By Charlotte Saul @csaul_screenmedia
Society loves to have opinions about things. The way we talk, what we wear, what we watch; it’s all guided, if not predetermined by the opinions and trends that society forces onto us. No one is more conscious of this than teenagers. It’s already a weird phase of life to be in; too young to be and too old to ask; being pulled in every direction as you try to figure out who you are, where you’re going, and what you want. And it doesn’t help when everywhere you turn society shames you for the things you like.
When it comes to shame, it’s no secret that teenage girls feel the brunt of it. Every aspect of life is criticised, picked apart under a microscope and put back together in a way that is socially acceptable. Whether you’re trying too hard, or not trying enough, it seems that for as long as teenagers have been able to have their own interests, teenage girls have struggled to present themselves as truly authentic and be accepted for it. It’s no surprise that many young people, especially young women, are shamed out of liking their particular interests, and tried to force to like a particular set of socially acceptable hobbies, music, or films.
I talked to Bella Follows, a friend of mine and an unabashed Twilight fan, to ask her how society has changed her attitude towards her interest over the years. Bella is one of my closest friends and is so unapologetically herself, but she wasn’t always like this.
“I went through a phase … when I wanted so badly to be cool. I didn’t feel confident in my body and I think because of that I tried to forget about the more dorky sides of my personality. I felt like I couldn’t change what I looked like so I had to change what I liked instead.”
For Bella, one of these interests was Twilight, an interest which, up until very recently, was something that you were told you should be ashamed about. “I always liked Twilight, but I remember it was always something that people laughed at,” Bella says, reflecting on times when she was younger that she tried to talk about the film with people, even close friends of hers. “It’s now been kind of tainted in a way … it has all these emotions attached to it which are no result of the film itself, just because of what people would say to me then. I wanted so badly to be cool and to have a boyfriend when I was like 13, 14, that I let people ruin a film that I love.”
Like most young people, Bella was made to feel bad for something that she was interested in and attempted to fit into a mould that she felt was present for her. “I didn’t have much of a choice. It was all kind of laid out without my say if I wanted to stay friends with certain groups. I don’t hold it against them or anything, they were insecure as well and didn’t know how to deal with it.
“It becomes easier … you learn to not let it bother you as much, and to deal with the pressures that society puts on you. It seems like every day is the hardest day sometimes, but you just gotta keep putting one step in front of another. Surround yourself with good people and define yourself by what you like, rather than what other people like, or even what you dislike. Things will all work out for the better.”
While Bella now has a positive outlook on herself and her interests, it’s a hard thing to learn, to be confident. Bella is in no way alone in this. Seven in ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with family and friends,’ according to the Dove Self-Esteem Project. Maria Novak, a psychologist who specialises in young people’s mental health said, “they reach an age when the pressure of society becomes obvious to them. It’s always there, but it’s when they reach about 13 that young girls begin to notice that pressure.”
Novak talks with many patients regularly, most of whom are aged 13 to 17, some of whom are older, that were her patients when they were younger. “It is nice to see though, that as they get older, young women become more sure of themselves. It becomes less what will they think, and more what do I think, as young women begin to experience the world more as they grow into adults. They begin to realise what is important and who in their life matters, and as a result of this they become more secure in their interests. As unfortunate as it is, it does take nothing but time and experience.”
Maria Novak reflects on her own life, and her own experience growing up. “I was the same way when I was younger, it’s a normal part of life to be insecure, to try to change to fit in. It’s just unfortunate now that there is also an added pressure from social media that not only makes these insecurities worse, but also constant.”
Novak reflects on an aspect of these insecurities, which is often overlooked, and that is “young women are exploring their sexuality at a far younger age … which has an effect on the way they see themselves.”
The Australian Institute of Family studies found in a 2019 study that “one in seven, 14-15 year-olds reported having a boyfriend or girlfriend with most saying they went out together to places like the movies,” and while Australian Institute of Family Studies Director, Anne Hollonds said that most young people don’t engage in sexual activities until their late teenage years, “they are more interested in relationships, platonic or romantic, outside of their families.”
“At this age, (young people) start changing their opinion on what is important in their life, and as a result, they change,” Novak says. It can be a benefit at this age, to be able to have some slight freedom to be able to explore who you are as a person. “It’s a shame that young girls feel forced to change, but it is a normal part of growing up. It is sad to hear young people sad about not knowing who they are yet, but they will eventually. It is a phase of adolescence, but an important part of growing up nonetheless. We must support young people, as their family, friends, colleagues … we must foster authenticity and give them the resources to find out who they are.”
Teenage years are a hard time. In the ever changing world we live in now, it is hard for young people to navigate the pressures they are under in their life. It seems that the norm is to hinder their growth and desire for independence, rather than foster this into interests and careers. From Twilight to soccer and anything else in between, young people, especially young women, must be helped to find out what it is that fuels their interests in the world, not forced into a mould that has been chosen for them.