One evening, during my mid-20’s, I went out to dinner with my then-boyfriend and his parents. The restaurant was busy, so his mother asked the hostess if we could all wait at the bar. If looks could literally kill, we would’ve all burst into flames.
The bar was off-limits as far as I was concerned. Everyone else was free to go, but I would have to wait by the door. Why? Because underage customers were prohibited, she said. We snickered, which only compounded her confusion. “Trust me, she’s over 21,” his mother assured her. Puzzled, the hostess said, “I thought she was 12, or something. Right this way.”
While I’d love to say this was an isolated incident—that people rarely see me as nothing more than some lowly high school freshman—it’s not. In fact, it’s so common, I’ve begun to think I’m half my age, as well. On average, people assume I’m 13-15 years old. Every now and then, someone will guess I’m 17 or 19, but few are ever so generous with their estimates. Even my former boss believed I was too young to have watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or know all the words to the theme song (which I do, thank you very much.)
Of course, once people discover I’m much older than their initial hypothesis, each must rationalize their mistake by claiming I’ve got great genes and that, one day, I will be grateful for my youthful glow. (No, actually I’m worried that I will wake up looking ancient one day, doomed to spend the rest of my life at the opposite end of the spectrum, all while never having the opportunity to look like an actual young woman. But that’s just me.)
Yes, looking young has its benefits. I can shop in the kids’ department, for instance, and buy shoes for half the price sans judgment. I can easily make babies smile, not because of my maternal vibes, but because children think I’m one of them, too. But when you look like a kid in an adult world, life can get pretty tricky. Countless activities are essentially impossible—activities your peers take for granted—because you simply don’t fit the role. Here are just a handful of the things that are off-limits to those of us who look 13 (even if we’re actually 30):
You can’t openly flirt with other people in your age group.
It’s hard to gauge who is your age and who is not because the people who look like you are technically illegal babies, and those who are actually your age run in the opposite direction because pedophilia charges would certainly hinder any future prospects.
When you speak with authority, it sounds like you have no respect for your “elders.”
Your fellow adults think you’re being rude and disrespectful because they don’t view you as their contemporary. Instead, they think you are speaking out of turn because how could someone who looks like you possibly know what they’re talking about? (They’d much rather speak to your mother!)
You can’t wear makeup because it looks like you’re playing dress-up.
If you don’t wear makeup, people advise you to do so, because painting your face will surely make you look older! However, once you do, you look like nothing more than some clown-child hybrid who has raided their mother’s cosmetics collection. Why put forth all that effort each day when it only makes the situation worse?
Everyone assumes you’re the intern because you don’t look like you’ve had much experience.
You look 13 and you’re a woman? Congratulations! Enjoy some fresh-baked inequality, on the house. Why not sit back and relax? No one’s going to listen to what you have to say, anyway. And, by the time you’re old enough to look the part, you’ll be too ancient for anyone to acknowledge your existence, so settle down and fuel up—it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.
(This post originally appeared on Storia.)