Age me up!
January 25, 2009 9:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I increase the likelihood that people will not think I am a middle-schooler?

Here is the deal: I am a young woman, 20 years old (turning 21 this year), currently in my junior year of college. I’ve found that people rarely believe that I am 20. Last year, in a doctor’s waiting room, a woman was shocked to hear that I was a sophomore in college – she thought I was in middle school. Last weekend, I was checking into a hotel with my parents (as they came to visit me) and the gentleman behind the counter tried to guess how old I was: “13? Or 10?”

I don’t dress like a 14-year old, but I don’t necessarily wear tailored black pants and button-down blouses with heels either. Though the style of clothes I wear varies, most of my outfits fall under the bohemian/artsy category. I don’t wear makeup very often; my hair is past shoulder length and wavy, with side-swept bangs, and I also wear glasses. Another issue is that I am shorter than average, at 5’2”.

While I could wear pencil skirts more often and try to wear makeup more frequently, I don’t want to look like I’m trying to look older per se. Is there something I could change in my comportment that could send a “I am not fourteen” message?

I haven’t linked to any pictures of myself, but I will be happy to find links if that would be helpful.
posted by fantine to Human Relations (40 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I think links are a must. Personality, "the way you carry yourself", the way you speak, etc., all have very much to do with it, but to offer better advice I think we'd need to see how you look.

And I can't say this with certainty, not having photos-- but I don't think it has too much to do with clothes; I don't think most people, when they see someone bohemian/artsy, think "aha! a middle-schooler."
posted by demagogue at 9:39 AM on January 25, 2009

How much do you care? Seriously.
You will have to change the way you dress, and that might not do it.

You will have to wear conservative, staid clothes like this. Heels are not required but ballet type or mary jane type shoes - they say kiddy - will shoot you down. You need expensive loafers.

You'll also have to be very direct with people.

Outside of job interviews, the first month on the job, and meetings, why bother?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:39 AM on January 25, 2009

Wearing more professional clothes certainly helps with the perception of age. But I can't resist going off on a tangent - why would you want this? It wasn't until I was 25 or so that people started realising I wasn't a 15-year-old boy - hell, I've even been called "ma'am" or "miss" in my long-hair days - but if the age thing isn't getting to you too much, just sit back and enjoy it.

You'll look older in happens to everyone.
posted by sektah at 9:45 AM on January 25, 2009

I have a friend about your age and height, and when she had her hair long with side-swept bangs she looked a lot younger than she does now, with a short haircut that looks similar to Katie Holmes's bob in its messier states (like this photo ). Before, she looked like she could be anywhere from 12 to 25. Now she looks very clearly college-age or older. Long hair, no make-up, and casual clothes on a short woman pretty much add up to rude people speculating about what grade you're in, even if you're well past college. I think if you don't want to entirely change your hair/make-up/wardrobe, it would be a step in the right direction to choose one and make a small change. Hair might be the best and easiest place to start. A very intentionally adult-looking hairstyle is obviously different from a young girl's hairstyle--not overly fussy or difficult to manage, just something that looks like you, an adult, went to a salon and paid a stylist a grown-up amount of money to make your hair pretty.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:54 AM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's part of life, seriously. You'll be grateful as you get older and people still think you are younger. (Trust me on this one, I have personal experience). I've also noticed as people get older (say, 35 and up) they are worse at guessing ages of others. I think it's because they try to judge how old they think they look against the person whose age they are guessing.

Seriously, just accept it. Be happy with who you are.
posted by 6:1 at 9:56 AM on January 25, 2009

She's 5'2" according to the post.

I'm going to agree that pics would help, and that it's probably not your clothes. It's probably your hair, if it's much past your shoulders and wavy in a 'I just let it do what it wants' way. To look older, you'd need a styled look, even if you leave it long.

