I have a pact with a school friend: if anything happens to me, she is to drive to my house and burn it to the ground. We have been friends for over 25 years. We know so many embarrassing things about each other and many of our shared memories are from our teenage years. Regrettably, some of these are documented in letters, which we wrote to each other in class. We feel torn as we want to preserve that part of ourselves and keep the memories, but the thought of anyone else reading them fills us with dread. Hence, the pact.
Until a couple of years ago, I had kept a diary from when I was 15 years old. It was awful, the letter ‘z’ featured heavily (love you loadz etc). Despite the pact, I just couldn’t bear the thought of someone else reading it and so I systematically destroyed it. I tore the pages into small pieces and put them into different bins around Manchester on my lunch break. I did this over several days to further minimise the risk of someone piecing together my teenage life. This behaviour was very reminiscent of me as a teenager and the process was quite therapeutic. For many years I had felt the burden of owning this diary and the risk of someone discovering ‘teenage Holly’.
My teenage years were filled with emotional turmoil, rifts and peer pressure. Alongside the worry and angst, however, they were also filled with adventures and self-expression. I also had a sanctuary where I could escape and express myself: My bedroom.
My teenage bedroom and how I felt about it at different times mirrored my feelings at that time. I remember wanting to fit in and follow trends. I also remember being embarrassed by everything. When my parents drove me to school, I would make them turn the radio off when I opened the car door. They listened to classical music and I found this hugely embarrassing. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just listen to the charts like everyone else.
I also remember starting secondary school and finding out that my first pair of shoes were the same as my teacher’s. My friend pointed it out to me and I denied it. At that time, the higher the shoes were, the better. My sensible BHS shoes with a very slight heel were suddenly visible and ugly and I just wanted to cry. Pencil cases, school bags and even which carrier bag you used to carry something in were all areas for which you were judged harshly. Everything you owned had to look a certain way, or be a certain brand.
My teenage bedroom followed the trend of wanting to fit in and wanting everything to be fashionable, or at least socially acceptable. The goal wasn’t to be remarkable in any way, quite the opposite. If my friends made a negative comment about something I owned, I would instantly blame my parents. I did this even if it was something that I loved and had personally chosen. Even though I loved my bedroom and it was my personal space, I sometimes felt self conscious when others entered it.
I have outlined some of the memories evoked when I think about my teenage bedroom:
My room must have smelled like a mixture of Charlie Red, So…? and Impulse. Music was important and another area of scrutiny. This is still an area I am self conscious about. When friends came over, I usually turned the radio on as I couldn’t be held accountable for what songs came on. I listened to my 90’s/00’s pop on a navy radio cassette player from Argos, later to be replaced by a cd player. A much cooler friend of mine, who liked Blur and Oasis, once scrawled profanities on my Spice Girls poster. If I could have gotten away with it, I would have blamed my parents for that poster too.
I had lots of books in my teenage bedroom. Although I am sure that some of my book choices would have followed popular trends, this was an area I was actually more comfortable with. I have always been a reader and this was another form of escapism and discovery during my teenage years. I remember shoving everything into my wardrobe to give the illusion my room was tidy. I also remember my mum buying me pretty (but sensible) underwear. In retaliation, I bought bright pink thongs with my own money and left them on the floor. There were some things which I did want to be visible.
My bedroom was designed at a time when the TV show ‘Changing Rooms’ was fashionable, so obviously the walls were lime green. Very fashionable for about a year, then hugely unfashionable forever. I really wanted a telephone in my bedroom when I was a teenager, as I was hugely embarrassed when my parents answered the phone and spoke to my friends. I remember that this request was denied, as was having the internet in my bedroom. I only wanted this for MSN messenger, which I still credit for how quickly I can type.
I remember not being allowed to have the door closed when I had boys over, even if they were just friends. Girls were not a problem, we were allowed to close the door and share all of the secrets. Although you were of course subject to their judgment of your possessions, as were they when you stayed over at theirs.
Teenage bedrooms are like artworks. An exhibition of self. They show the attitudes of the era, how you viewed yourself at that time and what inspired you. They were usually a safe space, but even they could be subject to judgement and scrutiny.
‘Teenage Bedroom’ is an interactive installation created by Ellie Ragdale and Jennifer Holt Wright incorporating the memories, possessions and stories about the teenage bedrooms of roughly 100 members of the Girl Gang community who kindly collaborated with us. The installation exploring nostalgia, angst, intense feelings and the magical, identity forming space of a teenage bedroom is part of our three week exhibition, which takes part from 14. March - 5. April 2020 in The Lowry's main gallery.
'Everything I Know, I Felt' is an exhibition featuring 22 artist who explore the diverse emotional experiences of womxn, celebrating big feelings in all their messy, multifaceted glory. We are so excited about our biggest and most ambitious project so far and we can't wait to see you all there. Keep an eye out for our blog posts that will accompany the exhibition and do come along, it's gonna be amazing!