Thursday, October 13, 2011

Aging Androgynously

"When will my reflection show who I am inside?" --Mulan. Yeah.

*Edited to add: Since I submitted this post to the gender-themed Carnival of Aces round, I just wanted to clarify what my "thesis" was supposed to be: That those of us who don't quite fit the gender binary may have a harder time being read as adults in our culture, feeling like adults, or both. I don't think I made that as clear as I could have, what with all my complaining about looking young. Hee hee.*

Recently, I was at a community meeting where I was one of very few people younger than my parents' age. An older man approached me and asked me which school I went to. I said I didn't go to school. He asked, "Why, you didn't like it?" And I said no, I'd graduated. I get this all the time--"Are you in school?" It has been confirmed that I do have some kind of "academic look" about me. But I also get "What grade are you in?", implying that I'm in high school or younger, when I'm actually 27*. If you complain about looking young, you'll probably be told how lucky you are. But I didn't feel very lucky when, after making an important work presentation, I was met with "Isn't she cute?" (I am, as Dave Barry would say, not making this up.)

Approaching 30, I want to be taken seriously. But I worry that I'll go from oddly twee directly into "old". Will I ever get to be seen as just an adult, not a kid or a senior citizen? Do I have to start dressing like the editor of French Vogue? I have to constantly hear that marriage, children, and house-buying are indicators of adulthood, which has made me defensive about being viewed as a child or teen. Now with America's economic problems, the media is always saying how younger people are "putting off adulthood" because we can't afford houses and families. People, adulthood is not something you afford. It's not a Louis Vuitton bag. It's something you earned because you survived this far, and that can't be taken from you, even if you're sitting broke in a roadside ditch. I am an adult, but it's like no one knows it unless they look at my birth certificate. There are myriad ways to be an adult, just like there are myriad gender identities.

A couple of days ago, I was skimming through The Drag King Book. I came across the story of a FTM drag king who started taking testosterone. He said that the hormones were the only way that he could be viewed as an adult man. Otherwise, he would perpetually be a boy. I could kind of relate. Because on the one hand, I resent it when people infantalize me based on looks, gender, sexuality, or lack of traditional life achievements. But on the other hand, I feel like I'm forever a girl, waiting to grow into some mysterious gender that I can intuitively understand. There's this idea that we grow into our genders, that from children, we become men or women. But I feel like, if anything, I'm growing out of the gender that I used to take for granted.

Browsing a clothing store on another recent day, I decided that rather than look "sexy and feminine", as the show
What Not to Wear would favor, I wanted to look "weird and androgynous". Okay, maybe not weird. I actually want to look cool and stylish. But androgyny seems to have the same connotations with youth as asexuality. Before puberty, everyone is "asexual" and androgynous to an extent. Most people didn't remain as such after puberty, but a few of us did. To be seen as an adult, do we have to "pick a side"? Maybe, but as I work on this post, I'm beginning not to care anymore. It's aggravating when people's comments play into my own insecurities, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me. I mean, this is what 27 looks like, whether that surprises people or not.

[Image: Photo of Ily, wearing a large pink bow and talking to a stuffed pineapple sitting on her shoulder.]

*A tangent on "looking like a student" (but still, gender related):

I told my mom that I'd look up the definition of "mansplaining" for her. On this post, I came across a comment by MissPrism that went like this:

" know, once or twice I have indeed heard a man say "I look young, so people assume I'm a student," but the VAST majority of the time it's a woman. Something's up with that: surely a similar proportion of men should look young for their age as women do? Thinking a young-looking woman must be a student isn't an excuse for mansplaining, it's part of it. Mansplainers assume a woman is as junior, and therefore clueless (the conflation of these two is of course hugely problematic in itself), as he can possibly construe her to be, while men are given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to be experienced and knowledgeable until proven otherwise."

While I don't think men are always necessarily given the benefit of the doubt (in other comments it's mentioned that men may mansplain to other men they perceive as "less manly"), it never occurred to me that people read as female might be told "you look like a student" more often than people read as male.
It could also be possible that more women really do look young, due to social pressures to maintain a more youthful appearance. It's definitely an intriguing question. Maybe I'll ask my pineapple about it.


Jessica said...

Mostly, I think what ages a person is wrinkles and laugh lines and sun spots. I now look very 30, because wrinkle lines are slowly making their way across my forehead, from raising my eyebrows over and over again.

That's what's aging me. Not how I dress and not what makeup I could wear (although the darker red the lipstick, the older the look, apparently). But the skin. The skin betrays age.

One can dress as old as they wish (business suits, sensible shoes, etc), but a person can just look like she's playing dress-up or is simply in the work force very early---IOW, is still reading as young.

Aging skin seems to be it.

Nice pineapple friend!

Anonymous said...

Hmm. The term mansplaining is new to me, but, as a pharmacist, I do get that attitude from women 60+, too. And that is somewhat more annoying than many the older males being patronizing.

I mean, I have fewer wrinkles than most women younger than me, and I do have spots still (friggin hormones), which leads to assumptions that even application of make-up cannot prevent.

And, as Jessica already said: if I don't have the wrinkles, I can do the cashmere twinset with pearl nacklace all I want, I will still look like I'm 23 instead of 30.

Ily said...

@Jessica: It's true, wrinkles will give you away. (Looking at all the baby-faced people in my family, it'll be a while before I get there...however, there IS a lot of eyebrow-raising stuff on the internet.)

