The first was an inflated sense of self-importance sparked by my then-roommate Julie, who, on the very day of this announcement, had listened to my senior thesis presentation on Miley Cyrus’ display of sexuality in 2006. She spun her swivel chair around the living room-bedroom we shared, looked at me with wide eyes, and whispered, “Jac, did you cause this?”
My second reaction was a rant about the infantilization of women in media, which was informed by the preceding months I had spent reading everything I could to research how women in pop music are presented and consumed. I sent seething texts to friends critiquing this marketer’s paradise: adult women dress and act like passive, unknowing, virginal young schoolgirls who are palatable for wide audiences, while still fulfilling hypersexualized fantasies meant to please adult men, with the added edge of allowing (male) viewers to feel like they are receiving innocent virgin sacrifices to use for their own pleasure. This enables men to consume women as sex objects, while these women do not claim any sexual agency because, after all, they’re just passive, innocent little girls. It is creepy and it is sexist and it is everywhere — including in the music video for the album’s lead single “Malibu.” Because of its title, I worried all of Younger Now would replicate this, and for weeks, my expectations for the album were extremely low.
The third and most enduring reaction I held was utter shock that anyone, even Miley Cyrus, could ever long for who they were before adulthood.
I have claimed many times — in a pithy tone that is almost too easy to recognize as a defense mechanism — that I don’t want to be held accountable for anything I said or did before the age of nineteen. Nothing before then is allowed to count toward who I am now, I argue. And while I typically say this with a laugh, in lighthearted attempts to avoid silly, mildly embarrassing memories brought up by family members or childhood friends, I have also internalized this mentality. I feel a red-hot self-hatred in my throat whenever I watch a home video in which I am a louder, uninhibited version of myself now, unwrapping a DVD of my favorite movie on Christmas morning, or when I see one of my inherently sexist Facebook statuses from 2008 cycle back into rotation. When I look back down the path behind me, I see a trail of erratic missteps I am constantly trying to run away from. I feel it grow and continue to inch up behind me no matter how fast I run. I list age nineteen as my cutoff for accountability, but I used to say sixteen, and now I really want to say twenty, if I am being honest, but that sounds too much like I am trying to avoid taking responsibility for my actions.
Thus when Miley Cyrus says her album is all about how she feels “so much younger now,” I am initially perplexed and unable to relate. When Younger Now is finally released, I listen to it on a long Friday night bus ride into the city. This ride comes at the conclusion of a work week that was salvaged on Thursday afternoon when one of my seventh grade students came up to me by her locker and handed me a composition book of her handwritten poetry. She asked me if I wanted to read her writing, and of course I did, so I took the book home with me and wrote her notes responding to each poem.
As soon as she handed me the composition book, I could see it was the kind of journal that she will leave on the top shelf of her closet after this year and not pick up again until she is my age, packing to move away from home after college. And I can predict that, in ten years, when she is twenty-two, she will cringe when she reads the poems about her first boyfriend. But right now, I think she is an excellent writer.
I returned the book to her the following morning along with a note thanking her for trusting me with her words, and telling her that she not only is an amazing writer, but that what she thinks and says and feels right now, at age twelve, matters. This is what I want to convey to her most. Even when the whole world tells her that what she feels isn’t important, it is. And it deserves to be validated.
It is unlikely that I fully conveyed this message to her in my response, but as I read through her notebook and gushed over her writing, I began to realize the flaw in my own logic about resenting my former selves. It has always made me feel better to dissociate from who I was as a kid and an adolescent, but I am realizing that if this pattern continues then one day I will want to separate from who I am right now, in this moment, and that scares me. Because I am okay with who I am right now, at least on most days. I am trying the best that I can. As that cutoff of age nineteen creeps up to twenty, then twenty-one, I realize that accepting myself right now requires me to accept the flaws of the ghosts of who I used to be, just like I accepted this seventh grader’s writing without edits.
Plus, if my logic were accurate, every old person would be better than every young person, and anyone who has ever worked in customer service can tell you that isn’t true.
My constant cringing at my younger years is amplified exponentially by the fact that I come here to write publicly about my feelings each month. Every single time I do this, I wonder if it’s a terrible idea. Theoretically, this thing I’m doing here, this thing that you are willingly reading, should make me extremely vulnerable. I’ve volunteered stories about the time I cried at the gynecologist, got my nose pierced because a celebrity told me to, tried to find my place as a white woman in the Black Lives Matter movement, drank tequila and sang a Jay-Z song, battled a relentless freshman depression, drank tequila and sang a Taylor Swift song, got lost in Brooklyn on my way to a reading and embraced feeling young and out of place. The risks look massive before I share each month, but pouring my secrets into a Google Doc has yet to do anything other than bring me closer to the kind people who tell me they can relate to what I have written.
