Life is strange, and life is scary. But when you've survived adolescence, what's left to fear?
When I was 12, I was afraid of my boobs. They appeared out of nowhere over the space of a summer; painful, strange and inconvenient. They introduced a new self-consciousness to my interactions, born out of the pointed stares and whispers from the boys in my class.
I wasn’t the first of my friends to need a bra, but having breasts was enough of a novelty at the time to attract unwelcome attention. Slowly, however, the rest of my female friends caught up. We became coy in the changing rooms, turning away as we pulled on newly-necessary sports bras. We continued to dress for our old figures, squeezing into favourite t-shirts, ignoring the way the fabric strained against our chests. We felt sophisticated and ashamed, fascinated and reluctant – but also united. Our collective nervousness at this physical change bonded us together. We stood up for each other when boys teased us, lent each other clothes when we outgrew ours, encouraged each other to make it through mixed swimming classes. When, one by one, our periods started and we realised that breasts were just the beginning of a difficult journey towards womanhood, our shared experience helped us to overcome the fear of being different.
When I was 16, I was afraid that I would never lose my virginity. A couple of close friends had lost theirs at 14 or 15 and we’d discussed it behind textbooks in class, me listening eagerly as they whispered unfamiliar details. I was awed but not jealous. They were the exception to the rule of inexperience that governed my social circle. Then I turned 16 and suddenly having sex became a ‘thing’. One by one, my friends fell like dominoes. I, on the other hand, remained a virgin. I had never really wanted a boyfriend; instead, my attention was focused on my female friendships, from which I was feeling increasingly excluded. With every friend who regaled me with tales of their first time, I felt more inadequate and afraid of what I was missing, like a younger sibling desperate to sit at the grown-ups’ table. Ultimately, of course, my feelings weren’t really about losing my virginity. They were rooted in the perennial fear of being left behind, a fear that has risen its head throughout my life in a range of unattractive guises and which always requires a hefty boost of courage to overcome.
Now I’m in my mid-twenties, my list of fears reads like a jumble of contradictions. I’m afraid of accidentally getting pregnant but also worried that I’ll never conceive. I laugh at Donald Trump’s ridiculous tweets while privately panicking about what will happen if he gets into power. I stubbornly refuse to stop walking home alone at night but I do it with my keys held tightly between my knuckles, terrified of every movement in my peripheral vision. I’m afraid I’ll be caught in a terrorist attack and then I’m ashamed of my privilege compared to so many others and feel guilty that I’m not doing enough to help.
But, crucially, I’m also aware of what no longer frightens me.
I may be afraid of using the wool setting on my washing machine in case I accidentally shrink my jumpers, but I’m not afraid to admit when I’ve messed up. I’ve never got over my fear of blood or small spaces, but I’m not afraid to celebrate small victories or to admit my shortcomings. With every year that goes by, I get less afraid of rejection, of failure, of being different, of asking for help. And, most significantly I’m learning not to be afraid of fear.
Instead of pretending fear doesn’t exist, I’m choosing to confront it. Rather than allowing myself to wallow in isolation, I’m choosing to share my concerns. I’ve gradually come to realise that fear can be useful; just acknowledging it can transform fear from a debilitating lump in your stomach to an invaluable tool, flagging up potential obstacles and gently pushing you to find a way to overcome them. It’s a long, difficult and painful process, one that I fail at several times a day.
But when you’ve survived going from an A-cup to a DD in a matter of weeks, fear doesn’t quite seem so scary.
Read more about Marie Claire’s #BREAKFREE campaign.