I get that it can be annoying, I'm short and have always looked young for my age, and it really bugged me in my 20s. (Not so much now.) That said, my best advice is that you may just have to live with it, it's likely it's something that is either unchangeable or not worth changing about the way you look.
posted by donnagirl at 9:58 AM on January 25, 2009

As others have said, it's hard to say without pictures, but dressing differently might help (although those Cole Haan shoes that Lesser Shrew linked to are butt ugly, sorry--loafers don't have to look like that!). Do you wear flip flops a lot? To me flip flops=youth.

Also, your hair style is probably contributing to the impression-- a shorter, more "styled" cut (i.e. some kind of layers) would probably help a little (again, pictures would help). What style are your glasses--maybe more stylish frames?

Makeup will also help, but is that really something you want to get into? For someone who doesn't wear makeup frequently it can be a bit of a pain.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:02 AM on January 25, 2009

on lack of preview, what everyone else said
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:03 AM on January 25, 2009

Best answer: Those wondering why she'd want this: It's one thing to be 30 and be thrilled at appearing 20, but when you're 20 and people think you're in your teens, it's incredibly frustrating. People treat you with less respect, there's hassle getting into bars and the like, and - let's be honest - it can hugely complicate the dating scene when people think you're in high school or middle school; makes flirting awkward-to-impossible depending on the situation. It's also one thing to be an adult and be thought to be a younger kind of adult, but to be an adult and find people assuming you're a child can get kind of insulting.

To the OP: A lot of it is in general comportment, but that's hard to teach. A more practical and shorter haircut will definitely help a lot... but part of it is unavoidable given your clothing style. Not saying "start wearing suits," but it's the nature of the beast. I'm 24, male, out of college three years now and working... and people don't even ask me what I do - they just ask where I go to school. And I know that's mostly because I wear my hair a little longer than is 'standard' for an white collar job, I have black plastic frames on my glasses, and I'm often carrying a messenger bag. I just accept it as a price I'm willing to pay, because I just look better this way than if I tried to "look my age."
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:08 AM on January 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

As dumb as it sounds, just soak it up, because later on it'll be awesome. I got carded for R rated movies when I was like 24. I got the "mother's milk still on your lips" comments and everything.

Even if you do a bunch of stuff to look older, it may just come off as you trying to play dress-up. Consider thinking up great reactions and plays off of it instead of going to great lengths in hopes strangers can accurately peg your age.
posted by cashman at 10:09 AM on January 25, 2009

Wear a "fusty old woman" brooch. Easy on, easy off, and nothing a kid would wear.
posted by orthogonality at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2009

Nthing everyone who said it's likely the hair. Try structured bangs, at least, if you don't want to put layers in or go shorter.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:32 AM on January 25, 2009

Best answer: I hated it when people told me I should be glad that people thought I was 5-8 years younger than I am. It's not flattering when you're in college and people think you're a child, and it's not something people not in that situation seem to understand. Nobody seemed to get how annoying it is to be offered a kid's menu at a restaurant when you're older than the hostess offering it to you.
Hair makes a huge difference. I had long hair (that I rarely styled) throughout college, and it was really when I cut it short that people started treating me more like my actual age. You don't necessarily have to chop off your hair, but getting a more sophisticated haircut or styling it more might help.
Clothes matter, too, but probably not as much as hair. You don't have to start dressing like a businesswoman or an old lady to look older. Wearing straighter-legged jeans/pants rather than flared ones makes you look older. Accessorizing in a way that looks put together instead of random helps, too. I also dress kind of artsyish, but wearing more "adult" pieces like blazers or nicer flats helps a lot. Avoiding sneakers seems to help me a lot, too. Some people can wear a sun dress and flip-flops or converse and still look their actual age, but us babyfaced folks have to go a little further to make it work and not get treated like we're eleven.
Glasses can also be an issue. I wore dark colored slightly cat-eyed ones for years and people always thought I was in high school. When I got half-rimmed ones, all of a sudden I looked a lot older. I have these, but in green.
Makeup can help, but you don't have to overdo it for it to be effective. Some non-dramatic eyeliner pencil and some blush can make a difference but not be too obvious.

