There are no capital letters in Solange’s Teen Vogue letter to her teenage self, no “Dear Solange.” It reads more like a song or a poem than a letter, starting out with a four-sentence bang (“there will be fear. a lot of it. there will be triumph. a lot of it.”) and moving lyrically from one cluster of thoughts to the next.
She breaks down her various teenage phases, from dance-obsessed to football player’s girlfriend; admits to being bullied and being called names like “crazy” and “ugly;” calls words her first love; recounts stupid, life-threatening hijinks; chastises herself for rolling her eyes at her mother; and acknowledges that she suffered from bouts of self-doubt and isolation: “you shut down. you go into your room, lock the door, put on music, and you do not move for 8 hours straight. it will feel like the heaviest and bleakest darkness you can possibly feel.” All typical teenage stuff — the highest highs and the lowest lows and the heaps of feelings and experiences that only appear commonplace in hindsight, but at the time felt like a reservoir of uncomfortable change and newness that you and you alone were charged with swimming through.
But then she takes the letter deeper, past the surface of quintessential teenagehood, straight to the core of what flipped her still-malleable selfhood on its axis and changed everything. She writes, “seventeen will be the hardest year of your life. it will grow you up almost immediately. you will lose your best friend whom you love so much to gun violence in a single moment, and give birth to a new one within a year.” It’s the kind of heartbreak most full-grown adults couldn’t stomach, washing up against the presence of a brand-new infant.
“you will be terrified, and it’s ok that you don’t know what the future holds,” Solange writes. “some people will count you out because of the decision you’ve made to bring another life into the world so young, but you made the decision out of love and will live with the decision in love.”
Imagine being counted out at 17, only to subsequently become a world-famous singer/songwriter with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. It takes the idea of a happy ending to a whole new level.
The idea of writing a letter to your teenage self — a past self — is an interesting one, because it’s not like what you say can ever alter what’s already happened. You were what you were then and you are what you are now because of that. If I could go back in time and give my teenage self actionable advice, I would tell her that moisturizing would actually help her oily skin, that a huge bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats cereal won’t numb sadness, that sharing someone else’s secret without permission will feel delicious in the moment but terrible after, that hooking up with someone who doesn’t see her the way she wants to be seen or who makes her feel worse about herself than better is always a bad idea, that she will never regret being nice and that a C+ in chemistry will not destroy her chances of getting into college.
But then again, would I? I’m happy (for now) with where I ended up, so why would I want to go back in time and change the path that I followed?
This question reminds me of something Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
Even though what Solange writes in 2017 can’t change what happened in 2004, the concept of writing a letter to your teenage self, or any past self, is compelling in the context of reacquainting yourself with the people you used to be — staying on “nodding terms” with the various iterations of your identity and letting your past mistakes, triumphs, fears, embarrassments and delights inform the person you are becoming.
So how about you? What would you write to your hormone-addled, acne-speckled, precious, tender teenage self?
Photos by Ryan McGinley via Teen Vogue.