At 15 I had my first boyfriend and though he was a wonderful person and I respected him very much, I never had any romantic feelings for him. I dated him solely because it would make me look cooler. After a few months my conscience got the best of me and I broke up with him, but only set out on a rabbit trail of relationships afterward, hopping from one to the next when I grew tired and bored. It often felt like a pointless way to spend a life, but I honestly thought that was what I was “supposed” to do; that it was what everyone did.
Like many of my peers, I saw how the media portrayed teenage life and assumed it to be true. I entered junior high fresh out of seeing Clueless in theaters and high school was the dawn of Britney Spears. I was shy and more than a little insecure, and it was all too easy to imagine that everyone else in school knew a whole lot more about the adult world than I did. So I did what I believe is a very natural thing to do: I looked to TV, movies, and music videos to direct what I should give my time and attention to. If you think about it, media practically begs to be a handbook for the modern teenage life.
The only problem is that the media almost always portrays an unhealthy, unbalanced teenage lifestyle that doesn’t even accurately represent the real lives of most teens. (And those for whom it is an accurate representation often suffer consequences that are very rarely depicted on screen.) But as a 14-year-old, I didn’t know that. I watched American Pie and Varsity Blues and wrongly assumed that all my classmates were having sex and getting drunk every weekend. And sure, some of them were, but most were far from it.
I remember sitting in English class in my junior year of high school, talking with some of the girls seated near me. One girl, a pretty and popular cheerleader, shyly admitted she hadn’t yet had her first kiss. I will never forget how shocked I felt, and how robbed. It was as if the whole world had lied to me, had told me that I must do these things if I was ever to be cool or worth a dime. And I had swallowed the lie hook, line, and sinker. I wish I could say that was a turning point in my life, but it wasn’t. By then, boys were the only familiar way I knew to feel important so I kept going down that path I had made for myself for several more years.
Now as an adult, I am still surprised when I meet 16-year-old girls who have well-formed political, spiritual, or ethical convictions. I’m still surprised when they plan to major in biology, or are involved in social activism. While it is thrilling and I heartily applaud them, I always seem to feel a stab of regret because I know I wasted lots of good years. I could have been formulating a worldview and political opinions, I could have been seeking out intellectual stimulation or a deeper spiritual life, I could have worked to hone the gifts and interests that I had. But the truth is, I didn’t do much of any of these things because I willingly let my personhood be validated only by my dating status. I wish I had known then that there would be many years ahead for dating. But I’ll never get my teen years back.
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