This is 54: Author Kimberly Harrington Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"All the previous versions of me feel like they’re almost other people at this point."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, author, copywriter, creative director, and newsletter writer responds. - Sari Botton
Kimberly Harrington is the author of But You Seemed So Happy and Amateur Hour. Her work also regularly appears in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Cut. A long-time copywriter and creative director, her clients have included Apple, Nike, and Netflix. She writes : “A newsletter about creating a new life after 50, after marriage, after kids, and after publishing. So sick of learning and growing I could barf. Making you think, cry, laugh, and feel.”
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
40. Maybe it’s because it feels like that’s when the current version of me began to take shape. All the previous versions of me feel like they’re almost other people at this point.
Superficially, one of my favorite features — my visible cheekbones — didn’t even appear until then. For the most part I’ve liked how I look more as I’ve gotten older. I think most of the women in my family on my mother’s side look better older as well. So much of how we age and what shape and size our bodies will be is genetic. I wish I had understood that a lot earlier in my life.
For the most part I’ve liked how I look more as I’ve gotten older. I think most of the women in my family on my mother’s side look better older as well. So much of how we age and what shape and size our bodies will be is genetic. I wish I had understood that a lot earlier in my life.
And life-wise I think part of why 40 was so special to me is it was the early days of having a family. My kids were just 2 and 4. It was hard as hell and I don’t feel nostalgic for it, but it also felt like everything had fallen into place. Having young kids and feeling happy in your life is such a specific feeling. It’s overwhelming but you feel so completely immersed in living. Even if that’s not how you want to feel, you really have no choice. And I think part of that too was I was simply less self-focused. I didn’t have time nor space to be. Because, again, I had no choice. I’m not advocating the trope of the self-sacrificing mother whatsoever (I think it’s bullshit) but when you’re someone who spends entirely too much time thinking about themselves and nitpicking their life to death, it's a true relief to focus outward, to just feel happy and secure (even if exhausted), and to feel like part of something bigger and more meaningful. I had wanted that for so long.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I definitely feel young for my age, although I should caveat that by saying that aging seems so dependent on where you live and what you do. For example, if I’m back in Portland, Oregon and around friends my age then I feel just right for my age. The friends I made there are smart, curious, creative lunatics. But if I’m back in my hometown in western Mass (and I think this sort of applies to New England in general), and I run into some of the people I went to high school with — not from my graduating class, who mostly seem to have made some sort of deal with the devil to age pretty goddamn well — I’m like, how were we two years apart in high school? Some of them look old-old to me.
I also think how you approach life has an impact on how you age or at least what sort of age you come across as. It’s the mindset difference between those who are continuously curious about themselves and the world around them vs. being afraid of everything outside of their immediate experience and place in the world. Or even if they’re not afraid, just feeling done too early in life. Like they got married young, had kids, and they were done exploring anything about life or the world beyond that. No thanks.
I’m not advocating the trope of the self-sacrificing mother whatsoever (I think it’s bullshit) but when you’re someone who spends entirely too much time thinking about themselves and nitpicking their life to death, it's a true relief to focus outward, to just feel happy and secure (even if exhausted), and to feel like part of something bigger and more meaningful.
What do you like about being your age?
I think the best thing about getting older is having more of a long view on life. Understanding your patterns, what you’re good at (and what you’re not), what brings you pleasure (and what doesn’t). Being in your 20s feels like such a full-scale freakout for reasons. After the cocoon of being in school your whole life, with pretty much the same people the whole time, you’re told — Ok! You’re an adult! Go do your life! Good luck! When in reality, you don’t really know who you are yet, what your work style is, what you really want. You don’t know how to be good at relationships or sex yet but feel like you should be. No wonder people in their 20s are crazy, I certainly was. You feel pressure to have so much figured out when you can only figure life out by living it. And even then, you’ll never have it truly figured out. No one tells you that! I hope to be curious and driven and learning until I’m all-the-way dead.
What is difficult about being your age?
I feel a bit panicked that I’m running out of time both creatively and sexually. Part of that is feeling like I wasted entirely too much time in a marriage that ultimately wasn’t fulfilling to either one of us. I try to talk myself down regularly by reminding myself that I am the quintessential late bloomer. Everything I’ve done in my life I’ve done quite late and then I’ve absolutely run with it.
I’ve told this story often, but my mother said that when I was learning to ride a bike I kept my training wheels on way, way past when other kids my age had already taken them off. I was a cautious kid, I definitely didn’t want to fall or get hurt. But one day, I was probably about 9 or 10, and I turned to my parents and said “Take ‘em off.” I hopped on that bike, without training wheels for the first time, and never looked back and never fell. That’s how I feel now. I feel like I was playing it safe for far too long, all with the best of intentions, but those training wheels are off again. And I feel like I’m flying. Not every day, I’ve had some real drag-you-to-hell rough moments, but I’ve had more higher-than-high days to matter.
I think how you approach life has an impact on how you age or at least what sort of age you come across as. It’s the mindset difference between those who are continuously curious about themselves and the world around them vs. being afraid of everything outside of their immediate experience and place in the world.
