“When I was your age” are five words that every teenager dreads. Even when they know that the adult speaking to them has a point, they often feel a defensiveness that prevents them from fully engaging. But there are ways for adults to get through to young people, and offering words of wisdom via spoken-word poetry—rather than a lecture or tedious anecdote—is a valuable method.
On Sunday, Button Poetry—an organization “committed to developing a coherent and effective system of production, distribution, promotion and fundraising for performance poetry“—posted a video to YouTube of poet Melissa Newman-Evans reciting “9 Things I Would Like to Tell to Every Teenage Girl.” Filmed at last summer’s National Poetry Slam, where Newman-Evans represented the Denver Mercury Slam team, the poem offers compassion, motivation, and advice to teenage girls—advice that they truly need to hear, offered by someone who has been in their shoes.
Newman-Evans’s advice ranges from fostering body positivity (“The best hairstyle is the one that helps you get out of bed in the morning”) to the importance of intersectional feminist solidarity (“You need to hold up your sisters… Everyone is your sister”). She does not discriminate; she directs her words toward girls who wear high heels, shop at thrift stores, are attracted to other girls, are mean to other girls, and more.
Ultimately, though, her message is simple: “The world is trying to kill you,” she opens, and the only solution is for women to support one another through it all. “If you do not hold each other up, no one else will,” she adds.
The importance of Newman-Evans’s words cannot be understated. The NYC Girls Project estimates that, by the time they reach middle school, 40 to 70 percent of girls feel dissatisfied with at least two aspects of their body. These struggles with image can have long-lasting affects, including eating disorders, substance abuse, the pressure to engage in sexual activity prematurely, and the loss of self-confidence—which is frequently not rebuilt until adulthood.
It is critical, then, for adults who have recovered from their own teenage struggles to offer advice, support, and love to the young women trying to survive high school. With “9 Things,” Newman-Evans does exactly this, and the positive response that her performance has received is indicative of its need. Since Button Poetry uploaded the video two days ago, it has garnered more than 22,000 views.
As a poet with nearly 10 years of experience performing at events ranging from open mics to the prestigious National Poetry Slam, Newman-Evans is accustomed to hearing feedback on her work. But even she was taken aback by the immediate response to the video.
“I didn’t even know that this poem had posted until a young woman Facebook messaged me to tell me that she found it, and it moved her,” Newman-Evans told the Daily Dot via email. “Hearing from someone who was moved enough to find me and message me is a completely new and humbling experience. Reading the comments is always supposed to be a mistake, but the comments have also been incredible and supportive and humbling.”
This is not the first time that the Internet has responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to Newman-Evans’s musings on body image and growing up as a woman. Her satirical “Advice From Cosmo” has been viewed on YouTube 100,000 times-plus since Button Poetry uploaded it last year. The poem makes light of the often extreme and ridiculous advice offered by women’s magazines, while also drawing serious attention to the pressures that women put on themselves to be viewed as “perfect.”
Newman-Evans told the Daily Dot that she never predicted that both “Advice From Cosmo” and “9 Things” would speak to so many people in the way that they have—but she couldn’t be more pleased with the responses. “The first draft of both of these poems came out in about the space of 20 minutes, and I assumed they were both just something I dashed off and would read once in an open mic,” she explained. “But they both seemed to resonate, so I worked with them both more, and Button Poetry found them engaging enough to post, and here we are, talking about art.”
And the positive reactions aren’t exclusively coming from women. Though she had feared that “9 Things” would “alienate men,” she was pleased to hear from her male teammates and coach that the poem reminded them of the young women in their lives.
Perhaps what speaks to so many people is the personal connection that Newman-Evans infuses in her work. “I find myself talking to my younger self—things I wish I had known, things I wish I had felt confident enough to say or was aware enough to do,” she continued, citing body politics and conventional femininity as topics that have informed her work as much as they have informed her life. The feelings and questions she describes are not unusual, and that universality and ability to connect with others is what drives her creativity.
“If this poem can reach one woman who needs to hear it, teenage or no, or if it can inspire someone to support the young women in their life better, then the work I’ve put into it is all worth it,” she added.