One night, while out clubbing in London, a handsome young man I had been dancing and flirting with said, “You’re super amazing! Let’s make a pact. If we’re both unmarried by the time we’re thirty, we’ll get married!” I grinned and said enthusiastically, “OK!”
Bless his little heart, I was already thirty at the time.
As a woman, I have been indoctrinated from an early age with the high desirability of a youthful appearance. No wrinkles, glowing skin, no lines or bags under the eyes, lest you be shunned from society and live out your days with only cats to comfort you (not so bad in my view, but I digress). I have been blessed by the grace of genetics and the magnificent products of the Clarins company to have preserved my youthful appearance. Countless bottles of skin-firming body lotion and eye wrinkle cream later, now, in my early thirties, people often remark that I look a decade younger than I really am. Fabulous! Right?
Youth is explicitly held up as the feminine Holy Grail, and from popular culture to media advertising the message is clear: women must look young if they are to be valued. In the last few years there has been some sorely needed feminist backlash against this, but it remains a deeply ingrained social norm rooted in the biological association between youth and fertility and hence, attractiveness. But a more tacit and subtle social norm coexists with the primacy of female youth, placing women like me (and men too, for that matter) in a paradoxical position.
I am referring to the workplace norm of not valuing what young people have to say because, poor little dears, they’re young and young people obviously don’t know what they’re talking about. I knew that women were subject to various forms of workplace discrimination, and that older workers were subject to age discrimination, but I had not been warned of the workplace discrimination young-looking people face. Because a youthful appearance is supposed to be good, right?
My mother recently related to me how, when searching for a surgeon for some minor surgery, she had switched doctors because, despite the first surgeon having Ivy League degrees and experience at the best hospitals in the New York metropolitan area, he had a baby face. She explained to me, oblivious to what she was implying about my own competence, “I mean, he couldn’t have been much older than you! I just didn’t feel he knew what he was doing.” Turns out he was over forty, but that did nothing to assuage her fear. She found a nice fifty-plus surgeon and that was that.
The prejudice against young people is not entirely misplaced. I get it, I do. By virtue of being young, they are less likely to have the experience and supposed wisdom that comes from aging. Point of temporal fact.
But what happens when you’re older than you look by, say, the better part of a decade? It can be awkward. At work, I found myself feeling the need to casually reference how old I actually was so that I would be taken more seriously. “When I was in my early twenties…” “Now that I’m in my thirties…” “Gosh internet is great, isn’t it? I remember when we used to use carrier pigeons…”
On one particular occasion, I had been working with one of the directors to put on an event. This guy was in his sixties. We had had some disagreements but I stood my ground, which he did not like (although in the end, I was vindicated). To him, here was this young woman who seemed to have just graduated from sixth form (or high school, as we Yanks call it). Who was I to be telling him he should change his approach? He had apparently complained about me to some cronies, because when I arrived for the event and was being introduced to some of the other old white men the director listened to besides himself, I heard one say to another, “There’s the little girl who’s been telling Mr. Muckety-Muck XYZ…!” And later at the reception, the same man said to me, “You’re not nearly as scary in person!” And then we made nice, because who doesn’t want to make nice with a beautiful and intelligent (and modest) young woman?
Now, why I was perceived as “scary” for making valuable suggestions any man would have been praised for making is another issue altogether. Suffice to say I strongly suspect that if I had been a man, I would have been slapped appreciatively on the back and bought a round or twelve of scotch instead. My point here is that it was my appearance that both aggravated the director and softened the view of me held by his entourage.
At the core of this paradox is the fact that while women have made headway in the professional realm, social norms regarding appearance have not kept pace. This includes femininity but also age. We are to be attractive but not too attractive. Intelligent but not assertive. We are to look young in the dating world but “mature” in the workplace. Matronly before cocktail hour, and then at the stroke of whatever time work ends these days, if it ever ends, Poof! We are to transform into sexy glowing ageless goddesses.
We are told that whatever the part may be, we should look and dress the part. But for women juggling multiple roles, it is not always easy to cast off one costume and don another, especially when the mask doesn’t come off. Youth is often depicted as being advantageous, particularly when applied to women, but it is time we acknowledged that this is not always the case. The corollary assumption that older people are automatically wiser is likewise problematic. Experience does not always equal wisdom. Just look at certain presidential candidates of the male persuasion.
What the age-ist norm also speaks to is the issue of meritocracy. As an American, I was raised to believe that no one cares what you look like or where you come from, so long as you are smart and work hard. Winners win by merit, not by looks or luck. As the current environment of social, political, and economic unrest shows, Americans as a nation, particularly my generation, are collectively waking up to the strong stench of BS. It turns out luck and looks have a lot to do with it. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, honors you’ve earned, jobs you’ve had before – if you look like you’re a baby, you will be treated with all the deference of a baby until you prove otherwise. The presumption of ability and intelligence that ought to accompany the professional title on your business card is weakened considerably by your damnable youthful glow, and the burden is on you to prove you actually do know what you’re talking about (most of the time).
This ageism is not confined to the workplace, either. I have a friend my age who has a daughter. My friend is of Korean heritage and is quite small framed, with a gorgeous youthful appearance. She could pass for a high school student. But as a young (and even younger looking) mother, she found other moms would look at her sideways and act differently towards her than they would to other parents, judging her, because she looked like a teen mom. My friend found herself doing the same thing I was doing at work, sneaking in to the moms’ conversations at playgrounds that she was actually much older than she looked. We joked she should have a t-shirt, “I’m not a teen mom, I’m just a genetically blessed Asian!” No offense to teen moms; they will probably be the first to tell you that society is not kind to those whose age does not match society’s ideal of what people should be doing at any given age. Nevermind what those same society humbugs would have to say about me clubbing at 30 when I should be home knitting booties and monitoring my credit score.
While I would like to say we should all stop judging each other by our age and appearance, I am old enough to be cynical about the feasibility of this approach becoming widespread. Judging by age and appearance is deeply engrained in our psyches as a survival technique. As much as I wish it were otherwise, I suspect some seismic social shakedowns are needed for this to change in my lifetime.
So, what is the answer? I don’t know. Awareness? Open discussion? False wrinkles you can remove after five o’clock? I’ll think about it over a cup of warm milk and get back to you.