LOUISE O'NEILL: The reality of being a teenager hasn’t changed much

People often ask how, as an ould wan writing fiction for young adults, I stay up to date with whatever slang that the Youth of Today are using. (Wait, is slang not cool to say anymore? Wait, is cool not cool to say anymore? HELP ME.) I usually reply by saying that I’m extremely immature, writes Louise O’Neill.

Them: Oh, you’re so funny!

Me: Stop laughing, I’m serious.

The problem is that in my own head I’m very, very young. I still act shocked when friends tell me they’re pregnant or engaged or buying a house, as if these aren’t perfectly normal things to do at the age of 33. That seems like a huge commitment, Are you sure you’re ready? I’m internally screaming while smiling and acting like I know what a tracker mortgage is. Unfortunately for me, when I spend time with literal young people, they’re far too quick to undermine any youthful pretensions. They say things like “things were different for your generation,” and “ a....CD? Is that a sexually transmitted infection?” and “Did you have electricity when you were a child, Louise?” 

However, when they start talking to me about their lives, it becomes increasingly obvious that the reality of being a teenager hasn’t changed much since the 2000s. It is a time that remains so fresh in our collective consciousness, and so immediate, because it is often a time of firsts - when you first fall in love, when you lose your virginity, when you learn how to drive, when you get a job, when you have your heart broken and it feels as if nothing will ever put it together again. I think that’s the reason why so many women in their twenties and thirties buy fiction that is written for young adults. We want to remember what it was like to feel that rush of hormones, to fall in love with someone and to be certain that it would last forever, without doubts or pragmatism or wisdom cobbled together from nights spent crying into our pillows over a man or woman who wasn’t good enough for us anyway. 

When I think of my own adolescence, I recall a sense of being trapped. The tension between my desperation to break free and my longing to belong. Classrooms walked in to, wondering whom I would sit beside. Falling out with friends and eating my lunch in a toilet cubicle, trying not to cry out with the pain of the rejection and the sinking feeling that maybe I deserved this, maybe I was someone that no one could love unconditionally. 

I remember morning after morning stepping onto the weighing scales and hoping the number would be lower, pulling on my school skirt and praying the waistband would be looser. Staring at my face in the mirror and wishing it was different. If I had straight hair and tanned skin, maybe I would be happy. Maybe life would be easier. Applying makeup, a mask to hide behind. Adding another layer just to be sure. Thinking of the disco at the weekend and the Will You Shift My Friend? that was met with a no. The shame of it coursing through me, but I pretended that I didn’t care, that it didn’t matter. It was important to save face. Fights with my parents, my mother in particular, as I told her that she didn’t understand me, that she would never understand me, and that I couldn’t wait until I was 18 and could finally move out.

The burgeoning sense of my sexuality, an understanding of the power that my body contained, a power I could use for my own pleasure, but the shame that surrounded it because that was something that boys did, not girls. Tests and exams and grinds and the hours spent making study timetables rather than actually, you know, studying. Drinking too much, because eating is cheating and you’re able to keep up with the lads, and then being violently sick in the pub toilets. Fake IDs and holding my breath in the queue for the nightclub, silently rehearsing my fake date of birth in case the bouncer asked. 

These are all experiences that I’m sure would sound just as familiar to those of my parents’ generation as they would to young people in school today. But there are differences too - the pressure that is placed on teenagers today is beyond anything that we have seen before. Eating disorders have increased exponentially over the last decade, and it’s not hard to draw a link between that and the constant grind of being ‘on’ for social media, of having to ensure that your face and body looks photo-ready at all times. 

Teenagers are expected to be over-achievers and yet also constantly infantilised; told that they should be quiet and do as they are told, that they are too young and too silly to have an opinion. And yet when I meet with students, as I did recently at a Town Hall meeting at Colaiste Choilm in Ballincollig, I am always bowled over by their sensitivity and their ability to discuss political ideologies with a sophistication that would have left my 16 year old self stammering in shock. 

I admire their indefatigable enthusiasm, and their determination to make the world a better place. As we have seen in the wake of the Parkland shooting in the US, where students waged a highly efficient campaign to lobby politicians to change gun control laws, or closer to home, where volunteers as young as 18 were leading canvassing groups coming up to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the energy of young people should be harnessed, not dismissed. If they are our future, then we are in safe hands.


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