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Illustration by Little Rain
Illustration by Little Rain

The Best OfJanuary 28, 2024

I hate the Barbie movie, and it’s because I’m 44

Illustration by Little Rain
Illustration by Little Rain

I now understand why crisis and midlife go hand in hand. For the first time in my life, I feel like there might be more behind me, than in front. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Little Rain.

I watched the jug clunk onto the kitchen floor and split quite perfectly into two pieces. I was flooded with sensational relief. Then molten rage surfed that surge and was expelled from all of the places I’d felt it metastasising inside my body that day.

It wasn’t my fault. The kitchen cupboards are too small, configured by someone who doesn’t cook or own a tortilla press.    

I hadn’t dropped the stupid jug from a great height myself, but I knew that my rough rummaging to find the grater in an overflowing cupboard might result in something breaking. I’ve smashed crockery deliberately twice in my life, and the surprisingly physical sensation of release isn’t one you forget. There’s an instant drop in pressure, a cool nightfall after a constricting humidity and a shocking silence in which your anger can no longer be loud.

In the early months of 2023, I regularly found myself profoundly and suddenly irritated with an insatiable urge to break plates and jugs in order to reach the silent aftermath. Everything irritated me in ways that weren’t fair. People who didn’t indicate while driving were monstrous, and this common lack of driving etiquette spawned anxious ruminations about civilised society. 

Catching sight of a shirt hanging in my wardrobe without its top button done up would unravel a tightly wound spool of yarn that quickly knitted itself into a blanket of irrational rage that lay heavy over the day. Picking up a slimy and unrinsed kitchen cloth would nick the tight and tough skin that bound all the vital parts of my good and strong marriage together and tear wider to expose a catastrophic injury only I could see. I would point at this wound, and my husband – trying his very best to peer past what was obviously small and stupid – would become increasingly bewildered. His hurt at becoming the target of another flash flood of rage was far more real than the imagined injury I saw, but I had no way to tend to it. I would skulk about mute because I didn’t know how to explain myself, and he would start doing things. My husband is a good man whose default setting is to assume he’s done something wrong and then load the dishwasher. 

Growing up, my school reports always contained a variation of “Anna is bright but talks too much”. My teachers exhausted every synonym for talkative, exceeding expectations one year with “garrulous”. Being unable to use words to explain why I was so angry as an adult was a malfunction of my default setting. 

Over my life, I have assembled the reports and observations others have made about who I am and turned them into a neat collage of character. I have pasted down the ragged edges and created a discard pile to bury away out of sight. Bright meant intelligent, intelligent meant logical, logical meant rational and rational meant contained.  I sort the events of each day into tidy piles, put a lid on the things that I assess as “me” problems so they don’t leak out and allocate emotional responses like a judge dispensing sentences, confident in my own common law. I assume everyone’s impression of me is a manifestation of my tidy mind, and any spills are controlled, and leaks are quickly mopped up. Last year, the lid came off, and I had no idea why. The irrational and profound irritation and the floods of rage were chased by shame about my lack of control.  When the rage dissipated, and my husband and I would try to pull out the fragments that had lodged after each explosion, I circled the events like an observer investigating a blast site. I knew what was going on because I was there, but I felt like an outsider, making assessments without the benefit of being present. 

After a few of these explosions, I did what anyone does when confronted with unexpected behaviour, patches of dry and itchy skin and an inability to sleep past 3am, and tried to diagnose myself. The “age, woman, rage” google search deviates from the norm but is startlingly homogenous. You don’t have cancer; you’re just a woman who’s getting old.  

The results are a bland buffet of rapidly growing awareness.  Menopause is all the rage. “Why You May Want to Break Things During Perimenopause”, “Why So Angry? Discover Why Women Get So Fired Up in Midlife, and How to Control the Rage”, “The Emotional Roller Coaster of Menopause”. I clicked on all of them, reading every word. 

I should have felt grateful for this wellspring of information because knowledge is power and women’s health is neglected and I’m a feminist, but in my head, the word menopause takes on the same quality as Eeyore. It sags like the skin above my knees and droops like the skin above my eyes.  

I hate the phrase “it’s hormonal”. The body is full of mystery, but nothing seems more mysterious to me than hormones. They could be pixie dust for all I have known about them. Knowledge, in this instance, is depressing. I could name what was happening to me, which helped a bit but did nothing to quell the indignity of having my carefully constructed self undone by an invisible and molecular product of my own making.

At age 12, I was armed with information about the pituitary gland and the impending impact of its hormonal harbingers of doom. My first period arrived on the morning of my first swimming sports at school. I spent the morning panicking about how to put in a tampon. I wasn’t repulsed or embarrassed. I was angry that this thing would happen every month and derail carefully laid plans. Years of “battling”, “struggling with”, and “managing” my weight would frequently be explained to me by doctors as having something to do with hormones. 

