This post was written by Alice Oates as a part of the Teen Week: Words That Heal series. Want to participate? Check out the details here.
I’ve now reached that very strange point that everyone must reach where next birthday I will not be a teenager anymore. It has its own terrifying connotations of being all adult and responsible, as well as that tiny little bit of relief that I will soon leave the spectre of teenage pregnancy behind. I also get to escape a group that’s generally stereotyped as a whole lot of things that I’m just not.
Reaching the end of my teens in the relatively new environment of university is giving me great opportunities to look back on the last 7 or so years and pretty much be amazed at how I’ve changed in that time. At age 13 I had no confidence. Not only that but no one had ever really explained ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ to me so my lack of self-confidence seriously showed. I’d started secondary school with someone I thought was my best friend but who decided I wasn’t interesting within a matter of months. And told me that in almost exactly those words. To be left friendless in the first year of a new school is absolutely terrifying and I went through a series of unstable friendships and sort-of relationships that did absolutely nothing to give me any sense of self-confidence or even of who I wanted to be.
The thing about not really knowing what you want is that you look to everyone else to tell you what’s right. I was absolutely desperate for friends and family to approve of everything I did, and as a teenager what your family want and what your friends want aren’t always compatible. Peer pressure is hell for young teens that want to do what their parents approve of but risk name-calling because of it. I haven’t quite got over it yet, but there’s a little voice in the back of my head that goes ‘you don’t have to be like them if you don’t want to’ if I’m being irrational about it. But for a long time I was around people who called me stupid/pathetic/silly and all manner of lovely things if I wasn’t doing things the way they thought they should be done. I went through a really long phase of copying a friend’s handwriting because I thought it made me cool. Now I can look back and say that staying myself and not giving in to peer pressure was a good thing, but at the time it made me feel like a complete loser.
Burned into my mind is the memory of one of my friends telling me he’d overheard the guy I’d just asked out saying he would never go out with someone ‘like her’. He in no way was being malicious when he told me, but I’ve never quite recovered from the shame and the worrying about what exactly someone like me was. Sometimes a bit of soul-searching is good. Constant self-analysis to work out what’s wrong with you is definitely not. Part of the problem is that views on what’s ‘cool’ change ridiculously fast at a young age so it’s hard to keep up. My sister recently started secondary school and summed it up neatly; ‘no one plays anymore they just stand around talking about phones. It’s really boring’.
In the last few years I’ve started to come out of my shell and stop worrying so much about being the person everyone approves of. There have been a few big triggers to this. First, I met the guy who is now my boyfriend of over four years. He’s been someone who has loved me unconditionally and shown me that I am worth something as me not as a copy of someone else. He’s given me a platform from which to jump off into the, sometimes scary, world of loving yourself and being confident. Second, I developed depression and anxiety problems. Understanding this made me really look at the way I responded to other people and how they treated me, so that I could say ‘no that’s not acceptable’ or ‘this isn’t good for me’ and get out of there. Leaving school was so important for me because it took me away from all the toxic ‘friendships’ that made me feel awful every single day and into a place where I could tackle my own self-confidence, surrounded by people who were just nice, supportive people who wouldn’t make me feel worthless. I’ve also had a period of questioning my sexuality and that’s taken a bit of a chunk out of my self-confidence because I’ve been forced to re-evaluate how much of me is still just a response to the people around me.
It’s very difficult to explore your sexuality in a straight, monogamous relationship that you have no intention of leaving. I’ve started to question whether the way I see other women just comes, firstly, from evaluating their attractiveness in relation to me (normal conclusion being I lose, obviously not very healthy!), and secondly from looking at the world from the perspective of all the guys I hang out with. If I stopped mentally competing with women and stopped sub-consciously trying to fit in, would I give a second thought to how attractive they are?
Some of the biggest changes of teen years are physical. When your body changes it takes a long time to feel comfortable with it and I didn’t really have a very healthy relationship with my body. I’ve always had a big appetite but when I stopped growing and became less active as I got older, I started to fill out. I’m not what people describe as ‘big’ but that’s never been the issue. It doesn’t matter how people see you if you don’t have a positive self-image. I’m only just starting to understand what it means to love your body, and it doesn’t mean being the skinniest girl around. I’ve got Mara and Medicinal Marzipan to thank for that! I love writing blog posts like this because the process of writing can help you understand a lot about yourself that you don’t really realize until you try to put it into words. I still have days where I look in the mirror and tell myself I’m fat, I’m a failure and no one likes me. But I also have days where I don’t think that at all, and that’s definitely progress.
The most important thing for me is that I can look back on my teenage years with compassion and understanding. If I just block them out or blame myself for things really not my fault, I’m never going to be able to move on to a healthier place. From 13 to 19 you change so much that you are never going to get everything right. I hope that I can really learn from my experiences and one day help my own teenager through those very scary years without getting lost along the way. I’ve learned that it’s okay to say that you can’t do it alone. It doesn’t make you any weaker to admit that. I’m not less of a person because I need my boyfriend so much, I’m just different to people who manage just fine by themselves. I like to say that understanding is the key to change, and I don’t think this applies to anything more than it does to being a teenager.
My name is Alice Oates and I’m a 19 year old student at Cambridge University. I’ve been with my boyfriend over four years now, and for most of that have suffered with low body image, depression and anxiety. With his help and other sources like Medicinal Marzipan I’m beginning to understand what makes me the way I am which I believe is the key to changing the parts that make me unhappy. Understanding and accepting yourself is the key to change and that has been my motto for a while now. I’m doing my best to be in tune with my body and work out what I need and I think that it’s going to make a big difference in the end!
Other Teen Week Posts Today:
- Body Positive Yoga, Letter to My Teenage Self
- Rosie Molinary, It’s Not Too Early or Too Late
- Soft Explosions, What I Wish I Had Known As a Teenager
- Cynosure, I’m an Introvert, Not an Alien
- Sue Ann Gleason, The Untold Stories
- Musings of Magick, Lessons From An Overactive Brain
- MishMarieG, Pizzazz
- Chibi Jeebs, Teen Week 2012: Words That Heal
- Those Graces, Body Image, Weight, and the Internet