When Are You REALLY An "Adult"?

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Adult_Confusion_2Illustrated by Ly Ngo.


It's a train of thought that started with the simple question: When should you start buying anti-aging cream? When do you stop putting on eyeliner to look older, and start applying luminizers for a youthful glow?

Understanding the difference between girlhood and womanhood, especially when you feel like a kid at heart, is tricky business. It's an expansive gray area — maybe one that never truly gets resolved.

Women today, like pretty much everything on this planet and in human culture in general, are required to fit into certain taxonomies. Young, old, fat, thin, slutty, demure — there are a thousand labels, all with their pitfalls. Few, though, are really comprehensive of any life experience. We label ourselves "of age" at 18, but studies upon studies will show you that brains and bodies don't develop until years later. You get your first (legal) drink at 21, you'll be kicked off your parents' insurance at 26, and most Americans leave the family home years before that. Personalities, moralities, and psyches? It's not hard to make the argument that they never complete development, even after an entire lifetime.

Then, there's a wide gulf of gray in between adolescence and young adulthood. It's that gap that Lena Dunham and co. are studying in Girls, and it's that precarious period that also accounts for the widely maligned plight of millennials. But when, after those uncertain years, do we actually arrive?

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adult-confusion-3Illustrated by Sydney Hass.


To answer that question, we have to define what, exactly, "adulthood" is. Of course, that will be different for every person, to some extent. Certainly, it's going to be a very relative, unscientific, culturally determined definition that is dependent on certain privileges and a fairly uniform pattern of life. Because in order to be confused about adulthood, you have to have the luxury of not being forced into it by, say, severe illness, teen pregnancy, the early death of a parent, or financial need that makes you your family's sole breadwinner at a young age, to name just a few. Those circumstances don't allow for a lot of wishy-washiness in terms of one's self image. But, excepting such challenging life events, the issue comes down to one very simple dilemma: At some point, it's weird to call yourself a "girl." But "woman" doesn't feel quite right, either.

Personally, beyond the phrase "Girl, please, Loki is way better than Thor," I don't think I ever identified with the term "girl" in the first place. Maybe it's because I'm a bit of a late bloomer and the many connotations that come saddled with "girlishness" never seemed to apply to me amongst sexually charged, Abercrombie T-shirt-wearing peers. I was a goof then, and I'm no less of one now, though I'm 23 and probably should stop insisting on exhibiting a wide array of silly walking styles while traversing the office on the way to the bathroom. That said, I feel absolutely ridiculous referring to myself as a "woman." From a gender-politics perspective, I can get behind it. But, in terms of the maturity such a heavy word evokes in the day-to-day of my actual life? That's just laughable.

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Adult_Confusion_1Illustrated by Ly Ngo.


So many young — erm — females that I know seem equally confused about the issue. A grown woman in this society, we feel, should own matching bra-and-underwear sets and be able to pick her shoes up off the floor and put them on a well-organized shoe rack. She should open all of her mail and respond to it dutifully, rather than letting bills she's perfectly capable of paying pile up on the desk untouched. She should have a consistent beauty routine that involves a tried-and-true combination of shampoo, conditioner, and finishing products in addition to a favorite lipstick, which she purchases in bulk and from which she never strays. It's not about being perfect or pretty; rather, it's a measure of poise that comes with knowing what works. I wouldn't invoke her highness Gwyneth Paltrow lightly, but I do think it's a GOOP effect, or perhaps GOOP has just tapped into a deeply buried, eternally appealing stereotype of Womanhood.

Maybe though, instead of all of that, adulthood comes when you start owning it, as the kids are saying these days. When you start making important decisions, the effects of which will be apparent for years to come. And, when you start claiming agency in every aspect of your life, instead of letting yourself be shuffled through the various channels and avenues that present themselves to you. But, it's not that easy. Because that attitude leads to a manic concern over what exactly constitutes an "important" decision, and then you start thinking every move is crucial and potentially world-shattering. Worse still, there's the fact that a non-passive lifestyle is something that a lot of people never achieve. Is it fair to say those people never grow up? I'm not sure.

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adult-confusion-4Illustrated by Sydney Hass.


Or maybe, adulthood manifests itself through sacrifice. I think there's some rather convincing logic behind the idea that youth is selfish, and age is ever more selfless (as selfless as humans can be, at least). Some people would say that comes with having kids, with the total transference of your worry and energy and love onto another person, but I think it's something that happens in a range of other ways as well. At some point, you have to stop seeing the world as "me, me, me!" and start gathering an awareness of your larger place in it all. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of your actions can be daunting and freeing (or so I've heard).

Whatever the signifiers of adulthood are, we've gone through several paragraphs without identifying a precise moment of transition, much less a name to call ourselves before we arrive. We're still stuck between woman and girl, not entirely comfortable with either. The term young woman offers itself up, but even the word "young" feels both exclusive and burdened with associations that one may or may not want to shoulder. I think, instead, we should start calling ourselves "old girls." It's an excellent term for people who are young at heart, but also have the social habits of very elderly ladies, especially where Friday night Netflix viewing is concerned.

Just some thoughts on the day after Christmas Day — and a discussion we want to open up to you, too, whether you're hiding upstairs trying to avoid participating in the 50th round of charades or simply easing into your return to work after the holiday. At 18, 25, 32, 40, 60, or beyond, are you a grown-up? Will you ever be?