I was at the airport, waiting for a TSA full-body scan, when the woman managing the line asked me, “Are you old enough to go in the scanner?”
I stared at her face and wished I had the luxury to be surprised by her question. I was 30 years old. Full-body scans are a requirement for everyone once they’ve turned 12.
I have always been small compared to my peers. As a child, I was consistently one of the shortest in my class, lagging behind the others when we ran laps in gym. I would get asked if I was one or two years younger than my age, which irritated me but only to a point. On good days, I’d imagine myself as Cinderella due to my uncommonly small shoe size.
Once I became older, the perceived gap increased dramatically. My friends filled out while I remained spindly. I was given the freshman nickname “Itty-Bitty,” and people began calling me “tiny” as a matter of course.
As far as I know, I have no growth hormone deficiency or underlying condition other than being petite. But, I do have a confluence of genetic markers that signal youth: a round face, slight bone structure, minimal chest definition, and wide eyes. These are all features I can’t change. I also have relatives on both sides who hover around the 5-foot mark. My mother, too, is narrow in frame, and early in her marriage she was often mistaken for my father’s daughter.
Getting IDed is a matter of course for me: “That’s really your age? Are you sure? Hahaha, you must get IDed all the time!” I’ve taken the advice of loved ones ― and nosy strangers ― and tried responding to comments like these with humor, but the people asking the questions have merely looked confused. I have attempted to improve my confidence and posture with little effect; it’s hard to stand tall when I have to look up to speak to everyone, no matter how straight my spine.
“You’re so lucky,” people tell me as they roll their eyes jealously whenever I mention getting IDed or mistaken for a preteen. I want to tell them that they’d change their minds if they were the ones who had heard infantilizing remarks for over three decades. Would they enjoy repeatedly being mistaken for a date’s child or asked if they were old enough to sit in an airplane’s exit row? (At least the minimum age for that is 15.)
“’You’re so lucky,’ people tell me as they roll their eyes jealously whenever I mention getting IDed or mistaken for a preteen. I want to tell them that they’d change their minds if they were the ones who had heard infantilizing remarks for over three decades.”
While pursuing my master’s degree, I went to my brother’s Christmas concert. He’s over six feet tall and five years my junior; my family moved to a new town when I started university, so his teachers didn’t know me. “Are you starting junior high next year?” they asked when they were introduced to his “little” sister. Situations like that one make me want to ask people who insist that a youthful appearance is a gift: Would you appreciate having your educational efforts and experience reduced or erased with a glance? Maybe they would ― but I’m sick of it.
Every year, it feels more embarrassing to go out in public. My shoulders tense in anticipation of the next remark someone might make. I have grown to divide the world into spaces of competence ― the ones where I am known and respected, and public encounters, where people see only my body and where a comment or misperception could occur at any time.
Work falls into the former category for me now. In earlier years, as a camp counselor, teacher, or professor, the pitfalls of public life were present at my job. I would often hear, “How old are you?” or “Are you a student?” I started shoehorning in phrases marking my age whenever I could. My current editorial position affords me some peace. Professionals respond to my emails like any colleague’s, and I am grateful they can’t see my face.
I first dated in earnest via websites that prominently list a user’s age, thereby avoiding misperceptions of me from the get-go, and I have met every one of my partners online. My written eloquence has garnered me much of my professional and romantic success, but words desert me when yet another stranger assumes that I’m too young to interpret a question about my age to be rude. White hairs peek from my temples and pepper my eyebrows, but no one notices; people are too distracted by my body’s small scale to see the details.
Adulthood has brought another unwelcome factor for me: body shaming. This is something I share with other women, even though I don’t look like most of them. I’ve been accused of having an eating disorder and my clothing has snidely been referred to as “doll clothes.” Others refuse to believe that I hear the things I hear, or tell me these comments shouldn’t bother me because “of course you look 12.”
I may look young, but I’m old enough to recognize that these comments are neither helpful nor constructive. Many of us are culturally conditioned to feel insecure about our bodies. That’s no excuse to make derogatory comments about how other people look. Sometimes I look in the mirror and have trouble taking myself seriously or connecting the voice inside my head with the elfin creature looking back at me.
From a physical accessibility standpoint, it’s uncomfortable to move through a world where my clothing choices are limited to a fraction of stores and my legs dangle above the floor in most seats. Despite insecurities and challenges, however, I don’t believe my body is inherently wrong. If I could change how the public responded, I would be happier in my skin. I suspect this is true for many others as well.
I’ve shed more tears over my “first world problem” than I’d like to admit. Conversely, I understand that my size affords certain privileges. I am virtually immune to catcalls and some manifestations of sexism (comments like, “When are you going to have children? Your biological clock must be ticking!”), and I do not tend to get sexualized unless I make the first move. I am fortunate not to deal with fat shaming or worrying that I might be too big to fit anywhere or for anything. I have an easier time weaving my way through a crowd than most people.
“While many of my peers can get away with wearing a hoodie, it turns me into a juvenile hobbit. I’d love to be able to dress comfortably and remain free from judgment, but I celebrate the little things, like when a guide on an architecture tour I took last year called me a ‘lady.’”
Fortunately, I have found a few hacks to help mitigate mistaken public perceptions. Dressing in business clothes while traveling, wearing massive platform heels when an occasion permits, relying on tailored items, darker colors, bold lipstick, and keeping my hair short have all, at least on occasion, seemed to silence questions. But if I drop one of these shields, I find they resume. While many of my peers can get away with wearing a hoodie, it turns me into a juvenile hobbit. I’d love to be able to dress comfortably and remain free from judgment, but I celebrate the little things, like when a guide on an architecture tour I took last year called me a “lady.”
Since I moved from Canada to the U.S. before finally landing in the U.K., the comments have diminished. Brits seem to feel less entitled to comment on strangers’ bodies, or maybe they’re simply less preoccupied with them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also intensified my sense of public peace. Social life has moved online, where nobody pops up and asks my age, and when I am out in the world, customer service people are more concerned with safety than small talk. It seems in a world where anyone might be capable of infecting someone else, public remarks on each other’s bodies have dwindled for a time. Ironically, while a respiratory illness floats around the globe, I breathe more easily. My physical concerns are focused on sanitation, eating well, and exercising ― keeping myself healthy in the ways that I can.
As devastating as the coronavirus has been, I hope that perhaps the changes in public etiquette that I have experienced will continue into the future — that maybe the temporary habit of staying six feet apart from one another will lessen people’s tendencies to judge each other to their face. Our bodies are going through a lot right now, and I am seeing signs that we are beginning to realize just how interconnected we are and how dependent our welfare is on each other.
Those of us who live through the pandemic will share a legacy of both embodied stress and resilience, and the image we see in the mirror seems trivial in comparison to that. Hopefully, we can learn from this unprecedented time and the challenges it has brought, and as we continue to press forward and face whatever uncertainties lie ahead, maybe we’ll recognize that how we look pales in comparison to what we do and how we treat each other.
Melanie Bell is a writer, editor, and co-author of “The Modern Enneagram.” She holds an MA in creative writing from Concordia University and has written for several publications, including Cicada, xoJane, Autostraddle, and Every Day Fiction. Connect with her at InspireEnvisioning.com or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.