One of my roommates is the champion of out-of-the-blue questions. Five seconds ago, she asked me:
“Rizzy? How old are you?”
I get this question a lot. In fact, I have been asked this question since I was about fourteen. It is never asked in the condescending tone of an adult asking a child her age out of habit (“And just how old are you, little girl?”), even though any guess the adult makes will probably be accurate. No, people ask me this question because they are genuinely confused: “Just how old are you anyway?”
I suppose I can understand the confusion. I’m tall and I have a deeper voice than most people expect from a teen or a twenty-year-old. In school plays I was passed over for the romantic heroine and given the role of mother, evil queen, or irritable spinster on account of just how low my voice was. I have never dressed my age, since the styles designed for teens and early 20-somethings have never really appealed to me. Since I was a little child, I was brought up in an environment of mostly adults, having neither siblings nor much interaction with children my age outside of school, where interaction was kept in close check. As a result, I have always acted older than I am. This isn’t really a point of pride, it’s just the way things are.
In junior high, people assumed I was in high school. Once in high school, I was mistaken for a college senior or a graduate student. I was asked to the junior-senior banquet as a sophomore because the poor boy thought I was a junior. Random people in stores mistook me for a salesclerk or the manager, often with hilarious results. Boys as much as five years older than me would innocently ask for my number, only to discover to their horror that I was no more than fifteen.
Now that I’m in college, the assumption that I’m older has become less flattering. At a rehearsal last semester I noticed a fellow cast member looking at me with a puzzled expression on her face.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Twenty,” I replied. I knew what was coming next.
“Oh,” she said, still looking puzzled. “I thought you were older.”
So did other members of the cast, it seems. I was almost immediately adopted by all of the graduate students on the cast because they thought I was one of them. The people on the cast who are my age ignore me for the most part, and I can only assume that it’s for the same reason: they think I’m older, and therefore unapproachable. I’m a junior, people. I twenty-year-old junior in college.
The most distressing misunderstanding I’ve encountered was while I was in Croatia. One of the student’s mothers asked (through her son, who was translating) how old I was. When I told her, she and the group of mothers she was with laughed loudly and chattered something in Croatian. I looked to the son for an explanation, he looked me in the eye and said:
“She thought you were thirty.”
I looked at myself long and hard in the mirror that night. I try very hard to fight the female tendency to be vain, but that night I confess to being genuinely worried. Worried, and confused. I have no wrinkles. No crow’s feet. No laugh lines. No grey hair. Sure, I’m not as skinny as most girls my age, but how does size determine how old one looks? Is it the low voice, I wondered? The bags under my eyes that I inherited from my father? The hair cut? Should I do more sit-ups?
Just what does twenty look like, anyway? Is there a standard? Judging by what I know of popular culture, the “standard” for being twenty isn’t anything I want to emulate. And I won’t. I can only be myself and become what God wants me to be.
But I am genuinely curious as to why people think I’m so much older than I am.
I can see myself in twenty years, still wearing tiered skirts in bright colors, walking into a restaurant and taking a seat, browsing through the menu until the twenty-something waitress bounces over to the table to take my order. When I ask her for the Greek salad, she’ll politely inform me that she can only get me a senior discount on the day’s special, and would I rather have that instead? I will tell her no thank you, I’m only forty, you whippersnapper, and I want the Greek salad, thank you very much. She’ll apologize profusely. I will go home and cuddle my cats for an hour and feel much better.
I don’t understand why I’m mistaken for a thirty-year-old. But I can choose to laugh at the situation and not despair over it. At least not yet.