In 2008, 58 teenage girls published their take on body image, family, politics, and pop culture in the anthology Red: Teenage Girls in America Write on What Fires Up Their Lives Today, edited by Amy Goldwasser. Page Turner caught up with five of them to talk about feminism, teen-girl falsehoods, and what’s happened in their lives since their essays left off.
JORDYN TURNEY, 19
Title of her essay: “Mascara Wands Are Instruments of War”
What it was about: Tension between her and her mother about appearances and makeup, which Jordyn didn’t really wear.
Her theme song for her essay: “Looks Are Everything,” by Rose Falcon
Lines in her essay that should make you want to read it: “Mother-daughter relationships are famous for one thing, really: conflict. It’s like war, except personal. Too personal sometimes.”
On life with Mom since publishing it: We understand the other’s viewpoint better, and we definitely don’t fight about it as much.
On life in general since publishing it: I’ve become a lot more serious about writing as a career path. I’ve been writing periodically on the Huffington Post’s RED blog, and as a RED Hearts blogger for iheartdaily.com. I have written two novels and am currently searching for a literary agent.
The most challenging aspect of publishing her essay: Giving it to my mother to read when I’d never broached the subject so brazenly before.
On young women and feminism today: The word “feminism” definitely gets a bad rap. It conveys a very negative stereotype of ambitious career women who hate men, family, and fashion. I don’t think that’s true, but I think it’s the idea a lot of people have, and surely that influences whether or not young women identify as feminist.
On the biggest misconceptions about teenage girls in America: The idea of “pretty or smart.” Many girls are both, but everyone gets lumped into one category or the other in spite of it, and sometimes that holds girls back. A lot of times it’s hard to step out of the box others put you in, even if you want to, and I think it’s especially difficult for girls, because the lines are firmly drawn.
OLIVE PANTER, 19
Title of her essay: “Play”
What it was about: How music is her life.
Her theme song for her essay: “I’m In The Band,” by Bratmobile
Line in her essay that should make you want to read it: “I can’t count how many times my mom has yelled at me for not being in a band.”
On life since publishing the essay: I graduated high school early to intern at the Red Hot Organization and wound up the Production Coordinator on a great record before I started my freshman year at the School of Art at Cooper Union, which thoroughly shook me to the bone. Now I’m slinging comics at Forbidden Planet until I start my sophomore year.
Her thoughts on music since her essay: I have definitely rethought the simplicity of creating music. In “Play,” I went on and on about how so many untrained people have created great music, so everyone can and everyone should try. In retrospect, the people I cited as examples—Lou Reed, Nick Lowe, Kimya Dawson—are kinda fucking geniuses. Creation is hard and frustrating, and while I haven’t given up, I am definitely lagging behind where I thought I would be. … For now, I’m content singing along to Bikini Kill when I’m alone, and leaving invention to others.
Her survival tips for teen feminists who feel they’re stuck in “high-school hell”: There will always be idiots who don’t think and don’t care to learn, but there are also some amazing people in the world who, at any given time, will surprise you, make you realize that you aren’t alone, and help you to evolve even further. It’s just a wait until you encounter people who think like you.
A book that changed her outlook on life: Reading about Patti Smith in Please Kill Me, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, really changed some things for me. This is a person who was entrenched in the most testosterone-fueled musical revolution ever, where women generally weren’t treated well until they had proven themselves to be able to handle their shit. It was super cool to watch her navigate her way through all of this while creating and gaining so much.
On the biggest misconceptions about teenage girls in America: That we’re just Gossip Girl-obsessed drones … People who have those ideas just probably haven’t actually spent time with us. Most of us have a lot more on our mind than Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson’s latest break-up. (Although, I do totally want to know how their relationship’s gonna end up. I’m rooting for ‘em.)
AMY HUNT, 19
Title of her essay: “Sleeves”
What it was about: What’s it like being an overweight teenage girl.
Her theme song for her essay: “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful),” by Mika
Lines in her essay that should make you want to read it: “Fear of being laughed gawked pointed at because it’s a fat girl trying to be a part of something ha ha ha! Fat girl has opinions? Fat girl wants to make something of herself?”
