I was a cringey teen. This isn’t up for debate. My interests, hobbies, and obsession with romance were embarrassing. I so desperately wanted to be the main character but didn’t know how I could be. So, I threw myself into fandoms and sects of the internet that were popular enough to be mainstream, but still nerdy enough to make me feel special. I was proud of my interests. They made me feel unique and adult, something I really wanted to be. I especially enjoyed being into things that my parents had no interest in. For someone who was sheltered and homeschooled until 9th grade, having those small freedoms was important.
I can almost block out my interests based on how old I was. At 13 I was into Twilight, at 14 I found myself drawn to Tumblr, specifically the writing and feminist blogs, and at 15 I found the Vlogbrothers and John Green’s books. I fell into the Vlogbrothers fandom hard. I would watch their videos religiously. I had signed posters, signed books, and all the merch a crazy teen could want. I had a crush on their brains. They would talk to me through my computer screen and it never felt condescending. It was like I was exploring life and philosophy and politics right alongside them as a peer rather than a silly teen. I learned a lot about the world through them, and in a way, they felt like friends. With my other pop-culture fixations (ahem, Twilight), I never was quite as obsessed. Sure, you can probably find a photo of me dressed as Alice Cullen somewhere on my mum’s Facebook (please don’t), and maybe I was a diehard #TeamJacob stan (I’m sorry), but it was never a personality trait. But as I got older, my interests became all-consuming. Tumblr became my social media platform of choice (it was also the only platform my parents didn’t follow me on, which I’m sure contributed to its appeal), and the Green brothers became my most trusted internet personalities.
When I went off to college, these parts of my personality were shoved in the back of a closet. I’d see evidence of them when I’d visit home for the holidays and would go through my old things. I’d feel a twinge of embarrassment as I looked at my “Okay? Okay.” pins, fan art posters, and limited edition signed books that I ordered all the way from the United Kingdom. I’d stare at this odd collection of my teen years and consider if I should throw them away or donate them because I wasn’t that person anymore. In the end, I could never part with these things. Even today, this memorabilia sits in the back of my closet, where it will probably stay for years to come. Those objects represent the person I was when I was just trying to figure out who I was. They represented a scared, uncertain person who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t brave enough to admit it yet. Someone who wanted to be in love, but didn’t even know what love was. A girl who told herself she was straight because that was all she knew. While I didn’t have a classic coming-of-age story romance that I would read about or see in movies, these interests were, in a way, my coming-of-age story. They shaped my opinions and thoughts and humanity in ways that I can barely comprehend, which is why when I saw my teenage interests being slammed on the internet by ex-fans, I was confused.
I saw criticisms of Green’s manic-pixie female characters (which is more complicated than it seems), and his metaphor-heavy prose. Some people even questioned why a grown man would write about and for teen girls and accused him of pedophilia. Green writes from a cis, white, straight male point-of-view, which does limit his worldview. His books aren’t perfect by any means, but they meant something to me as a teen, and I refuse to slander (harmless) content from my youth. But this trend wasn’t just limited to Green’s books. I saw it extended to a lot of the content that I consumed as a teen. Music, movies, and books marketed for teenage girls are under heightened criticism both at their peak popularity and again years later by their own fans. Franchises like Twilight, bands like One Direction, and even fashion choices (like the iconic Ugg boots) are all made fun of. Anything a teenage girl enjoys is ridiculed. At first, by adults and boys, but later on, by their own consumers.
We are so afraid that the things we enjoy are wrong. With social media, peer pressure, and the need to be cool, it can feel impossible to consume content that we both enjoy and that society approves of. In early childhood, I remember being so opposed to all things pink. The color was girly, and therefore bad. Now, as an adult, it’s one of my favorite colors, but I couldn’t admit that until just a few years ago. I never wanted to be perceived as a girly girl. I spent most of my teen years not just being afraid of what my peers would think but also what my teachers and parents would think of me. My experience is not unique. Internalized misogyny starts at a young age. We’re taught to hate ourselves practically from birth. That our wants, needs, and likes aren’t valid. Boy bands are bad. Romance movies are dumb. Girls are emotional. These mantras play in my head even today. I catch myself judging media that I would have loved as a teen. I reduce it to being dumb, ridiculous, and unbelievable. We dismiss women’s content as trivial and silly. We are taught that femininity is weak. We’re taught that we should aspire to be “not like the other girls,” even if we realize how toxic that line of thinking is. We are told our worth comes from men, so when we enjoy content and men mock us, we internalize that as self-hatred.
It’s easy to grow up and look back at the (often) embarrassing things we loved and to immediately trash it, but it’s harmful. We are seeing ourselves as dumb, our choices as inherently bad. But they aren’t. Even as a teenager, I was hyper-aware of this. I would listen to One Direction in secret. I wasn’t a big fan, but I enjoyed a couple of songs, although I would never admit this for fear of being ridiculed. And while the band broke up years ago, discourse about One Direction still exists. Women online make fun of themselves for their fandom. Of course, some teasing is fine, because it is funny how much we truly thought we’d go to a concert and be noticed by one of the band members. But our past enjoyments shaped us into the people we are today, and degrading them is an act of internalized misogyny. This is a harmful cycle that is hard to escape from. It requires active unlearning of taught behaviors. It means we have to lose the shame we’ve carried with us since childhood and be proud of the things we enjoy. For myself, I refuse to look back in ten years and bully myself for liking Harry Styles or bingeing The Bachelor. And I won’t look back at my teen years and make fun of myself for enjoying the content that raised me into the adult I am today. This isn’t a radical act, it’s self-preservation. We need to look at our teen selves fondly and not with hate. We owe it to ourselves.
Whether I like it or not, my embarrassing phases and interests made me who I am, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to explore them. The content I consumed is part of my personality. In a way, they taught me how to be an adult, and I’m grateful for that. I don’t watch the Vlogbrothers anymore, but I still sometimes catch a Tweet or TikTok by Hank or John Green and remember that time in my life fondly. I still read John Green’s new books, even though they are for kids ten years younger than I am. Maybe in a way, I’m trying to connect with who I used to be and find my younger self again, or maybe I’m just ready to admit that I actually think my teenage idol is a good writer (because he is). Either way, I will still look back at my teenage self and cringe, but I’ll never hate who she was. She was figuring it out, and that’s okay.