Being Physically Appropriate

Photo by Benjamin Griffiths via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Benjamin Griffiths via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

There is so much to remember about my body when I’m in the presence of others.

  • I have to remember to control my facial expressions.
  • I have to remember not to position my extremely flexible fingers and hands weirdly, otherwise it freaks people out.
  • I have to remember not to move my hands when they’re in my pockets, otherwise it apparently looks like I’m doing something perverted. (I used to do this self-soothing thing where I’d stick my hands in my pockets and stroke my skin through the fabric, thinking no one could tell, but they could.)
  • I have to remember to at least appear to be mentally present at all times instead of obviously looking spaced out.
  • I have to remember to eat slowly and carefully, because my hypermobile fingers are clumsy with cutlery and I easily make a mess if I don’t. (When I’m in the U.K. and am expected to hold my fork in my left hand, I’m screwed; 50% of the food on the fork doesn’t get anywhere near my mouth.)
  • I have to remember to keep my mouth closed when I’m breathing, lest anyone laugh at me for being a “mouth breather.”
  • I have to remember not to stand too far away from people when I’m talking to them or lean too far away from people who are sitting next to me, even though I require an enormous amount of personal space to feel comfortable. (In group shots from my wedding, my mother-in-law is cuddled up closer to my husband than I am.)
  • I have to remember not to clench my fists when I walk, which I inexplicably have the tendency to do.
  • I have to remember to sit in a way that doesn’t look weird for my age, even though there is pretty much only one comfortable sitting position for me and that is cross-legged.

Most of the time, I appear normal, but it takes a lot of effort. I make the effort because I hate attracting negative attention and when I was younger I got so sick of people making negative or mocking comments when I just acted the way I’m normally inclined to act. I learned what not to do just from all the things people said to me. But it is so tiring having to constantly be aware of these things, plus socialize and converse on top of it all, and all while often being overwhelmed and overstimulated. It is so much easier being alone, or being just with my husband who doesn’t notice or care about any of these things.

Age (In)Appropriateness, Part 2

Photo by Georgie Pauwels, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Georgie Pauwels, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

Continued from Age (In)Appropriateness, Part 1.

I had stopped going to church in my teens, and decided to start again when I was 26. By then I lived in a different town and didn’t know anyone at the church I’d chosen to attend, but I had become very interested in learning more about God and my reading on the subject had ceased to be enough to satisfy me. When I was younger, church youth groups had always been overstimulating for me with all their noise and games, but I thought now that I was an adult, I could join an adult small group that would be more my speed. I spoke to the pastor and he recommended a specific group based on my location and interests.

As soon as I showed up at the group meeting, my age was an issue. There was no one there under about 45, which didn’t bother me at all, but they seemed discombobulated by my presence. First of all, they didn’t believe I was 26 and estimated me to be about 16. (So when I was 10 I was perceived to be 16, and when I was 26 I was still — or again — perceived to be 16!)

Once I cleared up their misunderstanding and assured them I was an adult, they allowed me to stay and I continued to attend their weekly meetings, but I never felt truly welcome. They often made comments to me about how I must have thought the group wasn’t the right fit for me, how they thought they were too old for me, or how they were certain I would be better off joining a group with “other kids.” Their words made me feel uneasy, but I don’t think I truly understood what they were getting at.

Then one Sunday, an unfamiliar woman at church approached me in a very friendly manner. She said she was trying to get her 18-year-old daughter to join the church’s College and Career group and she wanted me to befriend her daughter, encourage her to join the C&C group, and attend it with her. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, but in retrospect I realize the woman must have been sicced on me by the members of my group. It was framed as if I’d be doing a good deed for this 18-year-old, helping her feel welcome and get more involved, but I’m now convinced that the real motive was to get me away from the “grown ups.” They’d been saying they were too old for me, but I’m now certain they thought I was too young for them. Their scheme worked and I quit my adult group and joined the C&C group, feeling that I had no choice. (For what it’s worth, that 18-year-old has ended up being one of my best friends in the world to this day, despite our age difference, so at least something good did come out of it.)

I didn’t enjoy the C&C group. It was officially designated for young adults aged 18 to 28 but I was the only participant older than 20, except for the leader who was my age. Like all church C&C groups, it was intended to serve as a transitional group for those who were too old for youth group but not interested in or ready to join an adult group. It’s great that these groups exist for those who want them but it did not feel like the right fit for me and I felt like a fish out of water. I was dressed more like their parents than like them, and almost no one there was actually interested in studying or learning like I was. It was all about having fun and hanging out. We even had to perform Sunday School-style “action songs,” like the one below:

Sometimes the leader even got us to perform them in public places other than church, and unlike in the above video, there were not even any children present. Apparently we were the children! I’d never enjoyed things like that when I was a child, so imagine my horror at being coerced into it when I was between the ages of 26 and 28. The whole thing turned into a freakin’ nightmare in more ways than one, but that’s perhaps a topic for another post.

