Telling me I look like a teenager isn't a compliment – it's creepy

I don’t look my age, or so I’ve been told.

It’ll be a blessing when I’m older, but right now, looking like a teenager while in my mid-twenties has one major downside: I’m sick of being fetishised for looking a decade younger than I am.

This became all too apparent earlier this year. I was working in a London park, with my hair tied in bunches in a feeble attempt to cool down in the 30°C heat. 

‘Hey, how are you?’ a man who appeared to be in his mid to late twenties said. ‘I was just passing and you…’ he paused, ‘You caught my eye.’

‘Please leave me alone’, I thought, but smiled uncomfortably. He looked down at my notepad. 

‘Are you writing poetry?’ 

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. This was pandemic London, not a Jane Austen novel. 

‘Studying, actually.’

‘Are you about to start your undergraduate degree?’ he asked.

‘Well, actually, I finished my masters four years ago. This is a professional thing.’

‘Oh, I thought you were a young teenager,’ he said. He then proceeded to ask me out for dinner.

I told him I had a boyfriend. He looked disappointed and avoided eye contact with me, as he turned and walked away.

I’m 26, but with minimal makeup, I don’t look much different from how I did at 16. My face has matured over the years, but I’ve been mistaken for as young as 17 and as old as 30, depending on what I’m wearing. 

Would that guy have approached me if he’d known I was his age? Probably not. 

This is a frustrating problem to have. When we hear the phrase ‘You don’t look your age’ it never has negative connotations, especially for women.

Young women are typically regarded as having better bodies, but I would say that for people – particularly women – in their twenties, it can have a detrimental effect on their view of their youthful looks, and men.

When a girl is told that she looks underage or like jailbait by an older man, the man giving the compliment fails to realise how creepy his actions would be if she actually was that age. 

A teenage girl sitting alone in the park might be too overwhelmed to say no, or worse, think it’s a compliment that a much older guy is interested, and that’s not OK. 

I wouldn’t have given the awkward exchange in the park more than a second thought if I hadn’t recently had a similar experience on Omegle — a video chat service that connects random strangers. 

I was with a friend and, bored out of our minds, we decided to have some socially-distanced fun on the chatroom.

Things took a turn when my friend went to the bathroom, and I was alone in front of the camera. I clicked to the next stranger. 

‘I’m old enough to be your daddy,’ a grey-haired middle-aged stranger said, smiling. 

My skin crawled. 

‘Hi, little one,’ another typed. 

My mind flashed back to the afternoons I’d spent on Chatroulette as a teen. The same thing happened then, when in 2010 an older man requested ‘Show your boobs!’ — despite me clearly being a very young girl. 

At the time, I couldn’t see it for what it was. 

I can only conclude that porn plays a big part of the problem, and while it has its place, to say the ‘teen’ category promotes problematic fantasies would be an understatement.

Pornhub’s statistics from 2014 to 2018 ranked the ‘teen’ as one of the most consistently popular categories.  

This normalises the fetishisation of teenage girls, creating a dangerous narrative that sex with them is something to fantasise about, if not aspire to, which could explain why a desire for teen-looking women is so prevalent in the real world.

These incidents don’t just happen when I’m alone either. Five years ago, my sister and I were targeted by an older man at dinner. We were minding our own business as we waited on an overnight bus from Glasgow to London when, without a word, he sat at our table. 

‘How are you?’ the man asked.

She was 19 at the time, and I was barely in my twenties. But we looked younger. I stared at her, panicked, asking her what to do with my eyes.

‘Fine,’ my sister replied. I said nothing. 

We were uncomfortable, but he didn’t care.

I’m not sure what he expected to happen, a ‘teenage threesome’ perhaps, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d never sat down uninvited if we had looked older. 

Maybe he thought that we’d be flattered. Either way, he’d put us into a situation where we had no option but to entertain him or leave. We chose the latter. 

As we made our way down the street, it happened again – and by the time we completed the 20-minute walk to the bus station, we were catcalled by yet another older man enjoying a cigarette outside a pub. 

I wanted to disappear – to look my age or older because sometimes, even now, it feels like the only way I’ll ever be free from harassment. 

After the incident in the park, I’m more conscious than ever of the importance of wearing a full face of makeup and avoiding tying my hair back, even on hot days. It feels like consciously trying to look older is the only way that I will avoid the unspoken downside of not looking my age.

I’m not alone in my experience of being fetishised for looking like a teenager, but it has to stop.

There are now a number of campaigns like Our Streets and Hollaback!, which are actively trying to put an end to the public harassment and fetishisation of women, and they need as much support as possible. 

We as a society have to call this predatory behaviour out for what it is, even if it is as simple as starting a conversation about how it is not normal.

Otherwise, those who are most vulnerable to it – actual teenagers – will remain at risk.

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