I feel like there might also be a social aspect to *telling* someone they look young, where their looks are a convenient jumping-off point, but not the overall purpose of the interaction. Sorry if this is sounding convoluted, but I've been thinking more about that incident where I was called "cute" at work. I think it might have been my co-worker's way of saying that they didn't respect me and didn't have to do what I told them. There were other young-looking people at this company, but it was my work that was always being undermined, due to office politics. So looking back, I feel like drawing attention to my "cuteness" was almost a warning, in a way, that I not rock the boat. Had I looked a lot older, they might have said something different that was equally dismissive. Just wish I'd thought of all this before I made the original post!

Matt said...

I'm a man who has been told I look younger, into my 30's. I've never felt slighted by it. It's more welcomed the older I get (because I feel it's less deserved.) I think it has to do with not only my physical appearance but my social aloofness as an Aspie. I guess I've never felt pressure to "prove" my experience either - if the situation calls for it I will just be myself, otherwise, let others think what they will.

Ily said...

@dertorheitherberge: Totally OT, but I looked at your blog, and...owls! <3 <3 <3

Sadly, while mansplaining may be more specific, being patronizing is an equal-opportunity sport.

@Matt: I've heard that people on the spectrum actually look younger, but I've wondered how that could really be possible. I haven't met a huge amount of Aspies/autistics in person, but I've met some, and I wouldn't say I was surprised by how young everybody looked.

Like I said upthread, for some reason I'm very interested in the social aspects of "looking young", and why people may choose to mention it in a given situation. The research is always saying that people with NLD "ARE VERY NAIVE!!", which is probably less true for adults. But, there's always the chance that people with better nonverbal skills are picking up on signals I don't even know I'm sending.

Anonymous said...

When most people meet me, their first assumption is that I am a college student, however this is understandable because 1) I'm only 23, so I'm still in the college age range (not everyone graduates in 4 years, and some people go to grad school) 2) I still dress like a college student (except when I go to work - I make sure to wear more 'grown-up' clothes when I go to work because, where I work, sending out *adult* social signals is better) 3) I'm white, in a part of the world where white people are less than 1% of the population, and one of most common reasons white people in their 20s end up here is because they are on a study-abroad program.

I definitely wish that I read as older than I am right now, but under the circumstances it's understandable that people read me the way I do (I'm actually more insulted when people assume I'm a tourist than when they assume I'm a student, but when people hear me speaking one of the local languages they usually figure out that I am not a tourist).


Anonymous said...


If it makes you feel any better I'm 41, houseless, spouseless and kidless.

Maybe there *is* an asexual component to looking younger, or at least more innocent. I had an experience similar to yours when I was 28 and the ticket guy at a train station in the UK asked my mother (note to self: traveling with mother makes one look younger!) if she wanted to purchase the children's fare for me (this was for people 15 years and younger). We all had a good laugh.

Now, at 41 I don't have a lot of wrinkles but my hair is happily on its way to Greyland and I'm not dyeing those suckers out. Nobody asks me if I'm a student any more. You have dark hair--those greys should show up just fine in a few years.

I totally agree with you about the What Not To Wear people. Why hasn't anyone ever turned to them and said, "I don't want to look sexy. I want to look *good*!" I would like to see how they would deal with dressing a child, where looking sexy is not the point.

Maybe it's me or the asexuality but I never refer to myself as a woman. I'm female. "Woman" implies sexuality and that's just not a thing I want associated with me.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I know what that is like. Though I also think it's in the eye of the beholder as well. Some people would look at me and say 30 and some would say 25. I even had a girl at the ticket counter recently ask my friend how old I was after she asked for 2 adult tickets as the ticket seller obviously assumed I was a child!

Up until a couple of years ago (I'm 30), most people assumed I was around 21 to 23 or so, I think mostly due to the whole lack of wrinkles but also I still get zits and tend not to wear make up (aside from some cover up on the spots). Most people in my family tend to look fairly young so I tend to guess older ages for other people.

But I do find that you do get taken a little less seriously at work. I've had jobs where the older staff members tended to treat me a bit like their kid even if I was only 10 years younger than them!

nekobawt said...

i also "present" as younger/ than it says on my birth certificate, and not through any effort on my part. i think part of it is my Being Polite to Strangers look tends to project "harmless and clueless." which is hilarious when i'm helping someone figure out bus times, and i've got the bus book *open in front of me*, and someone decides they know better off the top of their head when the bus is supposed to be coming. and random people tend to assume i'm a student as well. (which is when i respond "actually, i'm a college dropout. :)" lol...)

i consider myself a woman, though. i may lack most of the accomplishments and experiences of most of my peers, but i think at 28 years old i'm sure as hell not a "girl" anymore. (never mind that i've moved back in with my folks.)

i'm REALLY looking forward to turning 30, though. it's like i expect to level up and people will treat me like a proper adult or something. maybe a mix of that and intending to thumb my nose in the face of culture that seems to think that 30 is when "old" starts (clearly i've spent too much time on runescape in the company of teenagers, lol...).

Norah said...

I've always looked my age, but I don't know if I dress my age.

There are some clothes I associate with people of a certain age, butthen again I also associate them with people of a certain social group.

I just see clothes I really like and then I try to find them in my size. I've recently begun noticing that people say: "[this or that] looks horrible on her / makes her look slutty, she's not 20 anymore" about people only a few years older than me. I hadn't considered before that you can't wear certain clothes at a certain age (at least according to other people).

I'm not really sure what I "should" be wearing. But then again I also don't care much.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2 out of 3's comment reminded me of an experience I had recently, a few days before my 24th birthday where I was out with my 51-year-old father. A person trying to sell us jewelry (well, me, because I was interested) assumed we were a married couple. I wonder if I look older than I am and I don't really want people assuming things about my age that aren't true. My dad thinks people assume he's younger than he is because his hair has remained mainly NOT gray... it's slowly starting to turn silver now but he has black-ish hair.


Generally I think not wearing make-up makes people not sure of how to judge my age, too.