PSA: Stop Telling Me I Look “Young” At Work

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I will be the first to admit it: I look several years younger than I actually am.

It’s nearly impossible for me to go out to dinner without being asked for I.D. when I order a cocktail, and I’m consistently carded at R-rated movies. I’m not sure if it’s my facial features, my petite frame, or a combination of the two, but most people don’t believe me when I reveal that I’m actually 30.

There are times when this isn’t so bad. I’ve sneakily used my old college I.D. to obtain student discounts at museums even though my 10-year reunion is rapidly approaching. No one looks twice when I step into a store at the mall definitely meant for teenagers. I can blast Justin Bieber in my car without getting any weird looks. And seeing as society wires us to feel weird about growing older, there are moments when I have to admit that I’m relieved I still could pass for a young 20-something.

However — and this is a big however — there is one circumstance in which I sincerely dislike being reminded that I look young. Incidentally, it’s also the place where I find it’s most frequently commented on: at work.

For some reason, people at work always feel the need to comment on my appearance and how it relates to my age. This has happened to me at every job I have ever held. All of my jobs since graduation have been at middle or high schools, and I am constantly told, “Oh, you look like one of the kids!” I even once had a fellow teacher yell at me from behind, barking orders to get to class. It wasn’t until I turned around that she laughed and said (without any embarrassment), “Oh! You just looked like a student!”

Any time I have to introduce myself to a group of new teachers (or parents), I brace myself for the comments. I know that when I say that I’ve been teaching for seven years, I will be met with surprised faces. I can anticipate the exact words I will hear in response: “Oh wow! Really? You just look so young!”

Every. Single. Time.

Some might ask, if it bothers me, why don’t I say something? And I do. But when I try to push back or express that I’m uncomfortable with someone’s comments, I always hear the same feedback. I am simply told that I should just take it as a compliment.

“One day you’ll appreciate being told you look young,” they always say. “I wish someone would tell me that!”

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not a compliment. Or at least, it’s really not a compliment when it happens at work. When I am at work, I want to be viewed as a professional. I want to be taken seriously, and I want to command authority. As a young woman, this is already a challenge, as the workplace environment in general doesn’t always favor women.

So when a colleague shares that they thought I was fresh out of grad school, or that I look like a 14-year-old, I am hearing that they think I lack experience. I am hearing that they think I’m not qualified to hold this job position. I am hearing that I’m not on the same level as they are, and that there’s no way we are equals, because I’m obviously just a kid.

Even though I’m 30. And I have a master’s degree. And have been working every day since graduation, which was almost ten years ago.

And, let’s be honest, it is rude. There’s a double standard here that is infuriating. It’s socially acceptable to tell someone that they look young. But wouldn’t it be incredibly insulting and unprofessional if I were to tell that same co-worker that she looks old? I know that our society has created beauty standards that emphasize youth, but if I’m uncomfortable by someone commenting on my appearance as it relates to my age, then that should matter. I shouldn’t be told that I’m being complimented, because if I am offended, then it is no longer a compliment.

So, to all of the older generations, please think twice before you comment that your co-worker just “looks so young.” You have no idea how old he or she actually is. And at the end of the day, please remember that a compliment is not a compliment if it simply isn’t wanted.

De is a New Yorker turned Bostonian and a lover of all things theatrical. In addition to writing, she is an actress/singer/dancer/teacher and owner of the fluffiest cat imaginable. She is on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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  • victoria g

    “a compliment is not a compliment if it simply isn’t wanted”

    this should be SHOUTED FROM EVERY ROOFTOP until people get it.

  • Tara

    Ughh the worst! When I started my first job and had to get signed into a government building, the security guard double checked that I was in fact over 18. My coworker could not stop laughing

  • Christian Gonzales

    “a compliment is not a compliment if it simply isn’t wanted” I’m not sure that i’ve ever loved a line more. This applies to SO many situations and every person should learn this.

