Sun, 21st October 2019

The 21st Article

Text by: 

Bri Dunigan

Photo by: 
Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

I’m scrolling through my Facebook timeline, or Instagram, or even Snapchat Stories, and all I can see are beautiful young women surrounded by massive gold balloons and pretty plaques that say in golden cursive “Happy 21st!” Sometimes I get fixated, check out the rest of the party pics: tall flutes of champagne, arms strung low around each other’s waists, short dresses and playsuits in a range of pastels. One girl I knew went to a skin clinic to prepare for her 21st birthday party.

With my own 21st birthday right around the corner, I’m wondering whether the other girls felt so sick about it. The 21st is a pretty big birthday party for most. It’s the ultimate coming-of-age, probably because of its associations with legal alcohol drinking in the USA (Australia and the UK will let you drink from age 18). “This is your last big party!” people tell me if I bring it up. Except for my 30th, 40th, 50th, etc. In fact, I can have a large party anytime if I want to.

It’s not the fear of becoming older, of being “an adult” (whatever that is). It’s the stress of planning my big birthday… and realising it’s really not that big. Don’t get me wrong, I want the gold balloons, the tiered cake with flowers on top, the champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries, the fancy plaque with my name on it. It’s easy to envision it when it seems to be all that comes up on social media right now.

I think for me, the problem is that I can’t help but feel like my birthday is a massive inconvenience for everyone involved. This year my birthday falls on a Sunday, which really just means no staying out late, but beyond that I should be able to have the party of my dreams, right? Well, as it happens, no. I gave everyone a party date with enough time to arrange the day off, but when you’re turning 21 most of your friends have work and need money, two things that are more important than a late lunch with pals. Even the act ofordering a cake is too much of a nuisance for other people to spare the time for. It feels like if I want the perfect birthday party, I’ll have to plan everything myself.

Let me tell you the problem with that: it’s stressful and disenchanting. How can all those 21-year-old women afford $100 cakes with $30 flower decoration, $180 for a balloon arch, $200 for a nice new outfit, $60 for nails and $150 for hair and makeup? And really, why would you want to spend that much on one birthday too? Balloons deflate, flowers wilt and cakes get eaten. It’s all very temporary.

Beyond the financial strain of organising everything, there’s also the time it takes to phone or drop into all these businesses, pick up everything, and attend appointments to fit in on top of university and work schedules. And usually we then have to deal with the emotional stress of friends and family who suddenly realise they aren’t able to attend.

The irony is that we put ourselves under so much pressure trying to achieve the perfect party that we burn out too soon to enjoy it. We risk being let down by people we wanted to impress and harbouring a bitter resentment about the fact that “nobody cared to organise this for me. Nobody cares about my 21st.” Why do we put ourselves through so much stress? Shouldn’t our birthdays be a day for us to kick back, relax, laugh, and be happy to be in the company of friends and family? We do so much for this idea of perfection, but aren’t we always being told that perfection doesn’t really exist? Well, that’s actually true. There’s no point of a seemingly-perfect birthday if you’re too tired to enjoy it.

So, with my 21st just around the corner, I’m learning to get better at letting go of a picture-perfect idea of how things turn out. This year I won’t have balloons and that will be fine because I’ll have my parents and grandparents there. Besides, I always have my 22nd to get balloons for. I can have a big party at any age if I want to.