Deep in the isolation of our covid winter, I had another generational debate with my 15-year-old daughter.
“Mom, you don’t understand how much pressure there is right now,” she told me.
I’d been trying to empathize by sharing my own high school struggles: my obsession with the lithe models in Seventeen magazine, the queen bees in the popular clique and the cool boys whose appraisal determined every girl’s worth. Growing up in the 1980s, I was a closeted queer girl who cycled through private episodes of depression, self-loathing and self-harm while perfecting my straight-A exterior.
But at least I didn’t have to stare at my own face on Zoom school for hours every day. Or watch gorgeous images of influencers scroll by on a constant feed, spliced with the latest skin care routine and 30-day workout challenge.
Today’s teens have higher levels of anxiety than any generation before them, and by mid-adolescence, teen girls are twice as likely to develop mood disorders as boys. I started to wrestle with depression in the seventh grade and am raising two daughters, 13 and 15, who both cope with mood disorders. Since my kids hit puberty, I’ve seen firsthand how girls face a digital world that is hyper-focused on their faces and bodies. They are coming of age in a selfie culture that, according to Peggy Orenstein, urges them to see themselves as objects to be liked — or not.
There is a specific breed of shame that is young and female. It originates in the body, in the blood and musk of it, in the risk of violence that permeates a girl’s awareness, her sense that she exists to be both desired and degraded. One in 4 girls have been sexually assaulted before they turn 18, an epidemic of harm that is worse for Black and Brown girls and LGBTQ youth. I was raped in a college dorm at 18, a violation I believed for decades was both “not that bad” and my own fault.
Shame dwells in secrecy — in the closet, in the lonely walls of a teenage bedroom. But when I think about my own shame and silence, and my hopes for Generation Z, what lifts me up is poetry.
Amanda Gorman’s brilliant performance at the inauguration has sparked our collective imagination. Her celebration that we are living in a time “where a skinny Black girl / descended from slaves and raised by a single mother / can dream of becoming president / only to find herself reciting for one” lets all girls believe in the power of their words. Gorman’s success confirms that poetry has outgrown its reputation as a dry, difficult literary niche. Instead, it’s become a dynamic, living art.
After the 2016 election, poetry gained a larger readership than ever, with an estimated 28 million readers in 2017. The genre is a welcome antidote to the scrutiny of digital culture. It is not self-help or self-improvement, but the opposite. It feeds our hunger for connection, affirms the value of our inner life and imagines a different world through language.
Writing poetry helped me survive my adolescence. I only wish I could have read the young poets today, like Fariha Róisín, who writes about queer love, trauma and self-acceptance. “i am holy / in my unholiness, so / wonderfully messy, / that i can’t help but begin / to win myself over,” she discovers in her poem “self-portraiture.”
And poetry is empowering young people on Instagram and YouTube. From Dominique Christina’s “The Period Poem,” a fierce ode to menstruation that went viral in 2014, to Blythe Baird’s searing critique of anorexic culture, “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny,” its speakers reveal the pain and beauty of our most personal experiences, capture how it feels to live in a body defined by gender, race, sexuality, class, ability and other forms of “difference.”
“I was born without lifelines / so wrote them myself,” says genderqueer poet, spoken word star and LGBTQ activist Andrea Gibson. Their work explores the intersection of language and gender, love and politics, offering readers a message of hope. I turn to their honesty when I’m exhausted by the seduction of social media.
The democratization of poetry on the Internet is a startling phenomenon. No longer do poets need a pricey MFA or the approval of the literary establishment to put their work into the world. With over a million #instapoetry tags, today’s poets are reaching an audience that W.H. Auden or Walt Whitman never dreamed of.
Baer’s latest project is to turn her trolls’ hateful comments into erasure poetry, a subversive feminist reclaiming of the narrative. By blacking out everything but chosen words, she can transform a body-shaming response to a swimsuit pic into an original poem in its own right — a digital example of Ezra Pound’s “Make it New.”
Because when you shine a light on shame, it lessens, scuttles away into a darker corner. Write a poem and share it with even one gentle reader, and that connection can affirm your worth. The poems I’ve written about sexual violence, grief and trauma have been a powerful method of healing. I’m still working on one about my own queerness.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that parents should give their depressed daughters a Mary Oliver poem instead of finding a good therapist. But why not both? Right now, girls need truth-telling poems, vulnerable poems, poems of wonder and possibility. In “What to Say to a Friend Who Wants to Give Up,” poet and community builder JP Howard writes: “Say I love you, even when you can’t love yourself.”
I have been the speaker of that poem, praying my daughter will hold on through depression. And I have been the subject of the poem, paralyzed by despair, wanting to give up.
Reading Howard’s lines let me know I wasn’t broken. Words crafted out of loneliness from one human to another are a kind of solace, a balm for the hurt of the world.
Diana Whitney is a poet and the editor of “You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves.”