    • Thank you!!!! I agree and I’m glad that the article spoke to you! <3

  • I hear you. I am 43 and have dealt with this since graduating from college. No matter what job I have, the same comments are made to me constantly. My daughter is turning 22 next month, you would think people would get a clue.

  • Whitney

    I will be 31 this summer. I also have a soon to be 10 year old. When I talk about her school I’m always hit with the ‘OMG no way you can’t have a kid that old. You’re so young!!!’ In some ways my young looks helped me initially in my career. I didn’t enter my field until I was almost 26, but I had recently completed my undergrad, and I was starting at the bottom of the totem pole, so looking young wasn’t an issue. However now…its annoying. I’m 5 years into my career, not to mention just a more seasoned adult and parent, and people are always acting like its a compliment. I love what you said about ‘a compliment is not a compliment if it simply isn’t wanted.’ My young looks don’t need to be commented on. Unless you’re my daughter trying to butter me up for something.

  • Nom

    I haven’t run into this too much at work, but people often think I’m much younger than I am, and it’s particularly infuriating when I get poor customer service because people think I’m a teenager or that I’m young so I don’t know what I’m talking about. People condescend to me a lot, who really aren’t that much older.

    It’s infuriating to be told it’s a compliment. It’s not a compliment. Yes, when I am 60 and look 40, I may be happy that I look younger than I am. But, let me tell you… I don’t care that much about my appearance. I am much more interested in being taken seriously professionally and as an adult. I would rather look 10 years older than I am than 10 years younger.

    I think the worst part is people tend to use the idea that it’s a “compliment” to excuse their own behavior (condescending to you/not taking you seriously).

    • Nom

      “I am hearing that I’m not on the same level as they are, and that there’s no way we are equals, because I’m obviously just a kid.”

      YEPPPPP.

  • Delta

    I love this article! I can relate. Age should never be an indication of experience. Someone who “looks” older and like they have more experience may have just made a career change. I’ve been working in my field for 18 years. How old do you think I am??? Well, let me tell you; I am 35. Commenting on age is never appropriate. Asking someone’s background, how long they’ve held their current position, etc. are much stronger indicators of experience…and we all know that’s what someone is getting at when they comment on age. Well written!

  • Sarah Mo

    My big pet peeve is that people just remind me that I *am* young. I’m 25 and look about my age. I’m also the head of an organization and work with different community groups. “Well you’re very young” is something I hear all the time, especially when I’m asking clarifying questions. Sometimes I feel in control in my position but then other times I feel like I get Rodney Dangerfield-level of respect.

    • Meredith

      Yes! I am also 25 and received many comments from coworkers on how young I was when I started my job over a year ago. I came into my job right after undergrad and already felt young and intimidated, and their comments did nothing to ease that. It’s so frustrating when you feel like you have to “make up” for your age but people keep bringing it up as a negative, framing you as naive or inexperienced.

    • jdub

      I work with a woman who literally didn’t reveal her age to anyone when she started– she was 24 and just stepped into a major account manager position. She didn’t want anyone to think she couldn’t handle the job based on her age. It’s been a year and she currently absolutely crushes it, so doesn’t feel the need to hide it anymore, but for a while, it was a really sore spot.

  • Sara J.

    Ahh I guess my unpopular opinion is that I will never ever tire of being told I look younger than I am. I love it! On the other hand, I’m not a teacher, I work in a tech startup and youth is valued in this type of work.

  • Sarah

    This is my life! Thank you for posting this.

    It’s not a joke, it doesn’t make me feel better about myself, and it’s extremely frustrating to know that you have to build in extra time to prove yourself at each and every new place you go. I work for a non-profit that works in high schools and every single time I go to a new one I have to go through the same thing.

    My friends have told me that I should dress frumpier or even more professional in order to make up for this, but I 100% refuse to change who I am because of how I look. Guess I’ll just have to keep on proving myself.

