Will the girls be all right?
By Judith Timson

Abstract: Adolescence is a fact of life and each teenager has to face it in her own way. The changing culture strongly influence the way teenage girls deal with their adolescence. Interviews with three young girls, from 1994 to 1996, on what becoming an adolescent means to them are presented.

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1996 Maclean Hunter Ltd. (Canada)
Chatelaine, Nov 1996 v69 n11 p67(9).

Two years ago, Sadie, Julia and Tunde dreamed of turning 13--and finally crossing the threshold of teendom. They've arrived on a landscape of pressures, doubts and possibilities. What did they give up to get here? Judith Timson reports, in this conclusion of a three-year series

JULIA AND HER FRIEND Claire sit together in the Second Cup cafe in a downtown Toronto neighborhood, dressed artfully down--homeboy hat and oversize jacket on the one; frayed, slightly belled powder-blue cords on the other. They don't order a cafe latte--that would be "pulling a trendy" and they are much too cool for that. "I'm so cool it hurts," sighs 13-year-old Julia. then quickly takes it back, because she knows she's not, and anyway, it's just another line she's trying on for size. Claire, a year older, orders raspberry tea and empties enough sugar into it to make your teeth tingle watching her. Julia, with hands sporting chipped and cracked blue nail polish, cradles a hot chocolate. And together, they try to be serious about whet it's like to head into adolescence, to try to hang on to yourself at a time when many girls lose their direction, their power, their voice. Serious, that is, until they hear the cafe's Muzak, and then, grinning at each other, burst into song: "Girl, you'll be a woman soon.... "

It's impossible not to laugh but also not to wonder: what kind of women are we creating here? For, to be a teenage girl in Canada today is to live a life awash in contradictions: yes, you can be sexually aggressive, but if you act on those desires, you'll either risk dying from AIDS or be called a slut, even by your friends. Yes, you are supposed to be equal to boys in school and in sports, but why do you still sometimes feel that whet you do really doesn't matter as much? Yes, you have the freedom to wear baggy Goodwill men's clothes completely hiding that developing body of yours, sport no makeup and carry a battered catcher's mitt, but why, when you open a magazine, is Pamela Lee in a vinyl minidress deemed worthy of full-page adulation?

You're living in a trash culture ("No means no" when it comes to consenting to sexual activity) are, in the twinkling of an ad campaign, utterly trivialized: "No means no!" screams the Bonne Bell ad in a recent issue of Seventeen magazine--"makeup that says no to shine." You're being paid attention to all right--just look at the tobacco companies. Independence? You grew up (only recently!) thinking you're as independent as a boy and pretty strong too. Now, in the after-math of Paul Bernardo, your mom won't even let you walk home from the bus stop after 10 p.m. because she heard someone got attacked there.

Then, there is the closer-to-home bad-news brigade: kids shattered by divorce, immobilized by depression, caught up in rising teenage crime. Listen, so many kids seem to be falling through the cracks these days it's a wonder there's anyone left upright on the sidewalks. And knowing the dangers still doesn't take away that primordial urge to just do something really bad on a Friday night... like the girl you know who smoked a joint for the first time at the Grade 9 school dance, freaked out and was sent home in disgrace. But you're not that messed up, so you "forget" to call home at the appointed hour and leave your parents frantic for half the evening, or maybe you just crank-call some guys in your class.

You can explode from all these possibilities and doubts and stresses. You can go inward, where you end up feeling really psycho or, maybe, just maybe, you can hold it all together.... But no one who isn't 13 can understand what it's really like--the paranoia, the pressure, the joy, the hunger, and we're not talking just eating your lunch early at school (at 9:30 am. to be exact), we're talking want, want, want wicked cords, better marks, rainbow-dyed hair, parents to appreciate how much you've changed, that boy to smile at you, breasts, but not these breasts, okay if not a nose ring then three more holes in each ear, sinking the winning basket, longer legs, a bigger allowance, a better science project, your mom to lighten up, your sister to get lost...someone to kiss you. Maybe.