I was in a monogamous marriage for 25 years. I want 25 more years to be able to explore different forms of relationships, non-monogamy, sexuality, just all of it. It’s been incredibly eye-opening to meet and engage in partnerships with different men without playing the long game that so many of us women were trained to do when we were young. Meaning, wondering where it was all going, would this man someday be your boyfriend (or husband!), what were all the little ways that you did or didn’t match up perfectly, and ignoring what men would tell you like, i.e. I do not want a relationship, I’m a walking red flag and still thinking I love walking red flags! I bet I can change him. Exhausting and dumb!
Turns out it’s fun just to have fun. Turns out it’s easier to just take people at their word and their actions and enjoy them just as they are (and to have them enjoy you just as you are). Anyway, 25 more years of that sort of exploration would put me at 79. I doubt I’m going to get that. And maybe I don’t need 25 years of that but just three or five really jam-packed ones (ha).
Professionally, I didn’t become a full-time copywriter until I was 35 even though I’ve worked in advertising since I interned in college. It was the right weird path for me, so I have no regrets there. I think I’m a better copywriter because I took that non-traditional path, did several different jobs within agencies (which gave me more empathy for doing the shit jobs that creatives often turn their privileged little noses up at), and worked in design studios instead of agencies as a writer which gave me a completely different approach as to how to be a copywriter.
I took an unintentional 20+ year break from working on my own writing while I was building a career and supporting my family. I was never a frustrated novelist or screenwriter. Being a copywriter was the only thing I ever wanted to do and it was enough for me for a long time. Until it suddenly wasn’t.
When I focused on my own work again, it all took off so fast. I had developed such valuable skills through my job — project management, concepting, thick skin for feedback, writing when writing is the last thing you feel like doing. I had an agent within a year, a book deal within two. I can see how I’m becoming an exponentially better writer over time. I have so many ideas I want to work through. I have two ideas for novels that I’m super excited about. I can see other ideas in my head more suited for a series. I worry that I will run out of time to do everything that I want to do creatively. I’m more worried than I’ve ever been that health-wise or life-wise something will happen that impacts my ability to think and write. I feel like I have the best creative momentum of my life, and I worry that I will run out of time to see it all through.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I was 36 when I was pregnant with my son, my first child. And I remember doing the math for how old I’d be when he was a senior in high school (which he is now!) The picture that came into my mind, of me at 54, was of a gray-haired lady standing with my husband on the sidelines at a soccer game with a travel mug of coffee. I cannot put into words how utterly ridiculous and hilarious this is. Just, why? Had I met myself?
I would’ve never guessed that at 54 I’d be single, non-monogamous and having the best sex of my life, forever expanding my creative pursuits and work, and all while having just a smattering of gray hair. Now that I think of it, I guess there’s a lesson in there for me about my answer about running out of time. None of us know what’s ahead or who we’ll be down the road. None of us know what we’re capable of until we do it or what we’ll be doing until we actually get there.
Through both of my pregnancies, especially after two miscarriages, I had taught myself to tame my constant worry by categorizing it. For example, if worry had action steps — something I could actually do about it — then I could engage in that worry. But if I was worrying just to worry, I had to let it go. Worrying just to worry doesn’t help at all. Worrying just to worry isn’t an inoculation against bad things happening.
I feel like I was playing it safe for far too long, all with the best of intentions, but those training wheels are off again. And I feel like I’m flying.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
Aging has given me perspective, experience, empathy, objectivity, and confidence. And aging has taken away my evergreen belief that if I just worked hard enough I could finally have a small ass.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
I’ve always had a strong sense of myself and my identity. Honestly I think marriage and motherhood impacted both of those things far, far, far more than age ever has or ever will.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
I’m going to cheat mightily here and choose several: 16, 27, 36, 38, and 54.
16 because I finally got my period and as any late blooming teenager knows, you want even the shitty things to happen to you at the same time as your friends. And everything about being a young woman — a new body, experiencing flirting and sexual attraction, and fooling around with boys — felt brand new, urgent, and all-consuming. I wish there was some kind of bat signal that girls could push at that exact moment and suddenly a confident middle-aged woman (of no familial relation) swoops in and just tells that girl everything she needs to know about sex and pleasure and desire and not compromising who she is. Not all girl power bullshit but, like, you have your WHOLE LIFE ahead of you. Don’t underestimate yourself. Don’t underestimate your value. Don’t put up with boys and men who can’t even step over the lowest bar provided. It’s always, always, always better to maintain control over your life, to be single and happy than to be lonely or made smaller by being coupled. Chart your own course. Question any and every supposed cultural and societal milestone that you’re supposed to hit. Live your life!
27 because I was in love for the first time. And although my marriage ran its course, I feel so lucky to have been loved by someone who was so generous and kind to me. Who did small things that really mattered, like showing up on time and bringing me flowers. My choices in men up to that point were, let’s say, “not” “great.” And I have two kids to remind me regularly of how lucky I was and we were (and are). Everyone deserves to feel loved and cherished, even if it doesn’t last.
