21 going on 15

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“Is your mummy or daddy here?” My 18th birthday, and my first holiday away from parents, I am walking through security when this woman rudely interrupts my sophisticatedly sassy I-am-of-age strut. In shushing tones, I swiftly assert;“I’m 18 and they’re at home.” My head spins frantically to assess how many have overheard this moment of humiliation, and I scuttle off to join my friends who seemingly don’t need their mummy or daddy.

For as long as I can remember, I have never felt quite my age. Even at times where I’ve thought I was at my most mature and independent, I am quickly made to feel younger again. Family days out aren’t complete without the inevitable “You’re 16 for today ok, Ellen?” followed by a smug grin from my 18-year-old brother who gets to keep his age. My most successful and most recurring acting role -I have so often begrudgingly handed my ‘child’ ticket to the ticket inspector just to save my parents that extra £3. I can only assume that my acting has been of an impeccable standard so far.

I’m not quite sure how old I must have looked in my mid teens (despite somehow regularly grimacing my way past bouncers at Oceana with the ID of a dark haired 20-year-old), but according to the bubbly lady at cinema ticket office, my facial development is somewhat delayed…by 7 years to be precise. “You are 15 and over aren’t you?” With a disgruntled laugh and an eyebrow raise, my friend replied, “we’re 21.”

Oh! You should take it as a compliment!

While I would love to have accepted such generous flattery, somehow, being told that I look like I enjoy spending evenings weaving scoobies while texting my crush in front of Tracy Beaker didn’t fill me with gratitude.

I expect to be asked for ID when buying alcohol at Tesco. I would most certainly ID myself. But a lifetime of confirming my age to flabbergasted strangers has led me to jump to self-defence in situations where it is quite unnecessary. In hindsight, telling the checkout staff member that him asking for my ID ‘makes me feel young again’ sounds a bit ridiculous for someone born in 1994. I may as well have gone for “Gosh! I’m a 52-year-old mother of three!”

Most disconcerting are the moments where not only is someone surprised by my age, but they are so completely bowled over by it that they simply cannot let it go. During a family holiday in Dubrovnik two summers ago, my parents were enquiring about a possible boat trip around the coast. I was minding my own business, probably applying some after-sun to my lobster-tinted skin, when my mum beckoned me over. As I turned I noticed Mr Boatman pointing at me with an expression of pure disbelief on his face. Before I could begin to assess the situation, he burst into a roar of laughter and exclaimed “20!? 20!?”. For God’s sake. This was about the 5th time that holiday and it was beginning to get tedious. Not to the rest of my family, of course, to whom this was the best source of holiday entertainment – at my expense.

What is it then, that makes me look so young? A question I have so often asked friends and family in the hope that it’s simply an asset I can tweak, such as my hair, dress sense and so on. To my dismay, the answer is almost always “I don’t know…maybe it’s your height.” This is a reply that only confuses me more. At 5”2 (at a push) I’m hardly the BFG, but not often do you see a 5”2 70-year-old being made to show ID at a supermarket, or getting away with a child ticket at a theme park. This is as tall as I’m going to get, and if height really is synonymous with age, I don’t have much hope.

What does “looking your age” even mean? The only thing I am certain of at this point is that looking “younger than my age” is perceived as a rather negative thing. Apparently, this is not how you’re meant to look at 21. To be 15 and look older means you’re flatteringly mature (relatives say to small children, “you’re so grown up now”); to be 40 and look older means, not that you seem wiser and more experienced, but that you’re a bit wrinkled and haggard.  To be 50 and look your age is not a compliment – but what’s wrong with looking 50? It suggests there’s something wrong with being 50.

At this key point in my life, where I’m having to consider a career and some sort of future plan, I’m suddenly finding myself having to be ‘my age’. Somehow, a lifetime of being “little Ellen” the “cute” one has not been of great support in my quest for wisdom and responsibility. I find myself reinforcing belief in my own capabilities far more often than I’d like, and evaluating my appearance to outsiders far more often than I should. Young on the outside = young on the inside, surely?

It’s not all bad of course. I can buy kids’ trainers, get cheap tickets and fit through small gaps. I get pitied in large crowds and lifted onto people’s shoulders when I can’t see, and it’s always nice to be given the option to colour at a restaurant table. All I ask is that people believe me when I tell them my age and not respond with the ever-patronising “Nahhhh, no chance. You’re joking!”

It’s given me the tiniest insight into what life may be like for others who are judged by their appearance. It may be an age-old problem but let’s all be a bit more polite and open-minded.

That would definitely get my vote. Assuming I can convince someone I’m old enough to cast it.

Ellen Leach-Hutchings

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