As I continued to go to church, my age was always an issue. I was always too young. When I was 28, a woman in the church talked me into signing up for a certain international ministry’s “leadership training course,” giving me a spiel about how I had the characteristics of a potential group leader. With my passion for learning and studying, I naively thought maybe this was my calling (not realizing at the time that you also have to be good with people to be a leader). I spent money I couldn’t afford to take that course and while there, they did nothing but try to sell books and other materials to me and the other participants. I soon realized it was pretty much just a money-making scheme for them. Nonetheless, when I completed it I approached the woman who’d recruited me and asked for her advice on how to go about setting up my own group. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “You can’t lead a group! You’re too young!” Then she conceded, “Maybe you could volunteer with the youth group and work with teens.” Meanwhile, there were female adult group leaders in the church who weren’t much older than I was. But they were already married with kids and were perceived and treated differently than I was.

Speaking of marriage, I was 31 when I got married and planning my wedding was awkward, as everyone who met me during the process thought I was too young to get married. A saleswoman at one formal shop assumed I was shopping for my prom. One woman I spoke to said, “You can’t be getting married. You look 12 years old!” 12?! My perceived age was actually dropping!

(Fortunately, my husband looks young too, otherwise I guess people would think he’s a pervert.)

During our marriage, we have moved a lot for the sake of my husband’s career, so we’ve experienced being the new couple at church many times. In our thirties we had to turn down many invitations to College and Career groups.

Even now in my forties, it’s awkward to meet new people because they make false assumptions right off. I continue to find that church women my own age talk down to me or want to mentor me, assuming I’m a new, young wife, while women in their early twenties approach me saying how good it is to see another married woman their own age at church. People also talk to me as if I “haven’t had kids yet,” even though at my age, if it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t.

A couple years ago, at the most recent church my husband and I attended, a middle-aged couple invited us out for lunch one day and told us that while we’re living in this city they’d like to be our substitute parents. I just smiled and said thank you, not wanting to make a big deal out of the age thing. Later the woman asked how long we’d been married and I said 9 years. She reacted with shock, apparently doing mental calculations, and said we must have gotten married very young. I told her our ages and she slammed herself back in her seat, bugged out her eyes, and said, “That’s insane!” She couldn’t believe it. After that, she was mean and snarky to me, making snide comments about how I was probably after her husband. Like, what?! If I was in my twenties, or whatever age she thought I was, she wanted to be my mother, but if I’m 40, I’m a possible threat to her marriage?! I am still baffled. I don’t get it.

My hair hasn’t yet started to go grey and the only wrinkles that have appeared are small ones below my eyes which no one else seems able to see except me. I still get carded at the liquor store and it’s even been insinuated that I’m using a fake ID, since I supposedly cannot possibly be the age that is indicated on it. One time, a man demonstrating kitchen knives in a department store refused to give me a promised sample knife because he wasn’t allowed to give them to minors. Even friends seem baffled by my appearance sometimes. Recently when meeting up with an old friend after years apart, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten how freakishly childlike your hands and feet are!”

Meanwhile, the way I feel inside has changed a lot, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. When I was in my twenties, I felt older than my age. Other twenty-somethings always seemed so energetic in a way that I wasn’t, they weren’t as serious as I was, and unlike them I was useless at keeping up with things like trends or fashion. Now that I’m in my forties, I’ve done a 180. Thanks to the internet, I’ve gotten much better at keeping up with what’s popular. I am not very observant when I’m out there in the world because I’m usually so overwhelmed but when I’m online I enjoy finding info on what’s currently in fashion and figuring out how to implement it for myself. My musical tastes have changed as well. People seem to expect me to like the classic rock I listened to when I was young but for the most part, I can’t stand it. I love new music, especially indie and electronica, and am always seeking out new bands to listen to. I’ve also gotten less serious as I’ve aged and in some ways have loosened up quite a bit.

Most new people I meet now who are my age are parents, are completely (understandably) wrapped up in parenting, and post memes on Facebook about how you don’t truly grow up or become an adult until you have children.

So I feel like I was never really a child, and now somehow I’m not really an adult either. It’s like I’m not any age, as if somehow I’m exempt or excluded from progressing through life in a normal way or in a lineal fashion.

The only people I still feel I can relate to are my long-time friends (most of whom, funnily enough, either aren’t married or aren’t parents, or both), but I don’t live near any of them anymore. I have zero social life in my current city and have even stopped going to church (which has been a wonderful relief and has eliminated a lot of stress from my life, but is no reflection on my faith or how I feel about God). When I go out shopping or wherever, I feel like I’m a GenX’er in disguise as a Millennial, not deliberately, but rather by some freak cosmic mistake.

