Thursday, 31 May 2012

In Defense of Insecurity

Let me start off by saying this is kind of a response to a really well done post about insecurity in teen characters. "Kind of" as in I read this post and thought about it and decided this might be a good discussion topic although I could also be horribly wrong. Either way, I liked this post. You should read it.

Cicely makes the point that a LOT of characters in YA are insecure. They don't like themselves until they get a boyfriend and then everything's magically okay and they're desirable because they have a boyfriend. I'm not going to argue this fact, because it is true in many cases. 

However, I don't agree that we need less insecure main characters. I feel like we have a lot of very strong, confident female characters in YA. Many of them have some kind of insecurity and in many cases, they move past that during the novel. If anything, I would say we need more insecure female characters. Because you know what?

Authors are doing insecurity wrong.

I'm seventeen years old. And I can't tell you when I last felt the slightest bit of confidence about anything I've done. I can't tell you when I last looked in the mirror and liked what I saw for more than 20 minutes (as one of my walls is just two mirrored closet doors, this isn't a crazy statement. It's just that my reflection is ALWAYS right there.) I don't recall ever feeling good about myself or when I was really happy. I don't know how to take compliments other than to shake my head and try not to tell the person they're crazy.

What does all this mean? My insecurity isn't a temporary thing. It's not about one specific part of me. Maybe it started as me feeling unsure about one aspect of myself, but it's leaked into every aspect of my life. Almost everything I do, no matter how confident I should be in what I'm saying, I never am.

I don't like volunteering answers in class because on occasion, I'm wrong and I don't even want to take that chance that what I say won't be the right answer. I hate trying clothes on with a passion because every time a pair of jeans doesn't fit, I feel like a failure. Before school, I only give myself half an hour to get ready. Half of that time is spent making sure my outfit won't make me stand out or look fat and my hair's okay and my pimples are covered up. I'm afraid to make jokes because I worry people won't laugh or it'll offend someone and God forbid I offend someone because I feel like none of my friends actually like me as it is and I don't want to chase them away for good. I'd rather have friends that secretly don't like me or that I don't particularly like than not have anyone to talk to during my free time in class. And I can't even get friends, so why would a boy ever want to kiss me or date me or love me?

And not even my personal life, but my semi-professional life as a blogger? I've considered myself a book blogger for 2 and a half years, though technically it's been more like three years. But I still almost always fear posting a discussion post. What if nobody reacts? What if I got too personal? What if nobody agrees with me? What if I just sound like a lunatic because am I ever really coherent? Writing this post was easy, but posting it is a whole different issue. I won't keep going because I already wrote a whole post on some of my blogging insecurities over a year ago. If anything, I've gotten less confident since then. 

Most of these things sound pretty irrational, don't they? But this is what insecurity can look like. And how often do you see these kind of feelings in YA books where it actually is part of the plot? How many times do we see a female character talk about how insecure she is in things besides her appearance? Being insecure, at least for me, is not a choice. It's not something that will sometimes bother me. It's something that bothers me all the time. So if a character's supposed to be so insecure...why doesn't it affect her most of the time?

I know YA books have a lot going on and I know that we want to show girls that they can be strong and independent (even if the books don't always actually do that). But isn't it just as important to tell girls it's okay to be this crazy insecure? Isn't it just as important to tell them that their appearance isn't the only thing that doesn't matter?

Honestly, I don't know if my behavior is a normal thing. I have a lot of friends who are comfortable with who they are. I have some friends who are comfortable with themselves for the most part except for their appearance. And there are books out there for my friends to relate to. But me? Not so much.

There's all different kinds of insecurity and all different levels. And all of those should be represented for teen girls who are reading YA. I'm not saying that their insecurity should be a focal point in the novel or that it should be a plot. To be honest, I wouldn't want to read a book that was strictly about a girl getting over all her self doubt. But I don't think it should be something strictly talked about when the girl's looking at herself or thinking about the fact that she'll never get a boyfriend.

