I was 5’9 by age 14 and 6′ by age 16. My height (and my weird matronly glasses and hairstyle, probably) made people mistake me for older than I was. One time when I was out somewhere with my dad, some retail person was like “…and will your wife be needing anything today?” referring to me. And my best friend had me buy cigarettes for her a lot.
By my early 20s or so, things did a complete about-face and suddenly I was being mistaken for younger. At 21 I went to a bar to watch my friend’s band perform but they wouldn’t let me in even though legal drinking age here was (and is) 19 – the bouncer didn’t believe I was of age and I had no photo ID. One winter when I was 23 o4 24 I was temping in an office and the manager asked me if I was making a little pocket money during my Christmas break; I didn’t know what she meant at first but eventually gathered that she thought I was in high school. “No, I’m just…working,” I said, awkwardly. The manager and some other people who were overhearing this conversation looked at me quizzically, like they didn’t know what I meant. I felt like some additional statement was needed in order to clarify that I was a grownup earning a living, just like them. I couldn’t think how to articulate that so I blurted out “I’m married.”
Before this revelation, my office-mates had made dad-jokes at me and playfully bopped me on the head with file folders as they passed my desk. After the revelation that I was not in fact a high school student but a young woman who was out of school and married, this all stopped and there was an air of awkward formality.
People still mistake me for younger than I am – sometimes much younger. Artists I pose for ask me on a fairly regular basis whether I’m modelling to work my way through school, for instance. And at first, when stuff like this came up, I’d just tell people how old I actually am. But I’ve since realized that it behooves me not to. There are several reasons for this:
- I’m naked in front of these people. I suspect that they started assuming I’m young based on my edgy hairstyle or the dorky vibe I give off, and aren’t actually seeing me accurately. I mean, I do have wrinkles around my eyes. My upper chest is starting to get a faint, permanent Y-shaped crease from all these years of sleeping on my side with gravity slumping my tits together. The skin on my knees is starting to sag, for fuck’s sake. But maybe people’s brains are sort of editing out these details because they have a preconceived idea that I’m 25. I picture myself telling a group of artists my real age just as I’m taking off my robe to pose and them being like “But you can’t be 43! You don’t look….oh wait now I see it.” I’m vain enough that I don’t want people scrutinizing me for signs of decay.
- Career-wise it seems like a strategic advantage to leave my age ambiguous and let my work speak for itself; I don’t want people’s preconceived notions of age to keep them from appreciating what I have to offer, or to keep them from hiring me in the first place.
- People nurture and help me. I’m afraid they’re only doing it because they assume I’m young and unestablished and whatever. In truth, I may be middle-aged but I’m not great at adulting. My socks don’t usually match and I don’t manage my time very well and I have no idea how to do things like renew a passport or cook a roast or even mop a floor, really. I need all the help I can get.
The other day one of my favourite private clients made me food before I started posing, because she knew I was coming straight over from having done two other gigs that day. I didn’t ask her to do this (and didn’t technically need it – I did have the wherewithal to pack a lunch – I’m not completely disorganized) but she offered and I thought that was lovely of her. As she cooked, she told me an anecdote about how she’d recently gone shopping for a new set of dishes, and she interjected in a fond and motherly tone, “This is something people do every twenty years or so. You’ll get there*” – practically patting me on the head as she said it.
I don’t want to lose out on all of that the way I lost out on the dad jokes and file-folder-head-boppings back in my temp days. And also there have been a lot of times that this lady has said some little thing that kind of implied she thinks I’m young, but never anything direct or obvious, so I didn’t correct her because I would have had to have been like “Okay wait, that’s a thing you say to someone in their twenties usually, isn’t it? Do you think I’m in my twenties? Because I’m not” and that would be defensive and weird. And now the charade’s been going on too long for me to come clean; and if I did she’d most likely feel lied to, even though I never actually lied and never (at first) even intended to mislead her. And this has been going on for months and now I’m in so deep that if she directly asks me my age I think I’ll have to be coy and evasive just to avoid some kind of horrible emotional fallout.
And it’s the same with a number of other people I work with on a regular basis.
In a weird way I feel like my (arguably) youthful appearance is an evolutionary quirk designed specifically to trick people into helping me, like how a cat’s meows are at the same pitch as a human baby’s cries. A little something to counterbalance my anxiety and general cluelessness. It’s been working really well but I wonder how long my luck will hold out…
I should mention that most of these people I’m talking about who act all maternal with me are old enough to be my parents if not older, so maybe they’d still feel nurturing and maternal even if they realized I’m in my forties. But they very probably believe me to be considerably younger than that so there would be weirdness and cognitive dissonance. I’d just as soon avoid that. If one of my clients ever point-blank asks me how old I am I plan to smile beatifically and say “I’m timeless” and hope to hell they don’t pursue it any further.
*I have been living on my own for over twenty years and been through I think at least four sets of dishes – two hand-me-downs and two that I bought myself).