36 and 38 because those were the ages I was when both my kids were born. I always wanted kids. I never had any doubt about that. And my pregnancies represented a time when I probably had the most positive relationship with my body up to that point (other than the wanting to barf part). I loved the way my belly stuck out — and I do mean way, way out. I felt incredibly fortunate to get pregnant. And especially after two miscarriages, I never felt more grateful in my life for my body, that it got two babies all the way across the finish line. In this country we take everything about pregnancy for granted. It’s treated as routine when it should be treated like the most holy shit thing on Planet Earth. It’s incredible that any of us are here and that some of us make other people who are brand new here. I mean, c’mon.
And now, 54, for all the reasons. I am so fortunate to feel this good, this accomplished, this sexy, and this confident. I want it to last forever.
I was in a monogamous marriage for 25 years. I want 25 more years to be able to explore different forms of relationships, non-monogamy, sexuality, just all of it. It’s been incredibly eye-opening to meet and engage in partnerships with different men without playing the long game that so many of us women were trained to do when we were young.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
I feel inspired by women who seem true to themselves regardless of their age. I’m interested in women who are creative and have been through some real shit and come out the other side. I want to engage with and learn from women whose success isn’t rooted in their façade but because of who they are. Off the top of my head: Frances McDormand, Regina King, Jennifer Coolidge, Ali Wong, Rachel Cusk, and my pal Libby DeLana.
I’ll also include a non-famous but fabulous lady on this list — my late grandmother, Mary Arrow. She was always curious, relentlessly social, and had an incredible eye for color. She was caring and warm and so talented but also wildly independent. Her legacy is all of us women in the family who embody so much of who she was. Including our genetic loyalty to a bold lip. I miss her so much.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I joke often that I’ve had a middle-aged body since I was 16, so I’ve basically been training for this stage my entire life. When I get dressed up to go out my style tends to be overtly feminine, but day-to-day I mostly dress in a fairly masculine way. Which is a funny full circle thing, like so much of life. I was such a tomboy growing up. And I feel like I’m just fully coming back to it the older I get.
The clothes for non-young women feel very “I give up” to me. Very flow-y. Very drape-y. I mean, I certainly get it. Bodies change so much. And no one wants to feel like they’re wearing a sausage casing or trying to dress like they’re 20 either. Given all that, when I discovered COS in Montreal when I was shopping for my first book tour it just blew my mind. Whether it was the brand or the fact I was in Montreal (it was both, I’m sure) it was so refreshing to see real age diversity in the women who were shopping there and they all looked so cool, regardless of their age. The design POV of that brand is 1000% up my alley. I’m a vintage hoarder to be sure, but some days I fantasize about getting rid of everything I own, putting together a COS capsule wardrobe, and just calling it good.
Healthwise, I’ve always been terrible at feeding myself but I’m definitely better at exercising and accepting that, yeah, I’m gonna have to do this shit for life. Unlike my twenties, when it was always about trying to get smaller, now I feel like it’s about how this is just required if I want to feel good, strong, and flexible — physically and mentally. And I’m sorry but if you want to have great sex as you get older? All that helps. A lot. Prove me wrong.
I worry that I will run out of time to do everything that I want to do creatively. I’m more worried than I’ve ever been that health-wise or life-wise something will happen that impacts my ability to think and write. I feel like I have the best creative momentum of my life, and I worry that I will run out of time to see it all through.
Beauty-wise, I’ve become a major fan ofand her Substack How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. It has truly changed how I think about my face (and the person behind it). Not to be all white lady on my yoga bullshit, but her approach reminds me of what I learned in Bikram years ago — to be still and only look at yourself, directly into your own eyes. It’s harder to look at yourself than you think, to not critically scan your body for flaws but instead to only focus on the person behind those eyes. And also: to not look around at others and contrast and compare. To learn to connect to the self without judgment. That was the beginning of feeling more kindness toward myself and my body. I won’t say that I always look in the mirror and never think what the actual fuck. I absolutely do, I’m a product of … well, everything about our dumb misogynistic culture. I’ve been soaking in it for decades now. But I’m generally much gentler on myself now than I ever was as a teenager or in my twenties.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
I don’t want to cut my hair short but at some point I’ll probably have to. My hair has always been fine and getting older has not helped my cause. After my daughter was born I had already been through the hair loss rodeo once before (between the bigger tits and the thicker hair, pregnancy really has some unforeseen gifts-with-purchase!). I asked for something along the lines of “Jane Fonda in Klute” and I’ve had that cut ever since. My daughter is now almost 17 and that cut is still the perfect cut for me. I’m going to keep it going as long as I can. But at some point I will be down to two spoonfuls of hair instead of my current three and I’ll probably have to give it up. I just hope I do something weird like shave my head. Lord save me from a Standard Old Lady Short Cut™
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I’ve always been a big believer in celebrating the absolute shit out of my birthday. But. I’ve had a truly terrible run of birthdays since I turned 50. It had nothing to do with age or aging and absolutely everything to do with life. Announcing my divorce, the years of dealing with a drawn-out separation, launching my second book which was both an awful process and a complete mindfuck. And of course the pandemic (heard of it?). I’m determined to make up for it this year. If I don’t claw my birthday back and make it something to look forward to again I will be absolutely furious.
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