Today’s Poor Youth are So Spoiled.
I remember the first time I shaved my legs. I nervously gripped the pink plastic razor, peering at the sopping wet page of a “how-to” article torn from Seventeen. I was going to accomplish what all the other girls in my 7th grade class undoubtedly had. I smeared conditioner on my legs and with trembling hands, braved my first shave without witness.
I look back on this memory with fondness, and a tug of resentment. I was an awkward, overly shy pre-teen, embarrassed by my thick eyebrows and plain looks. My hair was always disheveled and I wore hand-me-down jeans with worn-through knees. The one thing I could do to boost my self-confidence was shave my legs. And by Goddess, with Seventeen by my side, I was going to do it. A relatable teenage moment and yet I can’t help but think “I wish I’d had a normal mother who taught me stuff like this.”
Even if my mother had been mentally and emotionally stable (she wasn’t), her reserved nature rendered her unavailable for having The Talks with me. You know the ones. Talks about hygiene, sex, and other teenage embarrassment that I was yearning to know more about during the confusion of puberty. I have a hunch that my conservative Korean grandmother probably didn’t have The Talks with my mom, either.
Asian culture norms aside, had Mom sat down to discuss anything serious with me, it would have put us both in a precarious position of talking about something much scarier than shaving– our feelings.
One-on-one conversations ran the risk of navigating toward topics that my family expertly swept under the rug. Like, my mother’s frequent trips to the mental hospital.
Or, the dire poverty we lived in that rendered me hungry both physically and emotionally.
Or, my father’s rampant drug addiction. Risk overturning that burdensome secret? I don’t think so.
NOPE. Better to avoid any serious topics altogether. Pretend we’re happy and that all is well. Even at age 13 I instinctively knew how fragile my mother was, and how important it was to avoid expressing my concerns or emotions in general. The only one who had permission to express his feelings was my father whose frightening and unpredictable outbursts kept us all busy enough.
The point is, it was up to me to navigate puberty alone. Teen magazines were my guides in a pre-Internet era and essential to my growth.
This is Normal, Right?
I spent the ’90s pouring over my the worn and treasured copies of Seventeen, reading every article and advertisement three times over. I marveled at an exotic teenage existence in which girls my age worried about things like dates, back to school must-haves and tweezing.
Magazines helped shape my identity during a time when I was figuring out who I wanted to be. And more importantly, who I was supposed to be. Those articles were the baseline for normalcy and I used them like a translation dictionary, learning the language of what I perceived were standard teenager dilemmas, and not the struggle of my poverty-stricken reality. Seventeen really helped me hide the dysfunction of my family life– and survive it.
Say what you will about all the negative connotations about women’s magazines. Setting aside all the heterosexual normativity and flagrant gender, race and class stereotypes that magazines reinforce (or at the very least reflect), they gave me access to information that I desperately needed and wanted.
I couldn’t check out books from the library– too traceable. Other than talking to my friends, magazines offered kinda-credible, quasi well-researched, somewhat well-intended, always-compelling articles about all the things I was too scared or too embarrassed to ask about. Access to this information was essential to me. After all, I wouldn’t have shaved my legs without their guidance.
Lucky Teens in a Post-Internet Era
A quick search for “shave my legs for the first time” today on Google generates more than 10.7 million results. Even videos! These modern poor kids just don’t know how good they have it. Articles about puberty and other teenage dilemmas are no longer limited and filtered by a handful of editors, or limited to a few publications. It’s a whole new world of information that’s basically accessible to all. So many teenagers today are learning the ins and outs of adolescence from YouTube. Lucky bitches.
A diverse dose of female-focused mass communication is essential to the pursuit of gender equality, made possible by the Internet. My hope is that we’re using this as an opportunity to talk about a diverse range of topics that span beyond a vapid focus on shopping and the male gaze.
Today, young women can find information about big, serious topics like how to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancy, or how to deal with a breakup, or how to determine whether your dad actually is a drug addict. Some may event use the Internet to find stories about formerly-poor women from dysfunctional homes, and take comfort in knowing that it’s possible to rewrite one’s future even with so many odds stacked up against you.
My guess, though, is that they’re more likely using the Internet to figure out how to shave one’s legs because the day-to-day concerns of underprivileged teens is not a far cry from those who are more #blessed, as they say. Best of luck to all you teenagers today, you lucky little jerks. May you never find yourself crouched over a sopping wet magazine article to figure out that shaving your legs with conditioner is a terrible idea.
Shameless‘ Frank Gallagher was my father… but we never let him sleep outside in the snow.
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