At the gym this morning, someone made a comment that implied that I was a decade younger than I am. That’s not the first time I’ve been pegged at younger than my age,but I admit that the mistake evokes a hypocritical reaction in me – or at least an inconsistent one.
On the one hand, since age long since ceased to be a matter of whether I can buy a drink, the mistake pleases me. I’m not the first member of my family to be consistently mistaken for being younger than I am, and I exercise hard, so I’m gratified that my effort has some benefits. Also, if I’m being honest, there’s a smug little part of me that enjoys knowing a secret that others don’t (I’m not particularly proud of this part, but it exists).
Another thing: when I’m perceived as younger, younger people are often more open with me than they are when they know my age. I can whet my curiosity about them a little more easily, because they perceive me as a contemporary.
Nor can I deny the satisfaction of believing that I look younger than most people my age. When I went to a high school reunion a couple of years ago, I enjoyed observing the receding hairlines and loss of hair color in my male friends, because, so far, I haven’t been much affected by such things. I also noted that, although an injury was limiting my exercise then, I was still fitter than most. These are vanities that are more often associated with women than men, but I suspect that they’re common to both sexes. Or maybe I’m just an unusual man.
On the other hand, part of me is affronted by misapprehensions about my age. With all that I’ve gone through, I can’t help thinking that it should show on my face and body. Like a scar, signs of aging are signs of survival and respect. I’ve earned middle age, and I’d like to enjoy its privileges when I’m in it, rather than ten or fifteen years from now.
The truth is, there are advantages to being perceived as your age. You are taken more seriously than a younger person, and, for the most part, treated more politely. Fashion isn’t supposed to apply to you (not that I ever followed it anyway), and your eccentricities are treated with greater tolerance. The young can be surprisingly intolerant of difference sometimes.
All things considered, do I really want to be mistaken for younger than I am? At that same reunion, I met a woman who had had plastic surgery, at least part of which was for a more youthful appearance. I believe that she wanted her appearance to match her sense of herself, rather than simply to look younger, since she had other signs of a conflicted identity, such as using different versions of her name throughout her life. But I was intrigued by the decision, and wondered if I would ever consider doing the same.
In the end, I decided that I probably wouldn’t. But that’s an easy decision when a few crow’s feet and a sagging neck are your main signs of aging. Will I feel as defiant when my hair falls out or turns white? I can’t say, so I’ll probably feel just as ambiguous the next time someone makes the same mistake.