The cake has been cut, the beer has been drunk, and by 2am all the guests have filed out of Nidhi’s JNU hostel room. A PhD scholar, she has just turned 27, but as she sits on the edge of her bed after her birthday celebration, tears pour down her cheeks.
Today, at the age of 31, Nidhi remembers that night vividly. “I was suddenly very sad, you know. I had this feeling like, oh, I am old now. And I cried a lot. After that day, I was never really excited to celebrate my birthdays. Now they make me sad.”
Countless motivational memes and feel-good stories reinforce that ‘age is just a number’. Yet, for a section of Indian women, age is not just a number, but a deadline. If professional success or romantic stability have not been achieved by a certain age, some fear, their time may never come simply because they are too old, too undesirable. Even those who do not think they come with a sell-by date can be acutely affected by cultural attitudes towards age and life stage.
Now in her early 30s, Anoukhi recalls feeling gutted when she learned what her colleagues were saying about her while she was interning as a 27-year-old in Bengaluru. The whispers flying around the office ranged from “Isn’t she too old to be an intern?” to “Why isn’t she married yet?” to “There must be something wrong with her; she seems to be on a completely different timeline.”
Unsurprisingly, age becomes a dirty little secret for some. Nandita, 34, a columnist based in Delhi, says she hates being asked how old she is. “In most cases, I do not divulge my age. Also, I don’t think I look as old as I am, and so it gets uncomfortable when people make comments about how I don’t look ‘that old’. I mean I am not old and nor do I feel old.”
Nidhi, Anoukhi and Nandita are not alone. Several women that we spoke to, ranging from their late 20s to mid-30s, feel the burden of every passing day in a very raw, real and intimate way. They feel oppressed by their ‘delay’ in attaining the milestone of marriage, even though they enjoy the advantages of higher education and access to economic opportunities.
Much of this anxiety—and shame—is deeply rooted in our cultural milieu and the values that are perpetuated in society.
’Shouldn’t you be married by now?”
ElsaMarie D’Silva, activist, and Founder and CEO, Red Dot Foundation, a non-profit that works against sexual violence, says women are trained to focus on marriage from a very early age. “Right from childhood they are preparing you for marriage and kids. They tell you that’s your priority.”
However, it’s not as if a woman can take her own sweet time. There’s major societal pressure to tie the knot at the ‘right time’, which essentially means well before the age of 30.
Hangma, 34, was orphaned at a young age but has carved out a good life for herself with a well-paying job in the Sikkim government. Yet, over drinks, she says that despite all her accomplishments, people in her community look down on her. “I think I should get married… people don’t respect you if you don’t have a husband,” she says.
Hangma came to this conclusion after a distressing episode at work a couple of years ago when there were rumours that she was having an affair with a married colleague 12 years her senior. The trigger: she occasionally shared her lunch with him as she did with other co-workers. Ultimately, the man’s wife stormed into Hangma’s office, humiliated her in front of everyone, and even had people follow her around. “It was hell,” says Hangma. “I dreaded stepping out of the house. I was so depressed I had to see a psychiatrist. I was on medication for two months.” The trauma, she says, could have been avoided had she been married. Hangma believes that fingers were pointed at her only because “I was 32 and single, and all the other women were married.”
“Several women that we spoke to, ranging from their late 20s to mid-30s, feel the burden of every passing day in a very raw, real and intimate way.”
Life is better now for Hangma, who has now transferred to another department, but she has come away with a bitter realisation. “People don’t regard you well if you are not married. They look at you with suspicion. I never wanted to get married. But now I think I will even if it’s to have people gossip about me less!”
Hangma’s journey highlights the stigma associated with being an unmarried woman in her 30s, and the toll it can take on her mental health.
Ruchita Chandrashekar, a psychologist specialising in post-traumatic care and violence recovery, says societal pressures often lead to anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress. Indeed, the probing questions and unsolicited advice that women are constantly bombarded with can feel very much like abuse.
Anoukhi recalls breaking down in tears at a family Ganpati Puja recently. An older relative asked her how old she was, and when she replied that she was 31, she immediately became the centre of attention. The conversation in the room became, why is Anoukhi not married?
“It made me very uncomfortable,” she says. “I told them I didn’t want to talk about it, but they kept asking me these questions about why I was still not married at 31, even this 70-year-old male relative joined in. In the end, I just broke down and cried.” Her relatives were taken aback, but said she was the problem. “They were like, ’Arrey no no, you shouldn’t mind it, it is the Indian mentality. You shouldn’t take it so seriously. You shouldn’t expose your weaknesses in front of others.”
