As a teenager, I was never carded in bars, and that came in handy since I fancied myself a bit of an amateur club kid in NYC in the mid-90’s. I never had both feet in that world—I was a straight A student who had skipped a grade and I didn’t touch drugs until many years later. Still, I combined my natural insomnia and looking older to facilitate my late nights and early mornings spent at Tunnel or Limelight while still managing to make it to homeroom on time.
Despite my historic status as a nerd in all advanced classes, I was allowed partial entry into Coolness since I could easily buy alcohol and make fake IDs. (I was trusted to breeze in and out of the teachers’ lounge to use the laminator and paper cutter LIKE A BAWSE.) It never even occurred to me to make a fake ID for myself. By the time I was carded for the first time, I was many years past legal age.
I turned 37 years old this past Friday. As an adolescent, I always looked older than I was. And though I disagree, apparently these days I don’t look as close to 40 as I feel. My face has changed as my weight has fluctuated—I’m not saying I look like the same person, but of the same age bracket.
And we’ll just get this out of the way early on: Colloquially, we’re told that “black don’t crack.” Clinically, we’ve learned about differing melanin levels. But conversationally, I am often fêted these days as though looking younger than my numerical age is the achievement in and of itself, and I beg to differ.
I mean, I guess that’s better than the alternative right now, but I’m saying that alone is not reason to cheer because I measure worth in more ways than looks. Also, I have trouble navigating being on the opposite end of the spectrum now from when I spent so many years looking older than I was, and managing people’s behavior toward me. In the old days, I used to imagine a day when my face would catch up with my “number.”
Well, it seems as though maybe that happened during a month or two in 2004 and the lines on my age/looks chart immediately became divergent again.
When I was much younger, I suffered due to looking older. I was never treated like a young girl, even when I was one. And unrelenting street harassment began early and hit hard. In hindsight, my choice to go to as many clubs as my older-looking shell would allow me entry to was fueled not only by my desire to dance the night away, but also by a need to somehow use what often felt like a curse to my benefit.
Even buying liquor for the cool kids was an effort to repurpose my outward appearance toward activities I could control, as opposed to just being ogled. After all, no one ever pressured me to buy them booze; I volunteered. It helped me retain my semi-cool status, sure. But mostly I didn’t want my mature appearance to go to waste or only benefit the catcallers.
As a teen, I started to perform professionally, and engaging in social activities with invariably older castmates also helped me put another positive spin on what initially felt like a burden. I took comfort in knowing that I wouldn’t ever be the one holding them back from going to a bar after a show.
I celebrated my 21st birthday at a bar on NYC’s Upper West Side where I was a regular, and when I met with the manager about setting up an open bar for my guests, he was shocked when he found out my age. While I knew that I looked older than my age, I had been going to bars and clubs for so long that I also knew of many factors contributing to who is let in and that sometimes they involve tube tops and cleavage and a doorman’s whim more than just legal ID.
I figured with me it was a combination, probably led by my looking older, and left it at that. But I remember the legitimate surprise on the bar manager’s face as he calculated my age and how long I’d been going there (I lived within blocks). It was eye-opening to have his very serious concerns of having served 16-year olds startle me out of what had become my normal.
As an actress, many of us are older than we appear, and play younger characters while doing any and everything to appear younger, and it was unique to be in the opposite position for many years. I’m also very tall and have worked mostly on stage, where height can read as age/maturity. In my early union jobs, I was often the youngest cast member by far and it would come out in some sort of reveal—someone would point an accusatory finger at me and exclaim “Do you know how old she is??!”
I remember one time a stage actress whom I had admired and felt lucky to be working with casually asked me how old I was one day. 21! I chirped, excited to be what I thought of then as “old”, eager to close the gap between my outer appearance and my chronological age.
She looked at me and very quietly said “Ugh. Fuck you.” I didn’t fully get it, but I never looked at her the same way after that. She was a year younger then than I am today. I get it now.
Years ago, in my late 20s, I did a guest-star role on a TV show playing a character who was 36 and said so in the dialogue. All through the audition process I flattered myself into thinking that if they cast me, they’d change the age since the character had to say it but the plot wouldn’t change if the specific number went down a few digits. Well, I was cast (woo-hoo!), but they left it at 36 (oh no!). Ah, well. More than anything, I was grateful to be working.
I have never had anyone accurately guess my age. Ever. I am not walking around asking for guesses like I’m a carnival sideshow act, mind you, but age is sometimes a topic of conversation and sometimes people will just throw out a number instead of ask a proper question and it inevitably leads to unpleasantness. (Funny how assumptions often do, huh?) Just today I was chatting with a woman and she began a sentence with “Well, I’m much older than you, so I remember the days of…” As she went to talk about that archaic TV character MacGyver, I said I remembered it too and told her my age.
It’s a matter-of-fact thing to me, but it was also somehow a cue for her to go into her flustered dance of “Oh! I didn’t know, I didn’t mean to…” It’s exhausting to be the person inside a package that is never accurately identified. And that is misidentified in such widely varying ways as the years go by. I know many who are “baby-faced” and that’s a whole separate struggle. My personal pendulum has now swung far enough that I might hop off and become one of the Ladies Who Lie.
I have never lied about my age, unless you count the indirect lies of waltzing by bouncers at clubs with nary a word. But lately, I have understood the impulse. Laws being enforced more stringently means that the older I get, the more I get carded, and there is no way to properly describe the casual hurt I feel as some poor stranger tending bar or ringing up my wine tries to take back whatever their natural reaction was at seeing my age on my ID. Sometimes they let out a noise of surprise; an “Oh!” or a thoughtful “Wow.” Sometimes there is just silence and a lack of eye contact. A few have obliviously blurted right out “You’re much older than I thought!” because so many are conditioned to think that looking younger = being better and they think they are giving me a compliment.
Not so. Because the truth is that, in a sense, I’m much older than I thought as well. I’m much older than I thought I would be and still struggling to gain a foothold in my career. Much older than I thought I would be and still be single. Much older than I thought I would be before becoming a mother.
In the dating world, I haven’t encountered many people who are actively seeking someone who is older than they appear to be. (If you’re out there, please say hello!) Usually, people stumble all over themselves in dispensing those quasi-compliments before they run away: “You look great for your age!” Gee, thanks. And then, if the person in question is lovely and self-aware, it only gets worse: “I mean—not that you’re OLD—you’re totally not—it’s just—well hey, 40 is the new 30, right?” Please stop talking.
The happiest people I know have laugh lines and crow’s feet, which sounds like a fine trade-off to me. Growing older needn’t be a burden; I only wish I had accomplished some of the positive things I associate with age. I am more concerned with how I feel than with how I look, but the world at large doesn’t work that way.
And by the way I am aware that my current state is a “problem” that many would like to have. You want it? I would give it to you if I could. But I can’t, just like you can’t give me a family or a loving mate or a fulfilling career.
On my good days, I think I can still have those things. I just have to work harder to own all of my years on this Earth and let go of the life schedule I once thought I was on. Roxie Hart says in the brilliant musical Chicago, “I’m a lot older than I ever intended to be.” That has been my motto for many years, since my age crossed the threshold of my looks and kept advancing. But I’ve had to flip that script—the bleakness isn’t serving me.
Besides, I make a better Velma than Roxie anyway and I’m not quite old enough to play her yet. So I’ve got that to look forward to, right?