When it was reported in two Australian women's magazines in 2015 that actress Rebel Wilson was 34, not 29 as widely reported, Wilson laughed off the disclosure by tweeting that she was actually 100. Two years later, she sued the publisher of both mags, Bauer Media, for reporting that she had lied about being in her 20s (and also about her name and childhood). Wilson says she merely deflected the topic of age whenever asked.
It was a rollercoaster case with Wilson eventually awarded $4.5m (that's Australian dollars, or over £2.5m) in damages, and then ordered to repay most of the sum after an appeal court ruling. Murky and dirty as that fight got, one thing about the debacle is crystal clear: women being coy, secretive or downright dishonest about their age is nothing new. It happens all the time.
Musician Collette Mclafferty was dishonest about her age for some nine years because she felt this would help her fit in with the people she was surrounded by in the music industry. "There’s so many societal standards that are marketed to us, day after day," she says. Mclafferty would say she was up to five years younger in order to land gigs. "I would constantly change my age depending on what I thought I could actually pass for and I would go back and forth in my head as to whether or not this was an okay thing to do." She often struggled to remember what age she had said to whom and had to do mental mathematics to make sure everything else she said was harmonious with her made-up age.
Lying about our age is deceitful, there's no getting around that. Dr Sophie Van Der Zee, assistant professor at the Behavioural Economics Group at Erasmus University Rotterdam, says around one in five people lie about age on their online dating profiles and that the two scenarios in which people tend to lie most are jobs and dating.
"I internet dated for a while and lied on my profile and never felt bad about it," freelance writer Josie* tells us. "People usually think I am younger than I am and I am happy to go along with that. There is an inherent praise/value in someone saying you look younger and how does anyone not internalise that as well as the million other ways society tells you younger is better?"
Josie still refuses to be honest about her age to others, even though her partner knows the truth now. "I resisted revealing [my real] age for as long as I could manage it and with my current partner was unfairly caught out after two months while making out a police report that he saw over my shoulder. He confessed he had seen it and I burst into tears, I would have rather he had pretended not to know," she says. They now have two children together and he often jokes that she wouldn't have been able to hide it from him forever, although she says she would have made every effort to.
I would constantly change my age depending on what I thought I could actually pass for.
According to Van Der Zee, mistruths surrounding age go deeper than just vanity. In fact, they come from a place of desperation to be treated fairly. Research by Catherine E. Harnois, a professor in the department of sociology at Wake Forest University, shows women are significantly more likely to face gender- or age-based discrimination than men of all ages. With that in mind, it's no wonder women bend the truth. "If you were rejected based on something you feel is discrimination rather than a fair judgment, then people are more likely to lie," Van Der Zee confirms.
What about in the workplace? Though only 29, Joanna grew tired of age-related queries during entry-level job interviews. She tells Refinery29 she was asked outright how old she was in two interviews. Joanna had two undergraduate degrees, a master's and a toddler. She believes collectively all this information gave her age away. She felt she was being discriminated against for being too old for the positions she was applying for. So she did some 'editing' on her CV. She deleted her A-levels and first undergraduate degree in law from her CV so she seemed around 25 on paper — and before she knew it, she had four job offers. "Once I’ve started the gig, I openly admit my real age and also the fact that I have a child," she says. "Once you’re in the building people don’t dare to openly discriminate against you."
Lying about age is not always to do with a negative experience in a person’s past. "It has to do with cultural norms and standards," Van Der Zee says. "Women tend to lie to be liked, to foster social relationships… or to maintain their self-image."
Josie says she inherited lying about her age – she does it because her mother did. "My mum would never say her age so it doesn't take a therapist to see this has given me an issue with ageing and that I think it should be hidden and is therefore a bad thing!"
"I realise the game is up if I don't want to do to my children what my mum has done to me but honestly, I don't know how to start telling the truth. If I didn't have children this would not be an issue and I'd lie with flair and confidence."
For Lisa Hack, things are a bit different. She finds herself constantly having to reaffirm her age. At 45, Hack is often mistaken for a woman in her 20s. She believes this is down to being a queer woman of colour who is gender nonconforming in the way she dresses, which she reckons makes it difficult for people to determine her age. In a previous job, where she worked for 20 years, she often found herself reiterating that she joined in 1997. "People would think, 'You're older than I thought you were, maybe you do know what you're doing,'" she says. From the minute they knew her real age, she says she’d be taken more seriously.
However, Hack agrees that admitting you’re older than people think comes with its downfalls. "People assign a personality to an age," she says. As someone who worked in radio — she is now a part-time associate lecturer at Goldsmiths University and a freelancer — there was a heavy focus on reaching a younger demographic. "If you're over 40, how can you make content relevant for 18-30-year-olds?" Though Hack is always clear on her CV that she worked at the same company for 20 years, in her cover letters she sometimes writes that she worked there for "over 10 years". "I think it reads better," she explains.
When you can be authentic about who you are, there's just ultimate beauty and power in that.
Mclafferty believes that telling the truth about your age (if that's what you choose) can be surprisingly liberating. When she realised she saw a future with a guy she was on a first date with, she knew the truth would eventually have to come out, so decided to come clean. "I needed to tell him straightaway because if I'm dating him for six months and then I said I lied about my age, that's going to get weird," she says. When she told him, she felt relieved to not have to lie anymore. In a plot twist, he actually admitted that he had lied too, though only by a couple of years — Mclafferty was 31, but professing to be 26. Nonetheless, they dated for a year and a half. "When you can be authentic about who you are, there's just ultimate beauty and power in that."
Mclafferty also feels a responsibility to set an example for the younger generation. She has now shared her age on social media and encourages her friends to do the same, and even tattooed her wrist with her age when she turned 41. "I don't want to see the younger generations deal with age shaming and age discrimination. I hope that by the time they become my age, it's not even a thing," the 45-year-old says. When she grew up, body positivity didn’t exist and now it’s an integral part of women's empowerment — and she believes the age positive movement is about to begin. "Realise that if someone has a problem with your age, it says nothing about you and everything about the person that has a problem," she says.
For women to become more comfortable with their age, it's not just us who have to change; the rest of society needs to wake up too, stop worshipping youth and deal with the fact that – shock, horror – women get older.