But still, what I want isn't that simple.

Despite all of my problems that seem like they would be super obvious, they're not. I don't walk around telling people how vulnerable I feel and asking do I sound stupid, is my hair okay and dear God don't let there be a stain on my ass again. I can fake confidence like a boss. My heart beat increases rapidly as I try to talk to someone I don't know or just someone I don't talk to often. I use laziness as my excuse not to go talk to a teacher or guidance counselor about something just because I'm afraid they won't give me the answer I want or the words won't come out right. A lot of attention makes me want to cry because what if I look like a mess or have a stain?, but public speaking has become - by necessity - something I've learned to deal with doing and to some extent, enjoy. I'm always terrified, but I'm not hiding behind my hair and refusing to speak my opinion and my thoughts in class. I don't want people to know I don't believe in myself, because what if that turns me into a target? What if nobody will like what they see? What if my parents start insisting I need therapy and drugs and God knows what else before I'm ready? No, I'd prefer to pretend everything's fine and dandy thank you much and why yes my hair does look pretty today, doesn't it?

So what am I asking for? 

I'm asking for variety. I'm asking to see more girls who actually are insecure when they claim they are. 

I'm asking for insecurity to be real, but I'm not asking for these girls to just stare awkwardly when somebody tries to talk to them (I only do that sometimes). A girl - or a guy, for that matter (even if I've only said the word girl in this post. Let's be fair, this can be true for guys too, even if they won't admit it)  - can doubt every word that comes out of her mouth without being unable to talk to an attractive person or a crush. 

And I'm asking for YA authors to make it okay for teenagers to not like some or most or all of them. Because one thing I've never heard from people I talk to about my insecurities? That it's okay for me to doubt myself a lot and dislike myself some (or a lot) of the time. Maybe once characters (and real teenagers) know it's okay, it can become a bit easier to start moving past it because we're not so caught up in worrying if we're crazy for feeling how we do.


P.S. Part 1: Yes, teenage boys and adults and maybe even infants can also be insecure. But I'm a teenage girl and most YA books are from the perspective of teenage girls, so that's the root I went with. But this can probably apply to any age group or gender.
Part 2: My insecurities listed above are actually an improvement on what they used to be, largely thanks to the YA Community. Having found a group of people like me and having people believe in me has helped quite a bit. I'm now at a point where it's much less self loathing and more self doubt, which is healthier in my opinion. So yeah, you can be even more insecure than I am. Probably.

Lanna's response to Julie's post (purely because it got too long to post in the comments):
I think insecurity is definitely normal. People tend not to see themselves as others see them, and we spend so much time with ourselves (stating the obvious, I know), that every little flaw is magnified even when other people either don't see it or barely notice it or it just doesn't matter to them.

When we were younger, my best friend was crazy insecure - she is really, really pretty and she acted so confident (to the point where she got a reputation as being slutty before she had even so much as kissed a guy)... but she refused to leave the house without make-up on or her hair done (first time we met one of our guy friends, she literally hid her face and refused to let him see her until she put make-up on, she wouldn't join in water fights in summer because the make-up would come off). And she wore way, way, way more make-up than she needed - and it wasn't vanity, it was insecurity.

My cousin is really pretty too and she would spend literally about half an hour in a dressing room with one pair of jeans trying to decide whether to buy them - again, it wasn't vanity, it was insecurity. She looked great in the jeans, but she looked in the mirror and saw them as making her look fat. She burned her nose once with straighteners and even after the burn faded to the point where it wasn't even noticible, she still looked in the mirror and saw it and would feel the need to cover that part of her skin with concealer every time she left the house.

A photographer/person on tumblr that I think is awesome, she's genuinely one of the most beautiful people I've ever seen - but she doesn't like her smile because she thinks it makes her face look chubby.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that insecurity is normal and everyone has insecurities, even people who come across as confident, even people who are so beautiful that you can't imagine them looking in the mirror and seeing something different. I know I'm definitely insecure about so much.

