I've been thinking a lot recently about my experience as a teenage girl. After stumbling upon Petra Collins collection of photos called "The Teenage Gaze" - check them out here - and talking to two of the wonderful young girls I carpool, my mind's been filled with memories, stories, and imagery centered on the teenage years. Nothing can compare to being a teenager - it was one of the most colorful, vivid, confusing, wonderful, tear inducing times of my life.
When I think of my time as a teenager, I remember having to start navigating femininity, and the sudden – and confusing - importance that girls/boys/society began to place on stereotypical ideas of being female. I already wrote a little bit about undergoing the transition from girl to woman, but I want to get a little more specific with my experiences, the problems I see, and how to fix these issues.
Almost everyone I know – guys/girls – has suffered through the infamous “puberty movie.” I remember it clearly, though bits and pieces stand out more clearly than others. I must have been about 12, right on the cusp of teenage changes, and had been hearing stories about the dreaded video for several months prior to the actual viewing. I remember that the boys and girls were separated, the boys shuffled off into the gym, the ladies corralled in a classroom. We sat with our legs crossed – I was wearing a dress and recall being uncomfortable sitting on the ground - in front of an old-school television, waiting nervously as one of the teachers plunked in a VHS. Cheesy graphics and bubbly font explained pimples and told us we’d develop hair in weird places. There were tips on starting to shave and buying a bra. An overly excited lady popped on screen and talked about tampons and pads, and how “No one has to know you’re on your period!” Then the video clicked off, and our teachers passed out a miniature box of feminine products and a pamphlet on puberty.
They then proceeded to ask some of us when we’d started our periods and what the experience had been like. Timidly, girl after girl admitted to having started hers, each sounding increasingly embarrassed and grossed out about the blood seeping between her legs. As the uncomfortable decision continued, I began to navigate a strange mixture of emotions. I hadn’t begun menstruating, which, in some ways, was a relief since it sounded terrible and disgusting. But, on the other hand, starting your period equaled “becoming a woman,” so did that mean something was wrong with me?
Suffice to say, I didn’t know what to feel as I exited the classroom. And things only continued to get more confusing. When the boys and girls were reunited, things seemed different…awkward. My guy friends looked at me funny; some of them made jokes and I couldn’t figure out whether to be upset or laugh. I became much more aware of the differences between guys and girls. And perhaps more significantly, I became acutely aware of the differences between myself and other girls.
In the following days, weeks, and months, I observed more and more of my peers carrying colorful tampons in their purses. Almost all of my friends were buying bras, and I couldn’t help but notice how their clothes began to fit them differently. Meanwhile, if you blurred out my face, I could have easily been mistaken for a boy in a skirt. I begged my mom to let me get a bra and begin shaving my legs.
Even though my mom let me get a training bra (she said no to the shaving), I still felt unsure and perplexed about going from girl to adult. I wanted to experience the whole “becoming a woman” thing, but couldn’t help feeling that I was lagging behind. But on the other hand…becoming a woman sounded pretty damn unappealing and limiting.
That ridiculous video and all the hype surrounding it taught me a whole bunch of bullshit about femininity and puberty:
1. Boobs, curves, and bleeding mean that you are becoming a woman
2. Undergoing these changes – and only these changes – means you are normal
3. Being normal – AKA fitting into stereotypes- is desirable
4. But heaven forbid your hips get too big or you become undesirable
5. If you grow hair on your legs, shave it! No one likes a girl with excess hair.
6. If you start your period, shove a piece of cotton up your juicebox and don’t talk about it with anyone, ever. That’s just gross.
7. You’re either a girl or a boy; that’s it.
8. If you’re a girl, you like boys. If you’re a boy, you like girls. End of discussion.
Those are the lessons I took from a shitty, thirty-minute movie, the subsequent responses by my peers (and myself), and the mainstream thought process in society. There’s nothing unique about this experience. All around the US, pre-pubescent teens were shown similar videos - I desperately hope they’ve changed since my time in middle school. I grew up in a society with an incredibly narrow definition of femininity and womanhood. Certainly there were and are a multitude of women who think differently (my mother, many of my friends, my cousins), but unfortunately, mainstream thinking still has some catching up to do.
It’s taken me 24 years to start understanding just how f-ed up stereotypical ideas and notions of femininity are. As a teenager, our views of ourselves, and society, begin to form – those years are a prime time for developing ideas/insecurities/opinions/etc. And whether your chest begins to swell or stays the same, whether you begin to get more attention or seem to go unnoticed, the effects imprint themselves on you. In my case, I became self-conscious about my very un-womanlike figure, my inability to fulfill the standards and stereotypes presented to me, and a fear of what womanhood would be like should I ever actually reach it. Feelings of undesirability, unattractiveness, and shame planted themselves in my deepest, darkest corners, and to this day I struggle to uproot the seeds planted during my teenage years.
My suggestion? Instead of filling young girls heads with a singular idea of womanhood and what it means to be a girl, why the heck can’t we embrace and espouse the fact that going from girl to woman is an extraordinary process, one that doesn’t have to center around developing breasts or beginning to like boys. Not everyone likes boys for god’s sake! And not every little girl wants to be a girl! There are so many nuances to femininity and sexuality that aren’t addressed!
And why not? Are we afraid to tell young girls and boys that it’s okay to be different? Are we afraid to accept that not everyone fits a certain mold of “girl” or “boy?” This fear is founded in ignorance and hurts our community of young people every single day.
We also need to insist that, no matter what each individual’s experience is growing up, becoming a woman doesn’t have to be negative. Stop telling girls they have to shave in order to be appealing. Stop acting like menstruation is something to hide; that tampons should be bought stealthily in the self-checkout line. In some cultures, when a girl begins her period, her female family members and friends throw her a huge party. How awesome is that?? I one hundred percent plan on celebrating my daughter’s period – whether it’s when she’s 10 or 18 – with red and pink balloons, a cake shaped like a vagina, and a reminder that she’s an amazing human being, no matter her size, sexuality, or anything else.
We’ve made great strides over the years in promoting self-expression, acceptance, and love. But it’s time go from striding to sprinting. Let’s start making videos that are honest and encouraging. Let’s start talking about this. Let’s start making sure that teens – and adults – know that femininity has millions of ever-fluctuating definitions – all of which are right.