Anoukhi is still incredulous. “How is that possible? You ask me uncomfortable questions in front of a roomful of people, you trigger me, and then you expect me to remain calm and poised? How? I cried in front of people I didn’t know!”
She acknowledges that the questions were a “trigger” for her because she was already grappling with anxiety over her single status.
“All my peers are either married or about to be married. So, I have that insecurity too. And when someone feeds that insecurity by asking personal questions, I tend to crack.”
She says that she does want to get married someday, but without a stopwatch ticking in her ear. “I don’t want to rush into it just because I am 31. But, when people remind me of my age and ask me why I’m not married yet, it echoes my self-doubt. It makes me wonder: Am I ever going to get married? Am I going to end up alone?”
“Chandrashekar encourages reading feminist literature to help contextualise the dissonance that women feel about age and marriage.”
All the mental health experts we spoke to agreed that marriage is not a prerequisite for happiness, but to get to that realisation may need a psychological re-set.
Chandrashekar encourages reading feminist literature to help contextualise the dissonance that women feel about age and marriage. “Often, women internalise blame because society emphasises how their ‘disobedience’ to societal demands is causing pain to those around them. So, seeking a community that is empathetic and validating can be beneficial.”
However, some experts say age is not entirely immaterial. Dr Sangeeta Goswami, counselling psychologist and president, Mind India, says every age falls within a certain developmental stage in life and that it is important to be clear-headed about your goals. “For instance, in your 20s and 30s when you should be focusing on your career, if you say, ‘Oh, there is still time for all that,’ and you ignore it, [delays] will start accumulating and one day you’ll reach a point when it might be too late to start.”
The tyranny of ’desirability’
Closely connected to the social pressure to get married is the cultural conditioning that a woman’s worth depends on how attractive she is to men. This preoccupation with a woman’s desirability is perpetuated, overtly or implicitly, in everything from family systems to social media to popular culture.
Ayesha Naqvi, a dermatologist, says girls as young as seven are brought in by their parents who implore her to make their daughters fairer so that they have to pay less dowry. “I’ve had mothers tell me, ‘Doctor madam, ek til bhi nahin hona chahiye. Ashubh mana jata hai humare yahan. Shaadi kaise hogi bechari ki (she should not have even a single mole. It’s considered inauspicious. Who will marry her)?’”
Part of the currency of beauty is a woman’s age. The popular perception is that the older she is, the less men will want her. And while the march of time cannot be halted, women are encouraged to resort to smoke and mirrors (and hair dye) to preserve the illusion of dewy youth. Nidhi, for example, recalls her mother’s horror when she saw a few stray greys in her daughter’s hair ahead of a cousin’s wedding. “My mother said that there was no way I was going to the wedding like this. What would people say? I tried explaining that I was OK with it, but she wouldn’t listen. In the end I had to colour my hair.”
“Women often internalise this pressure to look ‘young’, contributing generously to the burgeoning anti-aging market.”
Women often internalise this pressure to look ‘young’, contributing generously to the burgeoning anti-aging market. Nandita is open about her apprehensions around ageing. “I fear body aches caused by old age. I fear losing interest in sex. I fear not looking the way I do now. I fear not being as attractive. I understand this is vain, but I guess women are forced to think they must look a certain way to believe they are desirable,” she says.
Her anxieties are heightened when she goes out to meet younger men. “I tend to overthink what to wear or how much makeup to use. Would he think I am trying too hard to look young? Is this age-appropriate? Does this make me look frivolous? Does this make me look old enough yet not ‘old’? I’ve cancelled a few of these meetings at the last moment because my clothes and makeup decisions became too stressful.”
Sritika, 29, says she is bothered by the fine lines that have started appearing on her face. “I am someone who reads a lot of these articles [on aging]. I am very self-conscious. I see that it’s happening to me now. So, I use anti-ageing products because if I do it in my 30s, I will age gracefully in my 50s.”
While there’s research on how women between the ages of 27 and 45 are the “most sexual” among all age groups, several young women we spoke to worried that their ‘age’ was already affecting their libido. Nidhi hadn’t been intimate with anyone in six years and feared her sex drive was dead. “I was entering my 30s and I hadn’t had sex in so long that I started to worry if I had lost my libido. But then I met a guy in December last year and we had crazy phone sex and I was relieved.” Arguably, women tend to experience their own sexuality as a correlate of their perceived desirability—which again is tied to age in a culture where youth is fetishised.
