When junior high rolled around, coolness, not sweetness, became the social currency: my friends at school were now ditching anything that smacked of little-kid-ness, I was still content with coloring and befriending my language arts teacher. School dances came into our lives, and with them, the beginning of dating and all of the drama that went along with it. Because I seemed shrimpy and immature, I was not chosen to play the role of girlfriend to anybody else. So instead of pairing up with a partner for slow dances, I’d fall back on my socially sanctioned part, trying to make my friends laugh by dancing to Kanye…it was funny in the same way that this is funny—like watching a toddler try on her mom’s high heels, an adorable mimicry of a mature behavior by an obviously immature person. Of course, to me now, everyone at a junior high dance looks endearingly awkward, but the kids there see the distinctions, and everyone at my dances knew I was the smallest, the silliest, the most childish—I was a toddler in high heels. No one was gonna take me seriously at a dance, so I played to their expectations—and I have to admit it was fun.
My social life changed when I was 12 and started listening to the college radio stations. I fell in love with a handful of local bands I was hearing, and started going to rock & roll shows on the regular. I became part of the scene just by being at every all-ages events in Seattle, chatting up any band and meeting their friends and other fans. I was head-over-heels about this new world I had found. Going to clubs with bars and unmarked underground venues felt very grown-up. But I was the Baby even in this scene—I was younger than everyone else, for starters, and my pure, uncynical dedication to the music and the community around it distinguished me from the seasoned music fans I was befriending.
This was the first time my babyness was neither a handicap nor a consolation prize—it was accepted, and even appreciated, by my new friends. Bands loved me; they started putting me on their guest lists for all-ages shows, giving me shout-outs from the stage, and sending me postcards from the road. All of a sudden being the kid was getting me the kind of affirmation that was indispensible to a shy, insecure junior-high kid.
Social roles are like scripted parts—mine dictated how I saw myself and how others saw me. These days, my childlike tendencies have cemented into my persona, the character I play every day. It feels natural to me to always be “the young one.” I have a group of friends who are all about five years older than me, half of whom have no idea I’m still only 20, and I still see myself in this kiddo role—they’re these bad-ass girls who are super cool and beautiful, and I’m the cute one. They wear leather and fur, I wear denim and floral print. They go on tour with their boyfriends’ bands, while I have food-related nicknames for my crushes (’sup, Pizza Babe…how’s the weather over there, Milkshake?). When we meet for brunch at our diner in the city, everyone orders real food and I request a chocolate malt for breakfast. I’m like a permanent little kid.
But I sometimes I wonder what my “real” personality is. Have I been playing a role this whole time that was assigned to me arbitrarily when I was little, or do I just have an inherently childlike personality? Because there are other parts of me that people don’t seem to acknowledge because they don’t fit the character I’ve been playing all this time. And I wonder if that makes me give those parts of me short shrift as well.
When I was about 15, anxious to enter my TEEN EXPERIMENTAL PHASE, I started to party. But even when I was doing “adult” things like drinking, I wasn’t treated the same as everyone else. My first few beers ever were consumed at an older friend’s 18th birthday party, and were chronicled through Polaroids and Myspace bulletins, as though my friends were keeping a Baby’s First book on me. My older buddies definitely looked out for me, which was a blessing. One of my closest friends, a vintage-shop owner in her mid-30s, would always put me in her incredible fashion shows—these huge, glorious extravaganzas that brought everyone from the city’s music, art, and fashion scenes together to party—but even though I was eager to join them, she would never let me drink at these events. Even with my best friend in high school, who was only one year older than me but a super cool, babely musician, I often ended up being the cute, innocent foil to her hip, rebel-girl persona. For every cigarette break she’d take, I’d tag along with a stick of gum to chew to have something to do. And she was always the one whose number people would try to get, and who would be told where the afterparty was going to be. I wasn’t always comfortable being her sidekick. I wanted to be the one invited to the afterparties.
I was the last person in my cohort to turn six, then 16, and now—the last birthday that counts for anything—21. I’ve seen this whole baby thing play out in a number of different social situations, all influenced by the stamp of immaturity I got in kindergarten. But how long can this really last? Can a person still be a baby when they’re old? Can I sustain this persona into the rest of my 20s, or my 30s? My 60s?
Things are starting to get complicated now, because for the first time I’m actually making friends who are younger than me, whether they’re sophomores in my classes or underage kids I meet at music festivals. It’s bizarre for me to feel like I’m in a position to provide advice to young’uns or to be— holy crap—a “role model” to younger people who want to do the things that I do, like make art or live in a city or whatever. I can’t function as the adorable child in that situation! But that’s OK to me—being the Baby thing no longer defines my place in the world; it’s just the flavor of my personality. I’m nobody’s little kid; I’m just a childlike human who lives in a magical universe of wonder. I’m no longer afraid of growing up. I’ve scripted my own part—a confident, responsible adult who keeps part of herself in a childlike state, which my decidedly adult life and helps me appreciate the world and make art and stuff. I just happen to be a little kid on the inside, and I’ll never outgrow that. ♦