What is adolescence?
A stage of growth?
A state of being?
When we grow up,
what do we unlearn?
About the Project
When I turned fourteen, I made a pact with myself: I would not be a cringey teenage girl. I would not write crappy poetry or sappy love songs. I would not draw hearts in the margins of my notes or write lyrics over and over on my binder. I would not cry on my bedroom floor in my prom dress, drowning in little tragedies I’d someday find stupid. I would be serious and studious and live through the next four years just to get to college. I wouldn’t get caught up in the high school bullshit. I wouldn't even care.
Well, obviously, that was a pile of lies.
In high school, I became everything I thought I was above. I slammed doors and screamed at my mother for not letting me out on a school night. I plastered my face with makeup and cared about what people thought. I fell in love over and over and over with the boys I knew were stupid and immature. I became someone I didn’t recognize: a self-obsessed, love-drunk teenage mess. I became a false version of myself.
In her seminal text, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher establishes the concept of the “true self,” which girls are pressured to abandon in favor of a “false self” that adheres more completely to the gendered social cues thrust upon them when entering adolescence. With the adoption of this false self comes social acceptance, community, and inclusion, but in turn, girls lose their voice, moral compass, and any defining characteristics that do not conform to the expectations of womanhood. In high school, I yearned to be everything at once, struggling to resolve the cognitive dissonance of others’ conflicting expectations: “Be beautiful, but beauty is only skin deep. Be sexy, but not sexual. Be honest, but don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Be independent, but be nice. Be smart, but not so smart that you threaten boys” (Pipher 35). Why couldn’t I be smart and pretty? Why couldn’t I be recognized as a woman and seen as a human being? “To totally accept the cultural definitions of femininity and conform to the pressures is to kill the self,” Pipher says. What parts of myself did I kill for a chance to be loved?
Now two years out of the teens and four years out of high school, I still felt like I was stumbling in the dark, feeling around for pieces of myself I’d left behind in my mad dash to adapt to the demands of womanhood. I knew I couldn’t be alone in feeling like I had been irreversibly transformed by my adolescent experience, and I yearned to learn about my peers’ teenage experiences. In what ways have they weathered the storm of peer ridicule and parental expectation? How have they made sense of womanhood? How have they made it their own?
Below, you’ll find four unique high school experiences recounted from four former teenagers. They all minimized parts of themselves and found new identities during and after adolescence. They have all changed and grown, learning what “being yourself” means to them. During the course of this project, I asked each interviewee to inhabit their teenage experience through a corresponding project in which I photographed them dressed as their high school selves. Scroll to see those photos, and click to learn more about Marj, J, Nelly, and Brooks!
About the Former Teenager
How do you do, fellow kids? I'm Brooks K. Eisenbise, a senior at the University of Michigan pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a Minor in Writing.
I'm also fully unable to let anything go. After a whole summer of reading sociological, psychological, and feminist theory about youth culture and gender dynamics (and twenty-one years of first-hand knowledge), you'd think I'd have worn myself out on the subject. Or, at least, you'd think I'd have stopped watching TikToks to regain "hip teen" status. Incorrect—no rest for those of us studying deeply-ingrained patriarchal structures in the lived adolescent experience. (And those of us who just really like TikToks.)
The more I read, the more I saw my own high school years reflected on the page: the cognitive dissonance of wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out, the internalized misogyny that pinned me against girls I admired, the double-edged sword of social media as virtual refuge. For the first time, I recognized adolescence as a period where my core being had been irreversibly changed, and I couldn't help but wonder if valuable parts of me had been lost in that shuffle.
Worth, Changing is my attempt to connect with other female, femme, and female-presenting former teens, to explore our different and shared adolescent experiences. What does it mean to be a teenage girl? What does it mean to not feel like one, or to feel trapped in that identity? What have we lost through the socialization of womanhood, and how have we emerged braver and kinder and better?