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Take the Age: Reclaiming Your Years in a Youth-Obsessed World

05/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Once upon a time, getting older was actually exciting.

For me, my sixteenth birthday bought a B-cup, winter formal, and a license; eighteen scored ex-virgin status, college acceptance, and the right to vote. At twenty-one, I had a diploma in one hand, and could legally hold a vodka tonic in the other. Striding across my campus in cap and gown (sans cocktail, of course), I remember thinking: Finally, I am an adult.

But over the next couple of years, that statement really began to sink in. Having passed each of the benchmarks one looks forward to throughout childhood, I squinted into the horizon for the next. Sadly, the only privilege that could be redeemed in the near future was my Enterprise Rent-A-Car eligibility at twenty-five. I suddenly had real responsibilities, like bills, taxes, and more bills. My mother started suggesting Chanel anti-aging creams to "help combat crows' feet," and my boobs were definitely not getting any bigger.

Getting older had officially begun to suck.

Being an actress didn't help. In the entertainment industry, it's no secret that youth is power. Just take a look at today's top female stars: many of them were thrust into the spotlight before they had even finished puberty. And now, thanks to the tween phenomenon and mega-hits like High School Musical, Gossip Girl, and Twilight, youth is packing more punch than ever. As an actress, it is easy to feel as though twenty-five is the new "over-the-hill."

It's also easy to start lying about your age.

It happened in an acting workshop. The teacher asked my scene partner (an actress and model) her age in front of the class. "Twenty-one," she declared without batting an eyelash. The teacher nodded in approval.

"You're the still young," he said. "You've got time."

She's twenty-four! I wanted to shout. She's totally lying! Then he turned to me.

"And how old are you?"

"Uh..." My face got hot. Inexplicably, I couldn't find an answer. My partner turned to me, her dewy complexion glowing in the stage lights. I could feel the class' eyes boring into me.

"Um, twenty...one? I'm twenty-one." I felt my soul bend a little bit closer to hell. It was the first time I had lied about my age. I was twenty-four.

Keeping mum about one's real age is not a new concept. My grandmother didn't reveal hers until her twilight years, and my mother still makes people guess. The adage "A lady never tells her age" has been around longer than I have. Still, I felt badly. Not only am I a horrible liar, but my inner soliloquist had also begun to chime in. You don't have to lie about your age, it said. They should like you just the way you are!

But as I talked to more people in the industry, I wondered if maybe bending the truth wasn't such a bad idea.

"IMDb says I'm twenty-three," a friend of mine, an actress with a successful film and television career, told me soon after. It was the first time we had trespassed on the subject.

"Aren't you?" I asked, a bit shocked. She looks young and is often cast in high school or college-aged roles. I hadn't even thought to question the validity of what I'd seen online.

She shook her head. "I'm twenty-eight. Someone screwed up the data entry... but let them think what they want." I had my doubts about the data entry part, but I understood what she was hinting at.

Around the same time, another actress also commented on the allure of youth. At 26, she had worked consistently in film, television, and theater, but had yet to come across her quote-unquote big break.

"Directors have literally asked me why I've come so close but still haven't made it," she said one night as she perused the casting breakdowns. "The young girls--16, 18, 21--they're the ones who end up getting cast now. I can still pass for younger, but there's always someone who actually is."

Even industry people seemed to be in on it. When I met with a new manager, she specifically told me not to tell her my real age; instead, she pushed me into the "18-25" pool and called it a day.

I thought back to the acting class. At twenty-one, "You still have time," the teacher had said. Did that mean that, at twenty-four, I was about to tumble over the hill? And even if I wasn't, was there really a so-called expiration date for getting a career off the ground?

The idea of concealing my age was appealing, and I knew I wouldn't be alone if I decided to do it. After all, the obsession with youth reaches far beyond the entertainment industry: last year alone, Americans spent almost $11.8 billion on cosmetic surgery, and Botox injection was the top nonsurgical cosmetic procedure. I can guarantee that not all of those patients were entertainers, and I'm guessing most of them wouldn't scramble to reveal their true age if asked. What, then, could be so wrong with a little white lie?

Potential career benefits aside, lying about one's age-- like any other type of dishonesty--begins to take its toll. After that initial class, I did start lying about my age. At first, it happened sporadically and with effort, but with time, it became easier and more frequent. In a way, getting back those three years made me feel as if I had a new lease on my marketability. I was no longer on the brink of "getting too old" to break in; I was in the "fresh new face" category. It was my dirty little secret--the thing I was slightly ashamed of, but that gave me a strange sense of security (albeit false) that I did in fact have more time.

But there came a point when I asked myself, Just who are you hiding your age for? Sure, I was working in an industry that placed extreme value on external youth, but there are plenty of actors who didn't start fresh from the womb. If I were truly pursuing acting for the right reasons, "success" would be measured by amount of experience and quality of work, not by the time it took to get it. And let's face it: at twenty-four, there was still plenty of time.

I realized that returning to twenty-one was more a manifestation of my own fears than a literal tool to get ahead. While it did superficially make me feel more desirable, it also carried with it a strange sense of shame. By evading my age, I was in some way negating responsibility for where I was and where I had been. It wasn't only that I was being untruthful; I was essentially saying that what I had accomplished at twenty-four wasn't good enough. And if that were true, I'd need to do a lot more than change a number on my casting card.

So I stopped lying. If people ask my age, I tell them. I have nothing to be ashamed of. As I get older, I feel more settled, worry less than I used to, and am actually pursuing what I want, instead of what I think I should be wanting. I don't need an industry--or a culture, for that matter--to define my prime. That's something only I can decide. We shouldn't feel shame for getting older; we should feel pride for having gotten so far. Living, after all, isn't easy.

One of my friends, an actress, turned twenty-nine in March. When I asked her what she was doing to celebrate, she replied, "Nothing. Only one more year till thirty."

"You're still so young," I said. Because, in reality, she is.