And this got really long, but to get back on topic a bit: I think the reason insecurities aren't often shown to their full extent in novels is because, well... it's annoying to read. It's frustrating seeing someone be down on themselves in real life, and it's even worse reading it in a novel because you're stuck inside their head - you just want to shake the character and tell them to stop and to see themselves as the people who love them do.

Insecurities are realistic, but it's one realistic aspect that I don't think I like to read in novels. When Bella Swan or America (from The Selection), for example, call themselves plain or not pretty - it's just frustrating to read about, it often doesn't come across as genuine insecurity because insecurity is often irrational or seems irrational in other people.

Like you (Julie), thinking your friends don't genuinely like you - I think you're brilliant, so I find that hard to believe (even if I do believe that you genuinely think that). Or when you see someone you think is gorgeous and they're self-deprecating on their looks, it's hard to accept that they actually look in the mirror and don't like what they see.

I don't think books could teach people that insecurities are okay, or help people not be so insecure because insecurity is one of those things that each person has to find a way to come to terms with themselves and reading about it doesn't quite sink in in a way that can be applied to them on a personal level (and in novels, when insecurities seem to fade when someone gets a boyfriend, it's because in real life, sometimes having someone love you and want to be with you or be your friend does help overcome insecurities or dim them a's like, "This person is amazing, I love and trust them. I can't be so bad if they love me too, right?").

I don't think I'd want books to teach people that it's okay to not like themselves, or parts of themselves, because while that is normal... it shouldn't be okay. People should look at themselves and see the good things first, instead of the bad, they should see the good as outweighing the bad and realise that the rest of the world probably doesn't see them in the negative ways they see themselves. Normal shouldn't make it okay. You feeling the way you do, it's normal (although, maybe a bit more extreme than some peoples insecurity)... but it isn't okay that you feel that way because you're amazing and I wish you'd see yourself that way too, even just a little bit.



  1. This is probably the most honest blog post I have ever read on a book blog, and I admire you for putting this all out here! It is not easy admitting our own faults and insecurities, and doing it publicly is scary. You make a great point for how insecure girls in YA never really seem that insecure, as they always snap out of it when necessary, and it really would be refreshing to see these character become more real..:)

  2. Thank you for this post. I'm no longer a teen, but yes, you reminded me of all the insecurity I had back then, and why I am always annoyed by YA protagonists who claim to be insecure about their appearance/social acceptance and then we find out that actually they're just clueless about their stunning beauty/the hottest boy in school has crushed on her for the longest time. I do want to see more of the insecurity you talk about, such as being afraid to answer or even ask questions in class (oh man, it's been a while since I've thought of that!), hating your reflection, etc.

    As an aspiring author myself, I wonder if there's any way to bring up these types of insecurities in speculative fiction? I know they're a good fit for YA contemporaries, but it's true that I do prefer the more badass heroines in speculative fiction. Still, even the badass ones don't need to be devoid entirely of these common insecurities, right?

    1. Definitely not! I actually kept thinking after this went up that I should've included the fact that being insecure doesn't mean your weak. Personally, I've never considered myself weak. Emotional, over dramatic, and slightly insane, but never weak. People can definitely be strong and insecure at the same time.

  3. Let me first commend you for posting this. It's not easy to put yourself out there and say how you truly feel, so I think it's really brave and awesome of you to be honest.

    Insecurity is a scary thing because I don't think it ever fully goes away. I'm 25 and I still feel some of the things you describe... sometimes I'm scared of asking things at work when it might make me look dumb or if I might get a 'no' from my supervisor. It's not all the time, but occasionally. I'll always be a quiet person who's more comfortable at home than socializing with people I don't know. Small talk and crowds are not my friends. And I'm not happy with myself all the time. But I also know that I have a lot of things going for me, and I can see all the good qualities I have. It doesn't mean I always feel great, but I can say that I'm happy with myself for the most part. I hope things will continue to get better for you in that regard.