Even in the years before I turned nineteen, I remember believing in the importance of listening to women’s stories and women’s voices. I unknowingly felt this way in middle school, when I covered my bedroom walls with a teenage Taylor Swift’s lyrics; then in high school, when my sister insisted I read The Bell Jar for a summer reading assignment specifically because it was the only book on my long list of options that was not written by a man; and again in college, when I sat on a weight machine in pajamas in the gym of my residence hall with my best friend, and while eating a full sleeve of Chips Ahoy cookies, sent mass text messages to our female friends asking them to describe defining moments of womanhood for inclusion in a future creative writing thesis. When women talk, we need to listen to them. (When fifty-nine women talk about one man sexually assaulting them, we need to listen to them.) We need to normalize the messy parts of girlhood and womanhood and to accept female characters in works of mass and individualized media who are fundamentally flawed and repeatedly morally ambiguous as they make their way through lives that best suit them.
It is particularly hard as a twenty-something woman with a whole lot of feelings to find pieces of media I feel well represented by. I constantly seek representation, as I believe we all do, even if we aren’t all aware of it. Media do not have to be realistic in order to be representative, either. This is the part where I want to, once again, talk about the importance of Lorde’s Melodrama album, but I think I have already broken a record with the number of times I have written here about how lucky I feel to have that album in my corner during my early twenties (and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve read it even more). There are few others I can name: the dignity Gina Rodriguez brings to the title character in Jane The Virgin is endlessly comforting to me as she vacillates between social classes, stresses about schoolwork, and comes of age in an overtly communicative female-centric household led by her mother and grandmother that reminds me so much of the house I grew up in; the way that Abbi and Ilana earnestly fumble through their careers and through New York in Broad City has brought me peace in this post-grad territory I’ve recently entered that so often feels uncharted by anyone but them; Hailee Steinfeld’s character Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen beautifully articulates the muck of emotions I felt as a teenager, which I was convinced had never been experienced by anyone but me until last year, when I heard Nadine perfectly say what I didn’t have enough perspective to express myself when I was sixteen. There are not many more I could list, and my ability to name even this many relatable girls and women in media is directly influenced by the fact that I am very white and mostly straight and relatively middle class.
I tend to cling to the media that I relate to the most intimately, but I get tired of waiting around for someone else to write about how I feel and what my life looks like. This is what pulls me back to this site every month, willing to wear my heart on my sleeve if it means I am contributing to a culture that begins to value women’s stories, even on this small scale.
To keep up with this, I find myself living my life in metaphors, thinking in full sentences. Everything I do feels like it can be written about: I am emotional in the Verizon store, trading in my cracked iPhone for a new one, thinking it is symbolic of the end of an era; I stand outside a Starbucks in Lower Manhattan and listen to Younger Now through my headphones before reuniting with my college friends, and the autumn weather is so perfect and I am so happy that I try to form some sort of conclusion about the meaning of life because the solitary moment feels too euphoric to not be communicating some greater moral; I pull over to cry on my way to the grocery store because the left turn lane is too full during rush hour and I am afraid we are all buying into a system we hate and I feel instantaneously desperate to change something about my life; I drive around Providence with visiting friends and insist that every single church we pass on my impromptu tour is “the oldest church in America” until they catch on to my fabricating, then join in on it, and they gift me the liberation to laugh louder than I have in weeks; I insist to a doctor in an urgent care center that I am not crying because I’m in pain, but “just because I’m twenty-two,” and he doesn’t seem to understand but he pities me in a genuine way that is the most I can ask for from a middle-aged man I just met. At all times, prose swirls around in my head and I preemptively glamorize ordinary moments with the promise that they can be turned into art that I hope other people can point to and go, oh, there I am. It is exhausting to live this way but it is the only thing that gets me through. It is the only thing that makes me feel like it is worth sticking around to have more moments like these.
While preparing this post I decided to read through some of my old writing and as expected, I cringed at much of it. My metaphors are cheesy and my prose is palaverous in much of what I wrote in the beginning of college. Some cringing is natural, I know, and I am grateful for the reassurance that I am getting better at writing. But I was pleased to find pieces that I stand by, like one I wrote about a boy who has a biblical name with “a second syllable that starts staccato against my two front teeth.” Mostly I admire the gall of my younger self, who wrote only for herself, and never for an audience — she wrote without fear of inevitable criticism from a future version of her own personality, like I have been lately, and she threw around the word “love” to validate feelings that she always knew were not love but were all-encompassing enough that she knew they deserved to be written down.
After an October filled with binge-watching Broad City, (still) listening to Melodrama, reading the sexual harassment accusations made against Harvey Weinstein, watching interviews with Miley Cyrus in which she explains the sentiment behind her album title, reading the poetry of my now favorite seventh grader, and missing my college womyn friends in ways I could not have imagined when I made the decision to take a job out of state in the spring of our senior year, what is on my mind most is the importance of accepting flawed women and girls unconditionally, for exactly who they are. We should hold women accountable for the choices they make, of course, and I am not insisting we accept worse treatment than we deserve from friends, or overlook women’s racist comments made at the Thanksgiving table next month. But we do need to leave room for imperfection and improvement, and to avoid classifying people and media as entirely good or entirely bad (especially in this age of clickbait, pseudo-woke journalism, which makes cheap, rash judgments far too easy and profitable). This is something I preach, and it is something I already actively do with my favorite artists and characters and students and friends, but it is not something I do with myself or with my own writing. Perhaps the most accurate representation of being a twenty-something woman I can provide is the constant struggle to love yourself while accidentally falling more and more in love with women you admire in media and your real life women friends — flaws and all — every single day.