I've had teenagers on my mind lately. My own teenage years came back into my direct consciousness just after I turned 36 and from that particular train of thought came the inspiration for my novel, which will be published next year. It's not autobiographical in the slightest (more's the pity) but I did dig deep into the emotions I preserved from the time, the matters that seemed so pressing, and the quickfire changes in myself and the people around me.
I spent the weekend recently with a friend who had a teenage daughter and our conversations turned to that era in our own lives as well as how she handles the rollercoaster of parenting what sounds like the kind of teenager I hope my girls will one day become. I thought particularly of how I perceived myself as a teen, physically. My relentless dissatisfaction with the way I looked and the laser-scrutiny I applied to what I saw as my entirely disappointing appearance.
There was nothing disappointing about it, on reflection, but I didn't fit the mould, which was defined solely and exclusively through the male gaze. That dissatisfaction haunted me through my 20's and 30's, I still carry it now to some extent, but as with everything, I am learning.
What concerns me is how I will handle this evolution when I see it come to pass in my children. If I as their primary female role model still view myself through the male gaze, still find myself wanting, how can I communicate to them that what matters is not how boys see you, not even how girls see you. It's how you see yourself.
When my beautiful daughters are heartbroken because some douchey boy or girl has decided they are not enough, how will I comfort them through it?
I have always said my children have taught me so much and once again they have proved this. I took this photo of Cherry this week. It wasn't posed, I just turned around to find her exactly like this and grabbed the shot despite the fact the composition is poor. It's not the tree growing out of her head that draws me in. It's her.
My daughters are both beautiful but that's not what grabs me about this shot either. Cherry doesn't look 'pretty' here. Her expression isn't soft and passive, her body language isn't gentle and graceful. She's clearly a girl, you wouldn't look at this photo and think she's a boy, but she doesn't fit the mould of what most of us were brought up to believe defines the feminine.
She looks magnificent. A true expression of her true nature. Not all of her nature - Cherry is multi-faceted like all of us. She isn't always edgy and fierce and a little bit wild. She's a complex person with many sides to her. And this side is just one of them, but it's one I hope she can continue to see in herself her entire life.
Right now neither of my daughters have much interest in their appearance, barring a fondness for floaty dresses. Their hair is usually ragged, much to my mother's despair, their faces are often smudged and dirty, they generally sport scratches and grazes from some outdoor-based activity or other. They are lean and muscular, the traces of soft chubby toddler deliciousness all but vanished. They are content in themselves, they rarely ask to play with or alter their appearances, they are quite happy, just as they are.
I know that will change. I know one day they will care very much how they look and that try as I might, I will be unable to stop them striving to fill a certain mould. I can't protect them from the male gaze or innoculate them against the pervasive culture that exists only to tell them they are not good enough as they are, they must change and shrink and diminish themselves, or paint and dress themselves in a certain way, in order to belong.
And that still won't be enough, one day they will come up against that inevitable rite of passage, the rejection by somebody or something they would seek to hold dear. They will be told they are not enough, just as they are, and they will judge themselves by that persons' standards, not their own.
All I know is that I now have one certain line of defence.
I will dig out this photo and show it to my sobbing teenage daughter, and I will say to her 'You look at that girl. That girl isn't thinking about whether or not she's pretty. She's not worried about what whoever-it-is-at-school-or-elsewhere thinks of her. That girl is brave, not because she's fearless, because she feels fear and chooses to act anyway. That girl fell off her bike so many times - so many - and each and every time she chose to get back on. That girl is wild and free and strong and bold and active. She knows the thing that matters the most is what she thinks of herself.
'That girl is you, and she's still inside you right now. She'll always be there, just waiting for you to call on her whenever you need her. So you be your own hero, baby.'