This week, SK-II debuted a new video series with Katie Couric called Timelines. Spotlighting four women around the world, from New York to Shanghai, the show explores the universal pressures women face to do specific things—like get married—by the time we’ve reached certain ages.
Not a brand to shy away from controversial subjects, SK-II has been tackling this particular topic for years. Its #ChangeDestiny campaign takes on the controversial “leftover women” in China, a label placed on those who are not married by the age of 25. One YouTube video, which shows parents shopping their daughters in an actual “marriage market,” has garnered nearly 2.76 million views.
A few weeks ago, I got a sneak preview of Timelines. That same day, my mom sent me a text: “I bought you a new necklace.” “Why?” I wrote back. “Because in China you will be turning 30 soon. It is a big year.”
Ah, yes. How could I forget that in “Chinese years”—when you’re considered a year-old at birth—I’d be hitting the big 3-0 in a few weeks, not 29. In Chinese culture, numbers aren’t just numbers; they can be auspicious, or unlucky, or carry weight beyond their meaning. In Mandarin, the number eight sounds like the word for “prosperity,” so it’s considered the luckiest number. A single eight is lucky, but three eights in a row is basically like winning the lottery. People will go out of their way (or pay thousands of dollars) to have “888” on their license plates, or to live on the 8th floor of a building.
Age-wise, any full decade is considered a big deal and usually celebrated much more extravagantly than any other birthday. These “big deal birthdays”—20, 30, 40, 50, and beyond—serve as neat little markers in the timeline of your life; I picture them as flags sticking up, each one a different color. They exist to section out your life and keep things sorted, to keep the rhythm and flow of your experiences organized.
The timing of my mom’s text and the SK-II video has led to a lot of pondering on my part. 30. 30. There was a time in my life when 30 was just a fuzzy, far-off number that glowed softly in the distance. I knew it was looming, but it felt so far away—a hazy milestone I associated with being a proper adult and settling down. If you were to ask me when I was 16 what my life would look like when I was 30, I probably would have painted a very different picture than it is now: married, maybe talking about having kids, definitely settled down.
Instead, I’m single, living alone, and recently Googled “when is the best age to freeze your eggs” while eating an entire large bag of Spicy Cheetos. And even though I have a job I love and (on the outside) probably look like I have it all together, I still can’t help but feel sometimes that I’m behind in this weird race of life. The majority of all of my friends from high school are settled down or married—some even have kids.
When I go back to Seattle and visit them, I get a little twinge of wistfulness. It’s a peek into what my life could have been if I hadn’t decided to leave town for college, then move to New York and end my four-year relationship. And honestly? The glimpses I get look really nice. Life seems easier. There’s a comfortable rhythm to their daily routines. Meanwhile, the rhythm of my life is more Bohemian Rhapsody than Beethoven—dramatic, flailing, and unpredictable. (Galileo, Galileo!)
Lately I’ve been asking myself—what is it about turning 30 soon that is making me suddenly question everything about my life? Why am I allowing this random number to have so much power over me? I’ve talked to some men about it and they seem much more laissez-faire about it—and why shouldn’t they be? They don’t have to worry about things like egg-freezing, or making sure their skin looks as wrinkle-free as possible. I’ve always had this feeling that turning 30 marks the end of something—of when you were young and naïve and stayed out until dawn and were allowed to make life-shattering mistakes over and over again simply because you were in your twenties and that’s what your twenties are for. Society tells women we’re supposed to leave all of that behind when we turn 30—that it’s now time to take things more seriously. After all, our fertile years are waning, so you know, maybe put yourself out there and get some Botox while you’re at it because you’re not getting younger and remember, you’re dating people who are probably more interested in women who are younger than you!
Of course, I know that none of this is true. They’re just my worst fears circling over and over again in my head. And lately, I’ve been trying to rewrite the script. I’ve been trying to denounce the idea of any sort of timeline for my life, because timelines are unrealistic and more importantly, boring. The truth is, I’m by no means close to settling down—in fact, if settling down was the North Pole, I’d be all the way in the South, soaking up the balmy rays and drinking an ice-cold margarita. But I’m embracing it.
I want to treasure this time in my life when the future is unknown and I can still do things like meet a stranger in the street who turns into a new best friend, or have life-changing encounters on random Wednesday nights. As I get closer and closer to 30, I’m trying to actively rewire my brain and shed the societal and parental pressures that come with that age. I tell myself it’s just another birthday—it doesn’t mean I’m “successful” if I’ve checked off a certain number of boxes by the time I turn that age, or “unsuccessful” if I haven’t. I’m throwing away the boxes. I’m throwing away the timeline. I want to remember that this period of my life—where there’s no one else I have to be responsible for except for myself—is fleeting, and I don’t want to spend it stressing about the future, or letting societal “rules” dictate how I feel about myself. If I want to stay out until the crack of dawn, I’ll do it; If I want to stay in more and more, I’ll do that. Either way, I’m not going to let a number—however much of a “big deal” it may be—have power over me. Instead, I just want to be present. I want to stretch out every second as far as it can go, tasting its far corners and relishing its lightness and its heaviness. I want to happy-cry, I want to sad-cry, I want to drunk-cry and maybe follow it by drunk-ordering Dominos. I want my future self—whoever and wherever she is—to look back on this period of my life and feel her heart get full. I want her to burst out laughing in the middle of the street because she remembers something strange and ridiculous and hilarious that happened during this time.
I tell myself—you have the whole rest of your life to be settled down, for things to feel safe and comfortable. Why not embrace the confusion, the discomfort, the unknowing while you can? Look it full in its ugly, frightening face and welcome it with arms flung open, because this period of vertigo—of not knowing what’s around the corner, of not knowing what your life will be like six months, a year, five years from now—is a gift not everyone gets to experience. And only through embracing it will you fall, and get up, and fall again, and get up again, and ultimately, grow.
But also, I’m keeping the necklace.