The Curse of Eternal Youth

My enduring quest to be treated like a grown-up.

On my 35th birthday, I was asked for ID when purchasing alcohol at the supermarket. I was seriously impressed in some ways, as it’s evidently plausible that I could look half my age to the cashier. But it also felt like an indignity, and an injustice that I have acutely felt in other areas of my life. I have always looked considerably younger than I actually am, with most people that I ask saying I look around 23 at the moment.

From childhood right the way up to the peak of my adult years, I have consistently been perceived as so different in age to the reality that it has had damaging consequences. It’s caused me a lot of problems and held me back in many areas of my life. I see other people travelling through life without the continual questioning and gatekeeping, and I pray for a wrinkle or grey hair to sprout so that I might be treated the same.

The Western ideal of youth and narrowly-defined beauty in women leads to a feeling that youth is preferable and that I shouldn’t complain. But a baby face is only an asset if your function in life is to be looked at and cooed over. And there’s enough of a problem with women not being taken seriously because of their gender and appearance, which is compounded by the notion that women are like children and are routinely infantilised and sexualised because of it. The problem with looking like you’re 23 is that people treat you like you’re 23.

Women today often walk a fine line between looking acceptably feminine and attractive, and being assertive and responsible. It shouldn’t be an either/or, but apparently that’s still how society sees us. Smart or sexy, you can’t have both.

It all began in school, where I was always significantly smaller and weaker than my classmates, from starting school at age 5 right up to leaving high school at 18. I couldn’t keep up in PE lessons, which was a major source of stress and hatred for sport in general. I got bullied because I was an easy target, and teachers treated me like a little kid and assumed I was unintelligent based on my physical appearance. I thought that upon reaching my full adult height, things would change. I was wrong.

As a teenager I hated that I was so under-developed compared to the other girls. I’d get picked on for being flat-chested and scrawny, and looking like a child. Of course the cool kids didn’t want to hang around with a little kid (they actually told me this, which was, uh, nice). My parents said I’d be glad of it when I’m older. Some reassurance that was.

Professionally, looking like you don’t fit in is career suicide. There’s a trope in engineering and other professions where women are told “oh, you don’t look like an engineer / lawyer / journalist / etc” as if it’s a compliment. Well, it’s not — it harms women’s careers and marks them out as “other”. And so does looking young, especially when combined with looking female or feminine.

One client complained to my boss that they thought I was too young to be working on their project (my boss took their side and berated me for it). A manager told the business owner (who thought his words were acceptable) that he was scared to give me honest feedback because I “look delicate and remind him of his wife”.

When complaining about patronising treatment and downplaying of my skills, I’ve been told “well, you’ve got to learn” as if I’m an apprentice and not an engineer with 15 years’ experience and a degree. I know that I’ve been passed over for roles and promotions because of my perceived age and the mismatch between my face and my CV.

Entering into relationships with men my own age has been a struggle. I’ve been on dates where the other party looked uncomfortable being seen with me, and explained it was because I look like a teenager. And then there are those that think that because I look 23, I deserve to be treated like they would treat a woman of that age. And sadly that tends to equate to men thinking that I’m only good for a bit of no-strings fun, and that they don’t need to have adult conversations with me.

There’s a certain type of older man that preys on younger women — perhaps as a conquest or trophy, but often because he thinks they’re easier to control. I have been unfortunate enough to attract that type of man, more than once. You don’t have to be naïve or weak to be taken in by an abuser, but if you provide a particular attraction for them you can feel like a target.

I’ve answered the door to people who’ve asked to speak to my mum (tough luck, she’s dead), and the same when I answer the phone. Apparently I have the voice of a child as well as the face of one. This has caused me problems doing telephone-based work, as clients often think I’m about 12 years old.

When shopping for a service, I can feel assistants looking down on me as if I shouldn’t be there. On occasion I’ve been completely ignored in favour of the “adult” stood behind me. At doctor’s surgeries and in the pharmacy, I’ve been treated like a teenage mother in spite of being almost 30 when I had my children. In addition to the way women are treated differently from men when making purchasing and healthcare decisions, those who look a little more fresh-faced are condescended to even worse.

It’s not just at the supermarket where I’ve been asked for ID. Getting into pubs and clubs, and being served, can be a long and drawn-out ordeal. Yes, I carry ID with me everywhere now, but it always feels like I’m being accused of trying to flout the law — aggressive bouncers don’t help with this, and don’t get me started on the ones that ask for ID as an excuse to chat you up. One of my most mortifying experiences was as a 28-year old, being asked to leave a pub because they didn’t have a children’s license and I’d forgotten my ID.

People make snap judgements about other people all the time, and if there’s something about you that’s a bit unusual, then everything becomes more complicated. It actually makes it worse that people think it’s something that I should take as a compliment — maybe they should try being undervalued and treated like an anomaly every day of their lives and see how they like it.

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to look my age — no style of dress, make-up or no make-up, no matter how I wear my hair — I’m still read as “young” in a world where all the important decisions are taken by middle-aged white men. They don’t want someone like me encroaching on their space, and they sure as hell don’t trust my judgement.

The constant drumbeat of being undervalued, underestimated and dismissed is tiring and dispiriting. People not taking me seriously or thinking they can get one over on me is a regular occurrence and it’s so painful. As well as not being able to do all the things I wish to do with the ease that everyone else can, I have to contain my rage at those who mistake me for somebody much younger.

It’s been said that navigating the world as a woman is like playing in survival mode. But combine it with another disadvantage and you’ll struggle to get past the first level. Each interaction between humans is different, and some people are going to have very different experiences to others. The trouble with a lot of traits we associate with youth and femininity is that they are lauded as assets yet impose limits on those that possess them.

I suppose that at least I’ve not yet reached the age where women become invisible, although what will happen when I do get there is an enigma. Will I do all my ageing in a short space of time? Will I be cherubic right up until my dying day? What if I miss opportunities due to my perceived youth, and then become too old to take them up? While I can’t control others’ treatment of me, I can anticipate it I guess.

All that any of us wants to do is to just live our lives, but some of us have it tougher than others for reasons that you might not expect or see at first. Please consider your judgements and compliments carefully — you might think you’re being kind, but biases manifest themselves in all kinds of ways that we might not pick up on.

Journalist, author, feminist. Reading the comments so you don’t have to.

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