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  • Michelle Riband

A Portrait of My Teenage Bedroom

I flick on the lights of my teenage bedroom and am met with bright, organized chaos. Ever since I left for college, this room has remained a museum—a visual manifestation of who I was and the tensions I grappled with as I sought to make sense of my place in the world. Spending more time at home during COVID has enabled me to see this room (and my teenage self) with fresh eyes. Turns out, I haven’t changed that much after all.

When we first moved into this house, my friend Zoe and I painted one of my walls mint green. Classic fourteen year-olds, we turned the activity into a photo shoot, painting stripes on our cheeks and pouting for selfies with paint rollers and peace signs. We posted the twenty-four best shots on Facebook where our friends crooned, “u guys look amazin in all these pics” and “luv the green wall xoxo.”

For those of us who grew up in the age of social media, we look back at these posts from teenagehood and laugh. But are we really that different? Now on Instagram or TikTok or dating apps, we continue to project our shiniest selves into cyberspace and revel in the dopamine hit that comes from social validation. Maybe the only difference is we now have more guilty self-awareness about our addictions to technology—cue The Social Dilemma.

Similar to what Facebook created in the virtual world, my newly painted room represented a fresh canvas on which to reflect my teenage sophistication in the physical world. I upgraded to a double bed, selecting a white pleated duvet cover instead of my pink bedspread with roses. I filled my bookshelf with "mature" books, including The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby, and Twilight. Most telling, I relegated my dolls—my beloved childhood companions—from the prime real estate on top of my bed to a drawer beneath it.

The real hallmark of my teenage decor involved carefully crafted collages. Like many girls in my class, I spent my pocket money on Glamour and Teen Vogue (10 USD for the English copies), flipping through their pages and voraciously cutting out shots of models, celebrities, and luxury brands. Across three walls, I stuck these fashion icons alongside photos of my friends, a postcard from Cape Cod, a Black Eyed Peas concert ticket, a Gobstoppers package, an Abercrombie shopping bag, and my cracked red iPod Nano.

What’s funny is that I wasn’t even that into fashion. I made these collages during a time when I played football at recess and my go-to outfit consisted of grey Converse, a black knit beanie, and baggy “boyfriend” jeans. But it was never about the fashion itself.

These women represented a fantasy of effortless beauty, confidence, and femininity, while their male counterparts with chiseled jaw-lines were the Prince Charmings to match. They fed into a narrative about an aspirational version of young adulthood with whirlwind romances and lavish, cosmopolitan parties, fueled by idols like Serena Van der Woodsen in Gossip Girl. My friends and I looked at these role models and wondered how we would emerge from our teenage turbulence with their same elegance and perceived conviction.

Years later, we continue to dream of “what ifs” as we strive to optimize our time, our bodies, and our social interactions. But where is the line between self-acceptance and the endless quest for self-improvement? This over-idealized vision of self-hood seems just as delusional now as it was when I was a teenager falling asleep surrounded by airbrushed magazine cutouts.

On my IKEA desk, my teenage self explored another form of creative expression: stars, hearts, and music notes erupting across the once-white surface. These vibrant doodles frame song lyrics and quotes. Some from more high-brow sources, like Oscar Wilde and Helen Keller. Others, more cliché: “men are like mascara, they usually run at the first sight of emotion” or “life is not about how many breaths you take, it’s about the moments that take your breath away.” Reading these now makes me cringe. But I get it. Catchy mantras help simplify and make sense of life's complex questions, like “how do I have a successful relationship?” or “how do I find meaning?” I may have graduated beyond finding guidance on overly dramatic Pinterest boards, but the questions are still fundamentally the same.

In all the ways that my room subtly reveals what I thought about as a teenager, it also proudly showcases what (and who) I spent my time on. There’s the shelf filled with volleyball trophies and ribbons from track meets. And all the posters from different school plays and musicals, starting with my début as a roller-skating cow when I was nine.

The poster from West Side Story shows me as Maria, hiding my braces with a close-lipped smile and gazing lovingly into Tony’s eyes—which, it turned out, was more than just good acting. “Tony” and I walked my dog through the vineyards and made butterbeer after our Harry Potter movie marathon. He was my first love. Ten years later, I have learned more about the many forms that love can take, but also recognize that high school relationships should never be underestimated. Our early romantic encounters have a huge impact on how we perceive ourselves and how we navigate the delicate dance of dating as an adult.

The last notable item in my room is a memory box that I started when I was thirteen after having the realization that I would never truly remember what it felt like to be thirteen again. So, in an effort to preserve my fleeting teenage self, I collected notes and trinkets from ages thirteen to eighteen and promised not to open the box until I turned twenty-one. When I finally did, I re-discovered letters, journal entries, and my first real bra (an H&M classic with an outline of Mickey Mouse in pink rhinestones). On Pokémon stationary, I listed all the “firsts” that made age thirteen "the most important year of my whole life": shaving my legs, getting my period, and having my first boyfriend.

Clearly, every year is marked by its own unique milestones, but, no matter our age, we want to feel loved and to have purpose. As a teenager, I struggled to find a balance between the legacy of my childhood years and my aspirations for adulthood. My room is a 3D scrapbook of this journey, depicting, in its eclectic decor, the ways I threw my bold enthusiasm in all directions as I tried to wrestle with who I was. Today, I remain the over-analytical romantic who, as a young adult, has collected more mementos to line my shelves and filled journals with new stories of heartbreak and existential angst. I like to think that I have maintained the optimism and sentimentality of my teenage years, but am now more nuanced, seeing life less as a set of absolutes neatly encircled within a Clipart cloud and more as a series of ever-shifting questions. There is no good and bad or right and wrong, just a blur of people and moments and decisions that lead you forward.

My Dad calls me down to dinner and I snap out of my reverie, thrust suddenly back into the present of 2022. But, before I step out, I look at the painting on the wall—one that my older brother painted and gifted me on my sixteenth birthday. Titled “Farewell to the Fairground,” it depicts a teenage boy in black and white acrylic whose sunglasses reflect an amusement park, humming with activity, as he turns for a final look. The roller coaster of my teenage years may be behind me, but I still appreciate how this room takes me back for another ride.


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