The Vagenda

Confessions of a Teenage Feminist


What’s the relevance of feminism for teenagers? Besides part-time jobs, we’re not yet experiencing inequality in the work place, nor smashing through a glass ceiling with a hard-back copy of the Female Eunuch. In the West, we’re just as entitled to an education and we know we’ll be able to vote and own our own property (in theory at least, if not in reality thanks to the messed up economy). However, so many perceived teen issues – like body image, relationships and sex – are intertwined with feminism. Take body image: the number of teenage girls refusing to eat breakfast or lunch because they want to lose weight; obsessing over appearance. How did this happen? 
For me, the emphasis on appearance landed in year eight. My friends began talking about shaving, only this wasn’t a light-under-the-arms-and-along-the-bikini-line affair. Oh no. Only heads, eyelashes and eyebrows were saved from the zealous removal of anything even resembling a protrusion from a follicle. My first reaction was bafflement (where did they find the time? why?); the second unease. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with removing all body hair if you find it genuinely pleasing – it’s a personal thing – but the conversations about the need for razors and shavers filled me with fear. It was a fear that if I didn’t conform to this Barbie-smoothness that was suddenly an expected norm, then I’d remain forever a virgin. I assumed all teenage boys would be repulsed by the smallest glimpse of pubic hair – perhaps not quite doing a John Ruskin in fainting at the sight, but still being repelled or wary of anything that didn’t resemble a plucked chicken. 
Girls who’ve recently hit puberty can easily live in a state of melodrama, but these worries felt genuine – backed up by the sniggering schoolboy references to muffs and porn clips shared between mobiles at break time. Female body hair was apparently something to be ashamed of. I was happy to sporadically tackle stubbly armpits and shins, but that was my limit. Thus I had no idea what I’d be expected to do if I had a boyfriend. To be honest, I’m yet to find out – having never been in a relationship, but in many ways I’m glad. These past few years have allowed me the time and space to learn to respect my own body – to know I’d be willing to challenge anyone who expected me to tailor my appearance to their whims; to understand that it’s okay to stand up for myself. I’m not sure my younger self would have had that courage or conviction. Discovering feminism was a revelation, a huge thumbs up to my private worries about appearance and expectations – it gave me a choice and a voice. 
Now it makes me want to challenge a society where rape jokes and it’s only banter sexism are acceptable; where UniLad is popular; where male feminists are ridiculed; where sex is something to be aspired to whatever the consequence – but the girl who sleeps around is a slag while the boy’s a stud. It’s also made me aware of the media messages targeted at women. Many magazines – aimed at adults, but read gleefully by teenage girls – publish all kinds of self contradictory messages: that we need to be happy in our bodies, but still celebrate that Sleb who’s lost weight; that natural is best, but we should pillory an actress with spots or sweat marks; that we need to respect our bodies and boundaries, but if we don’t sleep with our boyfriends within a specified period of time he’ll probably leave. We’re basically never enough as we are – there’s always something to be unhappy with. 
There are alternatives to be found though, particularly on the Internet. Rookie Mag has been an invaluable resource to many young people. I don’t read it regularly, but do enjoy the occasional article binge – they’re great on their coverage of everything from drinking to sexuality. IdeasMag offers a lot of creative, funny pieces (as well as some great arts opportunities). There are also a few print magazines that don’t adhere to the celeb-style-gossip-photoshopped-to-within-an-inch-of-reality formula that I followed when slightly younger. Magazines aimed at teenagers are often little more than stepping-stones to their adult counterparts. Instead other options must be sought. Lula is pure fantasy, but the photos are delicious, while independent publications such as Lionheart can appeal to teenagers (as well as adults) keen for a mixture of culture and interesting topics. I’m lucky to be at the age where I can now enjoy many of the more unique titles aimed at older audiences – but there’s still room for a really good magazine for teenage girls that doesn’t pander or patronize. 
I can’t talk on behalf of all teenagers. I can’t even talk on behalf of all teenage feminists. My views are informed by my own experiences, choices and observations – although with a heavy influence from Caitlin Moran’s brilliant ‘How to be a Woman’. But it’s heartening to know that I’m not the only one. There are others thinking, discussing, speaking. I was talking to someone the other day about feminism, and she asked if I’d heard of one of her favourite blogs: the Vagenda. I might have squealed as I nodded. 
- RJ

20 thoughts on “Confessions of a Teenage Feminist

  1. I think feminism all round is obscene a stupid! Why make such a big deal of things that don’t actually concert you and take it out on all men as its not all men’s faults that ages ago things werent equal!

