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Ageism: A Double-Edged Sword

By: Lynette A. Shaw

I have always heard people discuss the different things they have learned throughout the course of their twenties. Some of these lessons entailed the ins and outs of navigating relationships, career goals, or an existential crisis. However, my twenties have revealed something much more unexpected. In high school, the people around me are what "typical" American teenagers looked like, or older. However, when I was out in public, I was repeatedly mistaken for a middle schooler, or younger. I thought changing how I dressed or acted would make a difference, but it didn't. I thought graduating from high school would make a difference. It didn't. I remember once hanging out with a friend of mine shortly after graduation, and I was mistaken for her daughter. I was older than she was. When I told people I was moving to another state to attend school, people would give my parents very concerned looks and ask them if they would allow this to happen, and why. However this same concern was not expressed similarly to my peers.

I thought graduating from college and living on my own would make a difference in the way people viewed me not only physically, but maturity-wise. But I'm still "carded", still stared at, still judged. I honestly would not care if I did not face the social and political ramifications of these events. But now that I am in a master's program, I have found myself in an incredibly terrifying position to be in. Soon, I will begin competing against others to secure internship sites where I can practice clinical counseling, and I have realized that my race and gender are not the only two strikes I have against me. How am I supposed to be taken seriously in comparison to others when the employees at establishments stare at my ID in disbelief? Others have tried to cheer me up by saying this is a "compliment". I also used to view it that way before I realized the opportunities I have been denied and the credibility that had been snatched from me throughout my life. Seeing the difference in the way my peers and I are respected is astonishing; it doesn't feel like a "compliment" at all. For a long time, I had let the comments and the microaggressions roll down my back but little did I know it was all building up to one explosion of frustration and fear.

When I expressed frustration about these things while growing up, I was told that this was a gift and that I should not be in a rush to grow up too fast. And though I agreed, I now feel as though I am between a rock and a hard place. I wish people could understand how people talk down to me in a condescending tone or the way that my other identities already give people the agency to not take me seriously. In fact, I recently realized that much of the behavior I portray is overcompensation for this.

In the midst of all this, I would also like to call attention to the way that we regard aging in Western culture. Heaven-forbid someone has "crow's feet" or smile lines, or signs of aging. The disgust and fear we show towards aging and the elderly is utterly disturbing. The standards of beauty or "coolness" are just always out of reach...just a $49.99 container of under-eye cream away...

No amount of degrees under my belt or the length of my CV is going to convince someone I'm not 15. However, carrying around the resentment of this experience is not helpful either. I am grateful to have explored this, but I still feel fearful for the future. I still worry about the way I am received. However, I would never let that prevent me from offering all that I have to share with the world.


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