In honor of Jezebel’s Teen Week, I would like to make a public service announcement, and it is this: I am not a teen.
Though I am merely a petite adult at five-foot-one, a not-insignificant number of people I encounter assume I am a teen who has yet to become an adult of average height and girth. A few weeks ago, outside a bar where I was meeting co-workers, a bouncer studied my ID. “I would assume this was fake if it weren’t a New York state license,” he said. A few months ago, a TSA agent at airport security asked me if I was a minor traveling without a guardian. “I’m 30,” I said, “and that is really depressing!”
A recent college graduate struck up a conversation with me in Washington Square Park a few weeks ago assuming I was in college; when I told them that no, I was about 10 years their senior, they began asking me for business advice. Last month, while waiting for an international flight to Greece, a man with a clipboard approached me and asked me for my name. He was trying to check my name off on his list of college students in a study abroad program he was chaperoning. When I boarded that flight, the agent scanning my boarding pass exclaimed, “You look so young!” seemingly scandalized. Asshole, I’m 30. That IS young! Once, a nurse told me I was like a “doll”—specifically a “My-Size Barbie.” I’m pretty sure we were around the same age. I was 26.
I suppose that this is all consistent, at least, with my childhood. An optometrist once exclaimed, “You look like you are 12!” when he learned that I was in college. Rude! When one seventh grader found out I was not in the sixth grade, but in eighth, he asked, “Are you really smart or something?” I said, “No, I’m just really short!” downplaying my intelligence out of insecurity over my age, as though those are mutually exclusive things. Even as far back as third grade, one girl I met refused to believe I was her age. She informed me that, as a matter of fact, I was five.
A funny thing happens when everyone else is so sure about a basic fact about your person: you start to believe them. Not literally, of course. But even into my 20s I accepted others’ authority over mine simply because they treated me like I was more childlike, irrelevant, or incompetent based on my appearance. Several years ago, as I was fleeing a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert (I know, I know), I was on the train and some bro stood on my feet, displacing me as if I was made of water. I had to yell, “Move! You’re standing on my feet!” three times before he shifted over without an apology. Former bosses and colleagues (mostly men) have taken on condescending tones with me that I doubt they’d use with a physically imposing, six-foot-tall white man. From women, the condescension is almost sweet, like ReddiWhip on stale coffee, with lots of “honeys” and “sweeties” tacked on to orders or commands or watered-down explanations. A few months ago, a taller (and older) female journalist actually patted me on the head and called me “Little Prachi.”
Though my secret to youthfulness is my ample melanin, a life blissfully free of manual labor, and having the unenviable body type of a pygmy banana (where my only curves are the back of my head and the heels of my feet), I recognize that I am privileged to look so young in a society that casts women over 30 as distended roadkill rotting on the highway. I could probably market my sweat and dandruff as anti-aging serum and sell it on Goop. And I would gladly star in a high-school-era rom-com opposite Zayn Malik, should Hollywood ever give a shit about South Asian women.
But to me, the idea that I am an adult who is to be envied and complimented for looking over a decade younger than I am is confusing and a little bit disturbing. No one would tell a 30-year-old woman who looked older, “I thought you were 45!” I definitely could have been a decoy on To Catch a Predator, a joke about which exactly zero of my former partners have found funny. And though I am getting older, to my mild frustration, the men who approach me are not.
I can’t change that I’m a tiny woman, that our society fetishizes youth to Lolita levels, or that people who confuse height with maturity and intelligence are morons. But in the past year, I have finally stopped shrinking myself to fit the assumptions of others. Now I elbow tall men to push my way through a crowd; I don’t automatically squish in when someone bigger than me wants to stretch out next to me on the subway; and I have discovered a new power within my body thanks to running, working out, and Krav Maga.
I am realizing, too, that my unimposing size also leads to some advantages. For one, I can (sometimes) confront dickheads and deescalate their behavior without threat of a fist-fight. When I witnessed a white guy proudly imitate a Jamaican accent while making up unintelligible gibberish to accompany Shaggy’s solo in “It Wasn’t Me,” I told him that he needed to stop cause that shit is offensive. And, though he was very whiny about it, he did! Job-wise, when people think I am an intern, or new to my job, sources may be more glib around me. As Joan Didion explains in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.” In short—pun intended—I have become an asshole.
I used to try to con people into thinking that I was my actual age. In high school, I wore hideous three-inch Steve Madden platform flip-flops and caked myself with so much make-up that I looked like an extra in a David Bowie music video. I conjured breasts with padded bras. Thank god that so much of getting older is about getting more comfortable in your own skin, acne-prone as it still may be. Now as a 30-something woman, I don’t try so hard. When I meet someone new, I simply hand them a business card. But mine doesn’t list my job title. Instead, it reads, “Bitch, I’m not a teen!”