Good luck on this. While it is definitely annoying to be treated like a kid when you aren't, it's probably better than being one of those people that looks 35 when they're 18.
posted by fructose at 10:46 AM on January 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Yes to the hair suggestions that everyone else has made, but also make sure you're comporting yourself as an adult (not to say you aren't already, of course). Impeccable posture, direct eye contact, and a strong, confident speaking voice will definitely clarify that you are not at all a teenager.
posted by amelioration at 11:12 AM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

N-thing hair. That might actually be the sole factor. I know quite a few girls who would have looked younger had they not have short hair. Do you put your hair up, like in a bun or ponytail? That might help.
posted by curagea at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2009

Yeah, I got this too. My first real job at 23 was in an elementary school and you wouldn't believe how many people would stop me in the halls and ask who my teacher was. I had styled hair and dressed in velvet dresses with big boobs and adult shoes but my face just looked really young to everyone. I think mostly you have to grow out of it. (Now I am in my late thirties and most people assume I am in my twenties which is fine as far as I am concerned).
posted by saucysault at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions so far! Just to be clear, my issue is not "I am unhappy with what I look like" but instead "I would like people to not think I'm a teenager and to treat me with respect."

Here is a recent photo (though these days, my bangs are side-swept).
posted by fantine at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2009

Well, a lot is about how your carry yourself - I work in a job where authority goes a long way and whilst I always feel like I am making it up as I go along people tell me I come across as extremely competent and with conviction. During my teens people told me I looked older than I was but for the last decade I am told look several years younger than I am. At the same time I have never been ID'd in all my life even when I was under it comes back to the authority thing.

From your picture I can see why people would think you were younger than you are. Do what Fructose says - think about haircut/style (especially the fringe) and perhaps invest in slightly smarter t-shirts to wear with that cardigan or a jacket to wear with that t-shirt - aim for the subtle changes in your look that a teenager would not be comfortable with :)
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:18 PM on January 25, 2009

Best answer: I think you look your age, so I'm going to assume it's your height & personality that throws people off. My god mother is one inch shorter than you and even people in their 20's think she's their age, and she's 47! While she is freakishly wrinkle free I think it also has a lot to do with her small frame & her lively disposition. She definitely makes a more adult impression when she wears heels & dampens her personality, but you can't go around in full dressy mode acting serious all the time.

Just make sure you have a good 'grown up' interview/career wardrobe and get a more structured hair cut. When you're out and about living your personal life learn to accept that many people will mistake your age, because you might end up like my god mom and you don't want to let it drive you crazy for the next 3 decades.

On preview since she's reading over my shoulder: "5'2' is too small to wear traditionally bohemian-artsy clothing, you end up looking like you're wearing your pjs or playing dress-up, making yourself a invisible and or dismissable. It's better to wear more structured clothing that's close (but not tight) to the body and express your artsy side through unique accessories and favourite colours that are balanced by neutrals. You will not be selling out or betraying your creative side by dressing to suit your frame*. Also don't feel the need to over compensate with too-high heels, it just makes us shorties look shorter and a bit ridiculous. How you carry yourself is huge, be confident and comfortable with yourself. You can't really control what others think of you, but you can control how you see yourself & that translates to most everyone you will meet."

*God mom is an actor & singer, so she undertands about wanting to dress artfully or the way you feel inside.
posted by zarah at 12:40 PM on January 25, 2009

You sound like me. Except I'm a little taller. I'm 28 and regularly mistaken for a college student. Even with a good amount of makeup on. I am aware that it's partly my clothes sending that signal. I've been asked in the past couple of years if I was 18 yet by more than one person.

Bangs are easy and don't require too much commitment. The suggestion of nicer basics or shoes work too. It's also in how you carry yourself (confidence, authority). Just make sure that whatever you try, you're comfortable with or it really can come off as you're playing dress up.

