For my “little sister,” nineteen things I wish I knew when I was sixteen

This winter someone very close to me turned sixteen years old. She’s like my little sister. Our families have been bonded since our mothers became friends and roommates in their twenties. Now I’m nearly twenty, and it’s an age I’ve been thinking a lot about. Soon I’ll nod goodbye to teenagehood and shake hands with a new number, a new state of mind, chapter, and claim. I’ve always felt that you grow into an age—it takes time for the weight of that extra year to settle into your bones and for your mind to fill it out. Sixteen is significant. Sixteen is magnificent and hopeful and beautifully naïve and awkward. Twenty is also significant, and it marks a time to start passing along some knowledge. I couldn’t be with my “little sister” on her birthday, so I sent along a letter with a few things I wish I knew when I was sixteen. This was the product.

Here are nineteen things I wish I knew when I was sixteen:

1. I wish I knew that my mind was powerful and my thoughts are worthy of being heard
2. I wish I knew that being insecure is a massive waste of time
3. I wish I knew that spending time outside is so necessary for my mental health
4. I wish I knew high school social classes literally mean nothing
5. I wish I knew the pretty popular girls were feeling the same insecurities I felt—they all hated the way their thighs touched, the way their bangs made their forehead greasy, the way that one tooth stuck out
6. I wish I knew that boy liked me
7. I wish I knew I that talking to that boy was all it took
8. I wish I knew to speak up in class more because I had important things to say
9. I wish I knew to spend more time reading and less time scrutinizing the mirror
10. I wish I knew that going outside of my comfort zone gives me the biggest adrenaline rush
11. I wish I knew how to drive
12. I wish I knew that even on my loneliest nights, when I think that no one will ever crush on me the way I crush on that one guy, that somewhere out there, someone is writing about me or Facebook stalking me or thinking about me before they fall asleep at night
13. I wish I knew that understanding feminism is really important
14. I wish I knew that I have to let people in sometimes and that asking for advice when you’re having a rough time is a good way to do that—also that being vulnerable is actually a pretty damn strong thing to do
15. I wish I knew that being stressed out is really counterproductive
16. I wish I knew that doing things that scare you gets easier every time you do something that scares you
17. I wish I knew to not compare myself to everyone
18. I wish I knew to do what feels right for me
19. I wish I knew that sixteen is an amazing, magical age and that there’s so much to look forward to so stop dwelling on the past and start building who you want to be because life is really fun and time goes by really quickly

There are a few things that didn’t make it onto the list, however. So from my nearly twenty-year-old woman perspective, I want to add a few extra things that I’ve learned.

You should know that you’ll be distracted in class by the pronouns that are used. You’ll be frustrated when you only learn about the old white men, and only read the literature and essays and laws of old white men. You’ll know that it’s wrong you’re not represented. You’ll know that men are more likely to raise their hand and then get called on in class, so shoot your hand up frequently and speak clearly. You’ll pick up on all the micro aggressions dropped on the daily and you’ll start to understand all those underlying, fermenting feelings of self-doubt that have eaten away at your confidence for years. You’ll know that you live in a world that oppresses women. You’ll learn how you’ve been made to hate the way your stomach looks or the way your hair curls. You’ll understand why those comments about finding a nice doctor husband cut so deep. And then you’ll learn the words that will slice through these systems and break down all this bullshit. There’s a lot that you’ll learn, and it will hurt sometimes and leave you bruised, but you’re also going to learn to turn these experiences into power. And it’s going to be difficult, but you’re strong. Lift that chin and own it. Being a young woman is a very hard thing, but know that it’s also a very beautiful thing.

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