Turning 20 is harder for most than our culture acknowledges. Though it’s a birthday hardly as lauded as the following alcohol-infused one, and grants less autonomy than the one two years prior, it notably marks the end of one’s teendom. Some may welcome the transition away from a heavily derided and misunderstood age, but I can’t speak to that. My 20th birthday incited a minor existential crisis.
As the founder of a website for young feminists, “teen” became not just a description of my age but an inherent part of my identity. I was introduced as “Julie, the Teen Feminist.” The epithet seemed immutable — that is, until it suddenly became inaccurate.
Six years prior, I found feminism. By sheer matter of timing, I suddenly simultaneously occupied the newfound identities of “teen” and “feminist.” I don’t think I’ll ever again experience the kind of specific, unparalleled joy and awe this discovery imparted. I was at once excited and energized by the newfound independence inaccessible to me in childhood and enraged by the realization that it was inherently curbed simply because I was born female. I felt refreshingly awake, charged, and rearing to fight after years of sleep.
If these identities were my fueling charge, the Internet was my weapon. The (still relatively new) power of the Internet, what was at the time unironically referred to as the “blogosphere,” and social media were interwoven into and ultimately became the key to waging my war. In my bedroom, still wallpapered in the pastel flowers I’d demanded at age 8, I registered a WordPress blog I called “the FBomb.” My peers in Ohio may not have understood feminism, but I had faith that other teens did -- and the thousands of visitors who flocked to the site from all over the world proved me right.
But truthfully, I started the FBomb as much because of my teen identity as because of my feminist one. I craved a space specifically for teen feminists not just to form a community of peers, but also as a response to the ageism that -- no matter how subconsciously or unintentionally -- pervaded other feminist spaces. Just as I felt society boxed me in as a woman, confining me to perceptions of certain qualities and capabilities, I felt it did so because of my age. No matter how valid, my ideas and opinions were always seen as those of a teen’s. Inherently tinged by “cuteness,” my arguments became automatically duller viewed through the prism of adult eyes, no matter how sharp they actually were.
The Internet allowed me the autonomy to gather and distribute proof that young people could equally contribute to the movement. More than just participate, I believed that our excitement, our fresh perspectives, our distinct generational experiences -- combined with the unprecedented community-building and subversive expression the Internet facilitates -- could actually propel the movement forward in a crucial way.
And it has. On Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook, the spirit of already seemingly archaic platforms of WordPress, BlogSpot, and LiveJournal lives on. Teens’ individual silence has been broken by our solidarity, our deliberate attention to seeing and amplifying each other — to sharing, retweeting, and reposting each other. Teen stars routinely discuss topics like white feminism, cultural appropriation, and racist beauty standards with their millions of engaged followers. High school and college students use hashtags to organize and protest everyday discrimination and fight for their rights. They’re not just critiquing, either, but crucially constructing the world they want to live in, using photography and other creative outlets to force the world to acknowledge their gaze rather than submit to the objectifying gaze of others.
Teens are unquestionably proving that their age cannot and does not homogeneously summarize their identities or determine their abilities to contribute value to society. But even so, obstacles still remain. At 22, for example, I’ve personally been called “cute” by supposed professional colleagues and am all too familiar with the inevitable softened expression and tone of those older than me when they learn my age.
I’ve also struggled to explain why “teen,” “millennial,” and “social media” aren’t terms worthy of the eye rolls or dismissal they often evoke, but are instead radical forces that are actively constructing a new social climate with deeply powerful political implications. An entire global cohort has not only been exposed to often complex ideas of social and political equality arguably earlier than any other before them, but in an unparalleled, unified, and collaborative way. We are not just investing in these ideas but actively participating, creating, and fighting for change not as historic events, but as part of our daily, lived experiences.
Turning 20, therefore, might have marked a transition from a derided group to one of comparative value for my generation. But as those just entering their teens today continue to prove all that they’re capable of, the days of the homogenous, belittled teen identity are -- thankfully -- numbered.
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