At 22, I wish I could have lived the entirety of my girlhood in retrospect. As I stand at 22, looking back at 13 is lighter, pastel-coloured and blurry with the warm, fuzzy blanket of nostalgia. I think of girlhood like a peach; powder-pink and tinged with the excitement of coral, a blanket too soft to protect but enough to conceal the whirlwind of flavours within it that intermingle and grow with time around a firmly rooted pit that resists weathering. Even if the outside gets bruised, the pit remains solid.
My greatest fate in life has been being my parents’ singular child. With just one child at hand, my parents did not have a son (or a daughter, for that matter) to compare me to so I didn’t necessarily grow up categorising the many attractions of my endlessly colourful life using small, insignificant words like ‘boyish’ or ‘girly’. Within their unbearably limited means, Baba and Ammi worked day and night to foster my world of interests, filling my life with storybooks and paint-cakes dissolving in water, tricycles and guitars, Barbie dolls and dinky-cars.
I believe the oppression of women exists to shrink the limitlessness of young girls. In a world where societies are created based on black and white boundaries, girls dream big and in technicolour, threatening to live simply celebrating the very fact of their lives as women. And fulfilment is a powerful tool.
I’m making being a boyband fangirl sound like a potent war strategy but believe me, I’m fully equipped to make this comparison. Entering my teenage years through the portal of One Direction was a swift fall from grace and I say that despite never having been interested in ‘typically girly’ avenues like clothes or makeup. It makes me wonder what an unbearably terrible time it must have been for girls around me who did dabble in such interests.
For me, it went something like this: both men and some women told me that losing my mind over One Direction was an utterly idiotic pursuit, often punctuating their lectures with ‘just joking’ and stale humour, and sometimes by asking me the rationale behind my ‘useless’ interest and my even futile crush on Liam Payne “that will inevitably weather”. Even at a young age, I didn’t understand why my crushes or music interests needed to have a strong base of reasoning.
They were wrong, not in that I never got over Mr Payne — though I still think he’s just as attractive — but because my interest didn’t weather naturally. It rotted prematurely, the peach of it bruised with a knock. It made me look at myself in the mirror only to see a young, brainless thing. Worse, it made me look at my friends that way, too.
Far too quickly, in doing myself the injustice of denying ever having anything to do with One Direction, I took away from myself the possibility of ever wearing makeup — I am now a self-proclaimed eyeliner artisan but that’s about it — cooking or wearing pink. In fact, for the longest time, I simply opted to not wear clothes from the girls’ section. I had successfully extrapolated the idiocy of wildly following a boyband into other things the girls around me enjoyed and I simultaneously envied them while looking down at them. “Well, at least I’ll do something useful with my life,” I thought to myself snarkily.
This experience was not unique to me. Today, it’s not One Direction that’s vilified — it’s listening to Taylor Swift or BTS, it’s watching anime or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, it’s wearing makeup or doing your hair in morning, it’s touching up your lipgloss or being excited to watch the Barbie movie.
I’ve spent the past three weeks talking to 12 girls between the ages of 12 and 16 about their interests and it has been an incredible joy. I have giggled and teared up with these girls and they have brought back the careless laughter of my childhood.
“You’re the first person who has asked me this,” 12-year-old Angel* replied when I asked her to tell me what she liked, in detail. “I love doing makeup, on myself and others, and I’m actually really good at it. Everyone keeps telling me it’s a completely useless pursuit and that I should just focus on studying for now but I do study. You know, I came first in fifth grade?”
But I knew she wasn’t alone. Just the day before, I spoke to Farah, a 16-year old makeup enthusiast and Swiftie — a fan of singer Taylor Swift. “I really don’t understand why I’m the butt of every joke. Like at some point, it’s not really just a joke, is it? Not if it’s hurtful. Dressing up, caring about how I look, listening to Taylor Swift are the same as following a sport and I can do all of them. What’s so funny? But of course, if I ask this I’ll never hear the end of how triggered I get over nothing.”
I loved watching football, slowly filling my room with Barcelona merch. But I learnt very quickly never to watch it with it men. “Watching sports with men is such a difficult task,” 15-year-old Aleena said. She explained to me how she practically has to prove to the men in her family that she loves watching cricket by constantly engaging in infuriating trivia about the history of the sport. “Like how would I know what the shoe size of Afridi’s daughter is?” she laughed. “If I started asking them about the cast of every film we watch, they’d be completely clueless. But I don’t do that. I’m always happy to share an interest instead of feeling unnecessarily possessive about it.”
It’s an inescapable cycle of ridicule. Two girls I spoke to said the same thing about discourse on K-pop and anime. “There’s a clear distinction between the music and anime made for girls, usually cheap plots and brainless music, and the one made for boys. In a weird twist of events, girlbands are taken more seriously than boybands because they ‘make music for boys’. And if you argue about it, then you’re just ‘overly emotional’, as if men around the world aren’t setting things on fire and causing damage to things about missed goals and wrong penalties. I don’t think men register anger as an emotion,” retorted 15-year old Swaleha.
“You know, I kept getting my Barbie and Ken married and then divorced according to what my friends thought was more badass at the time,” said 14-year old Areeba, the most endearingly tragic confession I heard. Many, like her and I, said they simply let go of what they liked to find some peace while many others created their own secret havens where their interests could bloom.
It’s a travesty what we do to young girls and I wish I had interviewed the men in the lives of these girls who make them feel this way to ask them why they do it. But I have my assumptions.
The most common critique of Jane Austen is that she wrote so repetitively about marriage. Unsurprisingly, that is not a critique pointed towards Shakespeare about history or Hemingway about war. The interests of men are considered far superior to those of women. Our world is designed for hunters — politics, economics, men’s sports and vehicles run it. Gatherers sit on the side and carry on the slow and careful work of nature, of feeling all their feelings, of beautifying, of bringing forth the spring of life.
And of course, age factors in. The generation at the world-running, policy-making end of affairs has decided their way of life and entertainment is ‘timeless’, not understanding that that’s exactly what every generation before them has thought, only to pass on the baton. It’s almost embarrassing. To let young people, especially girls, relish their pursuits would be to acknowledge that at least in this sliver of the world, they know more and that is unacceptable. If young girls know the politics of prejudice, the power of managements behind their favourite boybands while also knowing every football rule, then who will be mansplained to? That’s too many men unemployed from their favourite vocation and they can’t have that.
But what I consider the greatest underlying reason of this injustice against young girls is society’s core utilitarian ideals. In this consumerist world that benefits off people’s dissatisfaction and urges them to work as cogs in wheels to attain some unrealistic expectation of having it all, young girls harbour infinite joy and excitement for things they know will never be ‘useful’ or things that don’t require reason. To me, that is a form of personal resistance. It is a push against the notion of always accomplishing something other than just plain happiness from a pursuit.
Listening to Taylor Swift’s music doesn’t have to be any more than listening to music. It doesn’t need a purpose or reason.
Young girls teach us the way of mirth, of rejoicing without reason other than a celebration of life itself. I plan to wear my first pink shirt in about a decade when I go to watch Barbie next week and I owe it to these young girls who light the path of most resistance.
*All names have been changed for privacy