  2. Hey Rachael. I’m really sorry that discovering this blog has made you so angry that you could hardly type straight, I know, Liz Jones does that to me sometimes too! But I see that you also blog. This is the perfect oppurtunity for you to work through your frustration by letting us know why we don’t need to be concerned with obscene a stupid feminism anymore. As soon as you do so please link to it here, because us Vagenda readers do love an infomed and witty debate.

  3. Hey RJ. Thanks for restoring my faith in teenage girls. Keep on questioning, thinking, discussing, speaking and rocking. Because you do totally rock.

  4. Challenge accepted! By the way it is rather you rude you insulted my writing ability as I’m dyslexic, and I can still blog my heart out. Do you?

  5. Great post, and really important too – the more teenagers can access feminism the better the future will be. I think it’s sometimes too easy to forget how difficult sexism can be as a teenager, and it’s an important reminder for work that needs to be done with teenage magazines. Thanks for the excellent discussion.

  6. Hi Rachael.
    Just thought I’d add in my two cents here. My personal belief that every woman is a feminist (and men should be too!) is down to the simple fact that every body should be equal, full stop. In life, women meet points where they are treated unfairly or do not have equal opportunities and feminism believes that this is due to social and cultural factors, rather than it all being the fault of men. It may seem that this article is attacking men (ref: “sniggering teenage boys”) but in reality this article (and ultimately feminism) is about tackling why our society creates such extreme anxieties about body image in our youth.
    From the age of 11 I was asked repeatedly by boys whether I ‘spit or swallow’, had a boy expose himself and told to ‘choke on it’ and when I wouldn’t let a boy finger me in Science class, called the ultimate social death word; ‘frigid’. These were traumatic events that without someone to guide me, resulted in me feeling that I was inadequate and my only self worth was measured in how much I could fit in with the ‘norm’ of a sexed up image and putting out a lot earlier than I felt comfortable with.
    I’m glad to say that I have many male ‘feminist’ friends who are as repulsed by this behavior as most people should be, and feminist sites such as the Vagenda helps build a culture of mutual respect between men and women were we can try to correct this gross unfairness, so that when my sons and daughters (if I have any) go to High School, they will be infinitely more concerned with what they want to do with their futures, rather than there bodies.
    I hope this helps explain why for a lot of people, feminism isn’t ‘obscene and stupid’, but a valid cause for many anxious, doubtful and downright terrified pubescent teenage girls and guys! Feel free to drop a comment with your thoughts.
    Kayleigh x

  7. I just don’t think all blokes should be classed as one thing because you had it shit a bit in life love. Can you really not see that not all women should be a feminist people should be what they want to be. Unfortunately some blokes chose to be sexist and should be educated to treat people equally. Not punished for misunderstanding. modern feminism doesn’t have the place it used to. Things are more equal give and take love. What happened to you was sexual harassment that should’ve been tackled as such. Equality doesnt mean being better than. And these days that’s all feminism seems to be encouraging. Sorry for your disagreement wait and read my blog on it. But everyone to their own. And how can any teenager talk of feminism what you suffered as a teenager was not inequality. But sexual harassment sorry to say or at least the way you’ve described it. A teenager doesn’t know of the world of this yet and must learn properly.
    Rachael cx

  8. Rachael, I’m not sure where you have gotten your idea of what feminism is about, but the idea that it is about punishing men is incorrect, nor is it lumping all men in together as evil beings. I also don’t quite see where RJ is attacking all men. She seems to me to be clearly critiquing the bullshit sexist system that keeps a lot of people (both men and women) having to act in proscribed ways.

    In very simple terms, Feminism is about fighting the Patriarchy. Again, very simply put, Patriarchy is a system that works in the favour of older white straight men, as opposed to everyone else (female, non-white, young, BGLT etc). This patriarchy is propped up the socially accepted concept that blokes are smarter, emotionally stoic, make better leaders, more technically competent, sexual stallions while women are just silly, sexy things that only really have times for shopping, chocolate, personal grooming, babies and puppies. Most feminists believe that this patriarchy thing is a pretty bad deal for everyone, including blokes.

    This is an oldie-but-a-goodie sticker/poster that kinda sums up the idea that all this gender stereotyping is bad for everyone.

    Also, have a read of both Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Be A Woman’ (it’s dead funny too) and Living Dolls by Natasha Walters.

    Anyways, looking forward to your blog post!

  9. i had shout and some other magazines for a bit, looked at things i didnt like and young women who didnt look like me at all… and hated myself for it! never realising that in a school of one point one thousand students- none of them looked like the girls in the magazines either! and that we didnt have to put up with the insults to our developing bodies.

    you are a great writer and i’m glad you know about all of these publications! (also, for showing me a couple i’d never heard of!) i wish i’d have had your writing, vegenda and rookie when i was younger- yes, i’m 24 but read rookie sometimes- making up for the past!

