Coming of Age (with Color)

It’s the driving force of young adult literature. It’s something not just writers but filmmakers, artists, and even people outside of creative fields never tire delving into. Young kids always can’t wait for it, adults always reminisce on it, and teenagers get so tangled up in it they forget it’s not going to last forever. Coming of age is that romantic in-between. When someone’s finally growing into their body and mind. It’s scary, exhausting, and fun. My own coming of age story isn’t as interesting as the books I devoured during those years. Holden Caulfield was the cynic I thought I wanted to become. Mia Thermopolis was just living my ultimate dream. Charlie from Perks of Being a Wallflower made the group of friends I – to this very day – can only dream of having. And any Judy Blume heroine made growing up feel like an event and not a necessary evil. My coming of age could never be like any of theirs for obvious reasons. The biggest being it’s fiction, of course. But once you peel back that layer there’s this whole color thing.

I can pick out key elements in my developmental stages that overlap with themes like: Holden’s cynicism, Charlie’s loneliness, and Mia’s insecurities. But, there’s always a thread these stories couldn’t touch. A thread plenty of POC (people of color) know well, like being the only person that looks like them in the room. Navigating the dating world when you’re unsure if the person you like goes for someone of your complexion. Avoiding sounding or looking like a stereotype. It’s awkward enough with body hair and hormones. Censoring yourself because of how much pigmentation’s in your skin brings on an extra load of problems.

The Perils of Growing Up Flat-Chested (dir. Yulin Kuang, 2013)

I didn’t think about coming of age as a POC until I graduated high school. Not long after graduation I stumbled upon Yulin Kuang’s The Perils of Growing Up Flat-Chested and a light bulb turned on. I was like, “Hey, wait, I haven’t seen this before.” Here was a woman of color trying to figure out her body and the changes – or lack thereof – it was going through. It’s rare to find this on-screen or on the page. There seems to be a straight line from childhood to adulthood for POC. All the fumbling in between exists for us too. And the absence of fumbling in literature and film communicates that we don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t, struggle with growing pains. So when we do – and trust me, it’s inevitable – we feel like maybe we’re doing something wrong. It’s that old stereotype that we don’t struggle the same way a white person does.

POC coming of age stories are a vital part of proper representation. I came of age not only worrying about my skin breaking out but how dark it got in the summer. I came of age straightening my hair until it started falling out. I came of age training myself to speak quietly and laugh lower because heaven forbid I fit the stereotype. Seeing a girl like me struggle through teen years might have not stopped me from editing myself. But at least I would have had proof that I wasn’t the only one struggling. And with that proof I would have had permission to just be in the romantic in-between instead of trying to hurry through it.

You only come of age once. Sure, most of the time it sucks, but it’s something special. And my hope for the next generation is that they get more tales from people who resemble them. Because POC can be cynics, lonely freshmen or insecure about not growing into a certain cup size. It’s about time we’re shown as unsure and afraid because there’s no straight line to adulthood. Every one of us stumbling to it awkwardly.