Claire Cullen, 17: ‘I try not to think about how I look, but I’m obsessed with it’

‘The church is so out of touch. “Don’t use contraception”: that is the stupidest thing ever to say to a group of teenagers in a country where there is no abortion’

Claire Cullen: “I discovered feminism when I was 14, but maybe social justice is what I really mean.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Claire Cullen: “I discovered feminism when I was 14, but maybe social justice is what I really mean.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

This article is part of The Irish Times Generations project. Since April 2014, people ranging in age from 12 to 102 have shared their views on Irish life, past and present, with reporter Rosita Boland. Read all those published so far at irishtimes.com/generations

Claire Cullen lives in Cleariestown, Co Wexford

I’m in fifth year. Primary school was amazing – all creativity. Secondary school is like a machine. It’s all about points. I want to do something in science or engineering, because that’s where my interest is – and where the jobs are. I think global warming will be solved by engineers and scientists and not by politicians or writers.

I’m the eldest of three sisters. My mam, Berni, is principal of a primary school, and my dad, Tony, is a landscape gardener.

I joined youth theatres when I was 12. I was a really loud, confident child – but not in a good way. I realised if I kept on like that I really wouldn’t be popular. In youth theatre you learn how to express yourself in a way that makes artistic sense, and you learn how to work in a team.

I discovered feminism when I was 14, but maybe social justice is what I really mean. “Feminism” is a bit of a banner term. A lot of people just dismiss you if you say that, so “social justice” is better. It’s about equality across the board and fairness and fair wages for people.

Women earn less, and that’s terrible. There is still a pay gap in this country, and there are hardly any women TDs.

When I think about feminism I try not to think about how I look, because it’s so hard to reconcile the two things. I am obsessed with the way I look. Even if you say you want to be different you want to be pretty. You want to be viewed as attractive, and you want people to like you. I like to dress myself nicely, so at least I feel good about what I’m wearing.

I want to look like the girls in the magazines, but I don’t have the lifestyle; you can go into H&M and buy the clothes, but you can’t buy the body size they’re selling. Not one person my age I know is happy with the way they look. Even though I know they are pretty they don’t see it themselves. It’s not just girls. The boys are obsessed with protein, and they go to the gym all the time so they can have lots of muscles.

Teenagers are not listened to. We don’t have a vote at this age, so why would adults listen to us? For instance, we are not listened to when it comes to mental-health services. Mental-health services for kids in Wexford are nonexistent, in my opinion. I have a load of friends who have problems with anxiety and depression and who have been touched by suicide.

Adults talk to us about bullying at school, and that’s their take on youth mental health. It’s like mental-health problems don’t exist until you become an adult, but we should be learning how to take care of ourselves as teenagers.

It’s important to make an effort with other people, not to be ignorant, and to try to be nice. What I’m scared of is not having a group of friends. You want to fit in. The idea of not getting into college, that’s really scary. The Leaving Cert is really scary; everyone is so scared of it.

I’m not religious. I was raised Catholic, and we went to Mass every week, but it’s not relevant to me. The church is so out of touch. “Don’t use contraception”: that is the stupidest thing ever to say to a group of teenagers in a country where there is no abortion.

I don’t look at Ireland and see a place where heterosexual and homosexual relationships are equal. It must be a lonely place to be, on the outside, looking in at a world of relationships that aren’t taboo.

I don’t think it’s fair that people are identified by their sexuality. You never hear of someone being, like, “Oh, Mary? I think she’s straight.”

Being gay is not normalised in this country at all. LGBT people are still regarded as this “other” group. It seems to me that every time an LGBT issue is raised, or a storyline on a soap is aired, or a referendum is held, it’s concessionary.

It’s shameful that our society has led gay teens to believe there’s something not right inside them. I grew up with the term “gay” as an insult. People don’t like to acknowledge their prejudices.

It’s in our nature to have these phobias, but it’s better to have that out in the open. Pretending that someone’s sexuality does not make you feel differently about them, even subconsciously, is a pointless exercise. We need to confront these thoughts head on, not hide behind them.