The awkward teenage phase is dead: Why braces, acne, and glasses are no longer hallmarks of growing pains

The awkward teenage phase is dead: Why braces, acne, and glasses are no longer hallmarks of growing pains

All grown up

Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @kaiagerber

The kids are alright. At least, that's what I'm getting from my limited understanding of the minors, juveniles, and tweens of today. Millie Bobby Brown, 16, is an actress, film producer, and CEO of her very own beauty line, Florence by Mills. Billie Eilish, 18, swept up five awards at the Grammys. Sophia Lillis, 18, landed the lead role of Netflix's latest much-anticipated teen angst drama, I Am Not Okay With This, which already has all the makings (and hype) of a modern cult classic.

There's no denying that Gen-Z is successful, accomplished, and driven bunch — so much so that, sometimes, I forget they're not 25-year-olds with life experience. Or maybe it has more to do with how none of them look like I did at 16.

Let me take you back to 2011, the time of my teenaged years. At 17, Justin Bieber was still rocking more bangs than he did stubble; Hailee Steinfeld, 15, showed up to the Oscars in a princess pink frock and Cinderella hair to match; while One Direction member, Niall Horan, 18, sported crooked gnashers and braces. I held a healthy admiration for their talent, career opportunities, and bank accounts — but I also remained well-aware that they were my peers.

Despite being regulars on the red carpet and having professional glam squads on hand to doll them up, the youngins of 2011 had bad haircuts, acne, and made questionable makeup choices aka the typical trappings of teenagedom. Celebrities, they're just like us! Well, except for the fact that they had to deal with 7.53 billion eyes on them as they underwent puberty, but I digress.

The teenagers of today, on the other hand, present a glossier exterior that suggests they've never even heard of the agonies of adolescence. And it's not just the celebrities, mind. A quick scroll through Instagram and TikTok reveals numerous gleaming, high-shine individuals with nary a stray hair out of place. It's the filters, you cry. It's those superior iPhone cameras. You're not entirely wrong — technology has allowed for certain manipulations. But it doesn't change the fact that young adults are now striving to create this illusion of someone brimming with glamour and sophistication, crafting a standard to adhere to that is defined by immaculate skin, a poreless visage, and a "bikini-ready" body (ugh).

We'll be remiss not to point out that this largely has to do with the competitive space social media cultivates. Plus, it doesn't help that many corporations are capitalising on this either, providing centennials with the necessary tools (makeup, skincare, photo editing apps) to create and maintain this image. And that, in itself, makes all the difference.

Think about it: beauty standards were omnipresent back in the day, too, but it was hardly as pervasive as it is today thanks to the limitations put upon us. There was no Sephora to get your contour palettes and Kylie Lip Kits. You stole something from your mum's stash, or scooped up something from the nearest Sasa and called it a day. YouTube makeup tutorials were non-existent, so you relied on pictures in magazines and copied it to the best of your ability. Perms and rebonding procedures involved clumsy, unrefined techniques that left you with a mop worst off than before, so you'd opt to stick it out with your unruly mane.

It's a predicament that youths don't find themselves in anymore. And perhaps it's not entirely a bad thing. Teenage angst is no fun, and a large part of it — for me, at least — had to do with feelings of frustration and helplessness about not appearing a certain way. On the flip side, younger folk are now faced with immense pressure to tweak, change, and morph themselves into what is considered to be socially acceptable.

In the end, no one wins. We are all still subject to unrealistic beauty standards, though differing in extent. Still, if you crazy kids ever feel an acute sense of loss and FOMO over not having an awkward phase, here are the lessons I gleaned through mine:

#1. You will feel grateful for having an "uncool" phase
Here's the thing about being utterly cringe-worthy during your formative years: it puts a lot of your current neuroses into perspective. On days when I can't stop obsessing over my misshapen nose or my tendency to pronounce char siu as char shiu (sorry, Janice), I think: but am I at the stage where I'm dealing with acne, badly cut bangs, and my various other embarrassing social ineptitudes? No. And that puts me in a way better place than I was at 15. Comparing who I was then and now allows me to chart my growth and feel grateful for how far I've come.

The awkward teenage phase is dead: Why braces, acne, and glasses are no longer hallmarks of growing pains (фото 1)

#2. You'll stop sweating the small stuff when it comes to your appearance
Not to be like, "all that humiliation and schoolyard bullying gave me a thicker skin", but it did help in a sense where I learned that other's opinions didn't define me. It also helped me realise that no one is actually paying that close attention to you, provided they are a) in love with you; b) troubled individuals actively looking for reasons to tear you down; or c) your mother attempting to suss out if you're hiding cigarettes/junk foods/an undesirable S.O.

The awkward teenage phase is dead: Why braces, acne, and glasses are no longer hallmarks of growing pains (фото 2)

#3. You'll probably miss it... at some point in time
Don't get me wrong, it was a period teeming with anxiety, torment, and insecurities, but it was one that felt immensely freeing. I didn't have a professional image to upkeep, so I could go about my day in wonky glasses and bad breath. I'd show up to school looking like roadkill and no one was going to document it because phones weren't allowed. I didn't have bad makeup skills; I was using bad makeup because that's all you could get from Watsons in 2009. In short: I could live through my cumbrous, confusing teenage years in peace without the constant scrutiny of social media. And that's something I wouldn't trade for the world.

The awkward teenage phase is dead: Why braces, acne, and glasses are no longer hallmarks of growing pains (фото 3)