An attempt was made to understand all this. The reporter ship landed in the alien zone, where once upon a time there were three girls--Sadie, Julia end Tunde. They agreed, at 11, to be interviewed for the next two years on what it was like to go through early adolescence, to be the kind of bright girl that made the adults around her think: if anyone can hang on to her sense of self, she can, if anyone can stare down those contradictions, she can, if anyone can be a new kind of girl in this supposedly post-feminist world, well, she can. In short, they agreed to be living breathing answers to a question posed by psychologists, feminist theorists and worried parents: do young girls still go missing in action as they enter adolescence, their self-esteem challenged by what society demands of them--and forbids them--as females? Or are we raising our daughters differently today?

Sadie, who lived with her mother, a bus driver, and her stepfather, a transit-union representative, her half brother and numerous pets in a downtown Toronto house, was red-haired, crazy about sports, dedicated to telling the truth, and filled with an endearing combination of compassion, a fierce sense of fairness and a joyous love of her pets and her friends.

Julia, the only child of two civil-service employees, was a brain sometimes masquerading as a Valley Girl (and then getting irritated when people ran with the Valley Girl concept). She was a binge reader, a budding performer, a girl with slash-and-burn wit, and the courage, when required, to act like a fool. (When her class watched the movie Schindler's List last year and was predictably devastated, Julia, her own face pale and sad, comforted friends with Kleenex and hugs. When one girl still sat sniffling on the student sofa, Julia appeared wearing goofy sunglasses, with her polo shirt pulled up over her head, willing her to laugh--and she did.)

And then there was Tunde--complicated and quiet--the eldest in a family of three children, tall, striving to be good at volleyball, obsessed with her marks, sheltered by her family, a girl whose mother, an early childhood educator, swore she would never, ever have a kid who hung out on the street, did dope or got pregnant, and whose father, a government statistician, reminded her daily the most important thing in life was her education. A girl whose biggest problem was figuring out how to move socially with a little more lightness and ease and still hold on to her dignity, to the core of what she was.

That first year, they all seemed remarkably feisty (no one was subtly going to shoehorn them into some glass-slip per approach to femininity); the second year was transitional, marked by a little more hesitation as they moved into Grade 7, and a lot more doubt--about their social lives, their marks, their sense of self.

And so we come to the final chapter, which I wanted to end, not with a whimper, as each girl went on her way, but with all of them facing each other and me, describing their own journey into adolescence. But first, I retraced my steps, starting, as I had in the beginning, with a visit to each girl at home.

On a Sunday afternoon, in her downtown renovated house where she lives with her cat, Mouse, and her parents, Liz, a municipal health care manager, and John, a public-service labor negotiator, a taller, even lankier Julie greeted me wearing overalls and a blue T-shirt, hair slightly askew. She dispensed information about herself with the rapid randomness of an all-news network--she'd been reading Barbara Kingsolver, one of her favorite songs was the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." "Come and see my cake I baked"--and she twirled around to show off her height A girl whose proudest achievement this year was her modern dance class ensemble performance, Julia seemed always to be in motion--even talking on the phone, she walked into one kitchen wall, bouncing herself off it, then careened to the other. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," she said into the phone. Her mother, Liz, seemed unflappable in the face of her daughter's kinetic motion. As we toured Julia's chaotic bedroom, where you needed hip waders to get through the piles of dirty--or was that CLean?--laundry op the floor, Liz said patiently, "Julia does her own laundry--eventually."

I asked Julia how she was doing academically in her last year (Grade 8) of her alternative school and she said "fine," but Liz demurred: "We do have a difference of opinion on that" Apparently, she wasn't concentrating on some of her work. ("Concentrating?" snorted one teacher of early teens. "I see them draped over their desks, with every bit of concentration they have going into what's happening to their bodies--it's all they can deal with right now.") But the stress of not doing her work, Julia would say later, made her back tighten up, so much that "I tend to have to get shiatsu." That made her sound more pampered, less down-to-earth, than she actually is.

In her kitchen, she offered a little peek at her more grounded self that made both her mother and me smile: I asked her how she had weathered early adolescence now that she was almost 14. "Well," she said philosophically, "so far, I'd say I haven't completely crumble!" Part of the reason for that was that she had lived a year free of boy-girl tension. The boys in her alternative school just hadn't interested her romantically, and that meant, according to one of her teachers, Nancy, that Julia had a "totally supportive year" (which is, of course, what the parents who send their daughters to single-sex schools are after). Nancy said she has actually seen girls begin to buckle and give up parts of themselves to become sexually desirable. "Will Julia ever play that game? I don't think she will."

