Friday, 10 August 2012

growing up in public: back in the day

 I have a strange fascination with American high school dramas - particularly the kind where the ugly/abrasive/shy/intellectual/artsy girl gets noticed by the hottest guy in school and omg gets all the boyfriends. (Shocker.) I think in part it's down to my unusual teenaged years, and some lingering regret I have for not having done those years in the traditional way. But time has given me the distance necessary to see the good in it, the freedoms we found to grow up how we needed to.

overdressed and underage

From the age of 15, I took the train up from boring old bland old Southampton to the bright lights of London town to go dancing. Through the magic of the internet I found myself a gang of like-minded waifs and strays, and for a few years that was what we did: we spent our pocket money on cheap vodka and wore ridiculous clothes and generally acted like idiots, but it was fun.

We were the kids who had got bullied at school (well, I still was the kid getting bullied at school*), and were celebrating the fact that we had, finally, found a whole world of people who were uncool by mainstream lights, who read too much and listened to "weird" music and had moist-pants-feelings for people of the same sex and didn't do performative gender very well and made our own clothes by safety-pinning photocopied Andy Warhol prints of Judy Garland onto our mums' t-shirts (true story) ... 

* With the important caveat that: remember that episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon doesn't want to go to her high school reunion because she remembered everyone being mean to her in school, but it turned out that she was the bully all along and everyone was scared of her because she was so nasty? I FOUND THAT EPISODE QUITE DISTURBING. Yes I was picked on; no I was not the "poor disadvantaged humble accomplished genius polite admirable humble underdog downtrodden perfectly behaved humble governess oh poor her underdog perfect" Jane Eyre figure I thought myself to be.

Embarrassing as the aesthetics, pretensions and outfits are in retrospect, I'm realising more and more how lucky we were to come of age in that milieu. In stark contrast to the cultures we'd grown up in, not being straight wasn't "tolerated" or frowned upon, it was (forgive me) fabulous. Ladies could go dancing in charity shop party dresses or gentlemen's three piece suits. Boys who weren't wearing eyeliner and glitter and stripy tights and padded bras and Ann Summers nurses' dresses (or, on one memorable occasion, a dressing gown) when out on the town would have been considered somewhat strange.

In part it was simply a localised youth fashion, but in contrast to mainstream fashions - requiring girls to be skinny and boys to be hench, girls to be girls and boys to be boys, everyone to look as attractive as they could without looking like they'd tried too hard, and most importantly everyone to look as similar to everyone else as possible - it was so freeing, like unlacing a tightly strung corset after a very long day.

It wasn't theoretically discussed, but looking back, it seems to me that we were playing with notions of gender in our dress: I'd never been able to do 'girl' very well, so now that I was in a place where I could do it on my own terms, damn was I going to do 'girl', to a ridiculous extreme: vertiginous heels and plunging necklines and nipped in waists and stocking tops on show. GIRL. Some of us went in other directions, appropriating cross-gender clothing, or playfully mixing up signifiers - a luxuriant moustache with a luxurious lace camisole. We were young, we were trying to figure out where we belonged on this expansive spectrum, and we were so lucky to be allowed to do it in a place which didn't simply require us to choose between Boy 1 and Girl 0.

oversexed and underweight

Oh yeah, and along with doing 'girl', there was also the doing of girls. As I've mentioned before, it was pretty much assumed that everyone was bi - or perhaps a better way to be put it would be there weren't generalised assumptions. I could hit on someone and they could refuse because they didn't fancy me, because they had an exclusive partner, or because they didn't like girls (or, hey, they could joyfully accept! That was fun too): whereas in the outside world you assume people are straight, and only hit on them if you think their orientation aligns with yours, in this little bubble you could just ask. What's the worst that could happen? By asking, you might imply that they're (ye gods!) gay? In a world where gay isn't an insult, that's not much of a barrier.

You know that common response when people come out - "but if you've never kissed/fucked/etc a girl, how can you know you like boys?" The asker never thinks to turn that question on themselves. What should they know of straightness who only straightness know? We've turned out in all shades of sexuality and gendering, but even the straightest of us got in a bit of youthful experimental dalliancing, and didn't just assume themselves to be straight because, well, everyone is.

It wasn't anywhere near as idyllic as I'm making out - quite apart from being strange and fucked up and in many cases mentally ill, most of us were teenagers - but the older I get, and the more I hear about other people's coming of age experiences, the more I realise what a liberating environment it was. Maybe we all would have turned out the same anyway: I doubt going to a few clubs made any of us gayer than we were naturally, or less inclined to perform our allotted genders in socially acceptable ways. But what freedom, to be allowed to figure that out for ourselves, in a world where deviations from external norms were welcomed, celebrated, the height of fashion.

overwhelmed and underpaid

So that was how I spent my formative years, if you were wondering. Though I have no desire to squeeze into my stillettos or slip on my satin elbow gloves, and I'm too tired to go dancing and drinking all night these days, and I probably did all of it too young, it was exactly what I needed, at the time.


  1. This is a really beautiful portrayal of a very familiar way of living(I wonder if we crossed over at all, actually...) The amazing thing about it was that it was so emotionally charged, and yet for me, there was an incredible clarity about my identity. I won't say that alternative scenes are always inclusive, and they certainly aren't always safe, but it did allow an exploration which didn't require absolute definition, and that was incredibly liberating. For years, I didn't identify as bi, because I had never belonged to a group of people for whom that mattered. Now, it's an important identification for me, but that's another story...

    1. I'm so glad this struck a chord with you - and I'm really intrigued as to whether we did cross paths! (I'm just gonna ask... Stay Beautiful?) Thank you thank you thank you for commenting. x