by Léah Njeim
Teenagehood is such a weird moment in one’s existence. Abandoning your child moult, trying to fit a body; a constant evolution inside of a bright new adult skin, which is way too large and looks strange and scary.
This is the time which is commonly considered in western societies as the moment when a soon-to-be adult is supposed to rebel, slam doors and escape through the windows at night. It is a phase of experiments, construction, and self-exploration. Craving for freedom, teenagers are asked to act like adults but they are usually still treated as kids in many ways.
When “teenage kicks” in, we all start to be self-conscious about looks and fashion styles. Wondering what impact our image has on the world. And we soon realise we are not in control of it. Adults are still really efficient at policing young bodies, on so many levels. Just try a quick google search for “high-school body shaming” and take note of the awful amount of stories that will pop up.
Speaking from experience, I remember being sent back home from the middle and high school a good dozen of times because my outfit was “not appropriate”. Let me clarify that, my clothes were never really revealing or outrageously feminine. And even if they were, would that justify the sexualisation of a 14-year-old body in the eyes of an adult?
Back then, my punk-ish/hippie-ish nonsense way of dressing was a way for the young me to show my disapproval of the adult world, made of wars and injustice. A way to express all the violence occurring in my mind during those troubled times. I was shouting to the world “I don’t wanna be here, I’m not enjoying this and fuck you all!”. Those feelings took the shape of ripped and scribbled jeans, or tons of black eye makeup.
It has been a way to develop my strong personality and my engagements, which really differ from the discreet, secretive child I was. I am still faithful to that enraged crazy little brunette, who could wear two skirts on top of her pants and plastic cords in her hair. She is still around, making the 26 years old I wear pink vegan Doc Martens and get involved in every social fight she can find. She is the one who reminds me a lot of things happening are not normal. She is the one who makes me fear nothing, and be a proud, brave, loud woman.
So many people have related stories to tell. As they were trying to figure out who they were, and how to introduce that “work-in-progress being” to the world, they were told horrible and stupid things.
“You are too fat. Too sexy. Do not complain if you get raped. You should shave. You are going to distract the boy. You should not dress like a boy. Boys do not wear nail polish. We can not accept you in class with a Hijab, it’s provocative. You are wearing too much make-up. You look like a whore. Cut those bracelets. You should be more feminine. You are too feminine.”
Those kinds of things were told to kids who were between 11 and 17 years old at that time, biased by the clothes and accessories they wanted to wear. They were only experimenting, testing and having fun. We know all the pleasure one can find in fashion. It is all about risks, creativity and self-affirmation. Why is the world refusing that to kids? How could it possibly hurt them or be inappropriate? It is only clothes. Fabric, plastic, beads and thread.
Yet experimenting with fashion is more present in young women’s lives -helping society to keep gender-normative rules in place and be sure it does not evolve too fast. Many teens and kids tend to break gendered rules in clothing and all the rest. More than a boy wearing a pink sweater or a girl having short hair, adults seem to fear an evolution of the rules, a new sense of balance between genders and power roles.
Bama, a 25 years old queer person from Mongolia, told me about their experience, their relationship to fashion and gender identity in a traditional country:
“I think I have never changed my fashion style; the hip-hop culture is a part of me. I wear Big hoodies, old air Nike, big t-shirt, skinny jeans, Vans. No accessories. I still dress like that. I am 25. Feels like I never changed. Afro-styled hair -my hair is curly. That was a problem when I was a teenager because in my country most people’s hair doesn’t look like that. In the street, the most people look at me like I am an alien. And I am gender-queer, so I dress like a boy. I hide my boobs. Sometimes I hate my boobs. My family always asks me to dress “like a woman”, to wear high heels etc. My friends are fine with it. Strangers often ask if I am a boy or a girl. Dressing the way I do helps me feel better. When I was a teenager I really loved hip-hop culture, I love hip-hop dance. My clothes and style reflected who I was and what I loved”.
That is what finding your personal style is about -exploring and finding ourselves somewhere between genders, tastes, political awakenings… We cross the boundaries of conscience and morality.
Kelly, from France, was struggling with the idea of femininity. She is still quite uncertain of how the woman she is should be expressing herself:
“Picture a bomber jacket and a pair of Nobox shoes. Or a way-too-dark for my skin foundation, lipstick, black khôl and silver hoop earrings. I think that if one of my teenage clothes could speak, it would say “What a shitty look!”. After that, it would mellow a little, and say something sweet and tender for the young girl who was trying everything she could to look like a woman, like what she believes is the epitome of femininity. Because there is something pretty touching in that idea.
I am now an education teacher and I am deeply moved by thirteen/fourteen years old chicks, who are always between extravagance and introversion. One of my psychology teachers would compare teenage to an almost psychotic state of mind, where everything bursts and is lost in between of the blurry borders of the work-in-progress that are the mind and the body at this time of deep transformation.
Anyway, I remember, we were obsessed with our breasts, growing or not; our period coming or not, that guy you are dating or not. And the tragedy is actually nested in that “or not” which sends you back in childhood territory. For me, it was more “or not”. Therefore, I think I was looking for a visual compensation, in the form of a style that wanted to be sexy and feminine.
The point that gets really complicated, is with my mom. My mother and her feminism are quite old-fashioned. That wave of feminism, under the idea to refuse male domination, that locks women in a system which denies them the freedom to play with seductions codes. For her, adopting that “femininity guideline”, is accepting to play the game of male domination. So, obviously, my outfit choices were not to her taste, and she was not trying to hide it.
She would often give me her opinion, and not always in a gentle way… I bet it was weird for her to see her little girl getting all tarted up. But her words were hurtful like “You look like a little slut.” or “Lipstick is an invitation for fellatio…” (for the record, I was thirteen and did not care about such things). She really hurt me on that level.
I think it started even during my childhood. I used to fantasize about my friend’s little patent shoes, and she was absolutely refusing to buy me a pair. I was wearing good old red Kickers which my friends used to say they were clown shoes -that also hurt me a lot.
When I was a teenager, as an act of rebellion, I wanted to dress in stuff that would represent a complete opposed version of my mom’s definition of femininity. My breasts were barely here I already wanted to show my cleavage, wear wedge shoes… In the 1993-1995’s, I had the complete outfit of the suburbs french chick. Bombers Schott jacket, Nobox shoes, outrageous makeup, that I would apply outside and remove before I went home[…]”.
Dressing-up and choosing clothes is like playing. Who am I going to be today? What am I going to say?
Playing with shapes, colours, cuts, associations, on a changing body. During chaotic teenage times, it is essential and wholesome for young people to have a space for experiment. It is important that space is respected and considered. Let’s keep in mind those crazy times, and how proud we felt trying on new shoes or a new haircut. How proud we were to be further on the way to our inner self. Let’s never forget that feeling and be vigilant to guarantee the next generations (maybe to our children) that right to play and discover themselves.