The next night, I arrived at Sadie's house, in the same downtown neighborhood as Julia's, and she opened the door wearing a form-fitting top and looking more physically grown up than when I had last seen her. But she seemed a trifle uncommunicative. When I asked how she felt about getting together with all three girls for a final session, she retorted, "How am I supposed to feel?" She and Julia, who once were fast friends, still saw each other but were not as close as they used to be; she hadn't seen Tunde since the cover photograph was taken in 1994. And it was clear Sadie would rather not face up to this last series of interviews.

Sadie was at the dining room table doing homework when Eleanor, her mother, reappeared, having put Andrew, Sadie's year-old half brother, to bed. Shortly after, when her stepfather, John, arrived home after a tense and exhausting day of union talks, Sadie challenged them both with an edgy complaint about having been forced to baby-sit her brother "You haven't paid me, even though you promised." Her mother had a look on her face not unfamiliar to any parent who has been verbally ambushed by her child in front of a stranger. "Sadie, I cannot believe you are saying this," she said finally. That night, Sadie kept them on their toes, but they did not, in the end, seem terribly unnerved. John has teenage daughters from his first marriage, which, in Sadie's eyes, transformed him from someone who used to annoy her into a "very understanding" man. Once, in defiance of her mother's edict that she couldn't go to a downtown mall by herself to meet a friend, Sadie blazed, "John lets me do it, and I'm going. So there!" Eleanor, who was a headstrong kid herself, both dreads and appreciates teenage rebellion. Her own mother, Marg, a retired elementary school principal who has dealt with all kinds of kids, is optimistic: "From what I can see, Sadie is making good choices, in her schoolwork in her friendships."

Nearing the end of her two years in a full-time gifted program at a local public school, Sadie confessed ruefully, "I suck at math," a red warning flag for anyone worried about math-phobic girls (though contradicted somewhat by the fact that she was acing science). Low math marks are not a good thing for a girl who wants to be a vet, or rather wanted to, until she discovered they only made, she said, "$42,000 a year," a figure she had no trouble calculating as beneath her required minimum. Are these girls materialistic? Maybe, but at least they understand they have to earn the money themselves. (One amusing moment in our final get-together was listening to Sadie and Julia enlighten a surprised Tunde about "prenups"--prenuptial agreements.)

That night' at home, Sadie seemed rather steely. But maybe a girl who worries that she cries too much when she is angry and whose proudest moment this year reflected not only her determination, but her softness of heart--raising $200 apiece for two animal charities--needs a little armor to confront the world.

When I called Tunde, I wondered whether she had taken off some of her armor. She said she had: "I'm more fun to be with, I'm joking more." She had finally learned that when people tease, "you just snap back" but in a humorous way, and so she now perceived herself as popular. Did people know the real Tunde? She thought they did. Did they like her? "I didn't think they would, but they do." She still wasn't doing things socially on the weekends or at night, primarily because her parents wouldn't let her. "There's nothing to do at night anyway," she said, after a pause.

I arrived one Sunday morning to find that little had changed in the suburban Toronto household where Tunde, her younger sister, Kemi, 12, and her brother, Olu, 7, lived with their parents, Julie and Anthony. Tunde had grown even taller, if that was possible--at five foot eight, she looked powerful in her overalls and green T-shirt, and was wearing size 11 shoes. Like Julia and Sadie, she was not playing as many sports as she once had. Sports, most psychologists agree, are one way to keep girls feeling good about their bodies in a world that starts to judge them pretty fast only on how pleasing they are to look at. But all three girls, while still playing one team sport, had backed off from athletics, citing a lessening of interest or lack of time.

Tunde was still juggling family responsibilities and saw herself as an important part of the family: "If anything happened to my father, I'd take over," she said. Her commitment to pick up her brother after school was paramount--normally fairly quiescent in class, she defied a teacher who tried to detain her after school. He wouldn't listen to why she had to leave, so after a yelling match, she just walked out When she was asked to apologize the next day, she never did, instead telling him, "If you want to be respected, then give me respect." It sounded like something she would have heard around home.

Her mother, Julie, was in the kitchen, broiling cheese on bagels for the girls' breakfast and holding forth: "No sex, drugs and rock and roll! That's what I tell these girls." Tunde later explained the constancy of the message: "I guess they went to prove to the world there are successful black people."

