“Women are Christmas cakes” because just like how nobody wants to buy a Christmas cake after December 25th, unmarried women over the age of 25 are worthless — believe it or not, this used to be a popular saying in Japan just a few decades ago. Perhaps, the double surprise for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture is that people buy a specific type of pastry to celebrate Christmas here. When I learned about this phrase from my female boss, I was genuinely shocked. As a single woman who just turned 25, I would have been called an “unsold Christmas cake.”
The slur implies that a woman is viewed as valuable only if she is either young or married. Although we still have a long way to achieve gender equality, at least we disapprove of such outright insults today. As a growing number of women are postponing or forgoing marriage and pursuing careers instead, the Christmas cake analogy seems to represent outdated anti-feminist and sexist attitudes.
But even if the phrase itself has become obsolete, has its underlying beliefs faded? Putting aside the assumption that “women must get married” for now, I would like to focus on Japan’s obsession with youth.
I do not intend to say that Japan is the only country that cares about youthfulness, but our society seems to place immense emphasis on it. In the city, you see posters of young idol groups, often featuring teenaged girls in schoolgirl-like uniforms, and infantilized anime girls everywhere. People love terms like “Joshi-kosei” (high school girl) and “Joshi-daisei” (college girl), and they are even fetishized in industries like porn. And this desirability of youth does not apply for men, at least anywhere near the same degree as women. Older men can be seen as “attractive,” often described with terms like “Shibui” (literally meaning “bitter” but also “elegance associated with age”) and “dandy” (“classy”). In contrast, we do not seem to have compliments for older women who look their age. I even notice that female celebrities with long careers tend to be harassed online about their aging, being explicitly told that their appearances have “deteriorated” over time.
This mentality creates significant fear and anxiety about aging among women, even from early stages in their lives. Here are some voices I picked up from people around me:
“I don’t want to be a senior in college next year. It makes me feel so anxious.”
“I don’t get excited about my birthdays anymore. I wish people would stop asking my age.” (said a 23-year-old)
To bring up a much darker and unsettling example, a friend of mine told me his girlfriend insists on killing herself before she turns 30 because she “has nothing to look forward to after that.”
I, myself, am not free from the shackles of youth in any way. I consider myself very young, assuming I have many more years to come in my life. But someone recently asked me (partly as a joke), “Do you think you already peaked?” Although I have never reflected on my life so far in that manner – that I passed through a “climax” within the first quarter-century of my life and then entered continuous downhill – it made me realize how narrow people’s understanding of abundance and prosperity could be. Every day, I learn about the world. I thought this accumulation of knowledge, experience, and wisdom makes me more beautiful and attractive, but it seems like many people do not see it that way. Admittedly, no matter how much I try to develop a thick skin, offensive remarks and microaggressions affect my self-esteem day-to-day.
And why do we face so much pressure to be young? Why is it that a concept so transient and fleeting determines our value as women? Why does aging seem like a dark cloud that looms over us, sucking our ability to enjoy the present and cultivate the future?
Among those sources that helped me address these questions was “The Beauty Myth,” written by a feminist scholar, Dr. Naomi Wolf. The book argues that patriarchy leverages beauty standards as a “political weapon” against women’s advancement. In the 1980s, when women acquired more career options, finally escaping what many may have considered a life of domestic drudgery, rigid notions of beauty and body image prevailed through popular media, including women’s magazines and pornography. As a result, women could never feel satisfied with how they look because they must always compare themselves with unrealistic, unattainable, and often manipulated images of other women in media. Wolf states that this constituted “a secret ‘underlife’ poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.” Instead of cultivating their minds, women must work on improving their physical appearance, investing their time, energy, and money into dieting, as well as buying beauty and anti-aging products.
She also points out that conventional ideas of beauty – which do not allow any sign of aging for females, like having wrinkles – solidify how “seniority does not mean prestige but erasure” for women. In 2020 Japan, women occupied less than 8% of management positions in corporations. A survey by Doda, which investigates the gender gap in annual wages within the workforce, revealed that men earn 500,000 yen more than women in their 20s. However, this gap grows exponentially as both men and women grow older. In their 50s, men’s annual salary is over 2,000,000 yen higher than women’s (more than a fourfold increase from their 20s). While many factors come into play regarding gender disparity in labor, the expectation of being “young,” “junior,” and “fresh” contributes to how women are seen as “subservient” or “inferior” and slammed up against the glass ceiling. There may even be a sense that women deserve such fate because they do not feel powerful and worthy.
Reading “The Beauty Myth” was a liberating experience for me. It made me realize that my shames and fears that I honestly did not even want to admit caring about are serious – they are linked to the big problems in society. It also made me think that instead of simply dismissing these anxieties, I should talk about them more openly and try to influence people’s minds. Going back to the Christmas cake analogy, while the need to promote women’s leadership and labor participation has garnered wide attention, our obsession with women’s youth is another issue that must not be overlooked. If mainstream cultural attitudes sustain male dominance, then we must fight against them.
Fortunately, there seems to be a growing trend across the world for people to embrace diversity in beauty ideals in all kinds of ways, including age. Global celebrities have started to speak up against the ubiquitous age discrimination in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In Japan, Sato Kondo, a famous newscaster in her late 40s, decided to show up in public with her natural, beautiful, grey hair in 2018, dispelling the caricature of the “young anchorwoman.” As we live in a rapidly aging society, perhaps this emerging fight against ageism is natural, as older people are growing in number and becoming the dominant group in society. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see individuals take the initiative to dismantle persisting beliefs about femininity and age.
As we strive toward a more inclusive society in which women, minorities, and all people could live comfortably, it is time for us to stand up and break free from our unhealthy obsession with age and appreciate the vast range of human fabulousness. I hope for a future where we can be happy with where we are at, physically and beyond.
About Moeka Iida
Moeka Iida is a public affairs consultant and freelance researcher who graduated from Sophia University. She loves coffee and exploring the intersections of politics, activism, and culture.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Emily