Do I Look 40?

Julie Ness

© Copyright 2007 by Julie Ness

Photo of a birthday cake with 40 candles.

Do you look young for your age?  I do.  Or I used to, anyway…

People practically have a heart attack when they find out how old I am.  This has been going on for about 10 years.

When I turned 30, one of my co-workers at the bookstore said, “I thought you were turning 20!”

At 36 I tried to buy wine in the grocery store but got carded by the young cashier.  He looked at my ID and exclaimed loudly, “Oh my God, you look so young!”  He announced my age to the others in line and commanded them to gaze upon me so that they, too, might see this gross incongruity.

The last time I got carded was two weeks ago.  So, you get the idea.

Not only do I like hearing, “You look so young,” I live to hear it, especially now that I’m months away from my 40th birthday.  Every chance I get I divulge my age, hoping to soak in those beautiful words.  When the subject of age comes up, my heart starts beating fast and if not given the opportunity to tell, I’m totally dejected.  More often than not, I get the reaction I so crave.  But... not lately.

It all began about six weeks ago when I started a new job as a proofreader for the creative department of a cosmetics company.  On my first day my boss asked me how many years I’ve lived in Los Angeles.  Hours later she asked how old I was when I moved to L.A.  I imagined this was her sneaky way of asking my age.  But when I gave her the second figure, her jaw didn’t drop like I expected; like I wished, wanted, needed.  That’s weird, I thought.  What’s up with that?

A week later I told a co-worker that my father is in a nursing home.

“How old is he?” she asked.


“Really?  I pegged you as younger than that,” she said.

“Well, I’m 39,” I mentioned casually.

“Oh.  You are younger.”

That’s it?  That’s all I get?  “You are younger”?  Where’s the shock and awe?  Where’s the part where she tells me I look 29 or 30?

After that I started hinting here and there to everyone at work about my age.  “Remember the Waltons?”  I would ask.  Or I’d tell them of my love for The Carpenters, Bread and Barry Manilow.  Still nothing.

Then there was the conversation at lunch with Jane.  She mentioned she’d been working at the company for 40 years.  I said teasingly, and loudly enough for the person next to and across from me to hear, “That’s as long as I’ve been alive.”

Dead silence.  Finally, Jane chuckled and said, “Oh, you’re around my kids’ age.”  I’m like, What the hell!!  What is with these people?  Do they all need glasses?  Do they not know what 40-year-old women look like?

A few weeks later I realized that my 40th birthday was only four months away, and my panic escalated.  I worried that maybe all of a sudden for some ungodly reason I… look my age!!!!????!!!!  How could it be?  Why, wasn’t it just two months ago that I was having lunch with my friend Becky who responded appropriately to my news?

“Can you believe she’s ALMOST 40?!!!” she yelled at the waiter who was halfway across the crowded restaurant.  He didn’t seem surprised, but it didn’t bother me.  He probably didn’t even know anyone that old, except maybe his parents.

Anyway, after the “You’re my kids’ age” incident at work, I actually started looking older to myself.  One day I felt especially old and ugly, and in a panic I confided in one of my colleagues that I was freaking out about turning 40.  She didn’t even bat an eyelash.

“That’s nothing.  I’m turning 54,” she said.

“You don’t look that old.”  (Hint, hint).  “Not that 54 is old,” I groveled.  Then she completely changed the subject!

Desperate, I laid it on the line.  “Okay, this is the part where you tell me I don’t look 40.”

“What?” she offered.

“Do I look 40?”

She averted her gaze and mumbled, “Mmm-mm,” and continued on the other subject like I had never asked.  I shut my mouth and listened.  Then I sulked back to my office and spiraled into a deep depression.  She was obviously lying.  She thinks I look 40, simple as that.  Just like everyone else at this Godforsaken company.  My deepest, darkest fear had come true:  I look my age.  How is that possible?  No one can age approximately 7-10 years that fast.

In an effort to console myself, I deployed my self-help arsenal:  Positive thinking:  “These women are really good at guessing ages.  That’s neat!”  Creative visualization:  I pictured my boss gathering all 11 women in the department and telling them that I’m 39.  And they all said, “No way! That’s unbelievable.  My whole world has been turned upside-down!  This can’t be happening.”  And they all got it out of their systems.  Astrology:  “Maybe Mars is in retrograde.”  Self-talk:  “Don’t be silly, Julie, you don’t look your age.  Never have, never will.  It’s biologically impossible!”

