Let’s be honest, Yellowknife is a bit lacking in places for angry teenage girls to vent. You could aim your fury at a hoop or a net, drown it out with an instrument, hide it beneath school work or, if you’re like me, spend four years in a black box attempting to stifle it with costumes and scripts. But for the most part, young women take their anger out on themselves.
Already a turbulent transition year, at 14 my best friend moved away and I was devastated. Unsurprisingly, I was angry at being unable to preside over my own situation and subconsciously attempted to take back control by restricting food. Eating disorders are not romantic – it’s a pop-culture falsehood that having issues with food is a glamorous pastime, rather than an illness that ravages your body and relationships. Significantly lighter and trembling with fear at the sight of a cheese pizza, Sir John Franklin’s drama department became my recourse.
Theatre requires trust in order to succeed, which means that a good grade in drama is earned only if you can get along with your cast members enough to stage a decent scene. At SJF though, inclusivity was an expectation and an ingrained practice. Once they caught on to my habits, seniors began inviting me out with them for dinner break, knowing full well that I wouldn’t refuse – it was a silent, unforgettable kindness. Art helped me release some of the frustration: three years of musicals, stage plays and dance rehearsals ensued.
Despite the encouragement shown by cast-mates and directors, I was putting on a face to make it through rehearsal among my many other commitments in Grade 12. The pressure to perform was causing me to relapse into self-destructive habits. A smaller artistic undertaking seemed more manageable, which led me to take part in the Northern V-Network’s annual fundraiser, a staging of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler.
After joining the production I came to Nancy MacNeill, producer and president at the time, looking to get more involved in creating safe spaces for young women. She was the first person I’d ever met who said ‘vagina’ in a public place without lowering her voice. Nancy asked me if I wanted to be a part of a new public health project headed by her friend, PhD Candidate Candice Lys, which would travel around the NWT and use theatre to talk about sexual health with young women. I wanted to help create the support system I had in drama for other YK girls, so that issues of body image and sexuality could be talked about openly. Candice’s project provided the perfect opportunity.
Still, a part of me wrestled with my anger. I was, and am, furious.
I was angry because my friends and I had to make silent agreements to watch each others’ backs at parties, even if we knew everyone attending. Because I was terrified of running into someone at Shoppers when buying tampons, never mind condoms or, god forbid, a pregnancy test! Because we shame young northern women for being successful, for being beautiful, for not adhering to our expectations, with one simple phrase: “Who does she think she is? We live in YELLOWKNIFE.”
Does that mean we’re worth any less? Does that excuse the high rates of STIs and sexual abuse in Yellowknife? Does that invalidate young women’s anger, their passions, or their aspirations? No, it doesn’t.
Candice and Nancy saw my anger as potential, and I was given an opportunity to channel it productively through a project called Fostering Open Expression among Youth, or F.O.X.Y. In 2012 I was hired as the first Peer Leader, and traveled to Inuvik, Norman Wells and Yellowknife to assist with workshops. In contrast to conventional sex ed, which centres on the mechanics of intercourse, F.O.X.Y. focuses on practical sexual knowledge. After making arrangements to visit a school or youth group in a community, F.O.X.Y. makes the trip with Ruby, a bright red suitcase which houses everything from life-size models of genitalia to feather boas (think Mr. Dressup’s tickle trunk with an affinity for fun-fur and neon).
Costumes are used as part of the role-playing activities in which participants act out real life situations, such as being pressured into sex at a party, then explore various choices and outcomes through drama. Workshops are geared to be flexible, with adaptations for the activities to suit various levels of sexual health literacy. The girls, ranging in age from 12-18, participate in drama and other arts-based activities that build on their knowledge of sexual health and strengthen self-awareness, with an emphasis on individual choice. F.O.X.Y.’s goal is to put decision-making back into young women’s own hands by empowering them with the one thing they ultimately have control of – their own bodies.
Think about how you felt when you were a teen, and someone only a bit older took the time — and it always felt like they were making a big sacrifice – to hang out with you. Imagine if they listened and took what you had to say seriously about sex and relationships. That’s my job as a Peer Leader, to maintain a safe space for girls to open up the sexual health dialogue and express themselves, including anger. Youth are reluctant to speak up because the resources available to them are often familiar community members. It’s a lot safer to talk about taboo subjects with someone you don’t have to face the next morning, or someone who’s coming to the tail end of their own teenage experiences with sexual health and relationships.
Sophie Grogono and Jessie Shaw have done an amazing job expanding the role of Peer Leaders since joining the team last summer. F.O.X.Y. has created a safe place for youth to come to terms with their sexuality and make better decisions about it. The F.O.X.Y. Peer Leader Retreat held in July reinforced this. Eighteen young women from across the NWT received training in music, photography, traditional arts and writing with four local female artists at Blachford Lake Lodge, to become Peer Leaders.
Young women’s anger is something that is rarely addressed because it can be seen as unfeminine, yet many girls are furious. That much is evident from the participation in ‘Chance to Rant,’ an activity in which Peer Leaders were invited to voice their frustration on any subject of their choosing. Almost every girl stood up and ranted about something that made her blood boil – dishwashers and body misconceptions included – and all cheered in support.
This may be my last summer with F.O.X.Y. I love my job and I love Yellowknife, but it’s time to make room for all the movers and shakers who came out of the Peer Leader Retreat. Leadership is knowing when to give rein to new perspectives. There are 18 young women heading community projects in their hometowns, and I can tell you first hand that they are some of the most intelligent, spunkiest and bravest people I know. Great things are coming from all of them.
Sometimes being a teenager sucks and that’s just the way she goes – most times you can do something about it. F.O.X.Y. helped me change my own path and put me in touch with fantastic mentors. Now that I’m an adult (or adult ‘ish’ at least), it’s become apparent that we need more youth led initiatives to debunk the taboos of sexual health and open up a dialogue on healthy body image. Candice Lys and Nancy MacNeill have done amazing things by emphasizing that in programming.
There may not be many places for teenage girls to vent in Yellowknife, but now there’s a network of empowered women that spans the territory: we are passionate, we are informed, and we are angry.