Starting our #bekindtoyou Women’s Wellness Week, body confidence guru and Body Gossip founder, Natasha Devon, talks about why teenagers are awesome, and how your adolescent experiences shape your adult confidence!
When I was sixteen years old, I stood up in front of my entire assembled school – a thousand students, teachers, Head Teacher, dinner ladies and all– and told them (in only marginally more articulate language) to sod off. (I know, I know it’s so difficult to envisage a time when I was so outrageously feisty and outspoken).
Occasionally I re-visit the town on the Hertfordshire/Essex border to teach in schools local to the one I was educated in. I am regularly stopped in the street by people in their thirties who still feel compelled to shake my hand and congratulate me on my act of bravery. Said act took place in 1997.
The point of me sharing that (slightly embarrassing) anecdote is this – The things that happen to us during our teenage years impact us much more than those which occur later in our lives. Just ask my mother, who can recall as though it was yesterday sitting at her desk at school writing out the lyrics to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on her exercise book (it was maths and it was ‘boring’) but frequently forgets where she left her keys.
Our teenage years are arguably the most formative of our lives. It’s the first time we dare to break free from the shackles of the instinct to mindlessly agree with all the adults around us. We are discovering who we are, exploring our sexuality, our tastes, our opinions and the fascinating recesses of our own brain. Often, we get it wrong (hair mascara, anyone?) but school, college and university are some of the few environs where that’s allowed.
I can’t get enough of working with teenagers. They’re brilliant. Often, when I tell people my own age or older what I do (teach self-esteem classes to 14-18 year olds) I’m met with horrified reactions. Unfortunately, the popular media has succeeded so well in widening the metaphorical gap between ‘responsible tax-paying adults’ and the ‘yoot’ that quite often adolescents are perceived as a different and terrifying species.
Take the time to actually have a chat with teenagers, however and you’ll discover that they’re just like you were before your life was dominated by such mundane concerns as mortgages, the rising cost of fuel and the inevitability of death…..Although probably considerably more techo-savvy. Take it from someone who’s worked with 25,000 of them – Being liberated from such worries often provides a clarity we older folk can only dream of.
I’ve heard some of the most profound things of my life in a classroom. For example, during a conversation about whether or not school uniform ‘erases difference’ and therefore reduces the risk of bullying, a fourteen year old boy told me:
“The fact is, whatever you wear, you’re judged anyway. When I go out and get the bus wearing this blazer people make assumptions about me because of the school I go to. So, at the end of the day I’d rather wear my own clothes and run the risk of someone making a comment because I’d rather be bullied for something I am than something I’m not”.
I had to stuff my fist in my mouth to stop myself from whooping.
However, these moments of inspiration are counterbalanced by just as much complete drivel. Part of being a good teacher is having the patience to allow your students to speak until they realise they’re spouting bollocks (and having the faith that this revelation will inevitably arrive), resisting the urge to screech “YOU’RE SO WRONG!”.
Sometimes we are all guilty of speaking without thinking-it-through (otherwise Katie Hopkins wouldn’t exist) and this is where the whole teenage experience can get a little tricky. Ask most women what was the catalyst for their body struggles or dysfunctional relationship with food and they’ll invariably tell you it originated from a comment someone made at school. So whilst we’re navigating the choppy waters of discovering our own identity, our contemporaries are laying down the foundations of their own identities based on what we, sometimes misguidedly, say.
I recently spoke to a teacher who said she embarked on a two-decade long episode of yo-yo dieting related misery because someone at school called her ‘obelisk’. She said that, as she now works in a school, the logical part of her brain realises if she confronted the man who had said it today he a) wouldn’t remember saying it and b) would have been mortified to have caused such an impact. She also said that looking back at photographs of herself at the time there was nothing obelisk-like about her in the slightest and she’s aware that the insult was thrown at her to cause maximum reaction (which is, of course, the primary aim of all bullies). Yet still the legacy of that remark had left its dent in her confidence.
One of the reported benefits of the Body Gossip self-esteem classes for teenagers is a reduction in the amount of bullying – because after all no one calls someone else names because they have high self-esteem themselves. But for those of us who have long since left our adolescence behind, the best thing we can do is cast our minds back a little and remember that none of us were exempt from the learning curve that was our teenage years and the only person’s opinion of your body that ever really mattered was your own.
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