Caitlin Moran writes a column in the Times Magazine every Saturday and very often I buy the paper just so that I can read it, and every week that I read it I enjoy it, because Caitlin Moran is A Very Good Writer.
Last weekend I was reading it in a café, when all of a sudden tears choked me. Then they poured silently down my cheeks, which made those around me start edging their chairs sideways a bit. The column – addressed to under-confident, compliment-dodging teenage girls – was so painfully accurate that I couldn’t take my eyes or my mind off the words.
From the grand and wise perch that is 24-years-old, I think about my teenage self the way you might think of an old friend you have gradually drifted apart from, but remain very fond of all the same. When I think of her, I mainly laugh at her, because she wore a lot of eyeliner and it made her look a bit like a raccoon. I roll my (hopefully more subtly lined) eyes at her, because she spent vast chunks of time agonizing over things like her next MSN Messenger name.
Sometimes I feel quite ashamed of her, like when I think of how casually she spoke with spite to my lovely parents, and I’m shocked and impressed in equal measure when I think of how she and her friends swanned around in nightclubs they were never supposed to be in.
When I read that column, though, I cried for the girl with all the eyeliner on, because when I think of her I also think of the brutal way she spoke to herself, and of the self-inflicted pain she felt as a result. Moran’s message to teenage girls was:
“If I could change one, vital, thing for you, my younglings, it would be to make saying cruel things about yourselves as culturally unacceptable as saying cruel things about other people.
You rage on the behalf of others. And then you will sit in a circle, taking it in turns to berate your own hair, your own bellies, your own skin – the Teenage Girl Hate-In that is in every school, in every bedroom”.
I recently read something that said if you are ever in trouble, if you are sad or afraid or overwhelmed, if you have done something either a bit stupid or very stupid, you should think about what you would say to your best friend if she came to you in the same situation.
Would you analyse the details of her story, scrutinizing and replaying and dwelling on the especially bad parts? Would you tell her that she is doing a pretty crap job at life, overall, all things considered? That she is failing, because she spends all her money before pay day every single month, sometimes on rent and vegetables but sometimes in Zara? That she is inadequate, because she doesn’t actually know what contouring even means? Would you remind her that she is most certainly not beach-body-ready, because she hasn’t done any yoga today (or ever) and has neither consumed nor Instagrammed any kale-based juices?
Of course you wouldn’t. You’d speak to her with kindness. You’d reassure her and remind her of all the very best parts of her self and her life.
And so, as I muddle through my twenties, it’s something I try to remember. I try to act as a cheerleader for my friends. Our WhatsApp group is basically a place for us to take it in turns to panic and/or despair, only to be bolstered by unconditionally kind words – plus kiss-blowing and heart-eyes emojis – from the others. But I also try, as much as I can, to act as a cheerleader for myself.
I don’t know whether it has to take as long as it took me to learn that the voice you use to talk to yourself should sound exactly the same as the voice you use to talk to your closest friends. I don’t know if it’s possible, when you’re sprinting away from the difficult parts of teenage girlhood as fast as you can, to look back over your shoulder and grab the hand of someone just arriving at the start line.
All I do know, after reading Caitlin Moran’s words last week, is that if I should ever have a daughter, that column is going in a frame on her bedroom wall.