I don't feel like "me" in suits and heels, so when I am in a professional situation, I have to find acceptable pieces I am comfortable in, so I can feel confident. I had long hair for years, but a stylist chopped it way shorter than I'd asked for a while back and while the style made me look a bit older and more sophisticated, I hated it. I hated the way it felt. So now my hair is down to mid-back and growing. I can always put it up neatly if I need to.

If you like your hair longer, don't cut it. You could also even let it grow so buns and higher ponytails are easier to do. Invest in a good quality hair clip or barrette. Do the thing where you wrap a piece of hair over the elastic ponytail holder so it looks sleeker and set with finishing spray vs. a teenager's messy pull back.

The little details make a big difference. When I find the need to apply them, I do.
posted by cmgonzalez at 12:47 PM on January 25, 2009

As dumb as it sounds, just soak it up, because later on it'll be awesome.

Well, maybe...I'm 33, but 5' (female), and teach at college...and I still get mistaken for a student. It's not wonderful.

posted by leahwrenn at 1:14 PM on January 25, 2009

I'd suggest square and thin / invisible glasses, and nthing more disciplined and shorter hair.
posted by Tobu at 1:30 PM on January 25, 2009

N+1 re: haircut.
Get a haircut as a professional place, something "grown up". It doesn't have to be a pixie or a short bob, but a good hairdresser will be able to figure out what will look good on you that will help you look more adult.

The plus to that is that a good haircut shouldn't interfere with your personal style (the "bohemian" outfits) - if anything, it will enhance it.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 2:11 PM on January 25, 2009

A petite friend of mine who was trying to be taken seriously in a business environment had to resort to putting grey highlights in her hair.

She also found a black jacket that she loved, and bought two of them. A jacket worn with anything dresses you up. She could wear a tshirt and jeans and the black jacket and automatically looked 'older'.

My other tip is, always wear mascara and lipstick. Get your makeup done at a couple of places and find what you like, and then buy their equivalents in the drugstore if money is an issue. If you have a good hairdresser, share with them what you are going through. I personally went through many years where I tried to walk the line between professional and artsy and was able to come up with a compromise hairstyle that i styled one way for work and another way for out of work.

accessories can also help here.

finally, if you're in a town with any kind of art school, see if you can get a student in the fashion dept to help go through your existing wardrobe and help style you. sometimes just some help from a practiced eye. my sister can take an average looking outfit and by adding a scarf and the right earrings make me look like coco chanel. i don't have the skill for that at all.
posted by micawber at 2:21 PM on January 25, 2009

Heels are not required but ballet type or mary jane type shoes - they say kiddy - will shoot you down. You need expensive loafers.

I don't know a single adult woman who wears loafers.

I think make-up - properly applied rather than kiddy style- will help. You have a really cute face and that doesn't help you look older :)
posted by mippy at 2:59 PM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't tell from the photo what you currently do, but you might try having your eyebrows professionally shaped and maintained. It does make people look more adult. If you're using a messenger bag or backpack, try using a fancier purse or leather tote. You can still find funky bags, but a different shape or nicer material will make you look older. Yes, haircut will make a big difference. Go spend some money at a really nice/hip salon and take photos right after so your cheaper hairstylist can re-create it later. Jewelry--on job interviews I always wear pearl studs instead of multiple tiny hoops, for example. Tailoring your clothes and making sure things really fit. I look much more older (read: my age) when I shop at Banana Republic and get clothes that are proportioned for small women, and I have things taken in/shortened all the time. Pants that are too big is probably the worst offender for looking like a kid playing dress-up. Blazers are good and can be really cute over a tshirt and jeans with a scarf (not cute in a 8th-grade way!). Make sure you're wearing properly fitting bras and they're not poking out from your collar. Ballet flats or nice boots, no sneakers. Add some accessories like scarves--those can be bohemian while also looking more grown-up. A little bit of make-up will help, and less is actually more in this case. I just wear a touch of eyeliner and mascara. If you tend to break out a lot you might want to try concealer.

