When I was 16, people told me, "You'll get it when you're older." When I was 16, people told me, "Just wait until you get into the real world." When I was 16, people told me, "You're just 15," and I would say, "Hey, I just turned 16," and then they dismissed me, because they weren't listening.
When I was 16, unsurprisingly, I didn't think I mattered much. When I was 16, I didn't think anybody would listen to me until I was older. When I was 16, I had so many things to say, and I didn't get to really say any of them.
Teen girls get such a bad rap. They're moody, they're mean, they're obsessed with trivial things, like boys and clothing, and they haven't quite figured out what being an adult is. Nobody really wants to hear them speak. We push them aside until they have learned some lessons, until they can look back on their teen years and say, "I can't believe I..."
But what road do they take to get there? What burdens do they carry, what experiences do they have to go through? Why are we so intent on leaving them alone, on denying their voices, until they learn? Why don't we just listen to them?
When I was 16, I was smart, I was studious, I had a giant crush on Ben Affleck (huh, yeah), and I was struggling so deeply with my body, it could have ruined my life. I'm 26 now. I'm still smart, I'm still studious, I still have a thing for Ben Affleck (huh, yeah), and I remember struggling deeply with my body, and I'm glad it didn't ruin my life. But I know I was lucky.
I wish somebody had heard me then, and had listened to me, before I gained the voice I now use to shout about it.
I remember how lonely, how scared, how overwhelming 16 felt. I know we all remember that, too. So why do we still dismiss the younger set with a flippant "I just don't like teenage girls"?
I read this article today on The Huffington Post about teen clothing mecca Brandy Melville, and it made me pretty sad. Years after I became a teenager, we are still telling teens one particular thing: one-size-should-fit-most. Ah, the familiar feeling. The familiar pressure there is to be a waif, a small thing, a frail bird that cannot fly. It's still happening. Not one god damn thing has changed.
Teen girls have always known the importance of bodies. Sixteen is the year you are supposed to look back and say, "I wish I still had that figure." They think about that. They think about how these are supposed to be the best year for photographs, for looking back and being reminded how wonderful things were. Sixteen is the year everybody goes, "I can't wait until she is 18," because we start to learn about the insidious hold some people have when they lust over our bodies. Sixteen is the time when we look at our bodies and learn to change them, learn to hate them, and learn the currency and power they may hold. The teen years is where all this starts: the calorie counts, the dislike, the pinching of the stomach, the feeling of helplessness when you hate what you see.
Teen girls are drowning in this. I remember being young and Latina and chubby and weird, and the only voice I heard from the outside world was how wrong it was to look that way. This was the voice I remember most. How different my life could have been if somebody how reached and told me how wrong that was. How long it took me to reach that stage: it's okay to look different! But it took me years to realize that.
Why can't we start helping them realize it now?!
It's also important to note this kind of vitriol is the same stuff they say to girls in their 20s, and older. That is harder to change. I learned to fight this off when I was in my in my 20s. Some of us haven't learned to fight those off at all. It would be very helpful to give teens the tools to fight when they are much younger, so they don't have to go through years of feeling like they don't matter unless they are shrinking. It would be good to teach teen girls they can be victorious, and powerful, and strong.
Listen, teen girls are a bit unpredictable. Teens are moody. But teen girls are also passionate and smart and ready to learn all the things about life they have been promised they can learn. Teens (both girls AND boys) are passionate about bands and music, because they are learning the wonderful feeling music can give you when it's 2 a.m. and nobody knows you are awake. Teens are passionate about crushes because they are learning how to hope and how to kiss and how to wonder. Teens are passionate about television and movies because they are trying so hard to find somebody like them. Teens are us, less muted.
We are a little older, a little wiser, a little smarter, but still smart and passionate and excited. We are the paints before they are dipped in water, the colors dulled with issues they will one day learn about. But they still have very valid, very real issues they need to tackle, too.
We have to take teen girls seriously. We have to start listening to them, and learning with them, and refusing to let them learn these hard lessons "when they are older." We need to start letting them know NOW. We need to start listening today.
And, in case you were wondering what teens girls and boys have to offer, I suggest you start with this list.
Alida Nugent is the author of Don't Worry, It Gets Worse, a comedy memoir released with Plume Books in May 2013. Her next book will be released in the fall of 2015. She currently writes on The-Frenemy.com, where this post first appeared.