Psychologist Himani Kulkarni advises women to tap into the positive influences of ageing on sexuality. “Try and appreciate how much you have grown as a sexual being. What was your first sexual experience like, and how it is now? How much more do you know about your body today than you did when you were 15 or 20? It’s a lot of learning and it helps.”
Assumptions around age affect not just the personal and sexual lives of women, but also their aspirations for professional achievement and self-actualisation.
Chandrashekar says societal pressures and conditioning influence our self-worth and the expectations we set for ourselves. Take Anoukhi’s case for instance.
Five years ago, when she was 26, she wanted to apply for a postgraduate course in Italy, but her family were clear that she should “settle down” first. “If you pursue this now, you will only be delaying marriage,” her father told her. Anoukhi decided to let go of her dream. Two years later, when she wanted to apply for a design course in IIT Mumbai, a friend remarked that she might be the oldest person in the batch, which again made her second-guess herself.
External expectations about age-appropriate pursuits led to Anoukhi’s education taking a backseat. She was constantly told she was “too old” to fulfil certain ambitions, and this influenced her decisions and impeded her professional growth, she says with regret.
“External expectations about age-appropriate pursuits led to Anoukhi’s education taking a backseat.”
Personal healing and growth can be similarly hindered. Pallavi, who lives in Delhi, stumbled from one abusive relationship to another for 11 years. At 26 and single after a long time, she decided to go to Gangtok to learn Vipassana meditation. The experience inspired her to consider moving to Gangtok to do volunteer work, but her parents were aghast.
“This is not the time for such things, beta,” they said. “This is the time for you to settle down.” While she resisted familial pressure long enough to go ahead with her plans, her parents persuaded her to return to Delhi a year and a half later. Now home, Pallavi says her aunts still nag her about marriage— “They are like, ab toh kar leni chahiye (at least now she should do it)”—and her grandparents sigh woefully about how they may not live long enough to attend her wedding.
The bullying, the judgments, the gaslighting, the 24x7x365 sermonising can be crushing for women who have just started to carve a space for themselves in the world. Women are time and again reminded of how they are the ‘wrong’ age, whether they want to pursue higher education or start a career or embark on a journey of self-discovery or even attend a cousin’s wedding without colouring their hair.
Some women admit to being downright embarrassed about their age. “I’m at this point in my life where I feel that it’s uncool to be older. That’s how bad the conditioning is, I guess. I kind of believe it to be true now,” says Anoukhi. “In fact,” she says, “when I saw your tweet, I didn’t reply publicly because I didn’t want people to know my age. That’s how much it affects me now.”
Is there a way to make age less anxiety-inducing for women grappling with such feelings?
“Distress does not mean disaster,” says Kulkarni. She urges women to take a step back from their discomfort and ask themselves some crucial questions.
“Take a moment—breathe. Then, ask yourself what is making you uncomfortable. Is it that other people your age are doing life differently, and you are feeling left behind? Is it that you had planned that by your age you would be doing xyz, but that’s not happened? Try and decode the feelings that come up.”
For those who feel left behind, she recommends retraining focus on accomplishments that have happened. “Think about all the things you have gained in your life, things that have had a positive influence on you. It could be experiences, connections, relationships, career, finances. It could even be personal growth and how far you have come as an individual since you were 20.” The point of such an exercise, she says, is to bolster self-confidence and regain sight of the progress you have made.
“For those who feel left behind, she recommends retraining focus on accomplishments that have happened.”
Kulkarni also says that “progress” needs to be measured beyond the traditional yardsticks of materialism and marriage. It could instead take the form of overcoming a personal trauma, settling an inner conflict, or moving on from a toxic relationship. “In some cases, it can be things you’ve had to unpack, undo and unlearn. There could have been something about your life that you did not like and you made the effort to change it. That can be huge. For another person, it might seem like you have not done enough, but you know how much you have struggled to get where you are today. It’s not just about where you are in life, but how you got there. Give yourself a pat on the back for that too,” she advises.
Chandrashekar says one way you can boost your self-worth is by developing habits that are affirmative in nature. “Start journaling your goals and all the things you do well, document your achievements. Think about one or more activities that you do only for yourself. Develop a curated space for self-care, even if it is 10 minutes. Externalise your emotions and express your sadness, anger, disappointment, etc.”
Ultimately, now is a good time to do what you really want to, regardless of your age.