For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with people judging me at a glance. People who are older than I am tend to take a single look at my face and assume that I’m too young: too young to know what I’m doing, to be competent, to remember this or that singer or event. It’s become a lot more noticeable since I graduated college, and it’s an issue that so many people my age face but that none of us were prepared for.
Are we really adults?
I’m 26. I graduated college four years ago when I was 22 and got married later that same year when I was about to turn 23. I think that many people view graduating college as the real entrance into adulthood. Not legal adulthood like when you move out at 18 but “legitimate” adulthood, when it’s common to start your career, rent or buy your own place, get married or even have kids.
By the time you graduate college, you’re familiar with the cycle of freshman, sophomore, junior, senior; you’ve just completed it twice. You’ve experienced the jarring part of going from high school senior to college freshman. What you’re not prepared for is that being in the youngest group of working adults is like being a freshman all over again, but it isn’t over after one year. You’re a freshman indefinitely, until somehow older adults decide you look old enough that they can view you as a peer. I didn’t know that this phase would be so insufferable.
Several of my friends and I have faced issues in which older adults have assumed we were years younger than we were. I know many people will say that that sounds like a good thing because they want to be young again, but it is immensely frustrating when you are fighting just to be taken seriously or treated like an adult at all.
I don’t know why so many older people think it is okay to assume young adults’ ages. Assuming someone’s age is never a good thing, and if you do, you should never tell them that because believe it or not, it is extremely rude. This has happened to me more times than I can count, and while I remember so many instances of it, I’m sure that the offenders thought nothing of it and don’t remember it at all. Here’s a few examples that have stuck with me.
You’re not old enough to be married
When I was 22 and talking to the woman at our wedding venue, I had my hair in braids and probably looked younger than I was. At the end of our conversation the woman stopped me—not my husband, just me—and said, “Wait, how old are you anyways?” I don’t know if she said “You don’t look old enough to be getting married,” but if not then she definitely thought it. Since then I’ve been very self conscious that I won’t be taken seriously if I wear braids.
This next example actually happened to a friend and not to me, but I just had to include it. My friend was 21 and on the plane ride home from her honeymoon. The flight attendant asked her and her spouse if they were okay sitting in the emergency seats but cautioned that “You have to be over 18 to sit there.” My friend just looked at him and said, “Okay.” The attendant stared at her for way too long before asking, “Has anyone ever told you that you look very young?” to which she replied, “Yes. All the time.” I wasn’t even there and I’m mad.
Reverse ageism in the freethought community
From February of 2019 to July of 2020, when I was 23 and 24, I was in the Pittsburgh Freethought Community. Besides three other people, my husband and I were the youngest in the group by at least a decade. Almost all of the members were old (and white). It created a less progressive and accepting space than I had hoped for from “freethinkers,” and the ageism became a constant issue that ended up being part of why I left. Once, there was a party and a girl and her brother in their late twenties showed up. The leaders of the group sent them over to me and my husband, assuming that we were the resident Young People to send these other Young People to. The girl and her brother were actually really nice, but it was still weird.
The main thing I attended in the freethought community was discussion groups. The ageism there was horrible and constant. I remember specifically, at one of the first ones I attended, the past president of the group suggested to me that I might enjoy Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality. It wasn’t lost on me that at the time it was his only book for teens and that it explained the basics of “why science is cool.” I’d already read Dawkins (and Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, Russell, Hawking, and Lewis) so it felt like a pretty insulting suggestion.
Things like this happened all the time; I felt like the group’s token Young Woman who was reaching The Youth with my Cool Blog because my generation is so savvy with The Technology. However, when another girl and I offered our design expertise, which the visually outdated group so desperately needed, we were dismissed and not taken seriously. She left before I did, and the group still hasn’t updated their logo on printed materials and doesn’t have anyone running their Twitter or Instagram pages.
Reverse ageism in the community band
After getting vaccinated I decided it was time to try joining another community, so I joined a local concert band. I’m still happily in the band and grateful to be playing again after college, and for having something to get me out of the house. While the band, like the PFC, is mostly people older than me, the ageism is not as bad. However, there are still a few instances of it that stung.
I play the bells and auxiliary percussion so I stand behind the trumpet players. If you know any trumpet players, you know that they’re obscene jokers no matter what age they are. I was in concert band in school from fourth grade until I graduated college, so I’m used to their antics and dumb jokes. Last year I was at band and the trumpet players were making silly dirty jokes during rehearsal since that’s what they do.
I thought nothing of it until one of them turned around and asked me how old I was. “Twenty-five…?” She was astounded. She said, “Oh my gosh, no way. Sorry, we’re making all these dirty jokes and we thought you were too young to hear that.” It was so insulting. It still happens too; every time someone accidentally utters a dirty joke or pun around me they’ll apologize because it must have offended my virgin ears.
Another time after rehearsal, a girl about my age and a woman probably in her sixties came up to me. The girl asked me where I went to school. Reluctantly—since I don’t want to be associated with them—I said, “Grove City College.” She was confused. She said, “No, I mean high school.” I told her my high school and that I graduated in 2014. She wanted to know since she thought she recognized me from high school (she didn’t; it was a different high school). Both she and the older woman expressed that they were astounded that I had graduated college already. I told them I was almost 26. In the car on the way home I regretted not telling them that that was also the day before my three-year wedding anniversary.
Why reverse ageism hurts
After so many instances of “reverse” ageism, this was the time that it really started to upset me. People assuming that you’re not the adult that you are is insulting. On that drive home I realized what the problem was. I’m guessing that those women thought I was somewhere around 20. In reality, I had been 20 almost six years before that. When I was 20, I was starting this blog. You can go back and look at my first posts to see what a different person I was and the different stage of life I was in. I was at college, miserable. No one knew I was an atheist. I didn’t have my own place or permission to be myself.
Like so many people, I’ve grown more between the ages of 20 and 26 than I ever have. I came out as an atheist, literally developed my entire worldview, started reading, graduated college, got married, moved out of my mom’s house, and started my career. I joined and quit a freethought community and grew my blog to the point that one of my first atheist idols reached out to me and now I write for him. I know that there’s a pandemic and the world is falling apart, but in my personal timeline this is the best my life has ever been.
That’s how I realized that this random woman’s innocent comment that I couldn’t be old enough to have graduated college really offended me. The years between me being 20 and me being 26 were the pivotal years of my whole life. That woman had no idea but I was as far from being 20 as I could possibly be. Someone assuming that I was now 20 was so ridiculous to me; 20-year-old me was an entirely different person. I actually felt as though those years were being erased by that comment, as though they didn’t happen. Well, they happened and they are the foundation of my entire life.
This might sound extreme, but I know that other young people have experiences like this all the time. Especially for a lot of young women, we get discriminated against in the workplace, surrounded by tall white men in suits and treated as though we’re little girls who have no experience and don’t know what we’re doing. It comes down to a principle that always applies and can save you from situations ranging from embarrassing to aggressive: don’t judge people by how they look. Not by their skin color, their voice, their clothes, their age, or really anything else. Judge people by their character, their performance, their personality. Stating your assumptions about someone based on something arbitrary is never good.