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.