The years of being a pre-teen are coined as the most painful, embarrassing and vulnerable times of our lives. But through all of the awkwardness, comes a period of growth. When we are young, we are blissfully ignorant. We don't understand the judgements the world places on us, and therefore we feel free to be ourselves. When we are older we understand the criticisms of society, but we have built up enough defenses that allow us to separate ourselves from the harshness of the world. But as a pre-teen you are just being exposed to people judging, criticizing and having unrealistic expectations for you, and you don't yet have the tools to handle it. Therefore, in addition to the physical changes of adolescence, comes the emotional change of learning to deal with the pain of being judged.
Before the wrath of judgement, comes the freeing and positive experience of childhood. In Heather Burtman’s essay, My Body Doesn’t Belong To You, she describes the freedom of childhood innocence by telling a story about a time when she was younger, and buried herself naked in the dirt. She writes, “I liked being that way: a bare, muddy torso with a handful of seeds that I thought might grow carrots and yield a future in which my body was my body. And your body was your body” (Burtman, 2017). This quote shows that you are the most free you will ever be as a child, that you are the happiest with yourself and your body before you learn about the world. Meaning that as a child you have an obscured view, you are hopeful, and naive. When you view the world with a childlike ignorance, you have the idea that the world revolves around you, and that you are special. This mindset, while self centered, is positive because it enforces a confident self image. The purpose of this quote is to show that ignorance is bliss, that you will love yourself the most truthfully when the world doesn’t have eyes on you, and you don’t have eyes on the world. Burtman’s intent was to show the readers that when we grow up, and become exposed to the truth, we are no longer comfortable in our bareness and our bodies, but afraid. Being ignorant isn’t the key to being happy, because when you are, you miss out on the complexities of the world and the opportunity to learn from your experiences. This is why that that fear is necessary. It allows us to grow and experience life as well rounded people, and not naive children.
In order to become those well rounded people, we have to let the world beat us down. I was 13, with glowing pink skin, sun kissed by the anger, and acne brought on upon by adolescence. I stood in front of my chipped mirror, my face distorted from the split open glass, picking at every part of myself. I ran my fingers through my crispy, dried up hair, strands falling away as my nails got caught in the tangles. I frowned. My eyes glanced downwards to my body, I stood on my tippy toes, sucked in my stomach and put my hand on my hip in order to bare my appearance.
My mom called down for me and I walked out of the house and into her car, squinting at the harsh sky. I thought I was too cool for summer. We drove to the hairdresser, we entered and I trailed behind her slowly. I was led by a flamboyant man to the sinks in the back. I sunk into the water, letting the cold wash over me. When I sat up I was once again met by a mirror. But now I saw a soaking wet rat, god, could I look any worse?
He pricked and pried at my hair, making sly comments. “What happened to your hair? Ooof! How many times did you dye it again?” I sat, nodded politely and gave short answers. I then showed him a picture of how I wanted my hair. He said “Really? That's pretty short, are you sure?” I once again nodded my head and then he began to cut. Clumps of my hair fell to the ground from his scissors, they sprawled out around me like loose feathers. My eyes didn’t leave my own gaze. And then I heard the buzz of the razor, it tickled as it travels up and around the shape of my skull. I felt the cool, shrinking breeze on my bare neck for the first time, my shoulders lifting higher and higher trying to hide my exposed skin. He stopped the clippers, and I finally looked up above my own eyeliner, not recognizing who I was. My hair gone, shaped and shaved to look like a little boy.
I got up and said “Thank you so much, I love it.” I held back the tears and fought off the fear, fear of how the world would see me differently, fear of how I would be treated, fear of being myself. My mom met me at the car “Ah I like it!” She said in a high pitched voice. I sat back in the car, looking down at my body, then up at my face in the side mirror. “I think I have to start dressing more femininely.” This version of myself was not who I was, she was torn and tattered by her hurtful peers, she wanted to be like everyone else so desperately. She just wanted to be included.
As a pre-teen all you want to be is accepted by the masses, and to feel wanted because you don't know how to want yourself. You are so insecure in yourself that you wish you would be like all the others. Jennifer Bartlett contemplates with this idea in her essay Longing for the Male Gaze. In this paper she describes her experience living with cerebral palsy and the idea that when you are different you are dehumanized, left out or forgotten. While this source discusses the author's personal struggle and how she is more often harassed for her disability than for her sexuality, she discusses how not being cat called, makes her feel excluded, because women are now expected to be sexually harassed. She writes “I like it when men look at me. It feels empowering. Frankly, it makes me feel like I’m not being excluded”(Bartlett, 2016). While this quote is written from the perspective of a grown woman, the feelings present heavily apply to the experience of adolescence. As tweens we long to be accepted, and to be treated like everyone else, no matter the consequences. This quote shows that the insatiable need to be liked can be hurtful, it can lead to you wanting things that aren’t good for you. In Bartletts case that is wanting to be cat called or objectified for the sake of feeling included. This shows how harmful expectations can be to impressionable young adults, they make them want to change themselves in order to fit society's ideals. In my case, I felt I needed to dress more femininely because I was afraid of sticking out, or not looking pretty enough. While painful, and heartbreaking this period of life allows people to experiment with changing themselves for others, which in turn allows them to see how much happier they are as themselves. We need to get to that low point of feeling the need to conform before we can feel comfortable expressing our own individuality.
In conclusion, when we are pre-teens we live in a constant state of fear and longing because we haven’t yet learned how to love ourselves from our own life experiences. And it is the very pain and embarrassment of being a tween that allows us to build the tools that help us separate ourselves from the judgmental world. Society will always be filled with expectations and cruel judgements, but as we get older we learn from our past mistakes and insecurities in order to better handle the fear of being different. Those who are confident and secure in themselves, were awkward and self-conscious at one point too.