Is it a good time to be a teenage girl?

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - EL­IZ­A­BETH RENZETTI

As a per­son who has no faith in a de­ity, I have to place it some­where, and I choose to place it in the gen­er­a­tion that’s hatch­ing now.

Ado­les­cent girls are poised on the edge, but there’s never been a bet­ter time to fly

Is there any mem­ory darker than early ado­les­cence? I put my hands over my eyes and look back at my­self at 13, wear­ing velour cowl necks and glasses the size of Nana Mousk­ouri’s, des­per­ately en­am­oured of a boy who seemed bound for ju­vie. It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.

But re­ally, what did we have to worry about? The world was crime-rid­den but we thought about it less. Your par­ents let you flop about in the back seat of the car like a load of eels, un­wor­ried about your safety. You were pop­u­lar or, more likely, not, but at least your lack of pop­u­lar­ity was your own pri­vate shame, not a pub­lic one. If there was a party you weren’t in­vited to, you only found out about it days later and did not re­ceive in­stant up­dates of your un­cool­ness de­liv­ered to your tear-drenched phone.

I’m think­ing about all of these things again be­cause, at a cer­tain point this week, I’m go­ing to be the mother of a teenaged girl. The fact that I have in my house a bright, hi­lar­i­ously funny, com­pas­sion­ate young woman is both won­der­ful and ter­ri­fy­ing. You can’t help feel­ing as if you’re Daen­erys Tar­garyen, the mother of drag­ons, liv­ing on the edge in an up­heaved world. For years, you’ve watched this egg, and been a far bet­ter mother than Daen­erys be­cause you’ve taken it to museums and art classes, pro­tected it from fizzy drinks and chok­ing haz­ards, and never once taken it into bat­tle. Now comes the hard part: You have to watch as the egg cracks and have faith in what emerges.

And I do have faith. As a per­son who has no faith in a de­ity, I have to place it some­where, and I choose to place it in the gen­er­a­tion that’s hatch­ing now. This is un­fair on many lev­els, as my own chil­dren have pointed out: Why do they have to fix the prob­lems we sad­dled them with? It’s as if we had a party with the planet and then left them a room filled with passed-out bod­ies and dirty glasses of gin with cig­a­rette butts float­ing in the bot­tom. There are no good re­sponses for my gen­er­a­tion’s crappy stew­ard­ship of the planet, ex­cept per­haps shame.

Girls in par­tic­u­lar face an ex­tra­or­di­nary set of chal­lenges at the mo­ment, in­clud­ing pres­sure to ex­cel, to be pop­u­lar, to be pretty and like­able, all while ex­ist­ing in a sys­tem that still dis­crim­i­nates against their am­bi­tions.

Girls are still given mes­sages that pub­lic spa­ces don’t re­ally be­long to them: Walk with your keys in your hand. Cross the street if some­one’s fol­low­ing you. Park un­der a street­light. Text me when you get home.

I wasn’t sur­prised to read, in a sur­vey re­leased by Plan In­ter­na­tional Canada this week, that only 16 per cent of young women aged 18 to 24 felt com­pletely safe in pub­lic spa­ces. An even more alarm­ing statis­tic from the sur­vey: two-thirds of young women have a friend who’s been sex­u­ally ha­rassed.

And yet, when peo­ple ask me where I find hope, I say that I find it among young women de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and do­ing great work across the coun­try. Peo­ple such as So­phie Bezan­son, a 15year-old from New Mi­nas, N.S., who’s a mem­ber of the Girl Guides of Canada’s na­tional youth coun­cil (a po­si­tion that means she some­times gets to tell the adults on the board what to do).

I reached out to So­phie af­ter read­ing a new sur­vey of 1,000 teenagers con­ducted for the Girl Guides that re­veals girls have their first ex­pe­ri­ences of gen­der in­equal­ity as young as 10, and that al­most two-thirds of girls are wor­ried about that in­equal­ity (the num­ber is nearly 50 per cent for boys).

So­phie says she’s al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced gen­der bias in day-to-day life. “I feel that girls aren’t be­ing en­cour­aged fully to be re­source­ful, con­fi­dent or prob­lem­solvers,” she says in a phone in­ter­view. “Those are the big bar­ri­ers that face us at my age.” Women and girls are still judged largely on ap­pear­ances, she says, and not pre­sented as lead­ers.

So­phie re­mem­bers telling a friend of hers in Grade 8 that she was a fem­i­nist. A boy in her class over­heard her, and mocked her mer­ci­lessly. “That’s some­thing I still hold with me,” she tells me over the phone, but de­spite the ridicule, she still makes it her mis­sion to fight for equal­ity: “I ad­vo­cate for women’s rights be­cause I don’t want fu­ture girls to grow up in a so­ci­ety that lim­its their op­por­tu­ni­ties or hin­ders their abil­i­ties to reach their full po­ten­tial. I want girls and women to be ac­cepted and val­ued, and to be rep­re­sented as lead­ers.”

So­phie’s in Grade 10 now, and she wants to be a neu­rol­o­gist. She also finds the time to vol­un­teer in her com­mu­nity and men­tor a younger Girl Guide (this may all be made pos­si­ble by the fact that she isn’t on so­cial me­dia). She’s on the Girl Guides’ na­tional di­ver­sity com­mit­tee. And there are count­less girls like her across the coun­try, do­ing use­ful, un­flashy, brave work that will one day re­sult in mean­ing­ful change.

I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t nearly so brave at that age. We were just try­ing to sur­vive our bad skin and our par­ents’ ex­pec­ta­tions and re­la­tion­ships with boys who had never been taught even the most rudi­men­tary con­cepts of gen­der equal­ity. “Con­sent” ex­isted in our vo­cab­u­lar­ies only as a good Scrab­ble word.

Is it bet­ter now for teenaged girls? I have to think it is, de­spite the pres­sures of so­cial me­dia, de­spite the frac­tured fu­ture they face. They have bet­ter tools, and bet­ter ar­mour. They rec­og­nize in­jus­tice in a way we didn’t, and aren’t afraid to speak up and fight against it.

They’re go­ing to make some pretty spec­tac­u­lar drag­ons.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY HANNA BARCZYK

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