Karen Elson is a musician, model, mother, and loads of other things that start with M, like Mancunian, muse, magical dreamgirl…and, as she proves in this regular column on Rookie, master of helping all of us deal a bit better with the world.
I have a problem that follows me around, tries to tap into every detail of my life, and tells me that everything about me is wrong. Perhaps you’ve guessed that I’m talking about my mother. (Cue laughter.) (Please don’t laugh.) (Thank you for not laughing.) My mother is a huge problem for me. She does not let me out of her sight when I’m at home, she tries to listen to every conversation I have with my friends, and she berates me for my weight and my acne. I understand that she loves me and that she’s trying to make me the best person I can be, but what is a reasonable amount of intrusion into my life, and how can I tell her I need her to lay off? —Yasmin, 16, Qatar
It is very empathetic and mature of you to apprehend that your mom’s hypervigilance is born of love. She probably thinks she knows what’s best for you, based on her own life experiences, but it’s coming across as controlling. I suggest that you be completely honest with her. Explain calmly that while you understand her concerns, her constant monitoring and criticism are harming rather than helping you. For starters, tell her that her comments about your weight and your skin really hurt your feelings. And that they’re not producing the effects she wants, anyway, so she’s not losing anything by stopping. It might take her a while to break this habit, so practice saying “I’m not talking about this” any time she brings up your looks, then promptly changing the subject to something pleasant/neutral, like, I don’t know, floral arrangements.
Your mother may be worried that if she gives you too much freedom, you’ll make “bad” choices. Let her know that you can be trusted! And provide specific evidence: good grades, doing your chores around the house without complaining, taking care of the family pet, keeping your room clean—any of these kinds of things will help your case. Make the conversation a two-way negotiation: perhaps together you can hammer out some basic rules—e.g., a curfew, having to get your homework done before you can talk on the phone, helping with dinner, etc.—that you promise to abide by; and in return you can ask her to give you some freedom and to watch her words around you.
Mother-daughter relationships are historically challenging, especially when the daughter’s a teenager, on the cusp of adulthood and independence. When I left home at the age of 16 it was very hard for my mother to handle; she was convinced I was up to no good (and honestly sometimes I was!). Thankfully those days are gone, but now that I’m a mother myself, I have more sympathy for the position I put her in. There’s a fine line between guiding your child toward good decisions and trying to control her life; and it’s hard to strike the right balance between protecting your kid and letting her become herself on her own. At the same time, it’s essential that you communicate with your mom about these issues, or you’ll just end up resenting her. If your mother is reasonable, hopefully she’ll understand.
I feel like boys won’t like me because I have crooked teeth. A lot of boys in my grade call me names like “Beaver” because there’s a gap between my two front teeth, or they comment on how crooked the rest of them are. I know that these jerks are just really insecure about themselves, but I keep thinking about finding the “right person” in the future and how I won’t ever find my dream guy because he’ll think I’m ugly! GAH! Help me!! —Crooked Teeth
I’m gonna confess something here. I sucked my thumb till I was 14 years old, and I have a HUGE overbite because of it. In high school I had a gap between my front teeth, which stuck out of my mouth. I was called Goofy Guts, Bucktooth Monkey Bitch (charming), etc., so honey, I hear you! I never got my teeth fixed, and now I’m happy I didn’t. My overbite is part of who I am. My gap eventually closed on its own, which I’m bummed about, because I LOVE gaps in teeth! Some of the world’s most beautiful humans have gappy teeth, and quite frankly they can be very alluring. For example:
See, crooked teeth are beautiful! But it’s easy for me to say that now that I’m no longer in high school; it’s a lot harder to ignore cruel jibes from your classmates. I know how hurtful it is to hear that kind of thing every day. I wish I had something more helpful to say than “it gets better,” but I don’t. It really does, though. High school is a time when almost everyone around you is insecure and hormonal and confused, and looking for ways to relieve all that anxiety—and so some people will find anything they can bully you about, for that momentary feeling of power. If it’s not your teeth it’s your hair, or your braces, or your accent, or your height, or your name.
But don’t let the bullies win. What they think of your teeth isn’t important. How do you feel about them? Take some time to think about that. If they’re really bothering you long term, make an appointment with an orthodontist to talk about some options. In the meantime, remember that as a teenager, you’re still growing—your face, body, and, yes, teeth will all look different in a few years. It’s an awkward time to go through, I remember well—but the good news is that gapped teeth are AWESOME! (And yes, you will meet someone—lots of someones, actually—who see the beauty in them, and in you. Trust me on this.)
I have identified as a feminist for most of my life, particularly in the past few months, and my feminism is very important to me. A few months ago I began modeling, and as much as I enjoy it, I know that the fashion industry doesn’t always gel with feminism. I feel like a bit of a fraud being both a feminist and a model, but I don’t want to quit either one. How can I still work in the fashion industry whilst maintaining my personal integrity? —P., Sydney
I started modeling when I was 16. In my 20s I started reading a lot about feminism, and that made me uncomfortable with so many aspects of the fashion business, especially the unattainable beauty standards it creates and upholds, and the hypersexualized, totally unrealistic version of women it presents to the world. As a model, wasn’t I contributing to this evil force that was hurting women (including me)? I had a hard time with this question for a long time.
Then I kind of looked around me, toward the examples of models like Kate Moss, Gisele Bundchen, Naomi Campbell, and Milla Jovovich—these women weren’t meek and passive; they were strong, savvy businesswomen who had transcended all the myths about being a model. They were (and are) powerful, and each one probably had (and has) legions of men working for her. They are changing the industry from the inside, which in many ways can be more effective than campaigning for change as an outsider.
Listen, the fashion business is far from perfect—that goes for any industry, of course, but fashion is unusual in that its values leak over into the larger culture, and can make girls and women feel bad about themselves. But it’s a double-edged sword: I’ve met many unconventionally beautiful women who were ridiculed for their looks as teenagers, and went on to find success in the modeling industry. Modeling actually helped them feel beautiful, and was a step toward their own empowerment and self-discovery. Cases in point: all of the women mentioned in the previous answer, and yours truly.
I’m also among the models I know who are proud feminists, so I can tell you that it really is possible to be both. If you assume that models can’t be political, that we can’t have strong opinions and beliefs, you’re just falling prey to the popularly held misogynist view that beautiful women are stupid. You are proof that that isn’t true. If you enjoy modeling and you know who you are and what you believe, there’s no reason not to do it. Go enjoy it! As a feminist, you can help change the industry by challenging beauty ideals, speaking out about the treatment of models, and being a role model for other women. It would be a shame if there were no feminists in fashion. The truth is we need more women like you.
I made out with a guy at a party and he went down on me later that night (consensually). When I told a couple of my friends they said it was bitchy of me not to give him a hand job. That sounded kinda stupid to me, but now I’m confused about what I am expected to “return” when I’m in that situation. I don’t want to do too much and be called a “slut,” but I don’t want to not do enough and be called a “bitch,” either. What the hell am I supposed to do?! —Bec
First of all, you are never obligated to return a sexual favor. That is ridiculous. You received pleasure and it felt good, I assume. End of story! Don’t listen to anyone who says there’s a set “protocol” for your own private sexytimes. What’s important is that you and your partner(s) communicate about what feels good to you and to him/her, and above all that it’s 100% consensual (and if you’re bullied into doing something by your friends, it’s not). Do only what you’re comfortable with and that makes you feel good. Love and respect yourself! You’re not a “bitch” or a “slut” (unless you find power in redefining those words as positive ones). The only person whose approval you need is yours, my darling! ♦