When Miley Cyrus announced that she had written an album called Younger Now, I had three initial reactions.
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.
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On the same day Taylor Swift erases all content from her social media accounts, I cut my hair into a pixie and change my nose ring from a silver stud to a gold hoop for the first time. I regret this almost immediately.
My nose piercing has been more temperamental than it should be ever since I first headed to a tattoo parlor in the Village on a rainy Saturday afternoon last year and paid a dark-haired guy to stick a needle in my face. I decided to get the same nose ring as singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles as a tribute to the way I had leaned on her music in the six months leading up to that day in April. For me, the stud has always been a symbol of a new era in my life that I felt was far more emotionally and mentally balanced than my first nineteen years were. I wanted something tangible to represent that I had learned what it was like to be happy.
I had always believed the unpredictable swelling and soreness of my nose piercing was a small price to pay for having a stud I loved, and for having a visible tribute to both my favorite singer-songwriter at age twenty and to my new mindset. One day last summer, several months after that rainy Saturday afternoon in the village, my eye doctor caught a glimpse of my nose and told me that my body might be rejecting the piercing. So is my dad, I responded quickly.
This month, when I replace my beloved stud with a hoop, a nice guy with an orange beard at a piercing shop in Providence tells me that the change shouldn't require a healing process at all. But sure enough, my face is not a fan of having foreign objects in it, and it certainly doesn't care if said object is supposed to be some sort of sentimental symbol of progress and happiness. For the entire month of September, I watch my nose bleed, scab, and peel.
Naturally I resent the gold hoop — while wrestling with the stud felt like a worthy cause, the hoop feels like a reminder right in the middle of my face that every part of my life has changed in a single season. I tell my sister that I hate it — the hoop is trying too hard to be edgy, I say, whereas the stud was understated. I like the hoop on other people, I insist, but it just looks wrong on me.
My sister Melanie tells me the only reason I don't like it is because it hasn't healed yet. How could I possibly like a piercing that is uncontrollably red and painful? This is just the transition, she says. This isn't what it really looks like, and how you feel about it today is in no way indicative of how you will feel about it a month from now.
Cordially acknowledging then disregarding my big sister’s advice, as I so often do, I sit on my wooden bedroom floor and examine my face in my standing mirror with anger and frustration. I am completely convinced — rationally or not — that I don't look like myself anymore. I have just begun my first post-grad job working in a middle school for the year, and it is the night before the first day of classes when I talk myself into believing that if I keep this hoop in I will make some sort of false first impression on these students that doesn't reflect who I really am. I feel like a stranger in my own body. Is it possible to completely forget who you are?
I make a decision that I know is a poor one and after much impulsive maneuvering I manage to remove my nose ring by myself for the first time. But, of course, I can't get the stud back in to replace the hoop. There is a lot of shoving and hurting and panicking and Googling until I read in an E-How article that even nose piercings that are many years old can close up within minutes.
I run to my car and pull up directions on my phone to the piercing place. Luckily they have forgotten my face already so I am spared from some of the embarrassment I feel about my quick turnover. The man with the orange beard says he won't put the stud back in for me because trying to change it myself has made my piercing "look angry." They sell me cleaning supplies, of course, and charge me for the time it took for them to put the hoop right back in. I am exactly where I started, but with more irritation.
On my way home, I have Sara Bareilles’ Kaleidoscope Heart album playing. This is the first CD I had in my car after I passed my road test during my junior year of high school. My RHS parking sticker is still stuck on my windshield, and there are still Latin textbooks in my trunk that have been living there throughout my car-free college years in New York City. Track three comes on while I'm driving down Hope Street. I hear the line, “And I'm not the girl that I intend to be,” and I feel sixteen again as I inhale monumentally and desperately as tears begin to stream down my face without my permission. I try to decide whether or not I need to pull over.
I spend much of the month of September walking in circles around an island that isn't my own and making every desperate attempt to hold onto the person I was a year ago. Moving to a new state immediately after graduating from college has left me longing to feel secure in my identity again, and each day I mourn what my life looked like exactly a year prior.
Meanwhile, Taylor Swift spends the month trying desperately to rid herself of her reputation. She is deleting photos and tweets, dabbling in different genres, endorsing new companies, avoiding interviews and paparazzi, and even declaring her old self metaphorically dead. She is desperate to rebrand as someone new, and we are buying into it. I am unable to relate to her desire for a new self when I miss who and how I used to be so viscerally.
