I Pretended I Was Forever 25 Years Old

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” – I wished I could believe in what the late R&B singer Aaliyah sang as much as others did.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” – I wished I could believe in what the late R&B singer Aaliyah sang as much as others did. Age did matter to me – every new year signalled more wrinkles to count and more beauty steps to take to ensure I came across as youthful to others. My age bothered me so much, I took desperate measures to make sure no one knew how old I truly was!

There is a reason to my deep-seated concern about my looks and age. Back when I was in my late teens, my features already resembled that of a lady in her late 20s – I had dark eye bags and circles, and strands of grey hair. It didn’t help that I was a chemistry geek who wore cheap-looking plastic spectacles and knew more about a lipstick’s ingredients than its application.

In fact, there were several occasions when friends of my school mates greeted me as “Auntie” when I was first introduced to them! It was amusing in the beginning, but that soon turned to frustration when I was constantly teased for looking like a haggard neighbourhood housewife.

I made a conscious decision to transform myself when I started work. I gave myself an English name, rebonded and dyed my hair pitch black, dressed up in the latest trends, and used the most advanced beauty and makeup products that I could afford. I flirted with the idea of going under the knife but only went as far as mole removal and double eyelid surgery. All of these worked – it was amazing how cosmetic changes could make me look much younger than before! But my one “ingenious” zero-cost idea was to never reveal my age. All I needed to do was to deny, lie and deceive.

For the last 15 years, I never told anyone my birthday or how old I was unless it was truly necessary. I would refuse to divulge my age by saying it was rude to ask a lady her age if anyone enquired. I would spend much time and effort photoshopping all my photos before posting them on social media, but also made sure to not leave any details that could give away my age online.

I persisted with the idea of being acknowledged as “Forever 25 years old”, a trick I adopted from the legendary Cantopop star Alan Tam. What’s worse, I cut off all contact with my former school friends! I had confidence that my age would be secreted away forever – my husband was terribly absent-minded, and my 14-year-old daughter, Sasha*, only had an inkling as I had always fudged the numbers with her throughout her childhood.

Years of my best-laid plans nearly came apart early this year. While I was out shopping with Sasha, I came face-to-face with an important client Mr Tang* and his wife, Tania*, a former secondary school acquaintance who had teased me viciously about my looks before! Tania expressed no recognition when we were introduced, but only gave a puzzled look when Sasha gave a slight smile when she walked past.

“That looks like your younger sister! Eh, but you seem so much more youthful than her – you must teach her your beauty skills so she doesn’t look so dowdy and nerdy!” said Tania, her mean nature unchanged by neither time nor marriage. I only responded with a weak smile and continued nervously with small talk before excusing myself hastily.

Regardless, it was because of Tania’s blunted memory or my “new” English name and looks, I was relieved not to be found out. While I was glad to have been mistaken for being a sister to a teenager instead of a mother, my guilt weighed heavier, for not having defended her as my daughter, satisfying my vain ego at her expense.

Three months ago, I decided to transform myself again – this time, from within. I celebrated my birthday for the first time in 15 years with my family and closest friends, with a huge bash at a chalet. It was marked as my “26th birthday” – not because I wanted to continue keeping my age secret, but as a reflection of how much more maturing I needed to do.

To prep for that party, I trimmed off my coloured hair, took to wearing plain spectacles and wore little makeup. Yes, it is true that age isn’t just a number, but something more – it’s a signpost of how far you have come in life and how much you have grown.

*Names changed to protect privacy. 

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