Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Teenage kicks and frizzy perms

Did you enjoy being a teenager? Do you look back on those years with fondness or a certain cringing embarrassment?
Personally speaking I look back with mixed feelings. I don’t like seeing photographs of a teenage me with my spiral perms, teenage skin and questionable sense of style. There were times when I felt like an odd one out - a fairly swotty geeky weed in among the roses of the popular bunch at school.
But I have many happy memories as well. I was lucky in that I had a bunch of great - perhaps equally geeky in hindsight - friends who didn’t mind having a bit of craic and enjoying our earlier teenage years as some of sort of extended childhood. Yes, I’ll admit I was still playing with Barbies at 11 and 12. And yes, I was still making up dance routines at 14 or 15 and wearing sensible shoes at 17. (I wore my first pair of high heels - which were probably all of two inches high - to my sixth year formal and, trust me, I spent the whole night trying not to fall on my rear end).
I’ll also give my halo a wee polish as I admit that I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol until my 18th birthday and on that night sipped less than half a glass of West Coast Cooler terrified that any more would have me legless. So while I cringe at some of the memories and look at some of the stylish teenage girls wandering about up the town these days with a pang of jealousy, I’m still glad that life was relatively innocent.
This week a group of journalists got together at a fancy conference to discuss what young girls really think, and how what they think is influenced by the media. Coming in for criticism were teen mags Bliss, Sugar and Mizz for features which encourage young readers - some as young as 10 - to send in their pictures and ask fellow readers to rate them. Options including marks out of 10, and ratings of ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Minging’ are available and, in one case, if you don’t like your picture you can always airbrush it.
Now I say this knowing that if someone were to present me with a picture of a 13 year old me right now I would jump at the chance of airbrushing and retouching it - there is a particularly horrendous Brosette picture of me doing the rounds somewhere - but still it saddens me that this is the culture in which today’s teenage girls are being brought up. The emphasis of these magazine features is on appearance, something which many women feel vulnerable about, especially young women who’s bodies are changing and developing every day. To open a young person up for criticism in a magazine or online by their peers is irresponsible to a fault - and to then promote airbrushing as an answer to physical flaws is offensive.
Whatever happened to the school of thought that the media should be encouraging young people to be happy in their own skin? Shouldn’t we be putting the message out there that it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you are happy and content with yourself as a person? Should we really be encouraging a culture where appearance matters more than character or where young people can be subjected to online anonymous bullying from people who think it is funny to click the “minger” button? I was discussing this very issue yesterday afternoon with my VBF Vicki, who drew my attention to a new series on Channel 4 with the delightful title ‘How To Dump Your Mates?’
What this new programme does is take teenagers who are unhappy with their lives and give them a chance to turn themselves around. Well - it might all sound good and bit huggy-feely, but read a little deeper and it’s hard not to wonder how this programme could be more damaging than helpful. The programme takes five kids, gets them to tell their existing friends what they dislike about them and why they want to change - and then dump them for four days while they make new friends . (Are you following this? Gets a bit complicated I know).
Then at the end of the four days the original teenage guinea pig has to choose between their old friends and their new friends. I think there is a fatal flaw in this reasoning. First of all if one of my closest ‘friends’ took me to one side (on national TV) and told me all the things they disliked about me and my lifestyle and then dumped me in favour of new friends before coming crawling back I would tell them exactly what they could do with their friendship. (And trust me it would involve insertion into an orifice of their choosing).
I say that as an adult who can at least rationalise that some friendships are worth keeping while others simply are not, but if that happened to me as a teenager I would have been devastated. As I said my geeky band of friends (really hope that they know I’m calling them geeky with love in my heart) were everything to me back in those heady late 80s and I would have been lost without them.
So it angers me that along with looks being considered the be all and end all of life for teenage girls that they are now also being encouraged to think of their friends as dispensible commodoties to be picked up or dropped whenever it suits. There are times when I feel ancient as a 31 one year old, when I see a wrinkle and cringe, but I’d rather be me right here and right now than a teenager in a world where it is almost impossible to be considered good enough.

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