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All The Things We Wish Our Younger Selves Knew

This article is sponsored by Quercus Books

Dear 16-year-old Mia,

I’m writing this letter from Liverpool. Weekend trips visiting Auntie Julie paid off, other weekends studying for your A-Levels didn’t, and this is now the place you call home. It makes a change from the dull and almost lifeless scenes of the North East, but don’t worry, you’ll never fully shed that place. As you’re about to tackle two years of sixth-form, by now you should be able to understand that fitting in does not equate to friendship, but I know that you don’t. 

Firstly, let's throw out the idea that friendship is determined by how long you’ve known each other, how many things you have in common or what music you listen to. Of course, these factors might help, but they’re not imperative. Once you do this you’ll begin to look at friendship from a completely different perspective and relieve yourself from the subconscious pressure you’ve been battling with.

By being so focused on conforming to every room you entered, you stopped paying attention to who you are and what you want.

So as a result of that, let’s stop with the ‘indie’ phase to feel included in your new friendship group. You might just start to realise that the friends that you feel so different from, are the ones you’re going to stick with for the next few years. Plus let’s be honest, you’re only lying to yourself when you say you enjoy listening to Arctic Monkeys – I can promise you that. 

You’re going to fight with your sister, I guess at sixteen you’re no stranger to that? But trust me, in a few years you’ll appreciate her not only as a friend but also as a role model. Not in the sense of dying your hair every week or shaving off your eyebrows to re-draw them on in bright pink (although heads up, in 2021 this will become trendy), but by having the confidence to be yourself in a small town of people who are unaware of individuality. 

In retrospect, your friendship and identity struggles make sense. That desire to be liked and accepted by everyone probably stems from the fact that you look so different from the sea of white faces in the northern town you call home – and that’s OK, but use this to your advantage. 

By being so focused on conforming to every room you entered, you stopped paying attention to who you are and what you want. So, at 23, I’m telling the past me, future me, and present me to start working on a new friendship: this time with myself.

A young girl poses in front of a mirror taking a selfie.
Mia during her 'indie' phase.

Dear 18-year-old Nicole,

Hey babe,

You’re about to embark on this next chapter in your life called ‘freedom’.

Away from the watchful eyes of your parents, the uni halls are about to be full of young men and women ready to let loose. In this new environment, no one is policing your shenanigans and paired with the fact you’re living amongst other young women in the prime of your life, your judgment is going to be skewed. But when it comes to sex, although you think you know it all, I promise you things are a lot more complicated than Coach Carr’s ‘You must wear a condom or you will get pregnant and die!’ speech.

But you will come across a platter of beautiful men in all shapes and sizes, so don’t forget the words of Coach Carr! I know what it’s like to lose your senses after two tequila shots, half a bottle of Echo Falls and a questionable liquor that you bought for a flat party that’s been sitting there unclaimed for months, so just make sure that while you’re having fun, you’re not forgetting the basics of safe sex.

Young black woman with long braids sticks her tongue out at the camera.
Nicole at 18

Sex isn’t something that was spoken about in our household growing up and arguably not in many other black households either. The knowledge that you have on it has come from awkward assemblies, anecdotes and the internet. Movies may show the passionate, one night stands but they conveniently leave out the not so glamorous side of things. 

It’s not that I’m telling you to not sow your oats – by all means have your fun, your views on the physical act of sex don’t change much as you get older, and, spoiler alert, it’s still your second favourite thing to do. It’s just that before you go and have your sexercise don’t be afraid to ask the questions that matter like, “Have you been checked?” and more importantly introspectively “Do I want to have sex right now?”

When it comes to university and sex the knowledge is there in small pockets, but there’s definitely topics that are still taboo, from STDs, to body counts – nothing a good game of ‘Never Have I Ever’ won’t reveal. But it’s important you have these conversations with friends or a trusted health professional because casual sex has real consequences, and trust me clinics aren’t that fun when you aren’t frequenting them for the free condoms!

Dear 18-year-old Tobi,

I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but you will get to a point where you look in the mirror and like what you see, or at the very least be comfortable with what you see, and not want to jump into someone else’s skin. 

No, I’m not gassing you. Just because you don’t look like the girls in R&B and Hip Hop music videos that get whisked off their feet, or just because you don’t look like Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long or Halle Berry, doesn’t mean that you won’t find someone who loves your darker skin, or the way your nose spreads when you laugh hard or your full lips that you scrunch up when you are over something or someone.

These women are beautiful, absolutely head-turners, but there will come a day, where you find a little bit more confidence in your looks, because there is this revolution coming, via our phones, where we are able to find celebratory images and feel a sense of empowerment from online community in corners of the internet. 

I know at 18, most teenagers are struggling with how they look, but this sense of insecurity that you feel because of your complexion is a false narrative. In your own way you will play a very microscopic role in trying to dismantle it and, in turn, help black women who do and don’t look like you feel a sense of confidence in their blackness. 

