was less enthralled by the prospect of dinking around and more interested in being intentional about my life and where it was headed. Especially in terms of work and relationships.”
Brian, who turns 30 this fall, is looking forward to the increase in self-assurance and perspective that comes with this new decade: “There’s a certain level of confidence that comes with having lived and worked in the professional world for seven years or so that makes the next chapter feel so much more accessible and ripe for the taking,” he said. “My 20s felt like a lot of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ but now at its closing, I’ve now seen enough to realize no one truly knows what they are doing—which really frees you up to just do what you feel is right.”
At the same time, he also acknowledged a tangible increase in expectations: “Professionally, my peer set is beginning to ascend to leadership roles in their companies, or they’re just finally becoming doctors, or actually switching careers, and personally, weddings and babies and home purchases — the real kicker to us city-folk — are accelerating. That can amount to a lot of pressure.”
Still, even if similar pressures and emotional growth spurts occur across genders, the cultural messaging about women in their thirties is palpably greater in that it remains a significant topic of discussion. Without making too many generalizations, it seems likely that this cultural noise is to some extent a rebellion against the clichéd fear-mongering women experience around aging (i.e. not only is turning 30 “not so bad,” it’s actually GREAT). To that point, there’s a logical reason soundbites from celebrity women proclaiming the virtues of being thirty-something go viral. They suggest something radical: that leaving behind the pinnacle of youth embodied by your twenties isn’t a thing to be feared, but rather desired.
While any steps in the direction of more acceptance around women and aging are positive ones, it’s disappointing that the hype appears to cut off around 39. What’s more, many of the women I spoke with who had passed the threshold of their forties rejected outright the idea that their thirties were their “prime.”
“Based on my experience, the idea of an ultimate ‘prime’ seems wrong to me,” my mom said. “Perhaps it is a prime for some things (maybe physically speaking) but certainly not a prime for everything. I find new primes with each passing phase of my life, and I am certain that there are greater heights to come. Each stage has its own particular joys which makes me grateful for things that are as well as things that have passed.”
Sarah echoed this sentiment: “At 49, I took a hard won financial settlement from an unexpected divorce, moved across the country and bought and renovated a 100-year-old heritage building. At 53, I learned how to surf, and I can finally do a handstand. I have a lover who makes me laugh, and true friends. I revel in my adult children who are still teaching me about everything that matters.”
As for the rumor that your thirties are your sexual prime? “Sexual bliss comes much, much, later,” she said. “Trust me.”
Ultimately, ascribing any degree of universality to an experience that is innately diverse is a fool’s errand, but that is particularly true when the ascription is vague to begin with. What exactly is a “prime,” emotionally speaking? Professionally? Sexually? Not only will women’s answers vary, but they will also change over time — further proof that just as we contain multitudes, so do our lives, and our perspectives, and even our primes.
Feature photo by (c)Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection; Illustrations by Meredith Jensen.