“You look so young!”
These words, almost invariably meant as a compliment, never fail to cause me to cringe. Oftentimes, it’s a momentary grimace or, if the person is actually conversing with me face to face, it’s an internal shudder, lest I cause them the kind of offense they have unknowingly just caused me.
I’m 31 years old. I’m regularly mistaken for someone in college or even high school. I don’t mind the mistake – I fully admit that I look very “youthful”, and I’d probably guess my own age as being about a decade off, as many do. Even the 1812-era Naval reenacting unit I belong to has mentioned the possibility of having me portray a young midshipman because of my “youthful appearance”. It seems to be something I’ve inherited, because both my parents look younger than their years belie.
Being short and transgender doesn’t help – studies have shown that androgyny tends to be read as youth, due to the fact that we’re all pretty androgynous before puberty, and that has stuck in our societal subconscious. But, there’s nothing I can really do about that. I can do things about the way I present myself – my clothes, haircut, and bearing – but that seems to only skew the numbers so much. General wisdom says that to look older, dress less casually, but that can often backfire for me, due to my small stature. In fact, if I try to dress too formally, I start to hit the other side of the bell curve and begin to look like a kid who has raided his dad’s closet, no matter how well the clothing actually fits. I’ve found that for “maximum age”, the formula seems to be a nice pair of chino pants, a t-shirt, and a button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, with either very short, semi-spiked hair or the messy, shaggy style I adopt when I’m in desperate need of a haircut. With that sort of clothing, and a mental reminder to avoid the passivity I learned from being socialized as a woman, I start getting estimates that are closer to mid-upper 20s. Still young, but at least of an age where people begin to vaguely take you seriously.
And that seriousness? That’s the main issue behind it all. If you’re perceived as more than a couple years younger than you are, people start treating you with less respect and less seriousness, which can have a profound effect on one’s career and life in general. At work, when I mentioned that I was going to sit the test for my captain’s license, the captain I was driving with looked at me and said “You? You’d be a hard sell as a captain – you can hardly see over the wheel. Nobody wants to be on a boat that’s driven by someone that looks like they only just learned to drive a car…” As dismissive as his statement was, it also was based in truth – we have a captain who is young (5 years younger than me, but he looks older) and even though he’s a very competent captain, I’ve heard more than one passenger whisper disparaging things about him regarding “someone so young” having “so much responsibility”. I’m less likely to be put into positions of authority because of how people perceive my age (and thus level of competence, because we as a society stupidly conflate old age and experience – I was a better sailor half a lifetime ago than I am now), and as a result my career has suffered greatly. But, this far-reaching effect doesn’t just impact my professional life – that constant dismissal has also had a profound effect on how I approach the world as a whole.
At this point, I have been dismissed, talked down to, and generally disrespected so frequently that it has become my “new normal”. Or rather, it would be “new” if it hadn’t been my status quo since I graduated college. I live my life under the assumption that those around me presume ignorance and incompetence from me. Sometimes this means that I work extra hard to prove myself, but more often than not, it means that I actually withhold effort under the expectation that it will be ignored. It’s very hard to work up the will to try again, having been ignored and overlooked so many times before. Not only that, but when I do get noticed, that can backfire too.
Throughout my life, I’ve been referred to as the squeaky wheel, the longest nail, and a million other varied ways of saying that I speak up too much. Ironically, I generally speak up for myself less than other people my age, but that perceived age thing comes into play once again. Even if someone knows I’m in my 30s, if they think I look like I’m in my 20s, those perceptions have an overwhelming effect on their subconscious interpretation of my behavior (similar to the way that women are perceived as “uppity” when they speak up as often as men). I know that it’s almost asking the impossible to get someone to try and question those subconscious biases, but I have no choice but to continue doing so. To not do so is to have only the choice between being ignored and being asked to quiet down.
The collection below includes the range of my appearance over the last year or so. Here’s different haircuts:
And here’s a range from clean-shaven to a short-trimmed beard:
As you can see, haircut, clothing, and facial hair don’t make much of a difference.
I will leave you with this: this blog post isn’t meant to be a complaint, or a whine about how the world is against me. It’s meant to be informative, especially as this isn’t something that the vast majority of society is even aware is a problem. It’s meant to make my readers realize that our cultural conflation of youth with incompetence and age with skill is ultimately harmful.
So, what can you do to help with this problem that I and many other have? For one thing, be aware of your biases, and question them frequently. Do your best to look at a person’s accomplishments rather than their appearance. And remember that for people who have suffered from looking younger than their years, the phrase “You’ll be thankful when you’re older” is dismissive and presumptive, not to mention how it helps to further our cultural devaluation of a mature appearance. I think that our obsession with an eternally youthful appearance isn’t something that does our society a whole lot of good, and for those of us who are “blessed” with it, it can be quite a curse.
To my readers: if you’ve struggled with the same issue, I’d love to hear some of your experiences in the comments section of this post! I genuinely believe that the more people see that this is a legitimate problem that a sizable number of people struggle with, the more likely society is to slowly change the way it factors age, or its perception of age, into daily life.