Being a teenager can be confusing. Being a feminist can be divisive. Being a girl can be hard. Combine the three and the result is a beautiful, terrifying web of emotions.
I was a secret feminist for a year, conducting my own private education. After ploughing through the school day, I would rush home to resume my hour-long marathons of Laci Green videos, or trawl through countless articles on RookieMag.com. My parents might call this the time of my ‘computer addiction’, but for me, the internet felt like one of the only safe places I could learn about feminism. I see now how ironic it is that the internet is simultaneously a safe and a dangerous place for feminists.
Those months huddled in my little room liberated me. The layers that cocooned my world were slowly but surely peeling away, leaving me with both greater understanding and the sour, lingering taste of cynicism. I had taken the red pill, followed the white rabbit. There was no going back. All the irksome aspects of life I had dismissed as normal, I realised were the effects of being a woman in the patriarchy. Catcalling, rape culture and casual sexism are not just another one of life’s inevitable quirks. The sad truth is that more often than not it takes an epiphany to realise these injustices. This should never have been something I had to learn alone in my room.
The first seed of doubt was planted on another unremarkable day. I was 13 and biking home from school. I already felt disgruntled and uncomfortable in the heat of the summer, and my goal was to get home as fast as possible. I was biking with determination along a footpath not far from my house when a car slowed beside me. Blissfully ignorant, I continued along the path. My reverie was short-lived, sharply broken by the bark of a man’s voice. He yelled some obscenities and drove away, laughing. It was no more than a five second exchange, yet it left me feeling humiliated, confused and sickened. My emotions seemed so disproportionate. Determined to dismiss my feelings, I told no one.
Yet no matter how I tried I couldn’t think about it without the visceral jolt, and the feeling didn’t go away.
What I call The Bike Home wasn’t a lightbulb moment; it wasn’t an instant switch that turned me to feminism. It was simply the first inkling that something wasn’t right. I left that experience with less clarity and more confusion. Discovering feminism was my moment of absolute perspicuity and it happened in a high school classroom. Once again, a decisive moment in my ‘feminist awakening’ took place in the most mundane of settings.
Two years ago, my Media Studies class learnt a new word: patriarchy. Some brave teacher had decided it would be worthwhile to attempt to convert a high school class of hormonal 15 year-olds into feminists. Very admirable. Nevertheless, it was this class and this teacher that made feminism accessible to me. Never before had someone sat me down and gently explained feminism. The stereotypes dictate that feminists are dogmatic and intense, yet my feminist teacher was calm and kind. Experiences like The Bike Home left me feeling humiliated and degraded. In Media Studies I learnt that feminism was the antidote: I felt safe and empowered.
Why the secrecy? The truth was, at a time where I was simply trying to work out who I was and what I wanted to do with myself, declaring myself a feminist was daunting. Teenagers are notoriously known for going through ‘phases’ – as quickly as we decide we’ve found our passion, we snap out of it. I didn’t want people to think my feminism was just another sad teenage attempt at rebellion or a cry for attention. I was afraid my peers would judge me for my apparently provocative values, and that older feminists would scoff at my entry-level feminism. It took me a year to work out that my fears and hesitations could be easily overcome. Yet I can’t help but look back and wonder what my feminist experience would have been like had I known there were like-minded people all around me.
I used to worry about my feminism defining and limiting me – becoming the weird feminist trope from high school movies. The one that hated the patriarchy but ended up embracing her femininity for a guy in the end, as the popular culture around me reinforced time and again. What would my friends and family think? Would I still be seen as the same person?
It took time for me to realise not that everyone would accept me and nothing would change, but that it didn’t matter to me what others thought. If someone chose to laugh at my opinions, or look in disgust at my unshaved legs then that was their problem, not mine. I realised the only people’s opinions I cared about were those who never looked down on me. There are still many times where I feel self-conscious about being a feminist. Sometimes it feels difficult to even say the word; the anticipation of the person’s response is too great.
Yet every time I tell someone I’m a feminist I can’t help but feel proud, proud of myself and proud of the movement I stand for. The times I spent discovering feminism were times spent discovering myself. The more confidence I gained in feminism, the more confidence I gained in myself. Feminism made me self-assured in my beliefs. It empowered me, a feeling hard to find in a culture that tells teenage girls their opinions are invalid.
Feminism feels like the antithesis to all the stereotypes around teenage girls. Discovering teenage feminist icons like Malala Yousafzai and Tavi Gevinson proved to me that there were no limits to what I could do. How different they were from the narcissistic teenage girls portrayed on television, or the celebrities I was expected to idolise. Yousafzai and Gevinson are people I easily admire because they are teenage girls in the public eye that I can actually relate to. They represent young girls in a completely honest way, offering a stark contrast to the limiting stereotypes placed on women. They aren’t whiny, passive teenagers, they aren’t superficial or fake, they aren’t boy-obsessed and disengaged. They are real people. Teenagers aren’t any more apathetic, selfish and narcissistic than the next person. What we lack in experience we make up for with an open mind and a desire to challenge society’s norms. Generation X faces constant criticism – a generation hooked on technology, disinterested and lazy. Yet these perceptions around teenagers never matched the person I identified myself as, or the teenagers around me.
In recent moments that made my heart swell, a room full of students attended a Feminism Club meeting and a new Takapuna Amnesty International group already has 100 students on board. Not to mention the environmental committee; students have been organising beach clean-ups and raising awareness for many years. It is clear that teenagers want to take action, they want to care and learn. The power and capability of teenagers is often underestimated by adults and that is what pushes teenagers into the self-fulfilling prophecy of sinking to expectations. I was lucky enough to have adults and teachers in my life that treated me as a person rather than an inferior student or ‘just’ a teenager.
My teenage experience isn’t over. But three quarters of the way through, I look back and think to myself, what if? What if I had grown up celebrating the achievements of women? What if I never had to learn what feminism was? What if being a teenage girl wasn’t defined by limits but by possibilities? Perhaps teenage years are doomed to be confusing and difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should accept this. It may seem far-fetched – call it teenage hubris, naivety or foolishness – but I hope that one day these what-ifs can become a reality for other girls. Are you with me?
Hannah Patterson is a high school student and writer from Auckland, New Zealand. She heads the feminism club at Takapuna Grammar School.