Thrive on Campus//

Feminism Saved My Teenage Mental Health

And it could save yours too.

Photographed by Maddy Schier
Photographed by Maddy Schier

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Puberty was hard for me.

I’d imagine the same was and is still the case for most teens navigating their changing minds and bodies. But for me, puberty was partnered with a particularly difficult bout of depression that characterized a good portion of my adolescent growth.

Mental health issues among adolescents can often be shrugged off by adults as typical teenage angst. However, the unfortunate reality is that depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are very real for many teens and can make maneuvering their complicated new landscape an even greater challenge.

When I was in middle school I was distraught by the way my body was changing at an aggressive rate. Acne, boobs, hips and the like suddenly brought forth a wave of attention from my peers that I wasn’t prepared for at age 14.

Worst of all, I compared myself to the glossy, airbrushed women that covered the magazines I devoured and the done-up women starring in the problematic reality television shows I watched religiously. I looked nothing like them.

This was all paired with the media’s message that in order to be valued, girls needed to lock in the attention of boys. So when — for whatever reason — the boys that I “liked” didn’t “like” me back, my mind spiraled into a crippling hole of depression.

I started lashing out at my family and friends, sleeping constantly, and engaging in other increasingly dangerous behaviors. Almost all of my thoughts revolved around how I could “improve” what I thought to be my undoubtedly low level of attractiveness.

I felt so lost.

Until one day, a teacher introduced me to feminism.

Her curriculum was unique; she was adamant about teaching her students media literacy. Sometimes she would center class discussion around clips from Mean Girls or Dead Poets Society. She wanted us to be stronger than peer pressure, to forget about being “cool,” and to just be ourselves — a frightening concept for most teenagers.

What stuck with me most about her class were her lessons on beauty. Among other things, we watched commercials from the Dove Real Beauty Campaign that highlighted the way the media falsely indoctrinates girls with what it means to be a woman.

I was hooked.

Finally a solution to the years of unwavering sadness over my perceived inadequacy. I took to writing my final paper on society’s conception of beauty myths and watching documentaries like Miss Representation over and over again.

My transformation into a fist-waving feminist wasn’t overnight. Even as I learned more about sexism and misogyny it was still difficult not to let cultural influences impact my mentality. In fact, it’s still difficult today.

But being a feminist makes taking in all of the contradictory messages that the media sends women a whole lot easier. It’s like every insecurity that I have runs through a feminist filter, and I am able to talk myself through the reasons why I’m feeling unconfident.

My only regret is that I didn’t learn about feminism sooner. I think it’s so important that we teach girls from a young age that they are great the way they are, and that their worth isn’t a product of how many pubescent boys give them attention.

Feminism single-handedly saved my mental health — and it can save the mental health of others too. So please, let’s teach young girls about feminism.

Given everything our society puts them through, we owe it to them.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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