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It’s time we listened to what teenage girls have to say

Teenage girls are underestimated, undervalued and badly misunderstood, says Emily Layden. It’s time we listened to them

My novel, All Girls, is a book about teenagers written for an adult audience.

From the outset, this has been a source of some confusion, and I often find myself having to justify my book’s existence. I have grown used to explaining that my novel is an effort to take girlhood very seriously. I tell interviewers about the depth and capacity of teenage girls. I say that they are rarely given credit for their full personhood.

In fact, I said exactly this in an interview recently, and the journalist speaking to me paused and pointed out that earlier in our conversation I’d asserted that my characters were just kids. The implication was that I’d contradicted myself. Except: By personhood I did not mean adulthood. I meant very literally what I had said: a range of emotional experiences and depth of character; humanness.

As a woman who was once a teenager and before that a little girl, as someone who spent the better part of a decade as a teacher and mentor to young women, it is a perceived paradox – this distinction between girls and people – that I have been struggling to clarify my entire life.

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For most of my twenties, I taught English at various boarding and independent day schools throughout the US, the majority of them all-girls. I found that even in these very elite spaces – built for the advancement of women; many established when it was a rare and remarkable thing for a woman to go to school – girls are still not fully shielded from the sort of character-flattening I am describing. In a capitalist system, a private school tallies its financial health in enrolment numbers. The girls are the product.

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My students were incredibly smart and highly motivated. They would recalculate their grade point averages after every quiz score. They played four sports or went to ballet for five hours every day after school. They belonged to six clubs and volunteered every Saturday. They took the SAT three, four, five times. It was not their fault that they found themselves defined by what they could do rather than what they felt. They had been well-trained in an economy of external validation, and it is not a system of their making.

High-achieving boys struggle with this, too. But I think a crucial difference between their experiences and the experiences of young women is that, for young men, the growing-up is culturally celebrated. A boy’s journey to adulthood is the stuff of the literary canon, of fantasy epics, of movies that take decades to shoot and millions of dollars to make. We are much less comfortable with girls’ move through adolescence. Their stories are shared less widely, deemed less worthy, subject to less critical acclaim.

Some of TikTok’s biggest stars are teenage girls: 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio and her 19-year-old sister Dixie made, together, nearly $10m on the platform in 2020.

Which is not to say that girls do not wield economic or cultural influence, because they do. Perhaps you do not use or even fully understand TikTok (this writer doesn’t, either). But some of the app’s biggest stars are teenage girls: 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio and her 19-year-old sister Dixie made, together, nearly $10m on the platform in 2020. Maybe you’ve never heard of Depop, the fashion marketplace and resale site whose users are overwhelmingly Gen Z, but the company raised over $60m in its last investment round.

Girls are a major economic power, subjected to exacting social pressures and standards, and yet are neither given credit for this influence nor granted their full interiority. For many young women, to come of age is to have exactly this realisation: That your body and your tastes and your talents will be commodified while your voice will be silenced and your experiences trivialised.

As it happens, I don’t love the phrase ‘coming of age’. It implies an end to the journey, some moment at which we will have arrived. And if we are uncomfortable with girls as in-progress, perhaps it would help if we remembered that we are all unfinished. I’m thinking about how my male colleagues – it was always men – would sometimes comment on a girl’s appearance: they didn’t understand her fake eyelashes, the acrylic nails that made it hard to type, the super-short skirt that (in their opinion) seemed to undermine a feminist argument she’d made in class.

I never wanted to fight with these men about the politics of fashion trends, and I don’t think that’s what they really meant, anyway. I heard in their questions an almost reflexive scepticism about how girls try to find themselves, a fixed belief that these outward expressions of identity are silly, superficial. Boys are – by comparison – relatively immune to the same type of criticism, but it seemed a waste of energy to argue the point. Instead I just wanted to ask: Did you always make perfect sense? Didn’t you contradict yourself sometimes?

Don’t you still?

All Girls by Emily Layden is out now (John Murray, £14.99). 

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