When I had gastric bypass surgery in 2020, I tried to force the anesthetist to explain why I didn’t need to take medication for type 2 diabetes any more. He’d just drugged me for the surgery and wasn’t the correct expert to ask, but the word “hormones” is one of the few that made it through the anesthetic haze and into my own mumbled explanation to others in the months that followed.  

After 30 years of something happening every month and incomplete but plausible explanations about why you were battling your own body, you have to make some peace with it. Premenstrual moods become notes in a calendar, and the science of weight gain and loss at least gave me a framework for being fat. My discomfort about what Zadie Smith describes as being “tied to my ‘nature’, to my animal body – to the whole simian realm of instinct” shrank, becoming a manageable lump of recurrent disdain. My tidy mind catalogued it and put a lid on it.

Perimenopause feels like a betrayal of that accord. A mind untidied by a mysterious vulnerability.  Worse still is that it doesn’t come with the neat monthly schedule of a menstrual cycle. The irritation and rage seemed to rise and fall with no discernible rhythm. I couldn’t plan for it. When being logical and “intelligent” is the crutch you’ve leaned on in the face of having a body that didn’t conform to any outwardly useful ideal, the pathologisation of the loss of rationality is frustratingly anti-intellectual. My ability to rationalise things has always felt like a source of agency, and now a sneaky little thief had turned up to rob me of it. 

I turned 44 in August last year. My father called me on my birthday. “Welcome to middle age,” he said. It sounds stupid now, but that was the first time I realised I was, quite precisely, middle-aged. I have never thought of any age as bearing inevitability and wasn’t prepared to be struck between the eyes by this one. 

“Because I’m 44” became an explanation, an obsession, an excuse and a joke at the office. If I was irrationally grumpy about something, it was because I was 44. If I didn’t know who my younger colleagues were talking about, it was because I was 44. I spent a week proudly and deliberately telling everyone I didn’t know who Olivia Rodrigo was “because I was 44”. My colleagues would repeat the refrain back to me as a question. “Is this because you’re 44?” they’d ask as I muttered about yet another pop culture moment that had passed me by. 

Perimenopause and its banal but inescapable realities gave my age a hard truth, but something else was eating away at me. Something that felt divorced from the explanations of why the bouts of sudden rage were happening.  Something that was slowly churning rather than rapidly boiling.

One of my angriest obsessions last year was the Barbie movie. I haven’t seen it, but I hate it. Wrapped in a big pink bow was the nagging feeling that my anger and confusion weren’t just pathological but something more existential. 

As a kid with a mum who wanted her daughter to value more than her appearance, Barbie was banned. The feminist canon I spent my twenties immersed in was very clear. Barbie was the antithesis of feminism. Emerging fresh in 2023 was a different view, fueled by a juggernaut marketing campaign that could be seen from space. Not seeing the movie makes me the worst critic, but I saw enough to know that Barbie was being remade. She was being crafted in the image of a new kind of feminism that represented a wholesale dumping of everything I thought I knew. The success of it all rang out the clearest truth, and it landed harder than the tangible scientific explanations I was uncovering about why kitchen cloths made me so angry. One of the biggest cultural phenomena of last year was not for me, and what I thought about it didn’t matter. I spent hours boring people about why elevating the movie into the feminist canon was wrong, and nobody gave a shit. Not giving a shit is a correct and justifiable response. Nobody needs to think as hard as I did about the Barbie movie. Nobody needs to spend months and months hating something they haven’t seen.  

In his My Generation essay, Justin H Smith writes: “It was around the time of that breakfast in Brussels that everything began to sink in for me, even if I still refused to see it. I was well into my forties, and dimly aware that there were by now a few billion people in the world leading full lives of their own, who would consider anything I had to say irrelevant simply by virtue of the fact that it was coming from an ‘old’ person.”

Age, with its sense of declining relevance, and hormonal change are inextricably linked, and yet confronting all of that at the same time feels like an accidental collision between trains running on different tracks. My breakfast in Brussels is the Barbie movie, and I hate it because I’m 44.  

The thing they don’t tell you about middle age is you are both at the midpoint of your own life, and you are the midpoint of the life all around you. You can mooch around as colloquially middle-aged for quite a while, but the midpoint is defined and fleeting. Once you’re past it, there is only over or under, above or below. No one can ever know the true midpoint of their life, and I might yet be far off it, but watching yourself drift further away from youth and the cultural power that has feels very real. I now understand why crisis and midlife go hand in hand. For the first time in my life, I feel like there might be more behind me, than in front. 

“The thing they don’t tell you” has become another popular refrain for me over the last year, most often used when I stumble upon the blindingly obvious. I have found a strange comfort in thinking about age and discovering those blindingly obvious things. It offsets the loss of agency felt when you’re suddenly angry about the kitchen cupboards and kitchen cloths and want to break a jug. The thing they do tell you is that it’s because you’re hormonal. The thing they don’t is that it’s because you’re 44.

Keep going!