How my Jamaican culture has taught me that getting older means embracing who I am and wearing what I want.
The first time I saw 13 Going On 30 and watched Jenna Rink skip 17 years of her life because of a bad birthday party, I had one thought: she’s so real for that. The fact is “thirty, flirty, and thriving” sounded good to me at ten, and now, two years shy of the mark, it’s even more iconic. But not everyone is as excited for the next decade as I am.
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If you pay attention to TikTok and social media, you know that age isn’t just a number, it’s a sometimes painful marker of identity. Whether it’s Gen Z-beloved straight jeans vs. millennial-favoured skinny jeans, there’s a huge pressure to both look like the group you belong to but — if you’re older than, say, 25 — never look your age. In the past year, almost every member of my late-twenties girl gang has freaked about fine lines, grey hairs, or the nebulous sensation of “feeling old.” For me, even though getting older has its scary moments, my Jamaican background helps keep things in perspective.
Jamaica is a small island with a big impact, especially in Toronto. You can smell Jamaican patties from Islington to Warden Station and hear the echo of Jamaican Patois in Toronto slang. Every summer, you can even see Jamaicans and other West Indians celebrating our communities in bright costumes at Caribana. But Jamaican culture is more than the food we eat and the way we talk: it’s who we are and who we choose to be at any age.
For as long as I can remember, my family members have expressed themselves through appearance. From my cousin Marsha’s blonde buzzcut to my brother’s tattoos, many Jamaicans enjoy being seen, period. While visiting my dad in New York last summer, we decided to take in a Mets game, each donning outfits that were quintessentially us. Even though I was feeling cute and summery in shorts and a crop top, I was 27 at the time and worried that a bare midriff was slowly becoming unbecoming. My dad’s outfit, however — a green mesh marina and baggy jeans with a green bandana tucked into his pocket — reminded me that my only job was to be myself.
“I don’t feel different or dress differently than I did in my thirties or forties” my dad says. Even though he’s approaching 60, you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. That’s because Jamaicans care about proudly being themselves than “respectably” being themselves. My dad’s commitment to this is a constant reminder that hiding your sense of style to gain acceptance is self-betrayal. So, instead of trying to look my age, I try to look like myself at whatever age I am, which means leaning into my imperfect aesthetic, my hyper-fixation on crop tops, and my collection of candy-shaped earrings.
Jamaicans are also known for taking their self-expression to the dance floor, no matter their age. Whether it’s the length of a skirt, a night at the club, or both, Jamaicans never feel “too old” to do something. My sisters and cousins are mothers and fathers in their thirties, and yet they still make time to show up and show out at their favourite clubs. This puts things into perspective for me and other over-25s who wrongfully dub “clubbing” as an undergrad thing that we’ve grown out of doing.
“In Jamaica, women still flaunt themselves and describe themselves as sexy regardless of their age,” my sister tells me. “They wear what they want, date who they want, and have fun how they want.” That’s because music, motion, and sex appeal are such important parts of Jamaican culture, which only get more important with age. It shouldn’t matter if you’re 25, 35, or 45, a night of music and dancing is always good for the soul. So rather than suppressing the part of me that misses dressing up, taking selfies, and going out to dance for hours, I’m going to honour it more and more with each year that comes.
Even though my pre-30 crew (and many others) might sometimes worry that the upcoming chapters of our lives will be more about “surviving” rather than “thriving,” I’m relying on my Jamaican sensibilities to guide me. It’s taken me so long to get to a place of pride and self-acceptance, and I’m not at all interested in losing it just because the TikTok police say 30 is too old to have fun. Instead of letting the internet tell you what to do, take advice from Jamaicans, and me in particular: Don’t wind down with age — turn up!