Beyond patiently waiting to feel this confidence in your complexion, one thing you can do to be your best self is to let go of him and this relationship. He doesn’t love you, and deep down you don’t love him. You love the idea of him, the idea of being committed to someone; you are trying to fill a gap that can’t be filled, and certainly not by him. 

He is not the love you deserve and don’t hang on because you think no one else will love you because of how you look. You will find someone who will love you in a way that brings you clarity, euphoria and warmth, not this ‘love’ that brings nothing but confusion, mundaneness and coldness. 

I promise you that in due course, not only will you adore your skin, but you will have a love that is once in a lifetime, filled with hope, ecstasy and just the right amount of friction to keep things interesting...

Dear 22-year-old Jeni,

Let’s run down the check list quickly: you went to uni and graduated, you’re engaged and a few months away from your wedding – and no babies!

You did everything the way you were supposed to, so well done, you should be proud of yourself – because others certainly are! And whether you realise it or not, this is the audience that you’ve been secretly performing for.

If your spectators are not proud of/admire you, then they’re probably jealous and plotting on your downfall. This is what you’ve told yourself because you haven’t forgotten those who doubted, whispered rumours and were sure that you would “flop” in one way or the other. Well, I’ve got two things to tell you: first, you watch way too much reality TV. I promise you, people are not watching you like a scripted scene from Love & Hip Hop. There are no convenient run-ins, coordinated reconciliations or – most crucially for you – opportunities for you to explain yourself to the camera.

Stop believing that if you perform virtue, goodness and piety to the best of your ability, you will get everything you “deserve”.

Second, you are heavily invested in respectability politics, and baby, that stock is going dowwwwn! You did everything the way you were supposed to, but in a couple of years it’s not going to matter. Shit’s going to hit the fan (you occasionally swear now, lol) and it will feel like everything that could go wrong, will.

And, before you start trying to strategise you way out of this, there’s nothing you do because it won’t be your fault!

I’m not going to give you specifics (and I know that’s going to kill you) and I’m not gonna tell you what to do either (now you’re thinking, ‘What’s the point of this bloody letter then?’) but what I am going to say is, examine why you do the things you do, because your imaginary audience is not a good enough reason!

Stop trying to prove others wrong while simultaneously doing everything right. Stop believing that if you perform virtue, goodness and piety to the best of your ability, you will get everything you “deserve”. That’s just not how life works and “respectability” is a scam that you really should divest from, expeditiously.

The journey you are about to embark on will drag you through valleys, send you whizzing over mountains and you will feel like you’re chained to the bottom of the ocean at times. But it will also expand the breadth of your empathy, set your life in a wonderful, unexpected direction and introduce you to who you really are. You’re a good kid, just a bit judgemental, OK? So please be kind to yourself as you’re growing.

It’ll all be worth it, I promise you.

Young woman poses in a short dress.
Jeni at 22

Dear 26-year-old Isha,

I know you are very frustrated. You’ve switched industries, tried to work in different parts of the city – even thought that working part time would bring you some ease. But it is this summer that you will be given the language to explain what you have been experiencing (heads up: ‘microaggressions’ and ‘workplace bullying’). Don’t worry, one of your fave broadsheet papers will also publish a long read over the summer that will show you that you haven’t been alone in le struggle of graduating post-2008 recession.

I am here to say, it’s not you babe. I know it’s hard to hear right now, when everyone else is on ‘The Up’. You feel incompetent, confused and short-changed; stuck, because you don’t want to be labelled as ‘ungrateful’ if you complain about being stifled in the area of work. Right now, you may think you are not entitled to look for something that will challenge you, as you are applying for a new job four months and ten days into your current role, but it’s not you, it really is not you.

Young black woman stands outside. Behind her is a high rise glass building, and a busy London street.
Isha at 26

You will find a space where you can thrive, are paid well and, who would’ve thought, you will actually smile when it’s a Monday morning! You will get to a place where you don’t have to worry about leaving many parts of you behind when you speak to your colleagues. You will get to a place where you don’t have to justify your very existence whilst making an Earl Grey before a meeting.

The conversations with acquaintances about your skill set and how much of an asset you would be if only you found the right space to work within are a few years off and comes while the world is put on pause. But your ability to transfer skills and try something new will serve you well in the world of work that is to come. The unpaid voluntary work that you did at 21 will come full circle, and you wouldn’t have to even apply for the role. Working in the comfort of your room, cackling with podcasters in the background is around the corner. Paid – of course – but most importantly you’ll be respected and rebuild your confidence.

Well done for taking your time and walking to the beat of your own drum. I am proud of you.

Sista, Sister by Candice Braithwaite is a collection of honest, insightful and heartfelt essays about all the things she wished she knew as a black girl growing up in London. The book covers topics such as dating, money, colourism, friendship and death, and is available now.