In the hemisphere of internet and performance artists, an article written by Alicia Eler and Kate Durbin about the “Teen Girl Tumblr-Aesthetic” has been circulating. This article uncovers, among other things, the important artistic artifacts being born on tumblr accounts authored by high school aged girls and/or young adult women. These ladies, said to be contributing to the “New Aesthetic” of art, bring an abundance of raw, sparkling, vulnerable and honest accounts of visuals, writing, and moving gifs, which more often than not, center around their bodies, self images that represent where the emotional and physical landscapes of “girl world” meet the concrete flesh of phallic (gross) reality. These women are pure genius, and their contributions to the cultural identity of femine found on the internet are irreplacable.
In the hemisphere of New York Magazine another article entitled “Why You Never Truly Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior was circulating a few weeks ago about, among many findings, that the girl who does not know she is beautiful in high school may never believer herself to be; that the memories that scar us at fifteen stay with us more vividly than any memories acquired throughout our childhood and adulthood. In our teen personas we may feel as if everything was totally embarrassing, and as we reflect on those instances years later, we can still feel the hot burn on our cheeks.
In my own galaxy, I have been teaching “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” to my college freshmen students, and the spikes and pains of my adolescent experience have clouded the long commutes home, ever so sensitive to that moment, etched in my memory forever, when an entire cafeteria table stood up when I sat down. As my internet life as a teen ten years ago consisted of AOL chat rooms, and making “internet dolls” for my livejournal, there wasn’t necessarily a virtual community for me to post the art and poetry that was filling up countless journals that laid across my bed. I felt as though I was living in isolation with my own feelings, the emotional and physical landscapes taking prime real estate in my brain with no understanding neighbors to converse with. I could look to My So Called Life, Clueless, and Freaks and Geeks for comfort, but there was often no one talking back. As if.
As I have grown, and now as a teacher, it has been a goal of mine to be sensitive to the adolescent experience, to uncover it through literature, and art. I find myself engulfed in the online world of teenage girl aesthetic, spidering through selfies, poetry, and collage work that is reflective of those important transition years. As I, along with the authors of referenced articles, take a closer look, we find that some of the authors are actually teens, while others, are not. Many are older, some ten years out of adolescence like myself, who perhaps never got the chance to “work it out” in front of an audience, finally afforded the opportunity to reveal the secrets and experiences that were tucked in notebooks, under beds, and in top draws for a decade. Not an obsession with adolescence, or a goal to out shine the true teens sharing work on the internet, but perhaps, a longing for community finally fulfilled in a quite profound way. With artists like Niki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry, all well out of their teens, it is easy to suggest that perhaps these aesthetics, emotions, traumas, and themes of girlhood are ones that take a lifetime to express. Perhaps we never really do leave high school, as Senior suggests in her article.
My own writing and artistic work seems to bleed glitter, and pain, and teenage angst. In my senior year of college I wrote a three act experimental play for my artistic capstone. In the final scene, I wore a candy colored bra, in a constructed room with a “Titantic” poster above a twin bed. I sat on the edge of the set with a male actor and reenacted the afternoon when I was 13 that I gave oral sex for the first time. I had just gotten my braces off and it was Good Friday. The shame of that memory had stayed with me for almost ten years, and it wasn’t until that moment, in front of an understanding audience of my peers, that I was able to finally “let go.”
These days I write a lot of poetry about my teenage experience, but also about how I have grown from that time, somewhat of a fucked up but truly beautiful quilt to sleep with at night. I have found myself sharing a lot of this writing online, though my memoir, and as part of the Illuminati Girl Gang Magazine, edited by the amazingly talented Gabby Gabby. At 20 years old, Gabby is living out all of my wildest teen dreams, and letting me and a bunch of other extremely talented women, come along for the ride as artists, writers, and contributors offering a sense of the raw, open and glittery wounds of girl and womanhood.
How does this matter in my everyday life? How does it manifest itself, the honesty, the rawness, the teens?
Just the other day I was sharing the poem “Barbie Doll” first published in 1973 by Marge Piercy with my students. After reading the following stanza, I asked the class if it was “effective” as a piece of literature.
This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs. (lines 1-6)
A male student, who is a self proclaimed conservative, who happened to be wearing an NRA t-shirt on this particular afternoon, raised his hand. Of course I was a little bit nervous about what his response might be.
“The poem is effective because it tells people that they should think before they speak, that what they say in a moment that’s mean could really affect a person for the rest of their lives, could really mess someone up.”
As he spoke, I suddenly felt an immense sense of peace, barely able to respond with the eloquence that his statement deserved. “Yes,” I said. “Our words are so powerful, and we can make or break the people in our lives with the words we choose to say, especially to young people, still forming an identity.”
I could feel something had slightly shifted in his brain after reading that poem about a young, adolescent girl who gets called fat by her classmate. He had a eureka moment of revelation, at least for those five minutes in our class. And I had one too, a part of me finally able to “let go” of the moment when all those girls decided to stand up and walk away from me, a fourteen year old just trying to make some new friends. I never got to share that moment on my tumblr as a teen, and Marge Piercy never got to post that poem on her blog, but this IRL interaction in the classroom, the release within a community, made all the difference, over ten years later. Perhaps it wasn’t the internet that was missing for me way back when, but it was the conversation, the community, the validation that I wasn’t all alone in my teenage wasteland.