“This life which happened at me,
I happened right back at it,
I happened it under
the fucking table
and then some
I carry a weight with me – my teenage years; distant, yet so present.
Teenagers live in a liminal realm where pressures are enormous. We can’t tolerate uncertainty so we inscribe them, we box them, we try to mould them. A teenage girl is becoming woman – but whose idea of ‘woman’?
We’re bombarded with the idea that a woman’s worth is in her beauty. It’s a very specific narrow beauty – if you don’t live up to it, you’re shamed.
I call this out for the poison it is.
I write my own narrative.
But is writing your own narrative yet another pressure? Caught between one violence and another: constant striving and self-monitoring to live up to society’s expectations, or being policed and punished if you refuse.
Teen Dream Mystery
My teenage years informed so much of who I am yet I carry it like a secret shame. I buried those years until I picked up Megan Abbott’s The Fever, a novel that drops us right into the uncertainty of adolescence. At The Fever’s core are our anxieties around adolescent female sexuality – it fascinates us, scares us, turns us on, overwhelms us. When girls hit adolescence they become imminently touchable and knowable yet simultaneously unreachable and mysterious. We project onto them the romanticised archetype of the all-American teen princess – wrapped in plastic; a proxy for our pathologies.
I’m ambivalent about The Fever – it questions our fascination and voyeurism, but also reinforces it; I was swept along on the teen dream mystery.
What is the mystery? Is it really about what’s between her legs? Open wide – what will you find? Analysed, despised, atomised. Disgust and commodification gives us vagina soap and perfumes, tampon and sanitary towel adverts that have us leaking blue liquid. We still don’t know how to talk about our bodies. Where’s the musky, sticky, aching, unashamed reality?
In high school I was a shy, badly dressed, skinny, eczema-ridden creature. When I read books like The Fever I question my experience – was it real? Was it authentic? I wasn’t living up to how it should be because my experience was so messy and grimy, full of humiliation and awkward moments that don’t fit the narrative. Whose narrative? Is it a fiction we’re sold?
What is this homogeneous mass ‘teen girl’?
I would look at our equivalent of the all-American princess not with envy, but with curiosity – what is it like to be you? I would later find out one girl’s story of drink, drugs, and sex she could barely remember.
Day In Day Out Day In Day Out
In the narrative imposed on me (I didn’t realise writing my own narrative was even an option) I spent every day wired for abuse, hyper-vigilant. Day in day out I faced torture, shut up in this claustrophobic teenage world where school is everything. Every day I went to class, tense with expectation; could I get through today?
I asked for a fight, hoping to end it. My foe had a reputation for being ‘hard’, but she was all hair pulling and scratching; a massive disappointment. There was a break in the fight and I cried, leaking out the stress of day after day, the stress of these people, this horde around us baying for my blood. My adversary ran off and I stood there, all angry tears, wishing away the audience. Their eyes on me was too much. It’s always been too much.
The day I defeated those nerves, the day I got up on stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and enjoyed all eyes on me, enjoyed the performance, was the day I finally won that fight.
It took me thirty-four years to realise I can write my own narrative.
I had to see their ugly faces every day, twisted with enjoyment in dragging me down. Now I don’t remember their names. But I know they remember mine. How could you forget someone named after a biblical queen?
And now a new name for a new me?
It sounds so ‘self-help’, so hokey.
But I was never Esther the queen (who can carry that burden?), I was never Esther the good Christian girl worshipping a second-hand god. And I was never Esther the day I was born – how can you name a creature not yet formed?
I have a new birth certificate – born again! Hallelujah! I was empowered holding it in my hands. It was approval from authorities, but I was no longer defined by other people; I was writing my own narrative. A dangerous move – people don’t like when you step out of the box they’ve fixed you in. I’m reminded of Dazai – “Try to move an inch and the blood comes spurting out” (it did) and the Japanese proverb “A nail that sticks out will be hammered down” (they tried).
People are suspicious if you change your name – what are you hiding? “What’s your real name?” many people have asked. “Ever is my real name,” I reply. If we’re getting into real/unreal authentic/inauthentic – a binary that needs interrogated – surely choosing my own name makes it more ‘real’, more ‘authentic’? But I refuse that ‘us against them’.
Sugar And Spice And All Things Nice
I shook off the misery of bullied outcast, finding happiness in my little band of friends; sharing books and music, eating pizza in parks, singing songs on swings. “Never, no way” – I wasn’t fuckable. But I didn’t want to fuck. I would choose my time. But for that I needed confidence and understanding of my body, of my place in the world. But all we have is mystery, confusion, sanitisation; and when it transpires our bodies aren’t plastic and don’t smell of roses we wonder if we can ever be good enough.
“What are little boys made of? Snips and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice.” We can laugh, call it silly and old-fashioned, but we still carry the weight of it, we still police femininity and masculinity.
You must prove you’re a real woman, a real man.
What does this do to sexuality? It turns it into a performance, a spectacle; for us, for you. You watching you. Always careful. Their gaze is her gaze and she is frozen in place.
Then we’re up against each other – femme vs butch, skinny vs fat, thin vs curvy. Always our bodies – analysed, defined, atomised. Real women vs… what? Who are these ‘real’ women? Who are the fakes? Why does gender and sexuality cause so much pain and controversy? Does this narrative set up my U-cert pizza-eating park experience against the drinking teen ‘slut’?
Be wary of a narrative that turns us against each other.
Transmute The Poison
We over-sexualise teenage girls, then we’re afraid of their sexuality. We’re weighed down by centuries of the virgin/whore dichotomy – which one is our sister or daughter? “She’s not your sister” a boy says in The Fever when castigated for the way he’s talking about a girl. No, she’s not his sister – she doesn’t ‘belong’ to him in any way. She’s a person; autonomous. She belongs to herself.
But no (wo)man is an island.
Tori Amos asked, “How can I be a sacred being and a hot pussy?” Natasha Kahn said “I objectify Ryan Gosling and think he’s sexy as hell, but it doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s a great actor. If you’re seeing someone’s power sexually, professionally, spiritually, surely that’s a great place for us to be in?”
Can Natasha have her Gosling-cake and eat it? Can we?
Is it different for women? Decades debating the ‘male gaze’ and we’re still here with our either/or, our appetite for sluts confusingly coupled with delight in slut-shaming.
Where’s the multi-layered musky, sticky, aching, unashamed reality?
But what’s wrong with fantasy? I’m a dealer in fantasy; to paraphrase Camus, fantasy is the lie through which we tell the truth. When you believe the surfaces of the lie – the shine, the glitter – it’s then we become atomised, alienated, stroking plastic cunts knowing it’s never enough.
If we cut you do you bleed blue?
I bled scarlet red, cutting myself open to expunge my rage. Scarred and alive, I carry my history on my flesh. Kintsugi is a Japanese technique where cracks in pottery are repaired with gold because the ‘imperfections’ are considered part of their beauty; when my wounds healed they turned an angry pink – obscene, demanding. Now they’re silver, shimmering in the golden sun; my healing illuminated, my celebration of scarred flesh an aesthetic antidote to the unmarked living dead.
Girls, women, intersex, trans, queer – don’t let life crush you, don’t let them beat you and box you in. Transmute the poison and write your own narrative in scarlet red, obscene pink, shimmering silver, glorious gold. Happen back at life. And then some. And how.