Louise: I want to encourage teenage girls to take up more space in the world, not less

Sometimes I get messages from people who want my opinion on a particular topic or event because, they say, I am ‘always right’.

This makes me uneasy. I am all too aware of how far from infallible I am and how much I still have to learn. 

I am growing as a person and as a feminist, hopefully evolving and trying to look at the world around me in a more nuanced and thoughtful manner. 

There are articles that I wrote two years ago that I would disagree with now and I think that cognitive dissonance is not only acceptable, it should be encouraged. 

We need to allow people the room to make mistakes, to ask stupid questions, and to learn from their experiences, rather than attacking them for not emerging from the womb with fully-formed ideologies that perfectly correspond with our own. 

(It should go without saying that this doesn’t apply to blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist comments.)

The notion that women in the public eye could possibly be ‘always right’ when it comes to issues of feminism creates a situation where we, their fans, feel let down if they express an opinion that we disagree with. 

Your fave is problematic, as the Tumblr kids say. I believe that this is partly to do with a lack of representation. 

When there are relatively few women given a voice in the public sphere, there is pressure on that person to speak for all women – an impossibility when you consider diversity of age, race, socio-economic background, education etc. 

It is also symptomatic of societal pressure placed upon women in all walks of life, from the school gates to the boardroom table, to attain perfection and to ‘have it all’.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers and would never pretend that I do. 

This week I’m writing this column in the hope that I’ll start a conversation and other more intelligent people can help me come to a more definitive conclusion. 

Recently I saw a mother comment on social media that she felt very proud of her teenage daughter because she didn’t feel the need to ‘dress like a hooker’ when she was going to her local disco. 

The woman’s tone rankled, as did her use of the word ‘hooker’, and I could feel myself bristling at her sanctimonious attitude.

Yet when I calmed down, I had to admit that when I was mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed, I too had felt discomfort at some of the photos of teenage girls I saw. 

The clothes did seem inordinately revealing, the poses deliberately provocative; it seemed as if they were performing sexuality in a way that their youth should prohibit. 

I felt alarmed and then I was annoyed at myself for feeling that way.

I am sure that I was the same when I was their age, using my clothes and choice of words as a way of trying on a maturity, particularly sexually, that I was anxious to reach but was ill-prepared to deal with. 

When I look at these photos, I think a part of me wants more for the girls featured. 

Maybe, deep down, I wanted more for my own teenage self. Because really, it’s presumptuous of me to assume that I can know their motivation just by scrolling through a carefully curated collection of photographs, usually taken while getting ready for a relatively rare night out. 

It doesn’t tell me anything about their hobbies, or their favourite subjects in school, or their aspirations and dreams for the future. 

It just shows me clothes on bodies and perhaps it is me who is projecting certain judgements on to that.

I’ve always found the hand-wringing over teenage girls’ sexuality irritating, as if it is one of the seven signs of an impending apocalypse. 

Ireland has had a long history of attempting to police women’s bodies with tragic and far-reaching consequences and I have no interest in adding to that dubious lineage. 

Adolescence is a time when young people, male and female, should be exploring their sexuality. Attempting to shame girls for doing that would be a grave error. 

And yet, why is it only the girls who are dressed in a hyper-sexualised manner? Why are their male peers wearing jeans and runners? Why is it always the girls that are put under pressure to perform in such a way?

I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure how I should feel about this. 

(Answers on a postcard, please.)

Ultimately, I don’t want to dismiss teenage girls. I don’t want to trivialise their lives.

It’s difficult enough to be a woman in today’s world, not to mention being a young woman. 

I remember my adolescence as a difficult time, one of learning to pretend, hiding my true self and swallowing my opinions, lest I offend someone else. 

I remember a friend berating me for saying I was the best student in our English class and subsequently reducing me to tears, begging her not to tell any of our mutual friends. 

That’s how foreign the concept of expressing pride in your own abilities and achievements was to us.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” 

I don’t want to be someone who teaches girls to shrink themselves. I want to encourage them to take up more space in the world, not less. 

I want to tell them to speak up, to speak out, and to know that their voices are being heard. 

I want them to understand that they are worth more than their bodies, but that also, it’s okay for them to love those bodies, to love how they look.

It’s confusing, isn’t it? And if it’s this confusing for me, a grown woman who studied feminist literature at university, who writes about and spends most of her day thinking about and discussing these topics with other feminists, then what on earth must it be like for the girls themselves?

Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours and Asking For It

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Saturday, April 10, 2021

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