Thursday, August 29, 2013
Jen had a young face. She had a spray of freckles across her nose and big, innocent eyes. But the biggest contributors to her youthful countenance were her cheeks, which had never deflated from their cherubic appearance of her babyhood. She had been told countless times by various adults, embarrassed that they had mistaken her for someone six years younger than she actually was, that she would appreciate it when she was older. Every time Jen heard this, she had to bite her tongue to keep from responding, “Yes, I’m sure I’ll appreciate it when I’m your age; you’re a fucking antique,” or something along those lines. She knew that she shouldn’t take it so personally; short of plastic surgery, she couldn’t exactly control the way her face looked. But the fact was she hated when she was helping someone at work, and she knew that they weren’t listening to a word she was saying, but waiting for her to finish so they could ask her. She saw the confusion in their eyes and knew the question before they even said it. “How old are you?” As if it was impossible that someone so young could know so much about this trade; that she could speak with such confidence on the subject. Upon learning her real age, most people would smile apologetically and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. You just look so young. I’m sure you get that all the time.” Yes. She did.
Outside of work, Jen ran into similar problems. She could almost always tell when someone was underestimating her age by the way they spoke to her. At times, it was more obvious than usual. She went out to dinner with her mother. After rattling off the night’s specials, the waitress looked at Jen and said, “We also have a children’s menu.”
Ironically, Jen was mature for her age. She got along better with her parents’ and her older siblings’ friends than anyone in her own high school class. She was well-spoken and bright. But this made constantly being treated younger than she was even harder to swallow.
Jen’s biggest frustration with people thinking she was so young was that she did like some childish things. She watched the Disney channel and slept with stuffed animals. Of course, she also adored foreign films (Spanish were her favorites) and slept with her boyfriend (in these cases the stuffed animals were hidden under the bed). Jen was about sixteen when she decided that if she couldn’t look older, she had to act older. Her interpretation of this was probably not the most effective approach; she went wild in high school, but still managed to make it through senior year with everyone still assuming she was a prude abhorred weed and alcohol and swearing. It seemed that all of Jen’s peers wanted to talk about was who went to which parties and who slept with whom…unless it was Jen, in which case her face not only preceded her reputation, but created it. As soon as she turned 18 she started buying cigarettes, simply so she could pull out her ID and prove that, yes, she was legally an adult. She got her nose pierced and a lower back tattoo. The way Jen saw it, the more things she did to prove her age, the more people would see that she wasn’t a child.
To her credit, Jen didn’t do all of these things only out of pressure to be different than she seemed to other people; she actually enjoyed much of it. She liked the way she could express herself with tattoos and cursing. During a summer job at a sandwich shop, one of Jen’s coworkers (about 30 years older than she was) dropped a nearly finished sandwich on the floor. She swore loudly and picked up a knife to start chopping vegetables for a new sandwich. Predictably she looked apologetically and said, “Sorry. I shouldn’t swear in front of you. You probably never use language like that.” Jen asked her what she meant. “Well,” the woman said, “you’re just so young and innocent-looking.” Jen smirked. “My face doesn’t keep me from saying fuck,” she replied. The woman nearly brought the knife down on her own finger.
Jen’s ability to handle interactions like this with humor instead of bitterness evolved as she grew up. She embraced the fact that she wanted to bring her teddy bear to college and that she still watched children’s cartoons when she wanted light entertainment. Although she had always known that the people who judged her for things like this weren’t worth her time, it wasn’t until she stopped judging herself that she actually started looking older.