  10. Rachael, if a teenager doesn’t know of this world and needs to learn properly, it backs up exactly what the article (and therefore feminism) is saying. So your point is nul. Do you still argue that people should be free to be bastards? Sexual harassment is down to sexual inequality, someone thinking that it is fine to treat you like a piece of meat because you are not considered equal to them. You are a confused young lady in my opinion. This article is well written and puts the point across well

  11. I’m the writer of this article – thank you very much to all of those who responded so thoughtfully. I’m glad to hear that it struck the right chord. The internet may have its downsides, but one of the best aspects is the access given to like-minded peopl – along with the possibilities for debate. It was a pleasure to write somethong for vagenda – very exciting.
    Just to clarify, I wasn’t implying in any way that feminism should promote the view that women are better than men. At its most basic level, feminism is just about equality. As a seventeen year old, I may not have had huge life experience, but I don’t feel that limits me in my opinions or beliefs – they merely represent what I have experienced so far. I’ve written three articles on feminism ( ranging from body image to male feminism) on my own blog here:

  12. Just as as an addendum, apologies for any mis-spellings in the above comment – my internet is down and I’m reduced to typing on my phone. Will try to respond to some of the comments when I next have access to a computer!

  13. Hello Rachel, I’m going to drop in here a my thoughts on the above statements. I co-edit a feminist zine, and I’m really interested in ideas about what is feminism and what is it for, so in the spirit of open debate, here’s what I think. (sorry in advance if this is really long!)

    When I meet a woman (or man) who dismisses feminism, I just ask her the following kinds of questions:
    Should women have the right to own property?
    If a man and a woman have an identical/similar job should they receive equal pay?
    Should a husband have the legal right to have sex with a wife regardless of her wishes?
    Should a woman have the right to vote?

    Most people, for example; agree that that a woman who has wants a house should be able to buy it in her own name, and decide what she wants to do with it. As another example; if a woman has an identical/similar job to a man, most people agree that both workers have a right to equal wages, it makes sense and it’s fair.

    These examples are things that women could not do in the past, and now can. These things were changed through ‘political activities that aid equality’ and this activity could also be labeled as feminism.

    The society we inhabit now is evolved from the past; where women couldn’t even own property, because we were property! Things are changing, but there is still work to be done, to make society as equal as possible. And most people would agree that equality is a good thing.

    What we all experience daily is the hang over from a very unequal past, however, I believe that when you’re living with the present, you can and should change it. I look for instance at the House of Commons and I think, hmmmm, I’d like it to look like our actual society instead of a majority of white men, from a specific class. Things are not as equal as they can appear- for instance did you know that due to the pay gap, from the 31st of October women ‘work for free’!? women retire with only 62% of the pension of an equitable mans, and there’s rafts of info out there that demonstrates that the society that we live in, that was constructed by a specific group,(white rich men)still benefits some groups more than others.

    Sometimes its hard to see that the things that affect us personally on a small scale are part of a wider political context, but they are. What we do and what happens to us, are expressions of our society, as well as our personal lives.

    Political activity that makes society more equal is better for everyone, and in my experience feminism is never about blaming men, I live with my boyfriend and love him. Why would I blame him for the inequality in our society? that wouldn’t make any sense! an unequal society is not the fault of any one individual, but we all individually contribute to making it less or more equal. Its also important to remember that men get dis-serviced by an un-equal society just as women do.

    I think arguments about feminism often stem from semantics, what words actually mean, and what we mean when we use them. At our zine, we like to discuss the larger issues that affect all women, we do this to open debate and encourage the finding of common ground.

    My thoughts on feminism can really be summed up like this (I robbed it off Cindy Gallop) if you have a vagina (or not)and want to be in charge of it, you’re a feminist, simple as, and with that in mind, whats not to love?

  14. Hoping you’re finished having a go I’m not against the principles I’m against the obscene extreme circumstances I’ve seen it go to. Sorry pet hate but my name is spelt Rachael thank I’ve loved aaaaallll your comments and love how much you all believe in this old cause xx

  15. Hi RJ,
    I think we’re soul sisters. Everything you so intelligently wrote also applies to me. I adore Caitlin Moran’s book & Rookie, and regularly shake my fist at the sky in anger at teen magazines, razors and double standards. I am also a teenager half petrified of never getting a boyfriend and half believing that I DON’T NEED NO MAN. Thank you for this, I don’t feel so alone.

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