In terms of comportment, if you giggle a lot, or act really shy, that might not help. Verbal ticks like "like" and "um" make you seem younger. If you do anything that's cutesy, stop! Looking people in the eye, being assertive, and being confident will really help people treat you more your age.

I hate it when people tell me I'll appreciate looking young when I'm older. Folks, that is not a helpful answer. First, it's condescending, and second, it's not necessarily true. Not everyone is obsessed with looking youthful.
posted by min at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

This has happened to me throughout my life too. I do think that wearing more makeup, a polished hairstyle, more conservative and/or well-tailored clothes, and gaining weight (not that I'm recommending that unless you need to!) have all, at times, helped me to look older.

I'm now in my early 40s, so I do have to say that it is very flattering to hear this now. Just this weekend I had to get a rental car; after I showed my license to the Enterprise rental clerk, she did a visible double-take and told me she thought I was in my 20s. But it was definitely an annoyance when I was younger and had to always remember to have my ID with me when buying beer, going to a club, etc. I also worried a lot about being taken seriously at work.
posted by lgandme0717 at 6:06 PM on January 25, 2009

In the past year or so I finally realized why women spend so much time on eye makeup. The right application of eyeliner, and perhaps mascara, can greatly change a woman's appearance. It can be like night and day. Maybe you're not into wearing a lot of makeup--and I actually applaud you for that--but think about your eyes whenever you do.
posted by zardoz at 7:10 PM on January 25, 2009

Several people have mentioned makeup. With skin as good as yours, you don't need to wear much, and you definitely don't need foundation. But a little eyeshadow will help you look a lot older - take it from someone who resisted wearing makeup for years.

Use a dark brown shade to fill in the contour above your eyeball, then blend it in with a lighter shade on your lid. You shouldn't see hard lines - just the illusion of the 'shadow' that naturally appears above the eyes of older women. This video shows roughly how it's done, although whatever they've done to the model's eyebrows is a bit scary. If you do it right, you won't even look like you're wearing makeup.
posted by [ixia] at 7:45 PM on January 25, 2009

Heels, some eye makeup and a black blazer with your jeans and boho top. Presto.
posted by infinityjinx at 7:51 PM on January 25, 2009

Where I work - corporate - ballet or mary jane type shoes are very much not taken seriously - they have replaced visible thongs as the mockable new-hire gaff. (What is the equivalent for males? There isn't one - what were you thinking?) I was assuming she doesn't want to wear heels, which may have been off.

And yeah, fantine , from the pic you look entirely mature - and a little like Tina Fey which is way cool - so I'm with zarah that height & personality are throwing people off. Or, are you just keying in on the times when people are stupid and not paying attention to all the other times when people realize you are an adult?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:41 PM on January 25, 2009

Response by poster: Great suggestions so far -- looks like the consensus (or what I'm planning on going forward) -- is this:

1. Update hair to a more styled look
2. Craft a work/professional wardrobe of tailored pieces where accessories are the artsy element, as opposed to the clothes themselves
3. Work on being confident and having great posture

Zarah, your godmother's advice is really helpful.

As for a possible haircut, is the drawing on this page too weird? I would get the bangs a bit longer, like to my eyebrows (I don't care for the miniature fringe look) but I like the funky layering.
posted by fantine at 12:44 AM on January 26, 2009

Oooh I like that drawing a lot! I think it would look cool, and I can't imagine a 13 year old getting a haircut like that! One of my friends had her hair cut a lot like this and she looked great (although admittedly she had very curly hair, so ymmv).
posted by Emilyisnow at 3:38 AM on January 26, 2009

Yeah, I love that cut. Getting your hair coloured professionally may help too (that cut would suit dramatic hair colouring that no 13 year old would convince her mother to do).
posted by saucysault at 6:03 AM on January 26, 2009

Looking at your pic, fantine, I think the issue is probably your height, not your face. The advice above about hair, clothes, and makeup should help. (I like the drawing btw.)