I asked Tunde what she felt good about this year "I beat everyone in math." First term, she had brought home all As except for a C in math, and the rafters had fallen in. Her mother recalled, "I sew this, this C and I said, 'This is disgusting!'" By next term, the C had become an A. But it made Tunde doubt herself. "I had to dig deep down and admit I didn't get it Trust me, it was hard." Her words made me wonder whether Tunde was afraid to disappoint her parents, whether despite that extraordinary love and closeness they all shared, the stem cards they set were too high, the restrictions too heavy. Once, she tried to wear a short skirt to a school dance, but her parents vetoed it, as they did her going alone to a friend's house because "there might be boys." Instead, they made her take her sister along. So here she was, a walking contradiction--a girl who beat the boys at math but wasn't allowed to deal socially with them on her own terms.

Yet, in a funny and charming essay she wrote on her family, for which she received an A+, she laid out their shortcomings--her father's obsessive house cleaning, her mother's quick temper--and concluded: "But I've still got a sane and great family even if I don't bear with them at times." The essay was proudly displayed on the fridge door. As for other girls she knew who had a low opinion of themselves, Tunde traced it back to the family: "I guess they're not getting the attention they need from home."

How do you measure self-esteem anyway? You can talk with Tunde, and with Julia and Sadie, at home, and later in cafes and restaurants, and you can listen to their words--powerful phrases projecting textbook-approved images of self-reliance and self-worth ('We're originals!" proclaimed Sadie and her friend Kristen as they drank hot chocolate). Or you can, instead, watch the doubts flicker across their faces, observe the tentativeness in their gestures, hear those impossible external standards pushing in, as when Sadie wonders whether she might have a slow metabolism and that's why her friends are slimmer (this perfectly compact slightly curvy girl!). Then, you understand that self-esteem is, at best, an elusive concept, and at worst, a misleading cliche, a holy grail that doesn't quite take into account all that goes into it what your family gives you, what it doesn't, what you achieve,what experiences your have, who you are, who you think you are.

Back in Tunde's kitchen, I asked whether she ever used her full Nigerian name. "Maybe when I'm in high school I 11 call myself Yetunde," she said. But her mother had a different idea: "Maybe she 11 call herself Lindsay," she suggested "That's her Canadian name, she might went to be part of the gang." Pause. "Mom," said Tunde firmly, "why would I do that? There are so many Lindsays in the school, and only one Yetunde."

It was time for the final interview. Before they arrived at my house on a sunny summer morning, I thawed the frozen bagels, fidgeted and worried--that Julia would be slightly disdainful, that Sadie would clam up, that the two of them would, in that knife-edge, excruciating way girls have, exclude Tunde. That Tunde would go all quiet, or worse, starchy, judgmental, which she had a tendency to do.

Tunde arrived first, hopping out of a cab, dressed up in a T-shirt and multicolored flowing skirt on which she accepted my compliments only reluctantly because, after all, her mother made her wear it. It was the first time she had been to my house, and I knew she would prowl around with that engaging blend of curiosity and openness: "What's that painting? Are these pictures of your family?" The doorbell rang, and in walked Sadie and Julia, and for the first time they all seemed. . . sophisticated. Julia and Sadie were wearing slightly grungy clothes, but their hair was longer and seemingly styled, Sadie was wearing lipstick. And I could see they had indeed arrived at what had been for them, three years ago, a mythic destination: they had become teenagers. Sadie would be the last to turn 14, in October.

For a moment, it was awkward. I could tell they were taken aback by the sheer height of Tunde--at least several inches taller than they--but after the initial hi, hi, hi. . . it somehow felt all right When, in the middle of Tunde describing a fight she nearly got into with a boy who was harrassing her sister, Julia added emphatically: "Bet she could have whipped his ass!", it was evident that solidarity was at hand.

As the morning progressed, they shared their thoughts about how they'd changed--"I'm more mature now, I'm more likely to voice my opinions," said Tunde; "I was a wimp," said Julie, to general disbelief; and Sadie said she thought it was hard to see how you yourself have changed--"others can see it in you." They talked a bit about their bodies: Tunde admitted she sometimes wished she were shorter. Julia confessed: "I don't generally go, `All of me is ugly.' I go, `Well, I don't like this part of me or that part of met"' And Sadie said she wished she were thinner. "I mean," said Sadie, "when I look at models, I say, 'Oh, my God, I'd love to look like that,' but I'd never go to the trouble of starving myself."

