Memory of a Beauty and Boys-obsessed Teenager

from "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" Movie

from “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” Movie – 12th Zürich Film Festival 2016

So there I was: 12 years old. A new phase of life had started.

Finally I was allowed to grow my hair longer and choose my own clothes. What I thought was the freedom of “expressing my identity” (when really I couldn’t have a clue what my identity was) turned gradually into a never-ending search for the right image and a constant, growing insecurity of getting it wrong and not being wanted.

I was the smallest and youngest girl in my class – due to having started school a year earlier – and I wanted to project the image of a strong, assertive, secure girl who nobody would mess around with. Nothing wrong with this one I think, especially considering that this was the image I’ve always identified with during my earlier years.

But of course there were “the boys” too…I attended a mixed school, so there was a continuous attention coming from them: something completely new to me which I was not used to…something that totally fascinated my teenage self: in other world, I was excited in discovering the “power of seduction”, when I had no idea of all the usual drawbacks that come with it…

Drawback number 1)

I started to look at myself and compare my face/body with the images of beauty in the media around me, and the “real women”, pubescent bodies of my peers and best friends (I was the only one in the class still waiting for my menarche the first period – to “turn me into a woman”). All my best friends were so much bigger and bustier than me; all of them played with pads and tampons, they shared their “menstruation stories” and missed gymnastic class during that time of the month. I was envious of them and felt incomplete; I was impatient to experience it all.

Result: I wished I was bigger, taller, and with a prominent breast to impress boys.

Coping Strategy: I was indeed quite petite and in my view the only way I could claim more of their attention was through wearing provocative clothes and make-up (of course…with quite disastrous outcomes most of the time!)

Drawback number 2)

I became constantly concerned with my appearance, even during situations where I used to truly enjoy myself. Despite this – and as far as I can remember – at this stage I was not yet experiencing any resentful feeling regarding the constant urge to look good (this will develop later, after a couple of years). I was enthused by the new possibilities of gradually becoming a woman I guess. I was basking in anticipation: it was a new game, a new world to discover, something exciting, new identities to play with!

Result: I was quite self-conscious and pretending most of the time. I was convinced nobody would actually like the real me.

Coping strategy: I had to use different masks depending on the people/situation I was dealing with. I had to project a different personality, a façade that could protect me from that unbearable critical scrutiny of the world around me (my parents/family, my peers, my teachers, “the boys”).

Drawback number 3)

Everything that was important to me in previous years became the hallmarks of childhood: something I had to distance myself from at every cost.

Result: My interests and attitude, my favourite toys and play were all abandoned in favour of the “new me” and more “mature” pursuits (make-up and making-up with boys were on top of my list).

Coping strategy: Bye bye to the studious, dutiful girl: the “new me” was a provocative and rebellious one, who would skip classes to smoke cigarettes in the school toilet, wear ripped jeans and knee-high boots and write indecent graffiti everywhere I could.

This scenario will sound familiar to many teenagers girls today, despite this being an account from thirty years ago (the ’80s). This means that we didn’t have computers, the internet, social media, mobile phones or tablets. We had fewer TV programs we could watch (4 or 5 channels) with typically one TV per family, so that watching time was restricted to a minimum and parental control was almost inescapable. We had no access to pornography, we could not get much information about sex (my only source was girls’ magazines at the time) and there was no way to be tempted to share a compromising picture/video online and to be shamed publicly after that.

Forwarding to the digital revolution, I wonder whether teenager (and young adults)’s feelings and coping strategies have changed that much and whether they are being aggravated by the hyper-connectivity of today’s world. While there is little doubt that the main issues remain the same  – all boiling down to the elusive quest of one’s own identity (who am I?) and fear of rejection (will I be loved?) – the increasing demands of our hyper-connected world hardly allow modern young people to escape

Recalling the memories of my teenage self makes me wonder about how I would have coped with living in such connected world and played my identity-games in social media. When I observe my son I wonder about the pressure he must be feeling: he told me that with Instagram and Snapchat “it’s all about appearance”.

