I am about to embark on the great decade of my thirties, and among all the presents and cards, I'm anticipating what all thirty-year-old women of my acquaintance have also received:
an influx of old-fashioned advice. How to "stay young," how to "make sure you're fertile," how to deal with the sudden "withering of my youth." It's an age-old industry: women over thirty have been given advice on everything from their beauty regimes to how to "land a man" for thousands of years. And much of that advice, luckily for us, is not just totally non-applicable, but also completely hilarious.
In many eras before this one, a woman in her thirties had already likely been married since her late teens or early twenties and had several children. The thirties represented different things for different women in history, though, depending on factors like wars, nutrition, and class status. Life expectancy for women in the medieval period, for instance, was pretty low;
many working class people of the era may only have lived to the age of thirty or so, according to medieval historians , but if you got past about 21 and were upper-class, you were more likely to live past 45 or even to 60 or older. These days, the thirties isn't even the midpoint of many women's lives — but that doesn't stop people trying to tell us what to do.
Remove Wrinkles With Ground Bull Bone
Think you're seeing the beginnings of crow's feet around your eyes? I'm sure they look pretty cute. However, Pliny the Elder had a "solution." The Roman writer's compendium of Natural History had a cure for everything, including the vicissitudes of old age, which people of the period tended to think
looked much worse on women than on men. Pliny's beauty tip? Bull bone.
"The following recipe may seem frivolous, but still, to please the women, it must not be omitted," he writes; "the pastern-bone (part of the leg) of a white steer, they say,
boiled forty days and forty nights, till it is quite dissolved, and then applied to the face in a linen cloth, will remove wrinkles and preserve the whiteness of the skin." Sexism: telling women that the natural aging process is so terrible it's worth putting bone on your face to avoid it.
Make Yourself Feel Younger By Surrounding Yourself With Older Women
If you're starting to feel the impact of your encroaching age, authors from the Roman age had an idea about that, too. Brightly, they suggest that women of a 'certain age' (which, in an era in which girls were considered marriageable adults
at around the age of 14, was probably early thirties) should choose their companions carefully to flatter their vanity. Goodbye pretty friends; the Roman writer Lucian recommends that women surround themselves with "old women and maids uglier than herself." This is so frankly ridiculous and misogynist that it makes my eyes bug out of my head.
Keep Your "Chamber Of Venus" Clean
The character of La Vielle, an old woman, in a 13th century medieval romance by
author Jean de Meun has a lot of tips and tricks for married and older women, many of them straight-out stolen from the Roman poet Ovid. There's one bit, however, where de Meun departs from Ovid's guidance and writes a bit of advice that's seemingly out of his own experience. Women past their teens, says La Vielle, should keep "their chamber of Venus" — aka, their genitals — clean, "free of cobwebs and moss," to make sure that it's well-presented for the next man who happens to encounter it. Those poor women were being told their intimate parts are basically a bat-cave.
If You're Unmarried, Behave Like A Saint
If you hadn't married by the time you were 30 or older in the 17th century, you were basically doomed. A conduct book of recommendations for women called
published in 1673, had some advice, but it wasn't necessarily comforting. Women who were still spinsters, so-called 'calamitous creatures', were told that they needed to " The Ladies Calling, addict themselves to the strictest virtue and piety." If they did that, the writer (a man, obviously) told them, they'd fool the world into thinking that "'twas not their necessity, but their choice that kept them unmarried, that they were pre-engaged to a better amour, espoused to the spiritual bridegroom." Thank god the modern era allows you to be the fun unmarried aunt.
Aim For A Husband In His Late Forties
In the Victorian period, marrying a man of your own age or younger was a massive social faux pas. And one of the 'rules' that was formulated at the time for calculating an ideal age for a bridegroom may sound vaguely familiar. Maud Wheeler, in her 1894 advice book
Whom To Marry, breaks it down: partners are well-matched when the bride is the groom's age halved plus seven. For women in their thirties, this meant a paramour of at least 48. You can see this prescription in the lonely hearts columns of the time, in which "spinsters" wrote to advertise themselves for matrimony for sixpence in the back of illustrated papers. Needless to say, this is terrible advice.
Why on earth would you want to spend more time in higher education once you'd learned enough to manage a household? It was an actual question for women in Imperial Germany in the 1890s. A Cologne newspaper column of the time ridiculed "a great number of
weary, grey old women of scarcely thirty years" who apparently "creep about in the attempt of acquitting a man's education; all vivacity of feeling, all women's emotions, and physical health besides has left them." Ladies, if anybody tells you to bunk off your doctorate and go have babies immediately, you have my free permission to whack them on the snout.
Marry Before Your Bits Get "Rigid And Tense"
An anonymous "American Medical Writer" published an advice book,
Physical Life Of Man And Women or Advice To Both Sexes, in 1871, and while it's got some very sensible advice in some senses — it notes, for instance, that girls of nineteen will have a harder time at childbirth than women of 23 — it's also got some interesting ideas. Women before the age of thirty, the writer explains, are more suited to giving birth, because "if she marry late in life, say after she be thirty, the soft parts engaged in parturition are more rigid and more tense, and thus less capable of dilation." This thinking is, in case you had the slightest doubt, complete nonsense, and nobody is going to be calling your intimate parts over-hardened.
As I reach my fourth decade, I'm encountering a lot of advice — but am at least comforted that nobody in this decade is likely to tell me to grind some bull bone, or get uglier friends.