I look young. I’ve always looked young and it’s always been a major insecurity for me. I remember being 13 and getting so frustrated if the host at a restaurant instinctively grabbed the kids’ menu and a box of crayons. “I don’t need crayons,” I’d say snootily. But as someone who is 30, this is not always a helpful physical trait. A couple weeks ago someone asked if I moved to Chico, CA for school. “No, my wife and I moved here for work,” I respond. There was an awkward silence. In the last two days, I can count five people who have commented on my “youthful appearance.” They have a hard time believing I’m married, that I’m a high school teacher, that I myself graduated high school 13 years ago. Some will even be bold enough to tell me what age they think I look: 19, 18, 16? The kind ones say early 20s.
Why does this bother me so much? As I was preparing to write this post, I decided to Google the title I had chosen, “The Curse of Looking Young.” I only had to type the first four words and Google had filled in the rest. People had searched for this before. Unfortunately the blog posts and rants I found were written only by women, probably because there is so much more pressure on women’s appearance and age than there is on men. The most common curse cited by these other young-looking bloggers was the same as my own main grievance: not being taken seriously.
As a minister, this can be a challenge. My time as a hospital chaplain magnified this for me. I’d enter patients’ rooms and introduce myself as the chaplain and every so often a person would immediately comment how I look “too young to be a chaplain.” One person even said I looked 12! How could I move forward and minister to this person? I never knew quite how to respond. Thank you? After this happened several times, I brought it up to my supervisor as a major insecurity and a barrier to my ministry. He suggested that the next time someone said I looked 12, I ask them, “How does it feel to be ministered to by a 12 year old?” My supervisor’s suggestion turned the comment around – it wasn’t about how I looked but about the person’s own discomfort with age. Were they willing to put that aside and talk with me? Those who look a lot younger than they are say they have to work harder to be respected.
Looking younger than I actually am, for many people, disqualifies me. I must be too young to be a chaplain, too young to be a teacher, too young to know certain challenges of life. So I find myself having to prove myself to these people – and this takes a lot of energy. I imagine that if the 12 year old Jesus were around today, no one would believe he sat in the Temple that day teaching the rabbis. 12-year-olds are simply not qualified to teach! I’m currently the age that Jesus began his public ministry. For Jesus, convincing people of his authority was hard enough. Just imagine if he had the curse of looking young! Christianity may never have caught on!
Discomfort around age
Many of the expressions of disbelief concerning my age, I believe, come from our societal discomfort about aging. Practically everyone who makes a comment about how young I look mentions that I’ll appreciate it when I’m older. I’m not alone in this experience:
If I had a dime for every time someone told me that I would appreciate my girlish looks when I got older, I probably wouldn’t have to work full-time. (“The Blessing And Curse Of Having A Baby Face“)
“You’ll enjoy it when you get older,” is the most unhelpful thing you can say to a young girl who wants to become an elegant, beautiful Lauren Bacall-esque woman. (“The Curse Of A Baby Face“)
Why do I need to look younger when I’m 60 or 70? It seems our culture tries extraordinarily hard to escape aging, yet many older people I’ve spoken to tell me that, aside from medical issues, life gets better with age. I certainly find that with the wisdom and experience I’ve gained over the years, life is indeed better at 30 than it was at 20 or even 25. We ought to be comfortable with who we are and who God made us to be right now. I’m certainly comfortable with my age, but because younger people are not taken seriously and immediately dismissed as immature, I myself am unable to fully be comfortable with my “young looks.”
Those who don’t question my experience or vocation based on my looks make me feel respected. Most of my fellow colleagues who have taught for years, sometimes decades, have not commented on my appearance. As a result, I confidently feel like one of them, ready and equipped to teach. They’ve taken the time to get to know me. I’ve encountered people twice my age who (even when I was a hospital chaplain) don’t for a moment seem to doubt my competency or ability to listen compassionately. Some even ask for counsel on deep spiritual issues. They don’t care about my age. Instead they’re judging me on my compassion and my love.
Jesus himself said we would be judged on how we loved our neighbor, not by their physical appearance or a disability. Jesus accepted people as they were. He never judged someone on appearances. “Stop judging by external standards,” he said; “and judge by true standards” (John 7:24, GNT). God knows I do my best to give those who make it a point to comment on my appearance the benefit of the doubt; Ignatius says to assume the person’s positive intentions. I do my best to accept who I am and how I look. Still, even as a man, it’s hard to shake it when I’m bombarded by a culture so obsessed with appearance. God, help us.
Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.