Mainly I wanted to post though to say I think it's smart for you to be aware of this and to tweak your appearance. At 5'0" and 38yo, I'm still mistaken for a teenager, and believe me you don't want this! It's not a huge deal, but I do think the feedback cues you get from others (the way their attention flicks past you as you're dismissed as a kid, for example) can have an effect on your confidence and overall sense of how you fit in.

Also I agree with min:
I hate it when people tell me I'll appreciate looking young when I'm older. Folks, that is not a helpful answer. First, it's condescending, and second, it's not necessarily true. Not everyone is obsessed with looking youthful.

(Will just add, even if a person wanted to look perennially young, something like 25 would be the goal--not 15.)
posted by torticat at 6:15 AM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just cut eight inches off my hair for the same reason--I've been out of college for more than five years, and last week someone mistook me for the intern.

It's great to know that in ten years I'll still look like I'm in my twenties but that doesn't help me right now. So I chopped off my long curly hair into a more grown-up, styled look (which, actually, was the same cut I had in college) and I'm hoping that will make a difference. I already dress professionally for work, and I wear minimal, tasteful makeup on a daily basis. In my case, it was definitely the hair that was making me look younger. Now I probably still look younger than I am but at least I look like I'm of legal drinking age.

I didn't read every comment, so I'm not sure if someone mentioned outerwear and accessories. I've found these make a huge difference, particularly coats, gloves/scarves/hats, and bags. Belted trench or pea coat styles look more mature than puffy winter jackets. Leather or faux leather gloves look more mature than knit ones. Headbands/ear warmers look better than knit hats. A classy bag (doesn't have to be namebrand or expensive) will make you look years older than a messenger bag will.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:07 AM on January 26, 2009

I pretty much look my age (25) but unfortunately I am one of the youngest in my office and have the same sort of "take me seriously I'm an adult damnit" problem. My new year's resolution is to work on my appearance, and I've been trying to wear makeup every work day. I don't do fancy eyeshadow or eyeliner in the mornings (I would probably poke my eye out) but I smush on a little concealer, smear on a light foundation-ish product, smudge on eye shadow and then finish with a little mascara. I think it makes a lot of difference and I feel much more polished.

N-thing all the suggestions for a haircut. My college roommate was very young-looking our Freshman year, with long hair and bangs. Sophomore year she got her hair cut in a really cute short cut and she looked so much older!

You don't have to change your style but definitely a few "adult" pieces would help. If you wear sneakers, try finding some comfortable flats. A nice purse, etc.
posted by radioamy at 7:37 AM on January 26, 2009

I agree with the few adult accessories idea. My girlfriend transforms everyday casual wear to very elegant evening wear by donning a nice scarf-ish type thing. You might try scarves, hats, belt, gloves, etc. I think avoiding outfits completely made up of bright primary colors would help too. In your case, the right glasses could be all you need. Get some shoes that will give you a little more height as well.
posted by xammerboy at 10:54 AM on January 26, 2009

As for a possible haircut, is the drawing on this page too weird?

While I like that haircut (called an a-line bob or an a-line), it's the same one that every alternative college freshmen girl I knew, including myself, sported, right down to the extra long, chunky pieces around the chin. In fact, (while, again, I like that cut) I can't see the cut without thinking alternacollegefreshmengirl, which I think goes against your goal here. If you do get an a-line, aim more for this (smooth, finished looking) than this (even disregarding the funky color, spiky, chunky, and punkish).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:58 PM on January 26, 2009

(that cut would suit dramatic hair colouring that no 13 year old would convince her mother to do)

Also, as a twenty-five year old with pink hair (and once a thirteen year old whose hair color was, at one point or another, every color of the rainbow), funky colors are not the best way to communicate "full grown adult" to strangers, mostly because they connote "teenager" to many people. I don't generally get mistaken for younger than my age when my hair color is natural; I get followed around stores as if I'm a potential shop lifter and carded when my hair is funky. I think it's because most people assume that you can't be gainfully employed with funky hair--and high school is the time when most people experiment with their hair color.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:12 PM on January 26, 2009

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