For Her Age

06/16/2014 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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 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.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit