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The time when girls become teenagers entails a period of rapid changes – both hormonal and societal. ...
2022-04-21 09:00:00

A Time of Fragility
The Brightness of Adolescent Girlhood

A still from the film “Little Women”, 1949. Source: Everett Collection/East News
A Time of Fragility
A Time of Fragility

What is childhood for a teenager and what is womanhood for a nine-year-old girl? Between one and the other side of growing up, there stretches a time of experiences that are difficult to reconcile. Rebellion against the world and a great need of tenderness go hand in hand here.

Read in 8 minutes

When growing up, girls become beings from another reality overnight, the inhabitants of a distant planet. They start talking differently, moving and laughing differently. To the world looking at them, they remain mysterious beings, especially for boys, who mature later. I imagine that they perceive the girls as beautiful and at the same time strange beings, covered with some thick dust that no one can comprehend. “We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all,” says one of the protagonists of Jeffrey Eugenides’s book The Virgin Suicides (1993). This is a boy from the neighbourhood who, along with his friends, follows the lives of the five mysterious Lisbon sisters every day.

The girls in the novel – counting in sequence from the oldest to the youngest: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese – are between 13 and 17 years old. One day, they show up with their parents in a quiet neighbourhood of Detroit. They occupy a house among beautiful, sprawling elms, which they will later defend against the politics of the city, which devastates green spaces. “[...] the two parents leached of color, like photographic negatives, and then the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh.” It is not known whether this portrait of the girls and their entire unusual family is the most accurate image of any family with adolescent daughters, or whether it is just the collective hallucination of the boys, the only narrators of this story, filled with hormones to the tips of their fingers.

A still from the film “The Virgin Suicides”, 1999. Source: Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
A still from the film “The Virgin Suicides”, 1999. Source: Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

But the Lisbon sisters unexpectedly disappear from the neighbourhood, just as quickly as they suddenly appeared in the lives of the inhabitants of the stuffy suburb (and of the few boys). The unexplained tragedy that will affect the girls becomes a vivid symbol of adolescence, communicating something significant. A constant balancing on the line between life and death, along with a particular charm spread around, makes up the world of female puberty. In any case, the boys will at some point discover for themselves that “the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”

The energy of spring

A few years after the publication of the book, in 1999, the story of the five sisters was filmed by Sofia Coppola, who directed the camera’s eye mostly at the 14-year-old Lux. Why did she choose her out of the five sisters? We do not learn much about Lux from either the novel or the film. But my intuition tells me that her short name alone should be enough to gain this knowledge. Lux means ‘light’ in Latin, and the flaxen-haired, young Kirsten Dunst playing the girl is its perfect incarnation. The glow of a 14-year-old puts her at the centre of the world. This is conspicuous in the reflective white blouses she wears to school, as well as the revealing swimsuits that expose her body to UV radiation and the looks of the boys in the neighbourhood. This is also expressed by her bold attitude towards her peers and the energy lurking inside her, which ‘skins alive’ her infatuated colleagues. At the very end, there is brightness. The brightness that will disappear in a few years – as in the case of the grey housewife from the suburbs, Lux’s mother – fills the teenager and explodes on the screen from time to time. It turns her into a reservoir of gigantic energy, an atomic bomb hidden in the body of a maturing girl.

Similarly, my daughter’s energy is accumulating. Within a nine-year-old girl, both a predator and a small child are hidden at the same time, tugging at a parent’s sleeve, mostly thirsty for tenderness. She sneaks behind my back, pinches and kisses my cheek, as if she were going to bite or leave an eternal mark on my skin. It is a being that constantly hugs, touches others, whispers to her surroundings. Her energy, difficult to control, is reminiscent of the spring always lurking at the end of winter – puff and the world is about to explode all over again.

The calling out of women

It was this characteristic vitality, this still childish ‘glow’, that Humbert Humbert, the main character of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita, was still looking for in his Lo. Young Marcel, the hero of the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, also delighted in “the smile and brightness of young girls”, chasing his red-haired, somewhat cheeky Gilberta Swann on the Champs-Elysées in spring. Anielka, the title character of the novel by Bolesław Prus, “was made alive like a spark by her age”. Finally, this unmistakable glow in adolescent girls was captured by Sally Mann in her photographs. It was the photos of 12-year-olds somewhere in the rich landscape of the provinces of the American South that opened the way to a great career for the photographer. On the other hand, controversies and hateful comments about her works – among others, discussions about the presented nudity of children, about the erotic aura centred around them, selling the innocence of adolescent girls – have haunted the famous artist to this day.

A still from the film “Lolita”, 1962. Source: United Archives/East News
A still from the film “Lolita”, 1962. Source: United Archives/East News

In Mann’s black-and-white portraits in the album At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, the eponymous 12-year-olds look like children dressed as women or women dressed as children. In the famous photo Candy Cigarette from the album Immediate Family, a girl in a white dress, in the pose of an adult woman, holds in her fingers something that pretends to be a cigarette – the titular candy cigarette (I also ‘smoked’ them with my friends from the neighbourhood). In another, the same girl with a friend (perhaps a sister?) are standing next to a stroller, there is a doll inside, and one of them is again holding a similar cigarette. The photo is titled The New Mothers. Their faces (pouting lips, squinted eyes) and bodies (characteristically tilted hips) are ‘set’ just like in adult women. They play their own mothers. Maybe they are copying their rebellion against life and repressed anger? At the same time, they still have this intrinsic glow that is difficult to define. Something that will leave the girls when they finally transform into the women they pose as now. Mann took the pictures at the right time. “The children in these photographs are surprisingly sensual and often distant beings, magical guardians of some obscure and terrifying secrets, children, shown here as surprisingly sensual and often distant beings, the magical keepers of some obscure and vaguely frightening secrets,” wrote the American critic Karen Lipson in Newsday about Mann’s exhibition in 1987.

A still from the film “Little Women”, 1949. Source: Everett Collection/East News
A still from the film “Little Women”, 1949. Source: Everett Collection/East News

In the photographs by the American artist, the white blouses, dresses, and shorts worn by the children – which the mothers still iron and wash for them – are supposed to confirm the ongoing childhood, to shield innocence. They form a kind of protective layer for childish bodies and souls. Yet simultaneously, the embroidered dresses, tulle skirts, and backyard shorts in Mann’s photos are the first sign of the changes that occur during adolescence. What used to be loose becomes too small, tight. Clothes are the first – the photographer points out – to reveal the process that has already begun. They reveal to the eyes of others – adults who are looking – the sexuality of an adolescent being. The body, previously hidden in frills and childhood costumes (aren’t children’s clothes always a bit like costumes?) is now revealed under the stretched fabric. It’s the same energy that turns a girl into a woman at the right moment. With great intuition, Marek Bieńczyk described this in the essay “Po czym poznać nimfetkę” [How to recognize a nymphette]. Looking at the paintings of Balthus (who, like Sally Mann, was also criticized) depicting girls in puberty, he wrote: “[...] everything is a sign – the expression of the face, and the gesture of the hands, and the shape of the legs and their position – that it is already here and just waiting to be called out.”

“Thérèse Dreaming”, Balthus, 1938. At the time, the model was around 13 years old. Source: East News
“Thérèse Dreaming”, Balthus, 1938. At the time, the model was around 13 years old. Source: East News

Susan Sontag looks at a tree

Everything can become a ritual. Morning coffee always at the same time, a blouse that is put on for every doctor’s appointment, a word, gesture or a simple kiss when saying goodbye to a child before they leave for school. It’s a repetitive scenario of days, weeks, a whole lifetime. It is also baptism and the first tattoo. “When I get back from school on my bike, every day I stand to look at the sky through the leaves of a big tree,” writes 14-year-old Susan Sontag in her diary, which will later come out as a book, along with the notes of the adult woman writer, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963.

Rituals establish order, help us to go through something new, protect the mind and body from potential stress (for me, this is how the set ‘blouse and doctor’ works). But they also give a sense of security, constancy. Did the teenage Sontag already know this, or was she guided by some inner instinct of the adolescent girl? A tree is a good example. It grows, it becomes larger, although all the time it ‘is’ in the same place. The future author of the famous essays On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others conveys an important thought at that moment, above all to herself: the world is safe for a 14-year-old girl riding a bike from school. And I, despite the great changes, growing and maturing, can still rely on myself.

The ritualistic nature of teenage behaviour, the need to see constancy, are something that the turbulent puberty period requires. The same motifs appear in paintings, literature, art. Leaving childhood, a new energy in the body requires sacrifice, rites close to those of religion. Because in this still underage life, the fascination with something new, much darker than childhood games, is awakened.

Tough and fragile

“Little girls don’t kill people. They’re just silly little girls. But almost no one understands a little girl. We begin hard as marbles,” Joan, a character in Lisa Taddeo’s novel Animal, thinks one evening when she learns that her married lover’s daughter probably wants to kill her. Joan is a ‘spoiled’ (as she will describe herself) 30-year-old woman, very attractive and intelligent. So she looks at teenagers from the perspective of what she knows about women’s lives – and she knows a lot. Comparing adolescent girls to hard marbles, she articulates aloud a metaphor that sits somewhere deep within us, mothers and fathers, as we look at these angry people every day. In literature, it is not for nothing that long, sensual names such as Lolita (from Nabokov’s novel) or Josephine (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women) turn into short, somewhat masculine and truculent names: Lo, Joe. They will now determine their relationship with the world – the girls are to be simultaneously tough and fragile.

I look at my daughter who stands on the threshold of this period. She still builds toy houses with her friend, but she is almost the girl from the Sally Mann photo mentioned earlier. In a few years, she may take a selfie with a friend with a real – not candy – cigarette. A time will begin that will hurt both her and us as her closest family. But also for a moment we will have the opportunity to see the incredible brightness of adolescent girls. Something that we adults have been longing for since we left childhood behind. To see adolescence in this way is a great grace for me, when ‘it is already here, just waiting to be called out.’


Translated from the Polish by Agata Masłowska

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