"You couldn’t pay me £1 million to go back to it," I told my adolescent daughter last night during a discussion about the dramas of her group of friends, which, frankly, are worthy of Game of Thrones.
"It" – early adolescence – was ever thus, one might argue, as I recall nicking my dad’s razors and blunting them. Repeatedly. Over YEARS, while shamelessly denying all allegations to suggest such a thing, as he wiped blood from his shirt collar.
"It" is the intense pressure to be accepted, to fit in, to jostle for one’s place in the world while hormones rage and you feel furious with the world and on the verge of tears without having the first clue as to why you’re feeling that way.
But "it" is, technically (literally, as my daughter would say), everywhere now. It’s on three different screens running simultaneously. It’s in the 3am text from a friend saying they just can’t cope. It’s in the numerous websites that advise you how to have perfect skin, a perfect bum, and – should you be looking in the right places – to harm yourself without anyone noticing or to pretend you’re eating each day when you’re actually, well, not.
We talk a lot in our house. We laugh a lot, too. The prospect of growing up with one boob bigger than the other, the constant negotiations as to when a sexual relationship might be permitted (I’ve settled on around 30 years old for now), the loud and dramatic shouts that we're SO EMBARRASSING as we pile 50 brands of sanitary towels into the trolley, just to wind her up. The swearbox runneth over. We have an eclectic taste in TV, from reality singing programmes to a documentary about penguins that had us all sobbing into our popcorn, to dating shows, Disney films and a certain Australian spoof documentary set in a school ("I said DUCKING!" is fairly common parlance in this house).
We’ve always been open and honest with our children. I wish we hadn’t had to tell it, but they know what suicide is. They know what divorce is, premature death, miscarriage and learned quite early what a virgin is (though I kicked myself after carefully working through an explanation when I realised they were actually asking about the airline). Their dad is a journalist, so they know about uprisings and terrorism and the course he went on to learn how to avoid kidnap.
It was a fairly significant moment when, flicking through channels last Saturday, our daughter sparked up when she spotted Love Island. It was a "no" from me. A flat-out, no-negotiations and, I should also add, pretty unusual NO. She’s a good girl, but she kicked back. She’s the ONLY girl in her class not allowed to watch it. I’m utterly unreasonable, mean and unfair.
Then, I’d like to think, there was the moment when she realised that having parents who actually care about the things that shape her young mind makes her quite fortunate. Or maybe, when she skulked upstairs, she was just packing her bags and plotting her escape…
Why a "no" for this when we’re usually pretty liberal? I should note here that my husband was rather more relaxed on the subject, but on this occasion, I have stood my ground.
Excuse me if my references are vague. I haven’t seen it – and don’t plan to. But I do know that the images of generic, falsified beauty make my toes curl and my stomach churn. And that was before I learned that plastic surgery advertisements had also been sanctioned in the breaks, and about the suicide of a former participant. I don’t want my daughter to think that she has to be a plastic mannequin to be loved and accepted. It’s as simple as that, really.
She can continue to play with temporary hair dye and nail varnish at the weekends (though I refuse to believe that every Year 7 girl wears foundation and takes issue with school dress codes that even permit young people to wear make-up). Having plastered everything from toothpaste to baby powder to pure alcohol (and once, a mixture of the three) onto suppurating spots, I can’t really argue with her quest for a face mask which will clear her skin immediately.
Perhaps, when she’s old enough to have a fully developed sense of irony, she can make the choice to watch it. More likely, she’s found a way of watching it on her iPad upstairs.
But at least she knows that there are red lines in this house, and they are lines borne of love and a ranting and raging, however small, against the toxic scourge of the meaningless quest for "perfection".
At around her age, I was asked to write an RE essay about a perfect world. I wrote that there could be no such thing, because "perfect" is boring. I got 2/10, but I stand by this.
Here’s to multishaped, multicoloured, multifaceted adolescence. Some 21 years in the classroom and 11 as a parent have taught me their greatest needs are for love…and lines.
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching