“Past her prime”
For decades, women have been bombarded with messages that they're out of their prime once they’re no longer “youthful,” but does the modern woman believe this?
In the fall of 2022, 29-year-old Farheen Raaj was set to return to her studies for the first time since completing her undergraduate degree in 2014. She was overwhelmed with several emotions—including worry—in the weeks leading up to starting Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) master of media production program.
The idea of re-entering the world of academics made her nervous, but concern about her age weighed more heavily on her mind.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I was worried that 22-year-olds are going to completely beat me at this and I will have no idea how to write a paper.”
Upon graduating with a degree in English literature while living in India, Raaj jumped straight into the workforce. Despite having aspirations of one day completing a master’s degree, she couldn’t bring herself to pause her career once she started making a steady income. However, after she and her partner moved to Canada, Raaj realized that her lack of Canadian experience and academic qualifications were making it difficult to get the jobs she wanted.
So, once things seemed to be looking up with the pandemic, Raaj jumped at the opportunity to enroll in TMU’s media production masters program.
While she’s excited about entering the workforce with more wisdom than she had when she was in her early twenties, Raaj is aware of some challenges she may face because of her age.
“It does bother me because everyone else who might be interviewing for the same positions as [me] might be 21, might be 25,” she says. “But I have to constantly keep reminding myself that I’m not 19 and doing this for the first time ever. I have something to build on.”
Raaj isn’t alone in feeling the pressures of her age. While it may be easier for more experienced, wiser women to not be worried about the “age-limits” placed on success, getting older is still a concern for some TMU students.
After all, with messaging like: “How to look younger longer. And stop the clock,” “The diet that makes you grow younger” and “You’re never too young to fib about your age. It can add years to your life!” It's no wonder why the fear of “getting old” has been ingrained in women’s minds for decades.
These aren’t just made-up phrases to make women feel bad about their naturally aging bodies either, they’re real Cosmopolitan— a woman’s magazine who’s mission statement is, “encourages young women to embrace and celebrate who they are” — headlines from the 1970s and ‘80s.
Although it’s rare to see headlines like these grace the covers of a Cosmo today, the sentiment behind the messaging still lingers in modern society—that a woman’s worth is intrinsically tied to how “youthful” (read: conventionally attractive) she is.
And this is evident in the way women are treated in the media. This past summer, former CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme was let go from her decades-long position because she was “going grey,” which generated international attention. More recently in February 2023, co-anchor of CNN This Morning Don Lemon said that, “when a woman is considered to be in her prime is her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s [presidential candidate Nikki Haley] isn’t in her prime, sorry!” on air. His co-anchors displayed immediate concern, to which Lemon, who has since apologized, responded by saying “don’t shoot the messenger.”
For reference, Haley is 51-years-old. Current U.S. President Joe Biden was 78-years-old when he took office and former president Donald Trump was 70 when inaugurated. According to Google, it doesn’t seem that Lemon has ever publically said that either of the aforementioned men were “past their prime.”
According to this messaging, it’s assumed that once a woman passes her prime she should be worried as her lack of youthfulness and desirability may cost her both career and life opportunities.
But should modern women actually fall victim to this thinking?
Suhayya Abu-Hakima, the co-founder and CEO of Alstari corporation, an artificial intelligence (AI) security company, completely disagrees. To her, building on past experiences and knowledge seems to be one of the keys to having a long, fruitful career. Abu-Hakima has been working in the technology industry for over 35 years, has founded two successful AI start-ups during her career and she’s currently working on her third.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Abu-Hakima says her drive and excitement for her career have helped propel her to success. Yet, despite her achievements and wealth of knowledge, she says she has faced instances of sexism throughout different stages of her career.
“When I was trying to launch the startups, many of the financiers and the bankers felt that I shouldn't be the CEO, that I should hire a male CEO to go out and raise funding,” she says.
Abu-Hakima also remembers not telling her employer she was pregnant until she was in her fifth month, out of fear that her pregnancy would lessen the chances of her being awarded a promotion. While pregnancy-based discrimination is prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act, Abu-Hakima says she has commonly heard people use phrases such as, “the mommy track” to—sometimes unconsciously—add more bias against somebody who's trying to have children and maintain a growing career.
These are unique challenges that women face in the workplace. Yet, Abu-Hakima says they are possible to overcome.
“I think you can create your own opportunities,” she says. “If you are in a workplace where they're not allowing you to be flexible and creative in the job that you're doing and penalize you for having a child or going on maternity leave, that's not the right workplace for you.”
Julia Creet, an English professor at York University and current student in TMU’s media production master’s program also believes that the notion of “aging out” is “all nonsense.”
Creet is 64-years-old, just beginning her second career after teaching for 25 years and has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
“I could be looking towards retirement but I still feel vibrant and full of energy,” she says. “I’ve got all kinds of drive and things going on intellectually. So why would I stop?”
While women like Raaj, Abu-Hakima and Creet are all proving that there are no age limits to success, getting older is still a source of anxiety for some younger students.
First-year performance production student Meghan McCracken remembers how difficult her birthday was for her last summer. Between switching programs and watching friends get married and simply coming to terms with the fact that she was now one step closer to being a real adult, she says it was an overwhelming time.
“I was finding that I was still not able to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And it was just this big crisis I had for a number of months leading up to my birthday,” says McCracken who turned 20 in July of 2022.
The pandemic also altered McCracken’s thoughts around growing up. She explains that COVID-19 showed her the unpredictability of life and forced her to let go of some of the expectations she once set for herself to hit by certain ages.
“I think if you would have asked me a couple of years ago, I would have been like, ‘Yes, I have a life plan and an age I want these things to happen at,’” she says. “But in the last probably two and a half years, that has changed completely.”
While McCracken once had very specific plans for when she wanted to get married, have children and hit certain career milestones, she’s now okay with relinquishing some of that control.
This outlook rings true for many female TMU students, who realize that age is truly nothing but a number, despite what a few old Cosmopolitan headlines may have wanted women to think. For these students, they’ve learned to naturally let go of those expectations as they’ve grown, and continue to grow, up.
This includes Raaj, who quickly learned that she had no reason to be concerned about her age when entering the masters program. To her, getting older is just part of who she is—not something that will define or restrict her.
“I got my first white hair like five months ago and I had to take a minute to register it, but it's fine. It doesn't matter at all,” says Raaj. “I feel like my life is just starting now, rather than it ending.”
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