I look like a kid

"Date of birth?" my new doctor asks, looking closely at the form I've filled out.

"May 28, 1976."

"You mean 1986?"

"No."

"You were born in 1976?"

"I'm 32."

"32 years old?"

I look young for my age. I always have. On my 19th birthday, I casually presented my passport at the entrance to a bar, eager to drink legally and in public for the first time in Ontario. The bouncer took one look and said, "Yes, this person looks like you. But I'm not stupid."

When I was 20, I was barred from entering R-rated movies. I waited, humiliated, in the theatre's arcade while my friends watched The English Patient. I did meet a nice Grade 10 boy who asked me out on a date, though.

Throughout my mid-20s, people still asked me what grade I was in. Now, when I tell people I recently moved to Calgary, they invariably say, "Did you come here for school?"

"No. I'm a writer," I tell them. As I recount my years of undergraduate studies, my work in Toronto, grad school in New Brunswick, the long-term relationships before I met my fiancé, the launch of my first novel and my time as a magazine editor, confusion floods these new friends' faces. But when did you have time to do all that? I know what they're thinking. You're only 23, maybe 25.

"I'm in my 30s," I say at last.

"But you look so …"

"I know."

Looking young is supposed to be a good thing - it's what we're told we want. It's the purpose of all those wrinkle creams, makeup, Botox and Pilates classes. And I'm (often) assured I'll be grateful when I'm 50 and look 40, when some day I'm accused of carrying a fake senior citizen's card. It's true - this is a genetic predisposition, and my grandmother, who is somewhat older, does derive a certain satisfaction from the opinion that she doesn't look a day over 68.

But this is the thing: Some people may want to look young, but not this young. No adult wants to look like an adolescent.

I'm not sure what it is about me that creates this false impression of youth. When I was 15, an older friend told me that innocence was an essential part of my makeup, and that nothing I did or experienced could ever change that. The comment now strikes me as akin to a blessing bestowed by a slighted fairy godmother - a blessing that turns out to be a curse.

I have a sort of stunned, wide-eyed look that I can't seem to overcome. I have a higher-than-average voice that I can lower about half an octave if I concentrate.

Nothing helps. Long hair, short hair, 10 pounds gained or lost, glasses, no glasses, sneakers or high heels, lipstick or none - I never seem to come across as an adult. The best impression I can hope for is "precocious," which stopped being a compliment when I turned 20 and became downright distressing when I turned 30.

I recently had a conversation with a new 60-year-old acquaintance in which she declared herself three times my age. This soon turned into a complex debate.

"No, you're not," I said.

"Yes, I am."

"No."

"Yes, I assure you."

"Well, that would make you about 100, so I doubt it."

"What? But you look so …"

Young. Yes. And I know I'm lucky. I know complaining might seem ungrateful, like I'm asking for it - to wake up one day and find my true age has caught up with me overnight.

But consider this. People my own age and sometimes younger often speak to me in indulgent or even condescending tones. I'm told I'm too young to have written a book, but I know I'm not. I'm told I'm young to be getting married, but I'm just about average. I'm told I have lots of time to have children, and that's not true either. My face may look 23, but I have a feeling my ova are aging normally. I'm also told - directly or indirectly - that I couldn't possibly relate to the content of conversations between women who are, in fact, the same age as I am.

Life is a little strange for anyone whose appearance contrasts sharply with what they feel is their "true self." It's like wearing a mask that you can't take off. This may seem a little dramatic in my case. I'm not disfigured or even peculiar-looking. And the fun thing about a mask is that you're always in disguise. When you look too sweet and naive to absorb the content of any substantial conversation, people talk in front of you. They don't necessarily talk to you, but they talk as though you're not there.

I could, in principle, be like those cops on 21 Jump Street, infiltrating high schools and busting the badasses. It could be a lot worse.

If George Bernard Shaw was right that youth is wasted on the young, then I guess I'm his girl.

Naomi K. Lewis lives in Calgary.

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