Ah the search for eternal youth! From miracle creams made from sheep’s placenta to having your own plasma injected back into your bonce, there’s little people won’t put themselves through to keep the signs of ageing at bay. Which makes me a total weirdo for saying that, as someone who’s always looked young for my age, I’ve found it a bit of a hazard.
I know, I know. It’s on a par with, “I just cannot put on weight!” for infuriating complaints. But bear with me a moment, please, while I attempt to explain.
I’ve always looked young. It started, (as it does for us all) as a baby, but unlike other babies I resolutely refused to grow hair until I was one and a half. By my teens, I did, at least, have hair, but my small stature and quiet manner compelled hairdresser and shop assistants to demand, ‘where’s your mummy?’ until I was at least sixteen.
In my twenties, a peer from my postgrad seminar thought I was some sort of child prodigy. It felt awkward to have to disappoint her, and that feeling began to be something of a trend.
By my thirties, being mistaken for someone younger began increasingly to fill me with a weird sense of shame. It didn’t help that I’d collected none of the signifiers of supposed adulthood – no mortgage; no husband; no kids; no pension plan; had never in my life bought decking. Were these failures writ large upon my face? It might sound paranoid, but honestly, it’s hard to feel you’re commanding the requisite amount of gravitas when you’re 34 and being mistaken for the work experience girl.
This led neatly to sartorial anxiety. Was I – God forbid – dressing too young? And, if so, what exactly was too young? My generation – Generation X – is in a real state of flux as far as age and expectations are concerned, and this threw up a sort of existential riddle: If thirty is the new twenty, and forty the new thirty, what is the appropriate outfit for a single thirty-something writer who works from home? I mean no bunches, obviously. Or denim skorts. But jeggings, yes or no? Converse? Yes or no? Should I be wearing glasses? I mean, I don’t need glasses but still. Glasses?
By my late thirties, when most of my peers had young kids and so had reduced their sleep to just the ten minutes per week, the discrepancy had only grown wider. Meanwhile, I was starting to find the reaction to my age a tad irritating. It was always the same – a look of aghast disbelief, followed by a cry of, “No Waaaaay!”; the inevitable elbowing of a friend, accompanied by petitions of: “Guess how old she is! Go on! You’ll never guess!”, a pantomime that made me feel less youthful sophisticate, more freakish sideshow, like an embalmed mummy or one of those prehistoric women found preserved in the ice. It was usually a guy, by the way, and usually took place in a bar. (Bars, yes or no?). The message I was getting was clear. Your age is hideous – good job you can hide it.
And then there was dating. When once I loved to flirt, now chance encounters with the opposite sex sent me into paroxysms of overthinking. If someone gave me an encouraging glance in a bar or supermarket, I’d be initially pleased, then gripped by a sort of uneasy dread. They don’t know I’m late thirties! I’d fret, averting my eyes. I felt that I was entrapping them somehow, a cougar-version of the childcatcher. I was ashamed of my age, and then ashamed of being ashamed. All in all, it was a bit of a mood killer.
When a guy I got chatting to at a train station who asked for my number turned out to be thirteen years my junior I decided enough was enough. It was flattering as hell, but useless to me. I didn’t want to date a guy almost young enough to be my son, or – worse – a same-aged man who had identified me as a ‘younger’ woman. I just wanted someone who wanted to date a woman my (actual) age.
But how to manage this? Wear an oversized birthday badge to the supermarket? Carry a balloon on public transport? Borrow a baby? Was it time to get those glasses? Or, just to make sure, a nice pair of pince-nez?
For me, the solution came in the surprising form of internet dating, a place where stating your age upfront is obligatory. I know some people hate announcing their age like this. And yes, it is just a number, and a state of mind, yada, yada, yada. But personally it was a huge relief for me to be able to declare that number, and it immediately obliterated that odd sense of guilt I was carrying around. When I got the first message from my partner, I knew he was approaching my 38-year-old-self in good faith. Finally I could finally conduct my flirtations with confidence. (And I could take off that birthday sash.)
Now I’m forty two, I’m learning to wear what the hell I like, insert my age into conversation the first chance I get, and care a whole lot less about what people think of me. I still don’t have any of those ‘adult’ trappings, but I’ve realised that’s because there weren’t important to me at the time, and that I’m living the life I was meant to. (Perhaps the secret to eternal youth has always just been: “don’t buy decking.”)
Besides, the grey hairs are creeping in now, the laughter lines more obvious. All those years of sleeping in my make up, living on toast and coffee and completely neglecting my eyebrow game might be starting to catch up with me. And that’s fine with me. I like getting older. I mean, it’s way better than the alternative.
Still, if anyone again asks me my age and then reacts with shock, I’m just going to make like Gloria Steinem and smile and tell them: “this is what 42 looks like….”