I’m not saying this to brag. (Perhaps I should add that I am not beautiful or hot. I never, ever get hit on. I don’t look good, I just look young in some kind of freakish, woman-child kind of way.) I know I’m supposed to feel flattered when people don’t believe I’m 42 but I don’t. I feel misunderstood and as if people think I’m being deliberately deceptive. But like I told that 20-year-old when I was 15, I’m not trying to do anything. I just am what I am but it’s never been quite right or appropriate for my age, apparently.

I never understood why this is the case until I read Aspergirls, which mentioned that it’s quite typical for females with Asperger’s syndrome to act and appear younger than their age. So if I really do have Asperger’s/autism, I’m “normal” for a female with autism, I guess. I suppose it’s nice to feel typical for once, even if it is only typical within a very specific subset of people.

Age (In)Appropriateness, Part 1

Photo by Daniel Hoherd, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Photo by Daniel Hoherd, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

My actual age, versus the age I’m perceived to look or act, has always been an issue in my life. I’m almost hesitant to tell you my age because it will bring to mind certain stereotypes and they will likely not be accurate. I am not typical for my demographic. I am not typical for any demographic.

As I’ve already mentioned in my first post, I had an adult-sized vocabulary by the time I started kindergarten. It was very easy for me to converse with adults and I was often told how intelligent and even wise I was for my age. I remember people making comments like, “It’s like she’s an adult in a child’s body!” Unfortunately, it was not easy for me to relate to (most) other children. Their games seemed to be silly, pointless, and a bizarre combination of both overstimulating and dull. They always wanted to pretend things and I did not get that at all. I liked reading, painting pictures, doing crafts, and walking in the woods behind our home with my dog and cats (yes, my cats came for walks with me of their own volition). I did not enjoy make-believe on any level. My cousin had an imaginary friend. I did not.

I don’t mean to make it sound as if I were judging or disapproving of the other kids. The thing is, I considered them vastly superior to me and I would have been friends with absolutely any of them, even if I didn’t understand their games. Most of them seemed to mesh so well with one another and intuitively knew what to say and how to act. I envied them, not in a resentful way, but in a wistful way. They all seemed to be part of something that I wasn’t.

When I was 8, I was so academically advanced that there was talk of putting me ahead by at least two grades. There were meetings between my parents, teacher and principal where this was thoroughly discussed, but in the end, it was determined that although I had the academic ability to keep up with older kids, I did not have the required emotional or social maturity. This was explained to me without any sugar-coating. Because of my ability to converse like an adult, my mom had developed the habit of speaking to me as if I were one, even when perhaps she shouldn’t have.

Physically, I matured early. From age 7 to 12 I was one of the tallest girls in my class, usually in the back row of class pictures. (After that almost everyone surpassed me in height and at 5’2″ I am now considered short.) I grew breasts and started getting my period when I was 10. The same year, my family started going to church regularly. One woman there asked me what grade I was in and when I answered, she reacted with shock. “I thought you were 16!” she said. I felt baffled, as I really had no awareness of what I looked like or how I came across, but I also felt a bit flattered. When you’re 10, 16 seems pretty cool.

To my bewilderment, my early physical development upset my mom and my relationship with her changed drastically that year. She was convinced that I was fornicating. (Yes, that is the word she used.) She would read my diary to try to find evidence against me and she would scream at me to try to get me to confess. It was terrifying and confusing because she was completely off-base and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong to make her suspicious. “Fornication” would not be on the table for me until several years later. Meanwhile, my age and how I was perceived continued to cause problems for me.

One specific incident happened when I was 15, when a guy who was showing interest in me started inviting me to hang around with him and his large group of friends who ranged in age from my age to about 20. There was this one 20-year-old who utterly loathed me and didn’t try to hide it. One day when I found myself alone with her I asked, “Why don’t you like me?” She replied without hesitation, “Because you try to act older than you are.” I was confused and hurt. I answered with complete honesty, “I’m not trying to do anything!” I didn’t know why she was perceiving me that way. I just was what I was and I didn’t know how to be different or even what I was doing wrong. In retrospect, I can see why my precociousness could have been off-putting and even alarming, but at the time, I was clueless.

From age 16 to 26, I had a blessed reprieve from my age being an issue. It might be partly because I lived a rather reclusive life for a few years in my twenties and therefore didn’t give others the opportunity to tell me what they thought of me, or it might be because these were the only years of my life when my behavior and appearance coincided with my actual chronological age. Regardless of the reason, the next time I remember my age being an issue was at 26, but now people’s perception of me had swung the other way.

See part two to find out how.