    I agree that books should do a better job at portraying these emotions. They're complex and layered and not just about appearances. They aren't magically fixed. I think YA doesn't necessarily feature all these things because insecurity is so complex, and different for every person. I also think books try and feature people who are stronger and/or are becoming stronger characters, because that's what authors want teens to emulate... maybe to show teens that it's okay to be who they are, and that they are worthwhile. That being insecure is reality, but that it's much healthier to try and see your own value.

    Anyway, lots to think about in that regard... very interesting and thoughtful post. =)

    1. Thanks. Even though it's posted, I still keep thinking about this post and things I could add. It's possible I'd end up doing a follow-up post someday at this rate.

      Insecurity is definitely a hard thing to pinpoint and show without having the character say "God, I'm so insecure!" over and over because that's not realistic either. It's difficult to show, but I definitely think it's possible. It doesn't have to be spelled out, just little things the character does can help teens know that they aren't alone, in my opinion.

  4. Thank you for writing the side of my argument that I couldn't. Seriously, this really means a lot to me, because reading this, you and I are a lot alike. I'm insecure in the ways you are, and I feel like maybe I was just frustrated that insecurity never really felt like a serious thing in some YA books, and that it can't just go away at the snap of a finger. You really encompassed the whole argument way better than I did, and I'm honestly a little bit in shock that someone actually wrote, like, a rebuttal to something I've written. It's kind of awesome. Thank you (again) :)

    1. Thank you for writing a post that inspired me! I read yours and knew I wanted to respond in some form, but I wasn't quite sure how until I started writing. I had to start putting my thoughts down before they came out right. Someday if I do a follow up, I'll have to bring up relationships more since it's such a good point.

    2. Thanks :) I just wrote a follow up post because after reading this I couldn't stop thinking the issue and the parts that I'd left out in my first post! I think I've got it all out of my system now though. If you do write a follow up I'd love to read it because this was just really good.

  5. This is going to sound super weird, but my mother's six year old chihuahua tries to nurse on a blanket when she feels insecure. So basically, anyone can be insecure, and this post rocks.

  6. This post almost made me cry. For a number of reasons. For you and for me, and for the fact that insecurities are so ingrained in us that sometimes we don't even realize that it's out perception - and not every one else's. I have a scar across my face from when I was little, and I was taunted- a LOT- when I was younger. Scarface became my name more than my own name did. And even now- people make REALLY stupid comments to me about it. And it got to the point at a very young age that I didn't think I was pretty because in my head- I COULDN'T BE pretty- because I had a scar- and that's all anyone ever freaking saw. It was all I could see. And nothing else mattered. My eyes didn't matter- my hair didn't matter- my smile didn't matter because every day- there was the scar and the comments- and I never realized that anyone ever thought differently. Even my friends. When they told me I was pretty- I thought they were being nice. It wasn't until a few years ago (at age 21-22ish) that I said something about my scar- and one of my best friends blinked at me and said "what scar?" and I nearly cried. Because in my mind, the scar has dominated my life.

    What i'm trying to say is that insecurities are definitely rampant- and it doesn't go away when you leave your teens. You just overcome it- so I don't feel like insecurities should play a bigger role in YA books. And really, the way they go away is because if someone that cares about you doesn't care about your insecurity- it gets easier to take. Not that it goes away- it just becomes less focused.

    I <3 you for writing this post. <3 thank you. <3

  7. Thank you for being so brave as to share this part of yourself, and to further the great conversation about heroines (and heroes) in YA lit. It's a great post.

    We totally understand where you're coming from. Believe us, we each have major insecurities, some that have been around since we were girls, some that have faded over time, some that have grown, and some that are new to adulthood. Your portrayal of what insecurity can look like is apt, to say the least.

    But as Lanna points out, it doesn't make for the most compelling story. At least not in *most* cases. We're sure there are a few authors out there who can pull it off, and we desperately want them to write those books!

    Otherwise, though, we agree with what Lanna said about what/how books should "teach" people to better appreciate themselves. And she said it so well, too!



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