An Open Letter to Teenage Girls

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.

I Stopped Trying to be Beautiful – and Nobody Died

I have never really been into make-up.

In my whole life I have probably bought a couple of eyeliners and one lipstick. The rest of my meagre kit was either gifted or handed down to me.

To be fair, I started my working life in the Thoroughbred industry. But through administration and reception jobs, even front-line retail, I have never gone beyond foundation, eyeliner and lip gloss.

I used to take it up a notch for ‘going out’. Especially since my first boyfriend would shame me for wearing make-up. He would say ‘I don’t understand why you do that’. That was his way of telling me that he thought what I was doing was stupid or wrong. Wearing make-up was one of those things. Drinking alcohol was another. There were plenty of others. But you can see why, for a while at least, wearing make-up felt liberating to me.

Years later, my lack of everyday make-up use was passed off as laziness. Which is kind of funny, because anyone who knows me can tell you I am the opposite of lazy. But nobody questioned it. When I would talk about how I didn’t shave my legs because I was too lazy, people would laugh. And I thought that perhaps I was lazy.

It took a long time for me to take the leap to consciously deciding not to do the boring, painful, expensive and pointless beauty stuff. To say ‘I don’t shave my legs because why should I?’. To realise that deliberately not doing all the things was a legitimate choice, not a character flaw.

How do I benefit when I shave my legs or armpits? How do I benefit from wearing make-up? How do I benefit from having long hair that takes ages to dry and always gets in my way? The answer is that I don’t.

So why did I ever feel the need to do all those things?

We have it drummed into us, this requirement to be beautiful, or to at least make an effort. It is hammered into us so relentlessly that we find it impossible to separate ourselves from it. We make up reasons for justifying all the pointless tasks, all the expensive products, all the synthetic chemicals. We shame others for not complying. We never ask why we really do it.

I like to wear little shorts and singlets in summer. I like to go braless pretty much all the time when I am at home. I like to paint my nails with sparkly polish. I don’t give a shit what the rules say.

When I was compliant, I always felt guilty for neglecting my personal maintenance. I felt like I had achieved something when I spent a couple of hours waxing, plucking and spray-tanning. But the rest of the time, when I wasn’t perfectly presented, I felt slightly ashamed.

When I decided not to comply any more, that shame went away. I no longer have to worry about being ‘sexy enough’. I don’t have to worry about much, other than my health. I still colour my hair and like to try different styles, but I want quick-drying and easy-upkeep rather than extra body or super shiny. I don’t even fork out for shampoo and conditioner any more.

I don’t see the point of putting expensive chemicals on a perfectly good face. I don’t expect anyone to do it, but I can understand why many women do. But I want you to know that you don’t have to do those things. People will still like you. Shower, wash your hands, brush your teeth, clip your toenails. We all should keep doing those things for the sake of hygiene and sharing space. The rest of it is all window dressing. It doesn’t really add any value.

I can hear the murmurs of ‘but what will my boyfriend/husband think if I pull this caper? He expects me to look like a woman.’. He is presumably aware by now that you are a woman. I don’t think he will forget. If his attraction to you is conditional upon you looking a certain way, then you can either keep doing all the things to please him, you can gradually try different options and hope he gets used to it, or you can tell him that it is your body and you’ll do whatever the hell you like with it. It is trying to avoid disapproval and criticism from men that causes us to do all the things in the first place.

Honestly, it is your choice, now that you know all your options. Maybe you will be content to keep going with the flow. Maybe you can let your hair grow for a bit just to see what you think. Maybe you will find not doing the things to be as freeing as I ultimately have found it. But there is no harm in trying. You can always change your mind later.

It took making little choices, trying different options and sometimes going back to something a few times for me to get to the point where I don’t need to be beautiful. But having got here I can tell you that it is a blissful place. And the longer I am here, the more confident I get. This is a contrast to all the years I spent half-heartedly chasing the beauty standard and finding myself feeling ever more inadequate.

There is a freedom in allowing yourself to look like yourself. You may have noticed that men get around with their hair on and in the faces they wake up with and nobody cares. Nobody looks at them and thinks ‘did he even look in the mirror before he left the house?’. This is one freedom you can take back for yourself.

Imagine if we all did  it…