Today is my birthday. I’m 26 years old today — but I look much younger. With my big, brown eyes and round cheeks, people who don’t know me often mistake me for being in my early 20s or even in my teens. (It probably doesn’t help matters that my maturity hovers around the “Yo Gabba Gabba!” level at times.) Looking younger than my actual age is both a blessing and a curse. It is difficult, as a young-looking woman, to be taken seriously by older people when I discuss politics, society or culture. I’m not going to complain about being told that I “look so young,” though, when the latter is meant as a compliment. Who doesn’t enjoy compliments?
But I’ll admit I feel weird accepting those compliments sometimes. Why should I be flattered that I look young? It’s not like I have any control over that (other than not smoking and getting lots of sleep). I don’t think it’s right that younger women are valued more for their youth and beauty — and if we really want to get right down to the heart of the matter, their ability to have babies. You don’t need to look much farther than last weekend’s Academy Awards’ red carpet to see how older women are supposed to aspire to “look” as much like 20-somethings as possible: no wrinkles, a taut body, perky boobs, long hair. (I’m looking at you, Demi Moore.) Off the red carpet, many “real” women shy away from revealing their true age. But it’s just unfair to exalt older women for “aging well” or “being well-preserved” — that means we’ve given looking young a culturally higher value than, say, having talents, giving charitably, earning lots of money, being a great friend or parent, or possessing wisdom.
And that is why I have made a vow with myself: Until the day I die, I will always tell the truth about how old I am. No apologies.
Somehow, it has become culturally taboo to ask a woman her age. (Well, not “somehow.” I just very clearly explained why younger women have more cultural value.) Asking a woman’s age is considered impolite, while asking a man his age is not considered impolite at all. Surely you’ve heard someone say, “Never ask a woman her age!” or you’ve read an interview in which a female celebrity/CEO/etc. refuses to say how old she is.
To this day, I still don’t know how old one of my aunts is, although she’s got to be in her 50s or 60s. Her son and her husband obviously know the real number, but they’ve always kept it a secret at her wishes. And it is not just “older” women who do this: I interned at a magazine in college at age 20 and a sales rep from the business side was also doing an internship because she wanted to break into editorial. She also appeared to be young-looking, but one day she mentioned her husband and how they had married some years ago. I had thought she was a college student, like the rest of us interns! “You have a husband! Oh, wow! How old are you?” I asked. She made this face at me, which, I’m sorry to say, can only be described as snotty. Then she shook her head and said she wasn’t going to reveal her age. All I could think was, Oh, get over yourself! It doesn’t matter what your age is! In retrospect, I feel sorry for her that she felt like she had to “fit in” with the 20-year-old interns.
As far as I’m concerned, each and every one of these situations is ridiculous. Of course, the harm they’re causing is unintentional, but I firmly believe they are just hurting other “women of a certain age” (ugh, hate that phrase!) by furthering the taboo that there is something wrong with being 64 or 37 or what-have-you. There is nothing wrong with your age. There just isn’t. If anything, a woman should be proud of having reached age 68, of raising money for breast cancer research, of raising three kids, of buying her own home, of earning a Master’s degree, of nursing a sick cat back to health, of divorcing that jerk of an ex-husband and not keeling over from a heart attack. That is what’s important.
I may not always look younger than my age, but I swear to you I won’t care. How I look is not what I value most about myself; the wisdom that I have amassed in my years on earth is what matters. Today, I turned 26 years old and I’m proud of it.