No one gets their teenage years right the first time around. For most people, adolescence is an experience fraught with difficulty. Erratic hormones battle with insecurity and self doubt, and the impact of every moment seems magnified beyond all reasonable proportions. But if you could offer advice to your younger self with the benefit of wisdom and hindsight, what would you say?
This is the question posed by the website Dear Holly, an ongoing community art project in which people are invited to anonymously submit postcards bearing advice to a fictional girl named Holly who is about to turn 13. The brainchild of artist Jess Barlow, Dear Holly aims to “create a living, breathing collection of real, gritty and heartfelt advice that teenage girls the world over can can share, gasp at, learn from, and live by.”
“I hope to create an online space filled with stories, life lessons and recollections that can benefit teenagers, male and female,” Barlow told me over email. “I want it to be a place for the quiet ones who shut themselves off in their rooms, or the ones who feel like no one is listening. I also want it to be for those who feel too embarrassed to ask and the ones who don't even realise they need advice. I'm hoping it will be a place for teens to realise that their journey has been experienced before - and look at all the stories those journeys have yielded so far! Eventually it would be great to publish a book that could be given to teens on their 13th birthday to help them cope with all the problems teen years throw at you - peer pressure, relationships, sexuality, future careers, puberty etc.”
Currently in its early stages, advice so far has included things like:
“Best friends are more important than love.”
“Say ‘YES’ more often to experiences which you know will nurture you, grow you and make you feel good.”
“Different does not mean wrong.”
Even though I write this just a few days shy of my 33rd birthday, this last entreaty particularly struck a chord with me. At 12, my family moved from Oman to a tiny seaside town in England. All the confusion and isolation that goes hand in hand with turning 13 was amplified by the fact that, because I’d spent the vast majority of my formative years as an expatriate in a Muslim country, I was a cultural outsider as well. It didn’t take long to discover that not even the bitterly cold winds sweeping in off the North Sea can bite quite as hard as other teenage girls. With the exception of a few, it was clear to me that other girls were the enemy and they had an arsenal of weapons that could be expertly wielded while remaining invisible to the naked eye.
I sometimes wonder how different my adolescence might have been if I’d had an outlet that made me feel less alone. With no internet and few people to confide in, the sole repository of my emotional angst was a notebook of foolscap in which I’d furiously scribble page after page of life-and-death nonsense. So tortured were the outpourings that at 24, in a fit of misguided and deeply regrettable stupidity, I burned the whole thing.
But perhaps if I’d had a Dear Holly of my own, things might have been a little easier. The beauty of Barlow’s creation is that Holly is a ubiquitous creature. She changes depending on who’s talking to her, so she can be anything and everything to all who might see themselves in her. She has no fixed address, no fixed cultural background, no fixed sexual orientation and no fixed ideals. She is you and she is me and she is us.
So knowing what I know now, this is my advice for Holly.
Regarding strength, you will meet people in this world who will try to convince you that you have none. They need you to be weak because it’s the only way they can feel any power over you. But you are stronger than anyone could possibly imagine. You are bright and fierce and beautiful and your feelings matter. YOU matter. And you are not alone.
Regarding sex, it’s okay to have it. And it’s okay to have it without love, with as many people as you want, in as many different ways as you can imagine. But listen Holly, the only thing it’s not okay to have sex without is respect. Don’t let anyone take it away from you, whether they’re your partner or just someone who wants to make you feel ashamed of your choices. Don’t take it away from anyone else. And don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that your moral worth rises and falls with your underwear.
Regarding equality, you deserve it. It’s not conditional. You don’t have to exchange anything in order to qualify for it. It’s yours. Take it, and make no apologies for doing so. There are times when you’ll need to apologise for the things you’ve done, but don’t ever apologise for demanding to be treated like an equal human being. Don’t let the fear of retribution chip away at your voice until you wake up one day and realise that you’ve forgotten how to speak.
Use your voice. Don’t be afraid, because others will be using theirs too. And Holly, the chorus is going to be just as beautiful as you are. Trust me.
You can post your submissions to Dear Holly to:
Knox City Centre Post Office,
PO Box 4180,
Knox City Centre,
VICTORIA, Australia, 3152