dressupOver the last year or so, I have come to a disturbing realization: young boys don’t seem to check me out on the street anymore.  Before your perv detector goes off, let me explain.  I am not looking to pick up sixteen-year-old boys, I simply noticed that their lingering glances or flirtatious grins are generally reserved for more nubile young babes, as well they should be.  But probably up until 25 or so, I could still make a schoolboy blush with a wink or a wisecrack on the street, and now it’s suddenly occurred to me that I am old enough to be their older sister from their father’s first marriage.

When did I stop being, in the eyes of a younger generation, a hot girl, and become a woman?

Part of this passage is due to the fact that my career as an office slave requires me to dress like, well, a grown up.  Long gone is the pink hair, the miniskirt and kneesocks combo, the torn fishnets and whimsical barettes I sported into my early twenties.  These indicators of youthful abandon no longer feel appropriate, and while I don’t hesitate to show a little skin on the weekends, I have naturally become more inclined to Dress My Age and feel uncomfortably self-aware when I do choose certain articles of clothing or accessories better suited to a teenager.

I catch the image of myself in the reflective doors of the elevator in my office building, and examine my face and body for clues.  What do other people see when they look at me?  A girl in sheepish clothing, or a grown woman?  If I’m in front of a client, is it obvious that I’m playing dress-up in an ill-fitting suit and strand of pearls, or do I project certitude and experience?  Can anyone else see the feather-light lines splintering around my eyes, or is the fullness of my cheek more apparent?  And how does my outward presentation versus my internal voice color my interactions?

My mother always said that adolescence truly ends at 25, and I agree in many ways with this assessment.  I think that year marked a turning point in my maturity – certainly, it marked a new awareness of time passing and a more desperate need to accomplish something concrete that could serve as a foundation for the coming years.  Where did my childhood go, I wondered.  Certainly, adult responsibilites loomed larger than ever before and pushed their way to the forefront of my mind, crowded as it already was with dreams of “someday.”  Someday I will go to graduate school, someday I will move to Paris, someday I will travel across Thailand, someday I will write a book, someday I will learn karate.  The sensation of these hopes slipping away becomes tangible.

When the twenty-eight-year-old I am dating reminds me that, “Baby, I’m a man,” I chortle.  A man?  Please.  He’s a boy, a guy, a dude, not a child, but in no way a fully-formed adult man.  News reports always leave me with the same thought:  “An eighteen-year-old man was killed when his car overturned on the interstate,” I read.  He wasn’t a man, is my first reaction, he was a boy.  Eighteen-years-old is a child, an adult only in the legal sense.  Just ask his parents.

As girls, we started getting attention from men the second our breasts budded and our legs lengthened and awkward and ungainly as we felt, that first flush of puberty was a magnet to males ranging from junior high to middle age.  We grew accustomed to being looked at, admired, sized up, and judged.  What none of us are prepared for, as virtually every older woman will tell you, is our eventual decline into invisibility.  Is that what will finally mark my womanhood?  Will having children make the difference?  Will it be a professional achievement that takes me to that level?  I asked my mother when she acknowledged herself as an adult.  “I have my days,” she answered.

Politically speaking, I will refer to myself as a woman and have since I was 17.  Professionally, I am a woman in the workplace.  But internally, I have yet to come to terms with my “womanhood” and wonder when exactly this mysterious transition will take shape for me.   The closest I’ve come is those moments when I look at them, the grown-ups, and realize that my faith in them has been shaken; because I’m no longer certain that they know any more than I do.