As a woman of almost 40 who has no daughters, I have been insulated from the world of teenage girls for quite some time. But recently, through the experiences of friends and family members who do have teenage daughters, I have got a glimpse of just how hostile the world is for girls, how it turns you against yourselves and against each other.
When you get to a certain age, and you are probably already there, the marketing that bombards women will start to feel like it is directed at you. There is a whole world of man-made products out there that corporations want to convince you that you need and that you will need for the rest of your life. Things you will need to do in order to be acceptable and to feel normal.
All that advertising that tells women that we are too fat, too hairy, too ugly, too lazy, too smelly, unless we buy the stuff and do the things that we have been led to believe make us women. You begin to realise that you are almost a woman and that as you become an adult those things will become your burden. That if you want to be accepted, and the need to be accepted is very strong in teenagers, you will need to look a certain way and adopt a certain attitude.
This is the time where you learn not only to police your own appearance, but to police that of other girls as well. This is an important thing to learn, because men don’t want the bother of constantly reminding you that you that you are not good enough and you should be trying harder. It is much easier for them if other women do that.
What leads a 12yo girl to feel that she must wear full make-up every day, even on a family trip to the beach? What causes another to be filled with anxiety at the thought of her schoolmates seeing her with unstraightened hair? What leads a girl to believe that her life would be better if only she were thinner?
All of these insecurities are created by a society where women are seen first and foremost as objects, decorations, for the amusement and pleasure of men, and rarely as the actual human beings that you are. Where all the girls in all the movies and magazines and TV shows are young and thin and have perfect skin and perfect hair. Where the women chosen as ‘representative’ in the media only represent an unattainable standard that we are unreasonably pressured to attempt to replicate no matter the cost.
Women are taught from an early age to hate our bodies, to hate the way we look. As a teenager I believed myself too small, too flat-chested, too ugly. As an adult I hated my hair, my pale skin, my muscular calves, my flabby tummy, my work-worn hands, my face in general but especially my nose.
Then one day, not too long ago, I realised that I do not exist for other people to look at. That everything about me is absolutely fine as it is. That as long as my body does what is practically required to get me through a day, there is no need to polish the exterior for the benefit of people who do not have to live in it.
I’m not going to tell you that you are beautiful no matter what, because there is no requirement to be beautiful. Boys are not required to be beautiful. They are not required to cover their perfectly good faces in expensive chemicals. They are not required to remove their perfectly normal body hair. They are not expected to have long locks of just the right colour and just the right length that are not allowed to be lank or frizzy. They are allowed to get around the in the face and body they woke up in and get on with their lives without the constant anxiety that this makes them somehow not good enough.
Beauty is a con. It is a lie we are sold, that looking good will make us feel good and feeling good will make us look good. But you can never, ever look just right, there will always be an article, a product, an advertisement there to remind you that the body part you never even considered can still be improved. We are not meant to attain the beauty standard, it is not a destination that we are ever going achieve. It always remains dangled out of reach, requiring more and more effort, until we get to a certain age and come to realise that we are never going to get there.
The only way to win is to stop striving for it. Stop pouring your heart and soul into becoming the perfect object with the perfect appearance. And start being you.
You can never be what you have been led to believe is ‘perfect’ and the truth they will never tell you is that you are perfect just as you are. That your body does not need to be altered or decorated in order for you to be ‘good enough’. You were born good enough.
It is hard to believe this when every image the world thrusts in your face every day works to convince you that you must look a certain way in order to have value. But if you are to survive in this world you have to believe that your value is not related to how pleasant or arousing other people find your appearance and how many ways you have made an effort to look like a ‘proper woman’.
You do not exist for other people to look at. What you look like is nobody else’s business. You have within you a whole world of possibility. The more time you spend obsessing about your looks, the less energy you will have to make a wonderful life for yourself. Don’t let anyone convince you that there is anything wrong with your body, except maybe a doctor, and if he is concerned about your looks more than your health don’t listen to him either.
I was in my late 30s before I learned enough to unshackle myself from the shame of not looking like the women in the magazines. Don’t live your whole lives believing that you are not good enough just because some men want to sell you products you don’t need. Chasing that illusion of perfection will not make you happy or confident. It will make you hate yourself. It will make an enemy of your body, when your body should be the most precious thing you possess. And it will suck the life out of you, making you depressed and anxious. You may even feel this way already.
Hold your head high. Tell yourself every day ‘I am enough’. Choose friends who build each other up, rather than tearing each other down. Let people see your real face, your real hair, your real skin. Dress for comfort rather than for putting yourself on display. I wish I could tell you how much happier you will be once you free yourself from all the rituals that we are told we must perform as women. But there is only one way you can find out and that is to try it. Become your perfect, natural self and you will find a strength you did not know was possible.