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Instead of “You Don’t Look Your Age,” This Is the Compliment I’d Rather Hear

Sometimes I completely forget how old I am. Not long ago, for instance, I was at the Austin City Limits music festival with my younger sister, listening to the Cure. The music truly swept me back to the Eighties, and I noticed a random guy dancing near me. In my festival gear—shorts, a peasant blouse, short pony boots, sunglasses and a straw cowboy hat (see photo above)—I thought I looked pretty cute. And maybe the guy did too because he started moving toward me.

He had graying hair and a budding beer belly, and I thought he might be close to my age (53 at the time). As he started shuffling toward me rocking his shoulders, I kind of matched my moves to his. I’m happily married and had no intention of picking him up; it’s just that sharing the moment felt like such a rock festival thing to do.

But when he was about 20 feet away, he looked directly at me and suddenly his face changed—not into a full Macaulay-Culkin-Home-Alone pose, but the same terror was in his eyes. He spun around abruptly, and still doing his little dance, quickly made his way back to his starting point. Ouch.

Crossing the Line

This was the first time I truly felt I’d crossed over to the other side of young, and I had a couple of simultaneous emotions. Anger: Did he have to be so blunt about it? I mean, it’s not like he was a slice of beefcake, dammit. Shock: So this is what happens when the way you perceive yourself no longer matches the way others do.

Many sayings about aging well try to distract you from what’s happening to your exterior shell: “You’re as young as you feel,” and the like. My mother, who is certainly aging well, always puts a nice twist on the clichés. As an octogenarian, she’d say, “I feel like a 26-year-old.” Then she would nudge my father and laugh. “But all I’ve got is an 85-year-old.”

In my head I know the age-is-just-a-number philosophy is valid, but it’s silly to deny that my face, my looks affect how other people interact with me.

This takes a while to get used to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost dished out a saucy little comment to a cute waiter or BestBuy clerk—as I would have when I had a bit of heat around me—only to stop in the nick of time, before I made a creepy cougar of myself. I can’t do that anymore, I tell the part of me that keeps seeing myself as an ingénue. Guys do not want to flirt with their mother. Ewww! Just like when I was young I’d want to puke if a man in his 50s looked my way.

Read More: Aging Well is the Best Revenge: The Secret is Your Attitude

Aging Well: The Secret

aging well

The author shaking the maracas with a band in Havana, thoroughly embarrassing her sons in the process.

While mindful of what I can and can’t get away with, I’ve decided to not let my looks be the only way people judge my age. That means I stay as game as ever. When I was scuba diving with my family a year ago, I took part in a running race on the bottom of  the Belizean sea. I came in last, but no matter, I was proud that I was the only woman my age in the diving group who didn’t stay on the sidelines to watch.

I’ll do flips off the diving board at public pools (not always successfully), and ride in the front car of a roller coaster with my arms up. Recently, I jumped off a 15-foot cliff into a natural pools below because…why not?

When in Havana recently, I volunteered to shake the maracas with a band at a restaurant (my sons wanted to put napkins over their heads in shame). Plus I’m planning to one day climb Kilimanjaro with a college friend. As long as my body can handle it, I’ll not shy away from a challenge or let preconceived notions of age-appropriate behavior limit me. Instead of “You don’t look your age,” I’d much rather people say, “You don’t act your age.” I believe changing that one word is a key mental adjustment that will make the years ahead truly fun—and probably a little more embarrassing for those around me.

A version of this story was published in Feb. 2017.

By Jeannie Ralston


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