For Her Age


by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

In Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, title character Amy Elliott Dunne was a “golden girl,” growing up with every advantage, including good looks and wealth. As the story unfolds, she experiences a rather startling moment of clarity when she is described as “attractive, for her age.” She wonders when she hit that milestone and why she felt so blindsided by it.

I found myself thinking about that particular moment after finishing the book. “For her age” is the kind of phrase that seems like a compliment but really may not be. It’s a lovely phrase to hear when it bookends a life, for example. If you’re the proud (read: supremely annoying) parent of a first-grader who has mastered Mandarin Chinese:  “What an ear for languages for her age!” people exclaim. We say it about the gifted 10-year-old baseball player, the charismatic 14-year-old performer, or the impressive 20-year-old entrepreneur. On the other end, we appreciate the sense of humor in someone approaching his 94th birthday. “So sharp for his age!”

The phrase “for his/her age” seems to disappear for a few decades once we hit adulthood. Few people find anything remarkable about 20-, 30-, and 40-something people going about their lives. Many are building careers, sharing relationships, and starting families, none of it particularly extraordinary or unusual “for their age.”

But then we (read: women) reach that lovely neighborhood called midlife, and surprise! “For her age” is back, packed with all of the incredulity but none of the charm. It feels like people more often marvel at what a woman is or is not/how she looks or does not look/what she can or can’t do in her dotage. (Note to men: Is this true? I’m open to being corrected about this.)

One day you’re feeling confident, accomplished, and experienced; full of wisdom, lessons learned, and behaviors you’re certain others will want to emulate. The next, it’s all in your rearview mirror, and every move you make is surrounded with a mostly unspoken but unmistakable “for her age” modifier. Didn’t see that coming, did you? And, as if you needed another reminder, on your very next birthday you find yourself entering a new age box on a form to recalculate your 401k contribution and signing up for a charity 5K under the “senior” bracket.

Once you hear it, it feels like it’s everywhere: “She dresses well, for her age.” “She looks great! For her age.” “Her driving/memory/bridge game is pretty good—for her age.” Question: Are these compliments or qualifiers? Do we earn bonus points simply by hitting a certain age and still being in the game?

In my random research, I learned that some people see “at your age” as a compliment and feel like they represent someone for others to admire or emulate as they age. On the other hand, my friend James is happy to be “graded on a curve,” as he puts it.  Another friend feels like the phrase weakens whatever comes before it.

For me, it may be a glass half-full/half-empty situation. The rather conciliatory “for her age” sounds just this side of dowdy; just one short step away from hopelessly outdated. I’m getting there—no question. Wait; I’m already there. Now I just need to sort out whether I hear “for her age” as praise or astonishment.

What’s your opinion of “for her age?”

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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7 Responses to For Her Age

  1. Lacy June 13, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Thank you, Renee, great article! At first the qualifier bothered me, but it was really about hitting that ‘certain age’ at which you knew you were never going to be a Rockette, those fabulous high heeled espadrilles kill your feet within 2 minutes of putting them on and it’s not so easy to roll out of bed in the morning! I am learning to accept it all with grace, humor and good friends in the same boat. I think we are not as prone to try to please everyone now, and we are more apt to REALLY speak our minds instead of smiling vapidly and seething inside. So some good comes with age. And if we want to wear a leopard print running skirt to the grocery store, we can always pretend we just came from the gym!

  2. Renee June 13, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Thanks Lacy! You’ve inspired me to buy a leopard print running skirt because it sounds so fun. And you’re right – maybe that makes me the crazy lady in the leopard print running skirt. I’ll take it!

  3. Alice Green June 13, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    Always you make me think!! “For her age” seems like a back handed compliment. Also, it could be hopeful praise. So much depends on the person who is saying, the intent behind the words. I try not to be too touched or hurt by any compliment or statement made by others. Mostly because my mother did nothing but put me down and I had to internally fight to keep myself from becoming what her words said I was. Then when teachers, other adults would praise me, I would tend to dwell too much on the ‘faint’ praise, because of receiving none at home. Finally, after becoming my own person, I decided to welcome the good praise with the understanding that someone might actually see good in me. And to not let what ever negative comments I got wound me. It’s what I think of myself that matters and I think I’m doing fine – at whatever age I have the chance to be! Thanks, Renee, as always.

  4. Renee June 13, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Alice – I am always grateful for comments that make me think as well! Like this one from you. Welcoming the good; mostly dismissing the bad. Sounds like a healthy, positive way to live. Thank you for sharing your story and your journey.

  5. Donna in Delaware June 13, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Renee, I never gave this much thought until now. I, in recent years have found this to be a compliment. I kind of got it this afternoon, although stated differently. I was asked how old I was, and when I told this lovely lady my age, she said, “You don’t look like it!” That’s a compliment, at least that is how I took it, and I am certain that this was how she meant it.
    Anyhow, I would not take this any other way than that, a compliment, because it is nice to “shock,” or astonish someone in this way! Take it as praise also, because someone somewhere out there, and someone down the road, is going to be envious of those of us who have years on them, and don’t show it. We got it, and know it! No botox or plastic surgery here baby! Only good, clean living, eating well, exercising, and trying to be happy. Eat your hearts out 20, 30, & 40 somethings! With the stress of today’s world, they’ll be lucky to have any hair left, much less looks!

  6. Renee June 13, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    Thanks, Donna! If I have the smooth skin my Mom had at age 82, I’ll be very grateful! My friend Melanie feels the way you do – it’s all a good thing. I think your note about trying to be happy may be the most important part.

  7. Donna in Delaware June 13, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Thanks Renee, If I have the smooth skin of my grandmother at 64 and her sister at 88 when she passed away, I’ll be grateful also.

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