On the eleventh day of the month, I get home from work by four, crawl into bed, and don't stand up again until I have to brush my teeth before falling asleep. On this day, I feel leaden in an air of sadness and loss, inhaling it with every heavy, damp breath. I want to grieve over something that I feel happened in my own backyard, but it isn't my backyard anymore, and I am a foreigner in this new place where all I want is for someone else to be sad about the same things I am. I skip dinner several nights this week.
Each day another friend texts me to confide, and almost all who graduated with me in May would agree that their lives were better during this month last year. I wonder why they trust me to give them advice when I feel so unqualified to handle my own shit. They pile onto me and I pile onto other women I want to hear more from and we are all just trying to get someone to tell us how to fix whatever we feel is wrong with us. We can compete with our burdens: whose heart is the most broken today? Most of us are lonely.
This month I go on a date I don’t want to go on just to prove that I can. After an hour of lifeless small talk, I get in my car and laugh out loud, alone. I realize my decision to meet a stranger at a bar was only about me — I did so entirely to challenge myself, or my family, or my friends, or whatever force I feel is pressuring me to put myself in social situations I don’t actually want to be in. Sitting in the driver's seat I am struck by how selfish we all really are, looking for companionship in partners and friends and coworkers and children for our own sake. I am exhausted from acting like a generic version of my real self. I get home that Saturday night, FaceTime my friend Summer in New York, and we each get drunk on cheap wine and talk about sex from states away. It is the highlight of my weekend.
Small talk is antagonistic to what I really need in September because since moving to a new city I often feel like a watered down version of myself. I am keeping quiet to become more palatable at my job and in social situations. I assume the people I meet must not like me very much because I don't like me very much when I am withholding my personality in conversations. I cringe at how passive and insecure I have become and I am not sure if this is happening because I am nervous about my new life or because I am nervous about the onslaught of a new identity I didn’t ask for. I am tense often with the stress of these worries and this tension settles in the form of a knot in my back that is bad enough for me to lie down in the backseat of my car in the parking lot of a strip mall on a Monday night and call my mom and cry for an hour.
The following Saturday I go out to what people in Providence consider a club, but people in New York would consider a mellow bar on a Thursday night. Shortly after we arrive, a guy comes up to me and begins a conversation. He is six foot five and has the jawline of a Greek god. As the women I arrived with start to supportively drift away, he continues to talk to me — has it been fifteen minutes? thirty minutes? I can’t tell — and the topics he brings up are mostly erratic. Each time I instinctively try to bring the conversation back to anything recognizable, he redirects it further away from reality. He says something about selling library books on Amazon for profit, something about having a small chip in his front tooth. It is unorthodox but I continue to listen to him and participate in the conversation because, as I said, he is six foot five and has the jawline of a Greek god. Eventually he tells me he is high, and his confession is unsurprising but somehow endearing. I realize then that I am enjoying the innate irrationality of the conversation because after six weeks in a new city, I am sick of introducing myself. I get nauseated at the prospect of having to once again list my name, age, job, hometown, college, neighborhood, future plans — I constantly feel like I am on a job interview. I know this man’s first name and his height but I do not know where he works, where he is from, or where he went to school. He can say the same about me. I have been craving an interpersonal interaction where I don’t have to try so hard, where the formalities have passed and all we are left with is content that doesn’t mean a thing to either of our identities. This interaction serves as a reminder of how easy it can be for me to socialize once my guard is down. I did not expect this reminder to come from a man in a club that’s really a bar who is six foot five and has the jawline of a Greek god, but I am grateful for it, and when I say “excuse me” and squeeze through the crowd to return to my friends, nobody looks at me like they want to kill me like they would on the Lower East Side.
Still craving less performative conversations, I decide to visit my friend Joe in Boston the following weekend. I take the short train ride from Providence and when I walk on board, I see it looks a lot like the LIRR trains Joe and I grew up taking, but just a little bit different. Just a little bit off. I am ecstatic to be on public transportation for the first time since moving out of New York, and I love the feeling of being carried from place to place without my having to do anything at all to make it happen.
We go out because earlier in the week Joe turned twenty-two and got a full-time job offer, and I drink too much vodka and trip outside the bar as I’m stepping off the curb. From the ground, I look up to search for Joe's face and I am laughing instinctively but I am embarrassed. I link my arm in his and make him guide me back to his apartment. When I wake up on the couch the next morning, my time on the ground is the first thing I think of. I awake feeling sad, but not in any way that can be traced to anything specific. I can’t list any reasons why I am upset, which frustrates me, but I know I feel just a little bit anxious. Just a little bit off.