Nothing worked.  I was sure I had lost my youthful look.  And my youth.

I decided to try a different tack. “I’ll work from the outside in!  I’ll get my unruly curls blown out, my eyebrows plucked, my upper lip waxed and my nails done!  That should help.  And maybe I can finally get up the nerve to ask my eyebrow guy if he thinks I look my age, and of course he’ll be like, “What???!!!!  I thought you were 12 or 13!”  Then I’ll finally be happy again.

While I was sitting in the dental-like chair with a spotlight on me as he plucked away, I was given a gift:  the chance to seamlessly insert my question into the conversation without looking desperate and needy.  I told him that I quit acting and have a newfound career.  He congratulated me on finding something I like to do.

“It only took 39 years.”  I held my breath.

Again, nothing.  No gasp, no wince, no flinch.  Just “Well, I was 42 when I became a photographer.”

Great, we’re both late bloomers.  Not really what I was going for.  Oh well, I guess he thinks I look 39 years, 8 months and 2 days old.  Whatever, dude!  Thanks for nothing!

I headed over to Supercuts hoping for better results.  Maria began blowing my hair straight and updating me on her kids.  She mentioned that her son would be 13 in January.

“I’ll be 40 in March!” I blurted out over the din of the hairdryer.  But just as I said it, one of the stylists asked her a question, and I don’t think Maria heard me.  I’d been dying to tell her for YEARS, and at the very moment that I could possibly be getting my “You look so young!” fix, some bitch asks her something.

Oh, why must the cruel fates do this to me?  Why?  Why!  Why!

She never responded to my confession.  Did she really not hear me?  Or did she think my turning 40 was so perfectly logical that it didn’t even warrant a response?  “Of course you’re turning 40.  Look at you!”  I can’t believe this is happening again, I thought.  Am I on Candid Camera?  How can 87 people in a row think I look 40?

In any case, the hair, eyebrows and manicure made all the difference!  I no longer looked like a disheveled girl-next-door.  I was sleek and sexy.  I felt young and beautiful again!  Woo hoo!  I had to be seen!  I knew exactly where to go:  Becky’s place.  Finally… sweet sustenance.

While I was there she took a call from her 49-year-old (!) mom.

“Mom, you should see this girl.  She looks younger than I do!”  (She’s 31, and it’s kinda true). Ah, music to my ears.  Why don’t I hang out with her more often? I ask myself.

“Yeah, and she’s super skinny, too.”  I’m just like, Whatever, to that statement.  I couldn’t care less.  Just keep saying how young I look.  It’s like air and water to me.

“And I’m hot, too,” I told her mom over the speakerphone, just to make myself feel even better.

So, for now at least, my anxiety is at bay.  But I still don’t understand why everyone at work thinks I look my age.  Doesn’t make any sense.  Maybe they’re jealous.  Eight of the 11 women are over 40.  I hope they don’t read this.  Or maybe they think it’s impolite to discuss age.  They’re very nice, reserved people…  Bitches.


Well, turns out this story has a happy ending.  I was just at lunch with three women from my department, and one of them mentioned that I look just like her friend’s daughter.

“She’s 27,” she said.  “I don’t know how old you are.  Are you 27?”

Jumping for joy inside at being given this increasingly rare opportunity to feed my ego, I said coolly, “I’m almost 40.”  The sweet reaction?  Utter disbelief, my friends.  This woman thought I was playing a joke on her.

In her adorable Persian accent she said, “Sometimes when people ask my age, I say, ‘85,’ just to be funny.  I guess that’s what’s happening here.”

“I’m serious!” I whined.

“No, really, how old are you?” she persisted.

I finally had to spell it out for her.  “I’ll be 40 years old in four months.”  All the while I was thinking, “Thank you, Jesus!”

She said, and I quote verbatim, “You look 27 or 28!  Oh my goodness.  That is unbelievable… What is your secret?”

“Genes and sun deprivation,” I said smugly.

And Jane – the lady with kids my age – said that she thought I was kidding before when I said I was 40.

So, once again, I’m happy.  Until the next time someone doesn’t react properly.  Then I will most likely wonder, “Do I look 40?”

I have a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Teaching from Kent State University.  I’m excited and proud to be 40 – as long as I don’t look it!  I enjoy writing, singing, playing the guitar, and making people laugh.

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