by Rachel Wagner
One of my neighbors has fake-beef with a teenage girl around here. She said something to him or his kids (or was it his friend’s kids?), and it turned into a whole big situation. Months later, he complains when he sees her around. I stopped him tho the other day being like, dude chill she’s a kid. He’s like, she don’t look like a kid. I was like, that’s not her fault. Leave her alone. Like I really don’t like talkin bad about kids. I speak the hell up if I hear someone–especially a dude–talkin shit about a teenage girl, trying to make her seem worse than she is. Feel worse than she is. I don’t like it. I once heard a dude relaying a story about a younger girl to someone else in his family, and he was spinning the story up. I was like, bro stop talking about that girl it didn’t even happen like that. I’m not letting that slide.
Those types of situations aren’t usually in front of the girl, but it still always feels like it’s a subtle way to keep them in check. It’s a springboard of ideas–saying a negative thing about her out loud in front of other adults to see what the consensus is. Basically asking, was this okay? I’m triggered by it which is why I’m still thinking about it, and I want to do a vibe check of my perceived experience. And as an adult myself, listening, it puts me in a position to hear the side of the evil step mom character in real time. In a place where she’d feel socially comfortable to express her hatred or disapproval or judgement of a teenage girl. Well I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s okay even in small groups. I’m sure any average teenage girl has enough going on without you adding to it.
I just read two books back to back that had a situation with the main character being the less adored younger sister at home. In Yo No Soy Tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, Julia’s bigger and better seeming sister just died. Now her mom berates her about not being as good as her sister, and her dad kinda ignores her while they’re home. Then, in 100% Perfect Girl, the girl J has an older brother who is treated way better all because he’s a medical student who will eventually save the family financially. So J is pressured to just cook and clean and throw away her art things. Feeling imperfect is something these girls apologize for. It’s shameful to be noticed in that way. It’s something they need to grow through in order to become the writer or artist that they want to be.
And you watch that happening and think, how could anyone be so mean to them? How could you not see how sensitive those girls are? Or just how thoughtful and sad? We don’t often hear what leads the parents logic (tho the plight of Julia’s parents is relevant and included). Instead, parental units are underdeveloped, ineffective guardians. People who you wish weren’t so clueless because people, especially teenage girls, don’t have to hear disapproval–they can feel it. Verbal and non-verbal cues apply. In those years, the idea that people are looking at you often is not new and not something light. That people are watching you and talking about you and thinking about you is settled as a fact of life. And it’s exhausting.
What teenage girls choose to take refuge in–for Julia and J, it was guys and college–is directly shaped by their social groups. Who they’re around and how they’re treated. What they’re idealized and hated back and forth for. I think about Britany Spears and how it felt for me growing up watching her as a young teenage girl. From “Baby, One More Time” to the tabloid magazines spread on the tables where I took my breaks at work. Sitting there, I’d hear another teen girl complain about how Jennifer Aniston has a better body than her even tho she’s way older and how that’s not fair. Sick shit. Sad things. I hate it. I had a boss at that same job tell me once that he wanted to close his office door with me in it. Then, when confronted by my boyfriend, him and my manager denied the whole thing.
And that was just the beginning. Worse things would happen. People saying weird stuff, doing weird stuff. People love to get you by yourself, which is why I think I became so hardened on the outside to any BS. Some guys will tell me I’m mean and I’m like, am I mean or are you trying to run through me (or someone else)? Like I’m very sensitive to that stuff now. I’ve had people try to run me down since I was a girl. Back then, feeling small and definitely somewhat insecure. Physically unsure of myself tho certain at least about my potential. Even still, by then, feeling bad about your existence is already regular.
Other pieces by me: (De)Criminalizing Teen Girls in Sister Souljah’s THE COLDEST WINTER EVER & Nabokovian Desire in Sex Me: Confessions of Daddy’s Little Freak & Lolita & R. Kelly & Me & To be fetishized