I often get mistaken for a decade younger than my 33 years, typically when I’m working: when they find out how old I am, both men and women, but usually men, will say something like, “It’s so encouraging to see a young person who’s so articulate.” Such remarks tend to come from people who are barely older than I am. Sometimes they’re even younger.
Earlier this year, at a dinner party, an older man whom I’d just met interrupted the conversation by turning toward me and exclaiming (though I’d said nothing for several minutes), “Hold on!” — his expression was a mix of faux-indignation and befuddlement, both friendly and predatory — “I have a question. It’s been bugging me all night.” I knew what it was. I knew the cues: bunched up nose, smug smile, gotcha eyes. “How old are you?”
When this question comes from older men, I usually tell them to guess — because I know they’ll fumble. They must think that if they pick a number that’s too high, all my volatile hormones will explode. (Uterus bomb!) After a few staccato wells and ums, the man at the dinner party asserted that the absolute oldest I could be was 26. He quickly added that he was only going so high because I was “so articulate.”
Other places I’ve been challenged about my age: at the grocery store; in interviews; in taxis; at college (while teaching); at universities (while guest-speaking); on a rope bridge in Northern Ireland; at a bowling alley in Yellowknife; at awards ceremonies, literary festivals, and magazine launches; at events I’m running and at events I’m hosting; on dates; at my wedding; at my divorce lawyer’s office; everywhere.
The implication seems to be that I’m too young to be doing whatever it is I’m doing. Once I reveal my age, I inevitably hear “You don’t look your age” and then “You’ll be so grateful for that when you’re older.” Like looking young is the best thing that could ever happen to me (whereas looking my age would obviously be the worst thing). I hope to be grateful for a lot of things when I’m old, but looking a decade younger than I am is not one of them.
Still, it’s no wonder people are obsessed: a woman’s age is often tethered to her worth, her attractiveness gauged not just by wrinkle-free skin, but by inexperience, naivety, and a life unlived. We love youth in women not because we want them to be beautiful, exactly, but because we want them to be impressionable — easily moulded however we see fit.
We also make it clear they should stay this way. In 2015, for instance, the beauty company Nip + Fab, which mostly sells anti-wrinkle skincare products, infamously hired a then 17-year-old Kylie Jenner as its brand ambassador. Jenner often Instagrammed her favourite products from the line, including something called “Viper Venom Wrinkle Fix.” It didn’t seem to matter that she, being a teenager, was naturally wrinkle-free. The message was that Jenner (and her millions of teenage fans) should always be wrinkle free — untouched by age, merely on the cusp of experience.
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Women cannot win, either — particularly in the workforce. Studies have shown that while younger women tend to be valued for their looks (and thus are subjected to frequent sexism and even harassment), older women are practically invisible. Researchers call this phenomenon “lookism” or “aesthetic labour.” Both terms refer to the idea that employers trade on women’s corporeality, using it to create a company image, and thus to gain an advantage over competitors. We see this often in the service sector (which employs millions of women), but it happens in other industries, too. (Once, I sat in on a boardroom meeting while marketers discussed my youthful appearance, which, it was determined, augured well for the success of my book.)
One 2012 study published in the journal Work, Employment and Society found that many women managers felt pressured to be “ageless” — a triple-jeopardy discrimination of age, gender, and appearance. Meanwhile, women who looked young were effectively required to tolerate sexism in order to fit in at male-dominated workplaces. One woman who was interviewed noted that when she was younger, she was seen as a threat because employers feared she’d leave to have children. Once she exceeded childbearing age, however, they saw her as obsolete, even as she saw herself as experienced.
Knowledge, the study concluded, is often naturally associated with older men, who can — and often do — gain from looking older. Though it’s not always the case, other studies on aging and ageism have similarly shown that older men are associated with wealth and experience. “On the other hand,” wrote the 2012 study’s authors, “women are interpreted to be ‘old’ already rather early, sometimes when they are just over 40 years of age.” (Or in some cases, apparently, 17.) Older women’s knowledge, the authors added, is often undervalued.
Globally, the anti-aging industry was worth US$143 billion in 2015. It’s expected to reach $216.5 billion by 2021. While that dollar figure demonstrates that we clearly value youthfulness in women, the problem is that we value it in all the wrong ways: because it represents sexual appeal and malleability, because it represents all the things we traditionally want women to be as well as the roles we want them to play. At the same time, we tell women they should fear aging — and why not? Being seen is better than being invisible. Maybe that’s why people say I’ll be grateful for my genetics later on: I’ll be noticed longer.
But that’s not the type of notice I want, for me or any other woman. In reality, youth doesn’t mean inexperience. Hardship and insight can come at any age, just as potential and change can enter our lives at any stage. Women do not have a best-before date.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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