When I was a girl, I dreamed of the day I would become a grown-up. I thought it would happen suddenly, emphatically, and for no particular reason, like hiccups, and I looked forward to it more than Christmas morning.
This conviction stayed with me all through my twenties, though at some point I started to look forward to it less. I still didn’t feel like a grown-up, but I wasn’t too worried. Adulthood is sort of like falling in love, I reasoned. You spend all this time wondering how it will feel until it happens and then there it is, inexplicable yet plain as the nose on your face.
But as I approached age thirty without the marks and milestones of what I had been raised to think of as an adult life—getting married, buying a house, and having children—I began to wonder what exactly would fuel my transition into full-blown maturity. I watched my age bracket migrate to the suburbs from the bird’s eye view of my third-floor walk-up, puzzling over how I should go about feeling my age in the absence of those external cues.
It felt good…just different.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that growing older was nothing like what I expected. Take, for instance, my diminishing capacity to feel shame, an unsettling development I have come to call the shame-loss phenomenon. My self-consciousness has steadily eroded so that things that might have embarrassed me in the past no longer matter.
The shame-loss phenomenon caught me off guard because it was in direct conflict with my childhood ideas about aging, which then had an air of glamorous—almost mystic—sophistication. My understanding was that growing up involved wearing lip gloss and eating oysters, along with a certain je ne sais quoi. One grew out of one’s awkwardness and into one’s rightful life.
Instead of outgrowing my awkwardness, I just stopped worrying about it. At first, this was troubling. I firmly believe that shame plays an important role in our society. Without it, we would all be like my uncle, who farts in public, wears plastic bags over his shoes when it rains, and insists upon holding hands and praying before meals in restaurants.
On the other hand, I recognized that the shame-loss phenomenon could be liberating. I am from the South, where shame is passed down through the generations like a well-preserved quilt. I was basically hard-wired to feel bad about myself. And, as any Southern lady worth her salt will tell you, feeling bad about yourself is very hard work.
I first noticed the symptoms of shame-loss one night while I was watching one of my favorite television programs, Survivor. Let me pause here to explain that I belong to a generation that measures a person’s worth according to the television programs she watches. We carefully catalog our favorite series on our Facebook profiles and fill our Netflix queues with defunct HBO dramas. Reputations have been built upon well-timed quotes cribbed from a beloved character on Arrested Development or anything broadcast on the BBC. In such circles, reality shows like Survivor are frowned upon, and so for many years Thursday night primetime was my shameful secret.
But somehow this, the night of the three-hour season finale, felt different. I had been looking forward to it for weeks and had even been so bold as to mention it to a friend who had invited me to the movies, as though it were a legitimate scheduling conflict. The special lasted longer than most movies and just about as long as an entire disc of The Wire. I had dinner delivered and erected a makeshift camp in front of my television.
It was an emotional night. I held my breath through critical immunity challenges. I laughed. I did not cry; however, two hours in, when the winner was announced, I sat on my couch and clapped—at length and with feeling—even though the contestant I was rooting for lost.
And that was the exact moment I knew I was a grown-up: instead of feeling ashamed, I thought my own lameness was a real hoot. I laughed and called my mother. “Oh, that’s nothing,” she said. “I don’t even watch Survivor, but I burst into tears when the winner was announced.”
We laughed about that for a while, but my mirth was immediately followed by a sobering realization: growing old might also mean that stupid shit like Survivor will move me to tears.
Soon after that, the telltale signs of shame-loss started creeping into my public life. One afternoon at Borders, I found myself buying a vampire novel. It had glitter on the cover. On the way home, I read the glitter novel on the train even though I was seated next to someone reading The Economist. And then, finally, I did something unprecedented: I danced, in public, without protest. In fact, the dancing was my idea. My friends, many of whom who had watched me suffer from the sidelines of wedding dance floors for close to a decade, looked at me as though I had lost my mind.
But I hadn’t lost my mind; I had lost my dignity. I was casting off my shame with every poorly executed dance move, and I was having the time of my life.
Of course, my transition has not been easy for friends and family members who have not yet bathed in the sweet light of the shame-loss phenomenon. Take, for instance, my thirtieth birthday celebration, when I demanded some friends join me for a long night of Elton John sing-alongs. We rented a room in a karaoke place that sold cocktails and potato chips from a card table in the lobby. The photographs that my shame-free friend A took say it all. The people who have been through The Change are the ones waving glow-in-the dark tambourines. The ones who are grimacing and clutching plastic cups filled with liquor still have their youth.
I guess it’s different for everyone, but that’s what adulthood means to me: realizing there’s only so much time to dance badly and sing George Michael songs. I intend to make the most of it.