  • Amanda Drolet

    For the other point of view – do you actively try to combat your size? I’ve always gotten those comments from being short and petite, but when I entered the business world, I made an effort to dress for the job – and the age – I am. I bought the smallest size in everything, took it to a tailor, and made sure it fit like it should. I never get mistaken for a sub-twenty something when I’m in a knee length dress or have a blazer on, and the instances of getting carded go way down too. But the minute jeans & tees come out, so do the comments.

  • Jack

    I started working on the reference desk in libraries at age 21, and I actually had a man demand to speak to someone older. He didn’t believe that I was a fully qualified employee, he kept telling me I must be a student volunteer. Ugh.

  • Rachel Axelrad

    I’m a teacher as well and I feel the EXACT same way. I’m tired of not being taken seriously and I’m tired of being told to “take it as a compliment” when in actuality its just plain rude. Also what are we supposed to say in response? “OH I LOOK YOUNG? NO WAY. I HAD NO IDEA. NO ONES EVER SAID THAT BEFORE. COOL INSIGHT. ” I’ve had teachers, substitutes and parents all tell me I look like a student (and I work at an elementary school). They do it in front of my students as well. Parents will claim that their child’s misbehavior is due to the fact they don’t take me seriously because I look young, rather than asking their child to take responsibility for their actions and respect the teacher. Thank you for this article. It was refreshing to read someone’s similar experience.

  • Rose

    I hate this, too. I’m a manager at my job and have been working professionally for over five years, however I am very young (my birthday is next week, which is the “end” of the year for most school year ages) and I skipped a grade when I was young, making me nearly two years younger than all of my peers growing up. I also happen to look pretty much the same as I did when I was 12 years old, minus being a tad heavier/curvier, but there’s a pic from when I was 16 that you would not be able to tell wasn’t taken last summer. However all this basically put me two years ahead, and I manage a team of 3-5 people at my job depending on the season; one of them is older than me by a year or two, something she has brought up multiple times (although she does not know my exact age), and it bothers me to no end. Being told I look or am young should have no effect on how well I can do my job, unless I was literally just out of school. I frequently garner similar reactions in meetings, too, as I am often interacting with people 10-15 years senior who hold similar positions (I work for a smaller companY) and I can always tell they’re slightly taken aback by my age/looks, even if they don’t say it out loud.

    /end rant. Basically, I feel you, girl!

  • Arlene Haessler

    “You look young” is not a complement, it is a statement of one’s perception of someone else. I am at the opposite end of the spectrum and do not feel my almost 58 years, and am just shocked whenever I consider how old I am. Yet, I feel uncomfortable when I remark on my age in a conversation and well intentioned friends or colleagues rush to tell me I do not look my age. I am not sure why but “you look young for your age.” now leaves me feeling me uncomfortable, where it once left me feeling proud. I finally told a younger friend the other day, “This is what 57 looks like!” I do look my age and I consider myself fortunate to have lived a life so different from my grandmother’s, who was a very old lady when she was the age I am now. We are living in this amazing time when we can define who we are and not let the other’s perceptions define us. I wish that how we look were not so important and that people could just remember it is how we treat each other and what we do that matters.

  • Arlene Haessler

    And I must say thank you for this! Now I understand how others feel, because I am guilty of saying those very words to all you amazing and talented younger people out there, and I had not thought about the consequence.

  • Laura Beam McKinney

    This is one of the most relatable articles I’ve ever read on this site. I’m 31 and have been working for a decade in educational nonprofits and I have completely lost count of how many times people have thought I was straight out of college and younger than my colleagues who literally were just out of college or graduate school.

  • Jen

    PREACH! I just turned 26 and work at a University, first as an Admin Assistant and now the EA to a VP. I am constantly surrounded by people who are either older than me (staff) or much younger (students). I love my job, and work really hard to be great at it, but when people dismiss me because of my age my anger starts to boil over. Just because I am young, does not mean my opinions or ideas are invalid.