How are young people coping with all this? How does it feel to be complete pioneers in a new, unknown territory? How does it feel when your parents are less savvy than you in using gadgets and digital technology? Can they take adults seriously enough for advice when all sort of information is available to them through a simple click on their portable devices? Do they consider all this an advantage or are they wishing to live in a less connected world? Are they screaming out for protection or do they revel in this newfound independency from adults’ control? As parents, should we leave them free to play their “identity’s games” online and how much privacy should we allow them in the process?

We desperately need more research to address these questions 😉

From tomboy to make-up fanatic

9 years old_crop

An old photo: summer holiday July 1979 – myself at 9 years old

During my last visit back to Rome – my home town – I often found myself looking at photographs of my ninths to eleventh year and a sense of complete mystery kicked in. Sometimes we have the feeling of remembering but then realise that these were memories that others have lent us: by their recounting events they made us aware throughout the years of something that has happened, so that what we acknowledge as an occurrence it is not accompanied by first person’s memories.

I never even realised this before, but it is true that other family’s members’ narratives become entangled with blurred memories of the past so that ultimately it becomes difficult to discern the two as distinct elements.

The process of realising this started when – for the sake of honouring self-reflexivity during my PhD project –  I tried to remember myself as a  9-11 years old girl, but I found incredibly hard to even recall a single memory.  It seemed like a complete blackout: why am I struggling so much to remember any particular event between my ninth and eleven year? This is in sharp contrast to my vivid recall of events in my teenage years (from 12th onwards).

So in one of my visits to Rome (my hometown),  I found mysef browsing old photos albums to try to reconnect with the past.

I found a picture of myself at 9 years old: I see what it look like a boy, with very short hair, wearing a t-shirt and some shorts. In another one I am 10 and I am still with very short hair, wearing a foulard over my head (I wonder if this was done perhaps to give myself a more feminine resemblance?).  In another picture I am 11 and I am at the edge of a swimming pool wearing some speedo and completely bare chest: nothing about me from this picture could possibly suggest that I am a girl!


I see a group picture with some of my friends and most girls –at part from me, my sister and another friend- have long or medium length hair.  I then asked my parents about whether I was happy to be looking like a boy at that age: they said that at that point of my life I was not bothered in the slightest about the way I looked (a far cry from my teenager years, when I suddenly became obsessed with appearance).

My mother used to recycle my brother’s clothes on me and my sister so that – at part from special occasions and ceremonies – the three of us would look essentially like three boys.  Perhaps my thirst for understanding what happen to girls at this stage of their life comes from this lacking of clarity regarding my own past? Perhaps I am hoping to be able to “unlock the gate” and access my own memories?

Why so many vivid memories of my 12th-13th years and nothing for the three preceding years?

From the age of twelve I started to “act out” and officially entered into “rebel mode”. I started to hate school while having a passion for boys, make-up and cigarettes. Truancy was the utmost “cool”, so I had to learn mother’s signature to perfection. Probably this is not different from what most teenagers do nowadays, but back then my attitude was unlike the typical behaviour of middle class early teenage girls, as I can distinctly remember having to hang around with 15 years old in order to find the ideal companions for my ventures and curiosities: my coetaneous and middle class friends were becoming incredibly boring.

I was also quite angry and violent at some point. I have a distinct memory of throwing a cup to the maid. Parents were no longer friends and I still remember how I despised them and how strong was my desire to act as a rebel. Arguments and constant confrontation would be the new way to communicate and often I would be locking myself in the bedroom, refusing to sit at the table to have lunch with them. I would be happy achieving just sufficient marks at school and studying would the least of my worries.

Having started school a year earlier, I was always the younger member of the class and most of my class mates were already 13. My chosen best friend was a 15 years old classmate who had repeated the first and second class twice: she was in my eyes the most fascinating person in the whole school and I quickly became so enthused with her that I started to follow her around everywhere, imitating her style of clothes, make-up and sharing her passion for missing school classes too! This is the year I quite rapidly got sucked into the beauty trap: I would be posing in front of the mirror, trying different attires and absolutely craving for boys’ attention.

Perhaps I am still wondering about these sudden changes even today: from tomboy to make-up fanatic, how did that happen?