“Act Your Age”- A Loaded Phrase

By, Nicole Chung

“Oh, please. Act your age.”

Whether it was that time when you were seven years old and trying on a V-cut top at the mall, the time just last night when you were steaming over a petty “he-said, she-said” rumor, or the time that your parents gently reminded you to obey your curfew, we are reminded to “act our ages” in countless situations. In a predominately ageist society, it is not uncommon to see adults wearing less “conservative” clothing, perhaps in hopes of reversing the clock and appearing more youthful. Conversely, with millions of teens on social media, girls seem to be wanting to grow up as rapidly as possible.In fact, an online Fox News entertainment slideshow from 2016 entitled “Stars who don’t dress their age” criticized numerous celebrities wearing clothes that they “should not” have been wearing. The presentation revealed a photo of Madonna in a cheerleader getup, captioned, “Women in their 50s should probably refrain from wearing cheerleader uniforms;” yet simultaneously, the slideshow chastised singer Adele’s mid-length floral dress, insisting that “Adele’s talent is far beyond her years, but so is her wardrobe.”

Apparently, both teenages and young adults are confined by societal norms when it comes to everything from attire to social behavior. But why should acting outside of one’s age be such a bad thing?

In the case that a five-year-old girl tries on her mother’s makeup and continues to wear it because she likes it, should a mother worry for her daughter’s premature insecurity in her appearance, or should she let her daughter express herself? In the case that a senior in high school is caught up in a friend drama similar to one she experienced in 7th grade, should she be looked down upon for being unnecessarily concerned, or comforted and supported just the same? Most people would err towards criticizing a person’s character in such seemingly unacceptable situations. However, some challenge the idea that any behavior would be unacceptable at all. Camille C. ’21 maintains that the phrase itself is relative: “Girls seem to be maturing earlier and earlier as the years go by. Times have changed.” Thus, the idea of “acting one’s age” seems rather archaic as new trends and cultures continue to settle into every age group of our society.

Nonetheless, people tend to view acting older or younger than one’s chronological age in a negative light, for every age corresponds to its own set of designated expectations and stereotypes. Perhaps such negativity is the magic of our subconsciouses, which perceive such behaviors as threatening. In fact, a study conducted by psychological scientists at the University of Kansas evaluated young adults’ feelings towards two different individuals: an adult who was trying to look younger and an adult who was not. Not surprisingly, the young adults perceived the adult who was trying to look younger more negatively; furthermore, the closer in age the perceivers were to the youth-seeking adults, the more threatened the perceivers felt.

Are people really so confined to their own given ages that having interests and appearances outside of their respective age groups is simply intolerable? How can one insult someone who is simply expressing his or her passions or emotions? On the one hand, some feel that just like race, virginity, and masculinity,  having to “act one’s age” is yet another social construct that holds back our fundamental rights to self-expression. Selina L. ’18 reflects, “I feel like [the phrase] is a form of censorship, of limiting people to more boxes on what it means to be their age. It desensitizes the idea that everyone processes and lives life differently.” However, the phrase itself simultaneously functions as a measure of protection; in the words of Alyssa B. ‘21, “When my friends and I are told to grow up, we try to act older than our age and it gets some of my friends into things they aren’t ready for.” Faced with a heavy pressure to grow up as rapidly as possible, many preteens nowadays may be jumping into more “adult” activities – such as dating and partying – more quickly than they want to.

What with the dimensionality of the phrase, we are left with one main question: is there ever a circumstance in which it is okay to tell someone to act his or her age? Kym M. ‘18 believes that people can act different ages at different times. “Maybe I want to go play on a jungle gym and have recess and nap time, and maybe I complain and when when things aren’t going how I pictured them going, but I feel like someone says [to act your age], they’re just invalidating you,” she relays. While our constant shifting between acting “young” and “old” may seem radical, perhaps it a dichotomy that should be normalized. After all, no one deserves to feel invalidated just because she wants to spend her free time on the playground, or because she wants to be in a relationship and wear makeup.

Perhaps we should dial back on the judgment and simply allow people to act the age – or ages – they feel most comfortable in.