In the final instalment of Susan Johnson’s exceptional piece on teens and body image that we have been running here for the past few weeks, teen girls speak frankly about how they respond to the relentless pressure to lose weight and be skinny, while teen boys talk about how they deal with the pressure to work out and “bulk up.”
Saturday afternoon at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, in Brisbane’s west, is teenage heaven. The movies, the food court, the clothes shops: teenagers in large groups or in pairs come to meet each other or eye each other off, checking each other out in that overt, challenging way that only teenagers can.
A group of giggling girls is meeting up: the girls come here almost every day after school. It’s free dress at their school, and the first pressure felt by these girls is the pressure to wear the right clothes, the “right” brands. Zoe Robberts (“I’m almost 14”) is in Year 9 and lives at inner-west Bardon: “Yeah, you have to have nice clothes, like the brands, and there’s pressure every day on what you wear. You can’t wear the same thing twice in a week.” Bella Nielsen, 13, also of Bardon, adds that “when you’re in primary school no-one judges anyone but when you’re in high school it’s all about first impressions. If you don’t look pretty, no-one will hang out with you or they’ll ignore you and there’s lots of cyberbullying going on around … on Facebook, [there are instances where] people really bully others.”
“I got called ‘fat’ one time on Facebook,” says Kiara Cavenagh, 13, of Middle Park, and a bigger girl than her friends. Her dad is tall and she comes from a family with “big bones”: “I feel pressure because all my friends are so skinny and I am, like, not skinny.”
Immediately all her girlfriends rush in with a chorus of “But you’re so pretty, Kiara!” and Zoe Morgan, 12, of St Lucia adds: “You’re like a mini Adele [the British singer]”. It turns out that Kiara sings too, and superbly (she led me to some YouTube videos) and has won a couple of local singing competitions. Which all means that possibly because Kiara is happy in other areas, being larger than her girlfriends is less of an issue: “I can’t be bothered to diet, even though I feel pressured [to be skinnier]. I like food too much! It tastes too good …”
Bella, on the other hand, feels the pressure more: “You walk around here and there are girls who are really pretty and their hair’s just perfect and, like, every day you see yourself in the mirror and you’re so used to seeing yourself you start picking out the little flaws and everything. You don’t see how pretty you are, you just see the bad stuff like, my stomach’s too big, my thighs are too big, and all that … ”
Zoe Morgan feels pressured too: “I’m happy with the way I look but you can never be, like, perfect to yourself … sometimes I see a girl who’s, like, really pretty and really skinny and I’m like, ‘I don’t like her! She’s so skinny’ … ”
Zoe Robberts says a lot of the pressure comes from boys: “Everyone’s trying to look pretty for them, to impress them … guys don’t have to worry. Boys don’t have to worry about anything.”
But her friend Bailey Vowles, 13, of western suburban Sherwood, disagrees: “If you’re really short for a boy you get called ‘cute’ and you probably wouldn’t want to be cute in Grade 8, you’d probably want to be hot. Boys want six-packs.” Bailey concedes, however, that much of the pressure girls feel comes from the boys as well as the media: “Personally, I’ve never dated anyone and I just think the pressure you have from boys to impress them is just, like, everywhere.” Friends Ben Stickley, 14, of northside Wooloowin and James Manteit, 15, of westside Chapel Hill, sheepishly admit that boys do indeed notice girls’ figures but appear nonplussed when asked about pressure. James: “Going out with a girl, I’d prefer that she had a good physique but we’re also friends with girls who are not, like, the best-looking people, but they’re just good to talk to.”
Ben: “Yeah, if they were, like, fat and stuff I’d care but I guess as long as the person’s nice, and nice to hang out with … ” Both think there is just as much pressure on boys as girls. James: “Girls definitely like boys who are muscled.” If James had more money he would spend it on clothes but, as it is, he tries to wear tight clothes to reveal his torso. He regularly works out.
Kean Coghill, 16, of Doolandella, met Aaron Eastment, 15, of Oxley, also in the outer west, at the shopping centre last year. The pair of mates now regularly travels there to meet their friends and look over the talent. Kean reckons “girls are mainly interested in looks these days” and both he and Aaron plan on starting bodybuilding soon. Aaron: “Yeah, most guys want to bulk up.”
Kean admits that, like most guys, “I do go for good-looking girls but they have to be nice too. But to be honest, the first thing you go for is good looks.” Of Aboriginal descent, Kean is sporting a new tattoo in honour of his grandfather who recently died. He wears a chain around his neck and a “snapback”, an American baseball-style hat worn backwards. He regularly straightens his hair, too, and wears the “right” brands, but that is about as far as his fashion-consciousness takes him.
Aaron, of mixed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, has been wearing braces for two years (“It hasn’t stopped him getting girls,” says Kean). Aaron’s fashion routine sometimes extends to straightening his hair but within minutes it is curly again so mostly he doesn’t bother.
They can’t talk long, these boys – they’ve got places to go and girls to meet. So they say goodbye and walk out into the mini-city of the shopping mall, the meeting place of thousands of teenage boys and teenage girls, skinny, plump, bosomy or muscled, anxious to look hot.
I would like to thank Susan Johnson and the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend for allowing me to share this insightful investigative piece. Susan Johnson is a full-time journalist and the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.