Monday, April 7, 2008

What’s Your Self-Image Age?

My maternal grandmother was a beautiful woman in her youth, and lucky to be born at the right time for her looks—she was petite, slender, a bit flat-chested, and had a lovely oval face. With a cap of short, dark hair, she was the perfect picture of femininity for the 1920s in the US; the image of a flapper. If she'd smoked, her ideal accessory would have been one of those foot-long cigarette holders.

By the time I knew her she was still beautiful but looked like...well, somebody’s grandmother. And she occasionally told me, “I get up in the morning, go into the bathroom to wash my face, and look up into the mirror and say, ‘Who is that old lady?’ “

She passed this trait on to my aunt. Once, when my aunt was out shopping, a kid came racing by on a skateboard. This kid’s friend yelled, “Watch out, stupid! You almost hit that old lady!” Naturally, my aunt stopped and looked around to find the poor woman who had been so endangered.

When my grandmother looked in the mirror, was she surprised that she wasn’t twenty? Or thirty? What age did she think she was supposed to be?

I’ve been wondering about this lately, because I think the issue runs deeper than mere looks. In fact, I’ve begun to think our self-image coalesces around some particular age, and then never really progresses much; there’s some ‘age’ in the back of our mind that seems to feel right, and most of us, like my grandmother, are surprised to find we are no longer that age.

I know what my Self-Image Age is. It’s seventeen. Old enough to drive, but not old enough to buy cigarettes legally, and certainly not old enough to vote or drink. I’m constantly surprised when policemen call me “Sir” rather than “You little punk.”

This, of course, is how I manage to continue being so immature and irresponsible. I’ve still got my whole life ahead of me, and, in general, I think I’m unusually gifted and precocious…for someone who hasn’t even started college yet.

This also explains why I’m always finding new bands I like. I’m told by the music industry that responsible adults do not listen to any band they didn’t hear before the age of thirty. But it’s okay. I’m seventeen.

I’m acquainted with people whose Self-Image Ages are in their twenties or thirties, and I know a few people who will never really come into their own until they hit their mid-sixties and their Inner Grumpy Old Men are allowed out.

If I were in the field of psychology, I’m sure I could turn this half-baked idea of Self-Image Age into a new therapeutic modality. Why spend all that time trying to heal your Inner Child when what you might really need is to heal your despairing Inner Forty-Four-Year-Old? And why not deal with your Inner Forty-Four-Year-Old while you’re still twenty-five? Or why not get your Self-Image Age to grow the hell up? Why do hypnotic regression when you could do hypnotic progression? The possiblities are endless.

Alas for the field of psychology, I’m too busy writing fiction. And this blog. But the next time you read something of mine and notice the inevitable flaws, remember: it’s pretty good for a teenager.


Faye L. said...

Generally speaking, my inner self is probably mid to late thirties, with one notable exception, namely my gut reaction to my peers doing sensible things like getting hitched or having kids. It feels weird. It's not just that I don't plan to do either of those things myself (although I don't - I don't believe in marriage and I'm about as maternal as a cactus); for some reason those issues send my inner self back to the age of about sixteen, whereupon my reaction to learning that someone of the same age is, say, engaged is roughly along the lines of "What?! But s/he's only twen...oh. Yeah."

Alis said...

Really interesting post David. I was a useless teenager, didn't have much of a clue in my twenties and only really began to hit my stride, psychologically speaking, in my thirties. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see me, not someone I'm waiting to become. Interestingly, ALL the bands I listen to have appeared in my life in the last ten years (well after my 30th birthday). This may have something to do with my useless teenagerhood!

Tim Stretton said...

It's a standing joke in our family that I'm younger than my daughter...she's seventeen, so the range of available ages finite and small...

Sam Taylor said...

Well, for the longest time I was stuck at 6, then I was stuck at 16. Now that I'm in my thirties, though, I prefer them (except for the slow metabolism and healing), so I think I'll get stuck at 32-ish for a few decades. Yeah, that sounds fun.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Faye--

Yeah, we don't do the marriage thing either. But, then, I'm not really old enough.

You're complicating my theory, though, by being two internal ages at once.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Good for you on the music. Of course, having a bass player in the family has got to help.

It must be nice reaching your image age late. I forgot to pay attention when mine came by.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, that seems like a good situation for a fantasy writer. Will you sort of mature just behind your daughter, too?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

One's thirties strike me as a very reasonable place to get stuck, so here's to several happy pre-middle-age decades.

Age 6, on the other hand, would pose some real problems...

Sam taylor said...

David -- c'mon. I know you're just a six-year-old way down deep inside ;)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

"...I know you're just a six-year-old way down deep inside.."


You are so!


Are so!

Am not, you big bully!

Jamie Ford said...

I'm 19 and horribly geeky.

I turn 40 this July and am celebrating with a five other middle-aged 19-year olds by going to ComicCon in San Diego.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jamie--

I've never been to Comicon, but I have some friends who are Great Big Grown-up boys and girls who never miss it. I think I know their inner ages, though: they all drink as if they'd just turned 21.

Have fun. Maybe you'll make a few contacts, and we can look forward to "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter & Sweet--the Graphic Novel". (You may have to add in a few mutants with superpowers to sell the idea, but what novel isn't improved by mutants with superpowers? I regret not adding some to mine.)

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