Diary of a Professional Teen is a weekly column of #deep thoughts by 20-something teenager and youth expert Taylor Trudon. Every Thursday, she’ll talk about her feelings in relation to what it’s like to be a Young Person in 2016.
This past Saturday, I was walking through my neighborhood, sunglasses on, earbuds in, listening to a new playlist. I was about to enter a bookstore, when suddenly a perky young woman wearing a bright yellow t-shirt stepped in front of me.
“Hi!” she said, sticking out her hand to shake mine. “I work with Amnesty International! What’s your name?”
“Hi!” I replied with equal enthusiasm, yanking out my earbuds and pushing my sunglasses to the top of my head. “I’m Taylor.”
“Oh my god, you’re so cute!” she said with a big smile, the way you might talk to your friend’s new puppy. I didn’t know what to say. She appeared to be about my age. I mean, I wasn’t wearing any makeup that morning, but still — how little did she think I was? I awkwardly laughed it off, assured her that yes, I was already a supporter, and proceeded to enter the bookstore.
This isn’t the first time that someone has mistaken me for being much younger than I am. I’m barely over 5'2", and with my round face and dad’s dimples, I’m used to it by now. I’ve been given children’s menus at restaurants well past the age of 10. I’ve been mistaken for an intern at industry events. This year, after speaking at a prestigious conference for high school girls, I had approached supermodel Cindy Crawford in the green room. After introducing myself, I told her that in college I had written an essay that helped me win a big scholarship, and that she had partly inspired it. She looked at me quizzically. “You look like you’re still in high school!” I had graduated from my university nearly five years earlier.
“You’ll appreciate it when you’re 30!” adults used to reassure me when I was in school. In my 20s, the biggest difference in being called “young” or “cute” is that now I’m actually an adult. I know not to take it personally. But when you’re a teenager, there’s a tendency to internalize these patronizing labels disguised as compliments.
In 2016, being young is no longer supposed to be a disadvantage, as it’s the smart, savvy young people who are 10 steps ahead of those twice their age. Yet whenever a teenager does something that is remarkable or impressive — be it applying early to college, finishing a book that is considered “advanced,” or starting their own business — time and time again, the initial reaction is: “Wow! But you’re so young.” While delivered with the best intentions, the underlying tone of this statement is the message of a gatekeeper. It implies you’re not supposed to be this innovative/clever/accomplished/ahead-of-the-game yet.
In a wonderfully candid essay for The Guardian, former child actress Mara Wilson wrote about the impact of this kind of label, how she was perpetually cast as the “cute” character growing up. Every time someone called her cute, Wilson says she would “wince,” explaining, “something about it made me feel smaller.” That’s exactly how I feel when I hear the words, “but you’re so young!”
As Wilson expands upon in her essay, being viewed as “young” or “cute” can make you doubt yourself, deter you from pursuing opportunities, or worry about being taken seriously. You feel like you have more to prove — that you’re not “worthy” of your accomplishments. In high school and even in college, I would often refer to myself as “aspiring.” I was an “aspiring” writer or an “aspiring” journalist. I was afraid of coming across as overly confident. From an early age, young women are taught to be modest. If you’re too self-assured, you might come across as bitchy or difficult. Calling yourself “aspiring,” however, keeps you in a safe, non-confrontational zone. Looking back, it makes me sad that I felt I had to undermine myself in this way.
I still see it all the time, in the form of teens’ Twitter and Instagram bios — “aspiring” filmmakers and artists and writers. The truth is, you’d be hard-pressed to find a working writer or artist today who would say that “aspiring” matters. When a teenager submits a piece to our Founders platform for publication along with their bio, I automatically delete any traces of “aspiring.” (Although, I mean, don’t attempt surgery or try to pilot the International Space Station for a few years yet.) Calling yourself “aspiring” is selling yourself short, and it only works against you in a culture that already views you as juvenile — regardless of your successes.
I didn’t know what to say to adults when I was a teenager, but today I do, and it’s what I recommend doing the next time someone refers to you as “young” in an intentionally or unintentionally condescending way. I shrug and sweetly ask, “Why does it matter?”
Because really, it doesn’t. At all. It’s completely irrelevant. The Founders I know and interact with on a daily basis are badasses: building apps, writing books, crushing stereotypes, and leading important conversations. Imagine talking with your grandmother, who just informed you that she had downloaded and learned to play Pokémon Go. Would you ever say to her, “Wow! But you’re so old!”? No, you likely would not.
Yes, you are young. But you already know that — just as you already know that you are so much more than your age. So don’t be afraid to gently yet firmly tell doubting adults to move out of your way.
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