>From bodies, we moved on to sex education, laughing at Julia's take on over-eager sex educators: "Once, in Grade 6, this board of ed woman came into class and before lunch she showed us a slide of like, vaginal discharge from when you're pregnant I was like, 'Hello? How does that help me?' It was like goo!. . . So pointless! Now, this year, we had a sex lady come in who wasn't from the board of ed and she was great. She answered really good questions like `How do you make the first move?"' All of them knew of a girl or two who was having sex at 14, but it wasn't all that common, and one such girl was admirably described as "very up-front and mature about it"

Sadie, Julia and Tunde discovered some of what they had in common--little interest in boys last year, primarily because the boys in their Grade 8 class were, well, "immature" and "disgusting" were two words bandied about

They also brought secrets to the table--what adolescent girl doesn't lead a subversive life, either in reality or in her head? "Pinky-swear you won't say anything about this," said one to the other, holding out her little finger. By the time they are midway through Grade 9, each of them will have to decide whether to party on or go home. (Tunde,, with her more restricted life, will have a different battle to fight "Oh God, my life is so boring," she sighed as Julia outlined her plans for a Grade 8 graduation party at a friend's house that included a sleepover for the girls and boys.)

It will happen fast, those moments when drugs, drink and sex are offered, and all three are aware of what's out there: `shrooms (magic mushrooms) and Ecstasy are the 90s hallucinogens of choice, wine coolers are big in school lockers. "Kids' lives are getting complicated so early these days," said Julia. So complicated that all three of them agreed they wouldn't necessarily turn to their friends for reassurance or support if they were worried about something: those friends have "too many problems" of their own. (Later, one of them quietly asked me, "How can you tell if a friend is bulimic?')

Standing back a bit, I could see whet else they had in common: adults--mothers, fathers, grandparents--who cared about them, who let them know certain things were expected, and in turn could be counted on, unlike some kids they knew whose parents simply didn't seem to be there for them at all. "I never talk to my mom, she works all the time. My dad's,too tired to pick me up," said one of their friends flatly, as she explained why it was all right for her to go home late at night by herself on the subway. Sadie, Julia and Tunde all had, as welt strong mothers who worked at outside jobs, mothers they felt close to, and in some ways, protective of: when I asked them what they would change about their mothers' lives, all three were unanimous: the "stress" of their jobs. (Does this mean they will come up with something better for themselves, something that is as fulfilling as it is balanced.?)

I could also see that each of them brought something to this session she didn't have before--Julia brought empathy, insights into other people's difficulties that seemed to elude her in her 11th and 12th years, Tunde brought a new kind of confidence and ease in her talk, and Sadie surprisingly brought herself--a forthright voluble self that had been missing during some of this process.

They griped, too, about the process: interviews that, Sadie said, "just dragged on and on," the heady sense of being in a magazine quickly replaced by the dread of having their lives pried open, and then the inevitable disappointment at seeing how they were described. Julia credits the first year cover picture with helping her realize she had to stand up for herself: "I'll never let anyone dress me again."

The last interview wound down, we ordered 241 pizzas, and debated the merits of Julia dying her hair rainbow for grad. Tunde thought it might be a problem with that white dress she was planning to wear, Sadie said Julia's hair looked "cool" the way it was, end Julie said, "Whatever."

I wondered wistfully what they would be like at their next graduation, from high school. As they left, it occurred to me that no amount of feminist or counter-feminist theorizing about girls and self-esteem can take away the fact that adolescence is a primal, even private rite--however much they travel in packs or read the same magazines.

Sadie, Julia and Tunde have willed themselves into being. And the hard part for them wit be to try to be both authentic, and to fit into the mold of gender--we have shaken the mold, loosened the mold, dumped the mold on its head. But it's still there, to contain and define them--and us. They no longer need to be, in the words of one psychologist, "female impersonators," trying on being a woman as if it were just a chic little suit. They no longer have to be, in another theorist's memorable phrase, "girls for life"--deferring, giving up, hiding their power. In our homes, in our families, we have made it easier for our girls to grab what is rightfully theirs. But the culture they move in may yet deny it to them.

What will they be?