The best part of being published in Red: Realiz[ing] that maybe what I have to say can affect people in a positive way and can mean something special to someone other than myself.
On what’s happened to her since the essay left off: I lost some weight, but to me what’s more important is that I’ve learned to love who I am, and not regardless of my body, but because of how I’ve grown from my struggles. … It’s important to know that no matter what size or shape you are, you are still beautiful.
On whether she identifies as a feminist: I’m not sure I think of myself as a feminist, at least not actively, but I do believe in not letting society or individuals tell me what I can and can’t do based on my gender. It’s up to every girl and woman to constantly push the boundaries. When someone tells you that you can’t do something, you prove them wrong! Women in science, women in management positions, women as leaders. It’s important to remind society that women have a voice, a powerful one.
One of the best books she’s read on feminism and women’s rights: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Alar Nafisi. It’s so important to look and see how women are treated in various cultures and countries, and to look for ways to strengthen women’s rights all over the world.
On the biggest misconceptions about teenage girls in America: That we’re hung up on beauty and looks and boys. Sure, we look around us and everywhere we see society’s idea of beauty, celebrities, and models, and the notion that a girl needs a guy to feel complete. But my friends care about so much more. … In short, we’re anything but apathetic about the world around us.
DANI COX, 15
Title of her essay: “Ms. President”
What it was about: Challenges in the world, and how girls can make a difference.
Her theme song for her essay: “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” by Bob Dylan
Lines in her essay that should make you want to read it: “I am going to stop global warming and be the first woman president. The person to walk on Mars will be me. I am going to be one of those anonymous extraordinary women who inspire so many people.”
On what’s happened to her since the essay left off: My passion remains strong. I have more recently dived into criminal investigation—more specifically, forensics. I’m interested in helping victims tell the story they didn’t have the chance to tell.
Young adult books she adores: Dreamland, by Sarah Dessen, and Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen. They’re about young women who are battling their very dark surroundings, situations that people all over the world find themselves stuck in every day. I read the books at a time when I really had no idea who I was or what to do next.
On whether she identifies as a feminist: When I first published my essay, many people called me a feminist since I only mentioned girls in it, and I denied being one. Though they called me a feminist, they were accusing me of being a female chauvinist. Few people understood what true feminism is, including myself at the time. I didn’t let it bother me, as I realized that they didn’t truly understand what it was either. The definition of feminism is the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. So, even though back then I denied being one, now I do indeed consider myself a feminist.
On the biggest misconceptions about teenage girls in America: That we are incapable of understanding complex concepts and thinking logically.
CINDY MORAND, 20
Title of her essay: “The Border”
What it was about: Racism, classism, and border crossing as a young girl living in Mexico and America. Plus, her father’s health issues.
Her theme song for her essay: “Bittersweet Symphony,” by The Verve
Lines in her essay that should make you want to read it: “As an immigrant and a teenager, being ambitious, cultured, outspoken, creative, enthusiastic, caring, and a self-starter has come at a very expensive price—tears and blood.”
On what’s happened to her since the essay left off: Now that I am in college, I’ve met individuals from different places of the world. … I don’t feel that people are racist; I just think that people like to stereotype and sometimes forget that they could offend someone. I don’t ever take any comments offensively anymore, because I am half French and half Mexican, and I was born in New York City, which doesn’t make me 100% of anything. … My father is still my hero, and his Alzheimer’s is not that bad, so that makes me very happy.
On whether she identifies as a feminist: I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but I am an independent woman who does not need to rely on a guy for happiness or income or pleasure or anything…. I also detest when girls cry about their boyfriends who mistreat them, so in that sense, I guess I could sound like a feminist when I say, “You do not need a guy to survive, so please get a life. Time is precious.”
On the biggest misconceptions about teenage girls in America: We are sweet, love to cook, our dream is to get married, we gossip, buy shoes and more shoes, and talk about dumb things. No, I am not like that at all.
For more on Red, check out the book’s website.