There will never ever be a better time to pursue what you love. Take risks. Get hurt. Be extraordinary.
This spring, I have the incredible good fortune of teaching as a guest artist at my old high school. Teenagers have improved considerably since I was one, and the students in my classes are spectacular.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own adolescence, so much of which was spent in these same rooms. Walking the same hallways I used to walk as a teenager, teaching kids sitting at the same desks I used to sit at—it’s all a very strange feeling, as though I’m looking through a wormhole and any second my 16-year-old self will wander into frame. The other day a bunch of them had a dance party during their free period to the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack and I swear I caught a glimpse of myself and my friends at that exact age, in that exact room, doing those exact dances.
And because I can see myself so clearly in the students roaming these halls, I can also see them making every mistake I ever made growing up. Don’t we all wish we could go back in time to save our younger selves a lot of pain? My youth was less traumatic than many, but still, if someone had told me a few things (or if I’d paid attention when they did) I might have had it easier.
My students resonate with me because I remember so very clearly how strange and confusing it was to be that age. Passions run high, everything feels so desperately urgent, and at the same time there’s a sense of having all the time in the world. From the inside, youth feels like a strange and impenetrable country, but every foreigner used to be a citizen, something you only realize when it’s too late to ask for their help navigating its twisting streets.
There are a thousand things I wish I could tell these students, because I wish someone had told them to me, but I remember high school clearly enough to know they’re not interested in my advice. Still, because I need to get it out somehow, here are a few of the things about being an adolescent girl that I wish I had known sooner.
1. Don’t date older men. They are predatory and these relationships are inherently unequal. Sure, some people come out of these romances relatively unscathed, but the older person seeking out a very young partner doesn’t care whether the object of their affections ends up feeling victimized by the experience. An older boyfriend (or girlfriend—unfortunately, women can be predatory too) is not a status symbol or proof that you’re “older than your years.” It’s the prelude to a disaster. If I had figured this out sooner I would have saved myself a lot of grief.
2. When it comes to people your own age, the romantic stakes are as low right now as they’ll ever be, so swing for the fences. Hit on people you think are cute. Don’t wait and wonder. Get out there and rock that shit.
3. Did you know that fewer than half the teenagers in America currently identify as straight? You’re not alone and you’re not a freak if you’re attracted to people of your own gender, or of more than one gender. Ask that cute person out. The worst they can say is no. And you’re going to hear no a lot of times in your life—everyone does. The earlier you start getting used to it, the more smoothly things will go.
4. Cheap tattoos are not a bargain. Trust me on this one. Take your time, save your money, and get something you won’t need to get covered up in your 20s.
5. Do weird stuff with your hair while you don’t have to look for a job. I squandered a good decade’s worth of awesome hair experiments being afraid it wouldn’t turn out well. It’s just hair. It will grow back.
6. Do not waste your precious youth being embarrassed about the things you love. If people (and by people I obviously mean dudes) try to make you feel embarrassed because you like Top 40 music or romantic comedies or other things that are considered too popular or “girly” to be cool, punch them in the mouth and go on with your life. Most of those things are probably amazing, and you’ll realize in retrospect that you should have appreciated them more instead of pretending to like “serious” art and music, defined as art and music that appeals to young straight white men.
7. Seek out art and music by women! Read poetry by women and science fiction by women and mysteries by women and love stories by women. Read queer women and trans women and black women and Muslim women and indigenous women and women who are all of those things and more. Listen to bands made up of women. Watch movies about women. Write stories and poems about women. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking something has to be by or about men to be important or universal. Women are important. Women are the universe.
8. Write, draw, play music, do science experiments, run, dance—there will never ever be a better time to pursue what you love. Take risks. Get hurt. Be extraordinary.
9. Sex is fun, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of existence. It also isn’t a determining factor in your worth. Have sex if you want to, but don’t be in such a hurry that you choose a selfish (or worse, a predatory) partner. And don’t have sex for any reason besides really wanting to.
10. Take lots of photographs of yourself and your friends. You’re going to want to remember the weird stuff you wore in 10 years when it’s hilariously out of fashion. Plus, you’re going to want to look back on how amazingly beautiful and young and carefree you all were. You don’t believe it now, but oh my God, you will.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. She is the author of Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls who Dig Girls (Plume 2016).