Laverne Cox is far from the first woman to have spent years lying about her age — which is why her story about being "over 21" for nearly two decades, shared during an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show last week, resonated with so many.
"I was 'over 21' from 2002 to 2019," the Inventing Anna star, 49, said, prompting big laughs from the studio audience, about how being left by a younger man when she was 28 prompted her to shave off some years.
When IMDb eventually published her true age, she said, "it was freaking me out, I was having such anxiety," she told DeGeneres. "I started unpacking all the stories about being older; the stories were that I wasn't hireable, wasn't dateable, I wasn't 'eff-able' over a certain age."
She worked those issues through with a therapist before stating her age at a speaking engagement in 2019 — and though she "thought the sky was going to fall," it wound up being "like nothing," and showed her that "no one really cares."
But plenty of women still lie about their age — for a variety of reasons. "Chronology, biology and psychology don't always sync up. In my head, I am perpetually 24 years old," noted beauty writer Cheryl Wischhover in Elle, adding, "I look a bit younger than I am, which has helped me lie about my age, both by omission and outright." Once she had an "established voice" in her career, she fessed up, writing, "I've become almost evangelical about it."
That's how writer Jennifer Romolini, who co-hosts the Everything Is Fine podcast "for women over 40," feels. "I never lie about my age. I don't play games. I'm 48 and proud of it," she tells Yahoo Life. "I have zero interest in people who judge my value by the number of years I've been alive."
But it doesn't mean she can't empathize with those who do.
"The main reason women lie about their age is fear — fear of judgment, fear that they'll be seen as less valuable, less viable, simply as less. It's a real fear: Ageism is still an acceptable prejudice in this country," Romolini says. "Our culture ties a woman's value to youth and beauty, like we're for other people's consumption. We have these dated ideas about women and aging, which are ultimately tied to the end of fertility and how sexually desirable we're perceived to be, particularly through the male gaze. Many of us internalize this — women grow up feeling like there's an expiration date on our societal usefulness, which is obviously garbage, but also hard to shake."
Anne Barrett, a professor of sociology at the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University, agrees. "Our culture tells us, in a multitude of ways, that as we move through all the life stages following 'youth,' we are slowly losing all that is valued," she tells Yahoo Life. "But, as individuals, we know it's not true. It’s not a downhill slide but instead a mixture of gains and losses, as is the case for all life stages."
'Never trust a woman who tells her real age'
Gee, thanks, Oscar Wilde, for contributing to that taken-to-heart adage. "The idea that 'a lady never reveals her age' reinforces the culture's privileging of youth. It implies that age is a characteristic about which women — at least those who are no longer 'young' — should be ashamed and, therefore, work to conceal," says Barrett. "It's a message that reinforces the age hierarchy that devalues people — and especially women — with more years of life experience."
And it's the underlying factor when it comes to people fibbing about their ages, she adds, which is something most often done for gain in matters of work and love.
"The main reason anyone – whether a woman or a man – would lie about their age is a belief that the potential gains to be had outweigh the discomfort of being dishonest and feeling inauthentic," she says.
Career-wise, "the evidence of age discrimination in the workplace is clear and people know it. It's no surprise that some try to conceal their age by 'Botoxing' their resumes — or their faces." The same is true in the dating arena, she says, "where the premium placed on youth leads some to conceal their age, for example, on dating websites. This pressure is felt by women and men, but it continues to be more intense for women and to begin at a younger age."
Says Romolini, "I think women start to feel self-conscious about their age as early as 25!" while a lot of women over 40, she says, "wake up and see rampant ageism in a way they hadn't before, and realize they've bought into a lie."
It speaks volumes, adds Barrett, "that everyone knows that when we talk about people 'lying about their age,' we're really talking about people claiming a younger age. This taken-for-granted assumption captures, in a nutshell, our age hierarchy: Youth is so highly valued that it's worth deceit." Also revealing, she says, "is that we associate 'lying about your age' with women, although clearly, men are susceptible to it, too. This association reinforces a stereotype of women as deceptive while ignoring the cultural pressures that could make lying about your age a rational choice."
As pop culture embraces the inherent value in aging and rejects ageism more and more — especially through the candor of celebs like Cox, Paulina Porizkova, Jane Fonda, Halle Berry, Drew Barrymore and so many more, as well as podcasts like Romolini's, which treats "women over 40 with the reverence and respect they deserve" — Barrett only hopes it will continue.
"There are so many more productive ways that could people spend their time and money than on chasing a youthful appearance — pursuing stasis rather than marveling at change," she says, "which is at the center of life's experience."
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