An interesting exchange took place on Facebook the other day, which brought up an issue I’ve been wanting to write about for some time, and that is our culture’s obsession with looking young even as you age beyond your sixties and seventies. Today’s installment will deal with one aspect of this issue, and tomorrow I’ll tackle some related thoughts.
There are several young women whom I care about who have what some would consider an enviable problem: they look a great deal younger than they actually are. Though most of them are in their mid-twenties now, people assume they are teenagers and treat them accordingly.
I know a little about this issue, actually. Because I am tall, when I was 13 people often thought I was 18 or 19. However, a funny thing happened when I actually got to my twenties. At 25, people still thought I was 18! The difference between me and my young friends is that I thought it was funny. They do not. They are, I think, more driven than I was and it is very important for them to be taken seriously in the professional world.
So when one of them complained that she is still treated like a kid because of her youthful appearance, I made the mistake of commenting that someday she will be glad to look so youthful, because youth is what our culture is obsessed with. I was summarily slapped down by young ladies who are tired of hearing this. They want to be taken seriously now, not admired for their youthfulness in twenty years. And no one wants to be told that their real problem—a problem for which there is no solution—doesn’t count because it’s a problem that others might wish to have!
As I read the various comments and thought about this issue, as I often have over the years, I came to some conclusions. Here they are, for what they’re worth:
- Women are expected to look young for decades of their adult lives—but not too young, mind you. If you look too young you are treated like a kid and no amount of proving your actual age will rectify this. So when you are actually young you must strive to look old enough to be taken seriously, and then you must continue to look young for the rest of your life.
- People who have this problem do not want to be told how lucky they are or what an asset it will be to them in the future. Even if you mean it as an encouragement, it is more likely to enrage than comfort them. Because they hear it all the time and it does nothing to help them cope.
- People who have this problem also, as a rule, do not want to be told how they can go about “fixing” it. They don’t want to hear about my husband’s cousin, who looked so youthful when she began teaching school that her students wouldn’t respect her. She resorted to wearing (fake) glasses, high heels, and putting her hair in a bun.
So, if you have friends who have this problem, what do they want from you? I believe that the vast majority want sympathy, not encouragement. I think back to my days as a newlywed, when my new husband, like so many men, had no idea how to deal with a woman in distress. His approach generally revolved around telling me how the situation was all my own fault and was due to the bad choices I’d made, followed by explanations of the various actions I could take to fix my problem. Surprisingly, this never, not even once, made me feel better!
What I really wanted was for him to hug me and say, “Oh, you poor baby. I am so sorry you are having to deal with this.” That’s it. I just wanted him to care that I was miserable. If you know someone who is not being taken seriously because of her extremely youthful appearance, realize that this is mostly likely a big sore spot. Don’t make it worse like I did by making light of it. Instead, simply acknowledge the severity of the problem and express your compassion. “It must be so exasperating for you to have to deal with this problem all the time. I’m so sorry you have to put up with it.” We all have our burdens to bear and just because someone else’s burden seems like one you’d like to have yourself, you can’t assume that it is somehow less burdensome to them.
Tomorrow: some further reflections on this topic.