I get up, rub my leftover eyeliner off my cheeks with makeup remover I steal from Joe’s roommate, and roll my eyes when I see my nose piercing still hasn’t healed. The night before, I had almost forgotten about it. I know by now that even on the days it looks better there is always a chance it will regress unpredictably overnight, and I will wake up the next day having to scrape the blood out of my nostril with a Q-tip. This morning I am too anxious and too hungover to clean up the piercing or hide the redness with makeup.
I worry on the mornings that I wake up with this unsettled and unprovoked anxiety that the feeling will last forever. I worry that I will return not to who I was a year ago, but to who I was as a teenager, a girl who was angry and sad and anxious most of the time. I am walking on eggshells of my own emotions, terrified that I will slip back into who I was before I turned twenty. Things were remarkably good inside my head for the last year and a half of college, but I live with the memory of the anxiety that characterized all of my years before that, and I wonder if it will creep back up on me when I least expect it — or when I most expect it, like when I have graduated from college, begun a new job, left all of my friends states away, and moved to a new city all within one season. It is my biggest fear.
In the moments I dwell on this worry, being twenty-two feels incredibly lonely.
Joe and I don’t exchange many words as we trudge out of the house — only enough to agree on our mutual need for bagels and Gatorade. We walk down the winding stairs and as soon as we step out of his apartment, Joe says to me, “I woke up feeling kind of weird.” I respond quickly, “Like, sad and lonely in an existential sort of way?” His response is even faster. “Yes!”
There is mid-morning September sun beaming over the Boston buildings and darkening the tan lines on my feet that began in Manhattan in July. I feel the warmth of the morning all the way from my deflated, slept-on curls to the cut on my toe that I can only assume is from my fall. We walk on a brick path around to the back of Joe's building and get into the car he drove in high school. It is a beautiful day outside.
We pick up bagels, get lost and merge into a lane we shouldn’t, dream about being stable enough to adopt dogs, criticize Taylor Swift for annoying us like we are making fun of an old friend. We pull up outside the train station and begin yelling to each other across the console about how incredibly well represented we feel by Lorde’s Melodrama album. This is a conversation we have been having weekly since June because it is so rare to find a piece of media that honestly depicts what it feels like to be our age like Melodrama does. We both end up in tears when discussing the tracks that feel most personal to each of us. Like the rest of the drive, our conversation is fervent, lively and cathartic.
On the train ride back, I feel lighter than I did when I woke up, and I listen to a playlist named for the month. If you have been reading along all year, you will not be surprised to learn that I often label whatever playlist I am listening to with the month I create it. This was never an intentional choice, like the titles of these blog posts have been, or any sort of attempt to document a time period for future nostalgia (that would be masochistic even for me). This is a habit that stemmed organically from impulsively naming a collection of songs when prompted to by an iPod Nano on the school bus in high school.
I have been naming playlists like this for years, and in several Septembers, I have stylized the name as “septembah, septembah,” to the tune of the whispered lyrics “remembah, remembah” from the soundtrack of the movie Fame, simply because this song gets stuck in my head often. I know this song because in ninth grade I auditioned to be in my high school’s production of Fame, was put in the chorus, and then quit when I remembered I can’t sing or dance. I am fairly certain the only reason I decided to try out for the spring musical that year was because I had a crush on a tenth grader with a black bowl cut who encouraged me to. “What else are you gonna do with your time? Sit at home and watch Oprah?” I remember him disconcerting. “You might as well just audition.” And so I did.
Being fourteen feels lonely, too, it seems.
But it is important that I am not fourteen anymore, or even nineteen. Being twenty-two presents its own set of challenges — Taylor Swift’s argument that this age means being “happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time” has become agonizingly relevant in my everyday life, and Joe and I discussed this at length with endless eye rolling in the car that morning. I am afraid on the days I wake up feeling off, or alone, or trapped inside of a sadness that no one else seems to be sharing. But I am not the same as I was as a teenager. I feel different inside my head. I have learned how to ask for and accept help, and I have learned that there is nothing wrong with me. I know at twenty-two that there will be more sunny days and pretty cities and good bagels and cheap wine and FaceTime calls and great albums and cathartic car rides and mollifying train rides and even Greek gods that can help you remember who you are and who you want to be — and I feel very lucky to have people in my life who help remind me of these things. From our respective cities, we all toil through this age together. Perhaps the most important thing I know now that I didn’t know as a teenager is that nothing lasts forever. Even the most persistent swelling of nose piercings.
There is a reason I chose a piercing over a tattoo.