I’m 40 years old, and I look like I’m in my mid-20s. I’m not trying to brag, because I don’t believe this is anything to brag about. It’s more frustrating than anything.
It’s been a thing probably my whole life. Certainly my entire adult life. I’m 5’2,” a stature indicative of someone not fully grown. I have a youthful face. Even my voice, on the phone, sounds like I could be a teenager.
For as long as I’ve been correcting people who inaccurately assumed my age, I’ve had to hear them all say, “Oh, it’s a good thing.” Or, “You’ll be glad when you’re older.”
I guess I’m “older” now, being officially middle-aged, and I’m far from glad.
When you think about it, what good is there, really, to looking younger than we really are? All I see is vanity. Vanity is not something I consider a value nor a virtue.
Here’s why my youthful appearance has been problematic.
- It makes dating difficult. It’s hard to, “out in the wild” (i.e. not on the internet) meet an age-appropriate person to date when I don’t look my own age. I would like to date someone my age. Instead, I draw the eye of men much younger, or even worse, I draw the eye of men my age who would like to date much younger women. Not that there’s anything wrong with age differences. I’ve had as much as a 22-year age difference in my own relationships, but I’m not interested in dating a man who’s interested in dating a 24-year-old. Just sayin’.
- I get terrible customer service. There is a intersectional detriment to being a 20-something female consumer, which is my appearance. When I last bought a sofa, I went to five different furniture stores before a sales person even approached me. One time when I purchased a car, I brought along a male acquaintance, and the salesman talked more to him than to me. When I walk into a restaurant alone, hostesses are often dismissive. Hotel desk staff have outright ignored me on multiple occasions, and one even admitted they thought I was waiting for someone else to meet me.
- I lack the credibility that I’m due. In professional as well as personal situations, I am often granted only the credibility of one just out of school, not someone with decades of adult life experience. It was an additional challenge commanding respect in a classroom when I was a teacher, on stage when I was a comedian. Audiences didn’t want to go along with my material about divorce because they couldn’t believe I’d authentically experienced it. High school students tried to treat me as a peer, not an authority.
There is an even bigger picture.
When you tell me it’s a “good thing” that I look so young, not only is it dismissive of the difficulties and discrimination I have experienced and will continue to experience, but also it is affirming a toxic ageist and sexist culture.
I’ll point out here that this is largely an imposition on women. Look at how Hollywood downgrades female actors (ooooh I didn’t use “actress”….) over the age of 35 to supporting roles while male actors continue in leading roles, their names over the title on the poster, drawing in big crowds at the box office — and hooking up with those 20-something-year-old hot new starlets — well into their 70s.
This culture that youth is the ideal of appearance for women emphasizes a mindset that young women are worth more than older women. That women lose value as we age. This even feeds the ageism and sexism in medicine and mental health treatment.
It’s more than just losing representation in hit television shows that cast only (size 2) 25-year-olds as elite doctors and criminal profilers (I’ll take the 50-year-old when my life depends upon it, pretty please). It’s losing access to essential services, and it’s losing access to self-esteem and self-love.
I won’t even get started on the sexualization of children, but that’s on this roadmap, too.
And it’s telling all women — all humans — that we need to be that Hollywood ideal. I don’t feel like I can thrive taking my pop-cultural compliance à la carte. When you tell me how young I look, and I say “thanks,” I’ll look below that “youthful” box I just checked off, down the list of all the boxes I miss, being too short, too heavy, too disabled, and I’ll feel all the ways I fail to fit the standard.
I think we’re all much better off saying “no thanks” instead.