Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

A letter to my younger self: body image and teen dramas

Being at home for an extended period of time, not going out to meet friends and having little to do apart from reading, play Animal Crossing and watch Netflix has led me to re-watch a lot of the films and TV shows I watched in my early teens. After re-starting Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries from the beginning one night in lockdown-induced boredom, I started to realise that a lot of the feelings I had when watching the shows the first time around flooded back.

As much as I still adore the programmes that I watched around the ages of 14-16, I have been confronted with the reality that in many ways they contributed to negative perceptions of myself.

For most of my teen years, my life revolved around watching my favourite films and TV shows, as well as reading. Focusing so much on these pieces of fiction provided me with unrealistic expectations of my life. I struggled with the fact that I wasn’t a tall, skinny, perfect 15-year-old like the people I was watching on my screen. Again, being stuck at home for a long time and having little to do but procrastinate my essays on Netflix brought back these feelings of not being good enough.  

Celebrities are much more open now about their appearance struggles

At the time I didn’t realise how unrealistic the beauty standards, body images and expensive fashion styles promoted by these shows were. All I did was question why I didn’t look like Nina Dobrev, Leighton Meester or Emma Watson. I was obviously aware that they were much older than I was but because the characters they were playing were often aged between 15-18, I really beat myself up for looking the way I did when they looked and acted like that.

I’ve written about my struggles with spots and bad skin as a teen before and it’s only recently that this has started to improve. Seeing actors and actresses who all had perfect skin while I was struggling so much was a hard pill to swallow. I tortured myself, constantly trying to find celebrities who had bad skin too so I could validate my appearance.

Luckily, due to trends on social media encouraging people to bare all, celebrities are much more open now about their appearance struggles. I now know how silly it is to base so much of my self-confidence comparing myself to what heavily made over actors and actresses who had spent hours being made to look perfect. Being unaware that most of the perfection I aspired to in the films and TV shows that I adored was actually down to hours of hair and makeup was probably my own fault. I took what I saw to be true and struggled with not wearing makeup or constantly having perfect hair as my favourite characters always did.

It’s okay not to look like the people we see on the screen

Again, there has been some progress towards greater representation in the media. Stranger Things is a great example of teens the same age as their characters being used in TV shows. Though most of the young characters in this show look pretty perfect, they at least look like teens and not 30-year olds pretending to be going through puberty.

As a 19, almost 20-year-old still struggling with body image issues – I think I’ve realised that a lot of my issues with comparing myself to these actors and actresses were down to my own problems. I wouldn’t say that teen dramas as a whole negatively affect people and they certainly provided a lot of comfort in many other ways. I think it’s just necessary for us to acknowledge that it’s okay not to look like the people we see on the screen. Now, I find it more hilarious watching programmes like Élite and others set in high schools when the actors are and most certainly look, older than me. 

You’ll realise they aren’t as perfect as you might think

It’s not just appearance which can cause anxiety in young teens watching films and tv shows about other people their age as it’s so important for teens to be aware that the actions of their favourite characters in the films and TV shows that they are watching are clearly not representative of normal teenage life. While I spent most of my time watching Teen Wolf, 10 Things I Hate About You and John Hughes’ movies, the characters in all my favourite shows were living much more interesting lives that involved going to parties, having road trips with their friends and getting into relationship after relationship. I spent a lot of time wondering whether I was weird not to be doing anything other than what I was. I think it would be so helpful for teens to appreciate that your teen years are nothing like the episodes of The OC and One Tree Hill make out, and that’s okay.

When it comes to issues of diversity in the film and TV industry, this is a battle that is still being fought. Improvements have been made recently with more diverse casts of all types gracing our screens but there is still a long way to go. My message for my younger self and for anyone who suffers from issues related to how they look, constantly comparing themselves to the people they see on social media and across the world of film and TV is just to remember that these people aren’t real. They live in a world of make-up stylists, perfect angles and expensive wardrobes. They aren’t us and if you look a little closer, you’ll realise they aren’t as perfect as you might think. Don’t let teen dramas make you feel as though you’re doing your teen years wrong.

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