Being friends with teenage girls has made me a better feminist


WORDS BY Maeve Kerr-Crowley

Be the cool older sister you wish to see in the world.

One day a few years ago, back when I worked in retail, the shopping centre was filled with teenage girls lining up to meet a makeup artist who was popular on YouTube. They were there for hours, standing in a little maze of excited bodies and filling the centre with noise.

After a couple of hours, my manager turned to me and told me point-blank that he hated every single one of them. They were embarrassing themselves, their interests were stupid, and there was no hope for young people – or something to that effect.

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Even though I’d spent all morning jumping and sighing every time a high pitched squeal went up for seemingly no reason, I turned to face him and said, “You’re not allowed to say that. Leave them alone.”

I tried to explain that being a teenage girl is essentially a waking nightmare, and that they were all just doing their best to fit in and live their lives. He insisted they all just did what the internet told them to do, and I said, “Well, duh.”

The truth is, those girls were annoying as hell, but I probably would have fought my manager to the point of putting my job in jeopardy to defend their right to be so. This overwhelming protectiveness I feel towards teenage girls and other young women is something I’ve dubbed my ‘big sister complex’. Every girl alive that’s even a little bit younger than me might as well be my little sister, and I feel a strong urge to protect them all from ridicule and the cruelty of the world.

A lot of people in their twenties are really into the idea of finding mentors to advise them on their careers, relationships and all the general quandaries life brings. Being friends with someone in their teens or even early twenties – where every year you age comes with about three years of growth and development – is generally unappealing.

You’ve moved past that awkward and often embarrassing part of your own life, and ostensibly have nothing in common with someone who’s just graduated high school.

But through a combination of sheer coincidence and my compulsion to adopt teens as life protégées, I’ve found myself with a number of younger female friends. I’m an actual biological big sister to a 19-year-old and have befriended some of her friends as they’ve all grown up.

Add to that making uni friends one or two years younger than me with friends one or two years younger than them, younger writers I’ve met through work and some very twenty-first-century online relationships, and my friendships stretch down in birth years just as much as they stretch up.

I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh, look at me! I’m such a good mentor,” because I’m not that much of an egomaniac. I hope all my friends gain something from my being in their life, and I like sharing lessons I’ve learned the hard way with people looking for guidance, but I benefit just as much from these relationships as my forcibly adopted little sisters do.

There’s a lot to learn from people of different ages, and I think we can take as many lessons from those younger than us as we can from those older. Thanks to the internet, everything in the world changes at lightning speed. Teenagers are living completely different lives than you or I did at that age. A 20-year-old today isn’t the same breed as a 20-year-old five years ago.

Kids these days (sorry, I hate that I said that too) are more aware of social issues, they approach the world completely differently, and they’re more willing to speak out about injustices than I would have ever been back in high school.

A few weeks ago, my housemate came home and told me her niece had written a letter to the local newspaper admonishing them for sexist cricket coverage. I was genuinely blown away that she’d taken the initiative to stand up for something she believed in at such a young age – that it hadn’t even occurred to her to let something so ingrained in society slide.

I’m not old enough to be completely out of touch, but it’s very cool to have so many different perspectives so readily accessible because teenagers aren’t scared to tell everyone what they think. Another benefit I’ve only recently come to terms with is that I think having these connections in my life is making me a better person. Or a better feminist, at the very least.

I hold no illusions of ripping down the patriarchy all by myself, but putting a face or two to the group of women who’ll have to deal with all the sexist bullshit in the world after me is a good reminder that there are consequences to how I choose to live my life. Even if it’s in small ways, I have a responsibility to be a good role model.

The first time the topic of my little sister shaving her legs came up, I flashed back to being 13 years old and sitting in the gym comparing leg hair with my friends – debating who of us just had to start shaving ASAP while the boys played basketball a few metres away. And it made me sad.

Looking back on it now, I realise how much I hated those conversations, the feeling that I’d reached a milestone where things like the thickness of your leg hair were absolutely dire. The knowledge that all these new rules had the potential to ruin my entire life if I didn’t keep up.

Comparing leg hair very quickly turned into judging who was applying their cheap drug store makeup properly, or brutally rating each other’s appearances because we’d seen it on Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. We were all holding each other to the standards of the outside world because we thought it was what we were supposed to do. But we were just babies, and it wasn’t fair.

It took me until my early twenties to internalise the idea that these rules weren’t my rules, that I didn’t want to shave my legs or wear makeup or lose weight because it would make me happy. I wanted to do all those things to make navigating life easier; because they’d make me socially acceptable in the eyes of others.

This kind of internalised misogyny is a god damn disease. It’s so hard to shake because these ideas are so prevalent in society. I have to remind myself every day that I like myself just the way I am, because there’s always something around the corner telling me I’m not doing womanhood right.

Having a connection to girls and women who are younger than me makes this a little less daunting. It’s always easier to go to bat for someone else than it is to look out for yourself. I could give in and follow all the rules to make the world treat me as kindly as possible, but I want girls growing up today and in the future to have an easier time liking themselves than I did.

I should be doing every small thing I can to tear down these unrealistic expectations so they don’t have to spend their whole lives fighting against them. I should be setting a good example and being as authentic as possible so they see they can do it too, which, in turn, improves my life because I’ve essentially tricked myself into liking myself more.

I’m trying to embrace this mindset in as many aspects of my life as possible – how I treat myself, how I approach relationships, how I make decisions in my career. So, when the world gets confusing and I don’t know what to do, I think about my little sister.

Would I want her to feel pressured to wear makeup every day or shave her legs if she didn’t want to? Would I want her to feel ashamed of her body? Would I want her to let people treat her badly? Would I want her to hear the things I’m saying or read the things I’m writing?

Sometimes making waves on your own behalf is too terrifying a concept, which is a real shame. But I want to be able to look all my pseudo little sisters in the eye and tell them they don’t have to take shit from anyone without feeling like a hypocrite. So I just try to do better and hope to god it makes a difference.

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