Britney Spears is turning 40 Thursday, and like many stars hitting the milestone age, the pop icon is experiencing a renaissance in her life.
Spears has had many big moments ahead of her 40th birthday: She celebrated her engagement to her fiancé Sam Asghari, whom she's dated since 2016; flew a plane for the first time; and, perhaps most impactfully, was freed in November from the 13-year long conservatorship she described as "abusive," which allowed her father to control many aspects of her life.
"I just want my life back," Spears said in a June court hearing while the conservatorship battle was ongoing. "I deserve to have a life … and just, you know, do what I want to do."
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And she has her life back, it seems. The pop icon is celebrating her big birthday by traveling out of the country with Asghari, a freedom she couldn't often take advantage of while others controlled her estate and finances.
"God thank you for being able to go out of the country !!!! I am blessed !!!!," the singer wrote on Instagram Wednesday.
"Turning 40 is a stepping stone into our authenticity. At 40, we begin to pull back the layers of societal and familial expectations, and lean closer to who we really are," says Dr. Tricia Wolanin, a clinical psychologist, creativity coach and author of "The Fragrance of Wanderlust."
Experts say we need a new cultural narrative around turning 40, especially for women, who face age-based discrimination years earlier than men, research shows. Spears, Duchess Meghan and Beyoncé are spearheading the change, welcoming 40 with grace and power and showing it's something that should be embraced rather than feared.
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"These women are role models changing the expectations in society," says Dr. Sharon Grossman, a clinical psychologist, success coach and author of "The 7E Solution to Burnout." She said their fearlessness has "given women (in their 40s) permission to be proud."
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Why is turning 40 stigmatized?
Women learn early that their worth is attached to their appearance. Trying to look as young as they can for as long as they can with Botox, anti-wrinkle cream or anything else that may halt Father Time is often the norm.
People often equate youth with attractiveness. But why does a person's allure supposedly fly out the window after 40 trips around the sun?
"There's a dread of getting older because you don’t feel like you have control of how other people will accept you," Grossman says.
Unlike tribal cultures where elders are looked up to for their wisdom, American society is plagued by ageism, which is prejudice or stereotypes based on a person's age.
It isn't just skin deep. Older people face real world consequences and discrimination, particularly in the workplace where youth usually trumps experience. Sixty-four percent of women say they've experienced age discrimination in the workplace, according to a 2018 AARP study. Aging employees are often seen as less competent, less likely to be considered for promotions and more susceptible to layoffs.
Hollywood historically shunned older women, but they are pushing back
The fear of aging is especially potent in Hollywood.
For female stars, aging used to signal the end of coveted roles. "It used to be when you were 40 your career was done … and I mean really done," Halle Berry, 55, tweeted in August.
But "women today, like Beyoncé, are changing the face of 40," Wolanin says.
Jennifer Lopez, Dolly Parton, Janet Jackson, Helen Mirren, Salma Hayek and Rita Moreno are all showing that not only have their careers not ended when the clock struck 40, they've thrived more than before.
Even celebrities as high-profile as Duchess Meghan are "fighting back" against the stigma of aging, Grossman says, and "setting the stage for people that come after them."
Meghan, who turned 40 on Aug. 4, launched the Archewell initiative "40x40" on her birthday to "help women regain confidence and rebuild their economic strength" after finding her own strength to publicly speak out against scrutiny from the British tabloids and allegations of racism in the royal family. She told Oprah Winfrey that it was "liberating" to "be able to speak for yourself" in a bombshell interview in March.
"It shows how much they believe in themselves," Grossman says. "Even when the world stops believing in you because you’ve turned a certain age, you don’t have to fall into the trap."
Beyoncé turned 40 in September and acknowledged her birthday with reflection on what she's learned over the years.
"I feel many aspects of that younger, less evolved Beyoncé could never (expletive) with the woman I am today," she told Harper's Bazaar in its September Issue.
When she was a child, Beyoncé said she dreamed. As a teenager, she hustled. In her 20s, she built a formidable career. In her 30s, she started a family. On the eve of 40, Beyoncé said all those years of digging, healing and growth brought her to this moment. In some ways, she feels she has just begun.
Wolanin says that "we begin asking ourselves, what (are) our own desires, dreams and joys" after turning 40, because "we have lived our lives for others, and now we are gaining the confidence to engage in deeper self-inquiry."
With age comes wisdom. While 20-year-olds may invest energy into meeting others' expectations, once you hit 40, it's easier to determine what you value and what's important to you.
Katherine Heigl said 40 feels "like a certain kind of freedom."
"Freedom from all the self doubt, insecurities, self-loathing, uncertainties and anxieties of my 20s and 30s," Heigl, now 42, shared in 2018. "Not to say I don’t still have those moments, but I just feel like 40 makes me older and wiser."
40 is an opportunity to take stock of your life
Turning 40 is no longer written off as the beginning of the end – it's a chance to reinvent and grow.
"If you are not happy about turning 40, it should be a wakeup call that you can find your way back to your values," Grossman says. "The people who are the most freaked out about hitting certain milestones are the people who are not living their life to the fullest."
It's time to start doing more of what makes you happy, experts say. That may mean evaluating your relationships, careers, friendships and finances.
Is it easy to get real with yourself? Not always. But with these tips, experts say you can steer yourself in the right direction.
Get some clarity. Evaluate "where you are now, where do you want to go and how do you get there," Grossman says. What is important to you? What do you care about and value? "Find something that gives you a sense of purpose in life."
Look within. Many people try to find happiness in things and people around us – a promotion, marriage or the perfect house. But external happiness isn't constant and can ebb and flow accordingly. "Realize happiness comes from within," Grossman says. Everyone has a different timetable. Don't wait to check off all those boxes to be happy.
Map it out. What do you need to change to be happy wherever you are now? Write down your game plan to keep yourself accountable and on track. If you need help, consider working with a personal coach.
Contributing: Alia E. Dastagir, Elise Brisco
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Britney Spears is 40: What experts say about the stigma behind the age