About a month or two ago, one of my best friends – and fellow formerly miserable teenager – informed me and another friend that Garbage (the band) was going to be in Amsterdam. Garbage is led by the incredible alt-rock chick Shirley Manson, whose lyrics about not belonging and feeling depressed made weird, eccentric teens like us feel understood. I even recorded a cover of ‘I’m only happy when it rains’, their somewhat humorous ode to those who wallow in personal misery, with my sister’s producer friend in São Paulo when I was fifteen. That song was more than an anthem. It was therapy.
I jumped at the chance to see them live, but secretly wondered what the crowd would look like. Would it be primarily middle-aged goths stuck in the 1990s? Would it be mostly people like us, the once gloomy teen girls who survived it all mainly unscathed? After years of listening to their music alone in my bedroom, I couldn’t help but be curious about who my fellow fans would be. When we finally got there, what I saw was hundreds of very different people who clearly felt a deep, individual connection to those songs and explosive lyrics. Women, men, of all ages, singing their hearts out. I wondered if we had all felt that same comfort in the Garbage songs that made me feel normal in a strange world – and not the other way around. It was moving. Really. My friends and I left feeling that what had often felt like a lonely, atypical and imperfect coming of age experience was actually pretty normal.
It got me thinking about what made all of us relate to Manson’s lyrics about being the ‘strangest of the strange’ and ‘getting high upon a deep depression’ so very much. I mean, teens have a pretty bad reputation. And out of all teens, teenage girls in particular. Watch any movie or show that falls under the nauseating ‘family comedy’ category and you’ll see an out-of-control, emotional, potentially mean and superficial teen girl ruining everyone else’s life. We are all guilty of perpetuating the stereotype too. I recall very recently making fun of my sister when her daughter didn’t want to be seen with her. “It’s starting…”, I gleefully insinuated. But is that really fair? Being a teen is hard on anyone, but in the world we live in, being a teen girl is potentially the absolute worst.
As a teenage girl you’re trying to figure out your identity – in itself more of a life-long pursuit, of course, but it’s not like you know that at the time – while being treated like a child by your parents and like an adult by a male population that seems to mushroom out of nowhere in the time that it takes you to blossom into the adult feminine form. The major creep factor of the male gaze aside, it’s confusing to be expected to respect the same rules as always – bedtimes, curfews, general dependency – when you start being treated like a woman outside of your home environment. You’re being told that puberty and all the changes it brings about are normal by the same people telling you to suddenly dress differently because of how your body might affect how you’re perceived in the world. It’s a major mind fuck.
During your teen years, sexuality is both expected and encouraged, and severely punished. Dressing like a child is as disapproved of as dressing like a woman. Being desired by ‘boys’ is a good thing, enjoying it is not. Being good at sports helps to maintain your idealized girl physique, but being too sporty is unattractive. Exercising is encouraged, but no one tells you where to buy a decent sports bra so that you can continue to play sports for fun without the embarrassment. It’s a roller coaster of feelings and a schizophrenic set of expectations. Feeling left out, misunderstood, weird and trying to respond to all the different expectations that exist of you at once is damaging to anyone’s psyche. And, the more I think about it, the resulting mess is far less on teen girls than it is on our messed up society.
After all these years, I feel like I finally get it. But seeing as I can’t go back in time and tell my teenage self to not take it all so seriously – and to realize that the mixed messages from adults come from their own discomfort, not your existence – I hereby vow to be a better aunt to my niece who’ll one day be a teen, a better sister to my baby sister who’ll also grow up to be a teen, and a better friend to the teenage girls – warriors, really – I encounter out there in the world. It’s honestly the least we can do.
We can’t take away all of the pressures and insecurities and inevitable pain of being pulled in so many different directions at once. But we can stop pretending it’s their fault.