The Women Online Who Inspired Me When I Was A Teen
I spent a lot of my time as a teen online. Being online was a way for me to find community through new friends, different kinds of music, and more. I developed a lot of my personality and interests based off of what I was able to expose myself to online. I feel like this is a very universal feeling for teens/young adults but day-to-day-- I didn’t feel like I had a place in my life. Offline life felt very difficult and a bit messy. Oftentimes I felt more like a bystander in my own life. But online, I was able to curate images, words, and music that I felt represented me- things that helped me understand who I was and what I enjoyed.
(here is teen kim ^)
My favorite social media platform by far was Tumblr. Facebook was cringy- all I got from Facebook was massive FOMO and insecurity issues. Twitter wasn’t super impressive to me as a teen because it’s not visual. Instagram was okay, really just growing when I was a teen (it was introduced in my sophomore year of high school!!). But then there was Tumblr, my refuge from 2010-2014/2015. Basically from 8th grade till my freshman year of college, Tumblr let me build a space for myself! It helped me gain a better understanding (and peace of mind) that there was more ~out there~ than what was in my town. I was inspired by poetry, clothing, art, beautiful places, and more, but what made Tumblr truly worthwhile for me was the people I followed on the platform.
On Tumblr, I was following women who were documenting their lives in really beautiful ways. It was a simple as that. I couldn’t have connected the dots then but in hindsight, I see that following these women allowed me to grow in my own creativity and individual career. Each of these women were creative, pretty normal (not celebs), honest about their mental health, engaged with their followers, and posted often about their lives. In my mind at the time, the only kind of bloggers that could exist were fashion or beauty bloggers- so these women were basically otherworldly to me. They felt in reach! They felt accessible! They made growing up seem less scary because they were talking about how they did it as well.
For most of the women below, I’ve had some sort of contact with them. Whether it was interviewing them for a school project, cold emailing them asking for advice, or even meeting them at a pop-up shop- the connection I felt with them was truly tangible to me as a teen and was amplified by these interactions.
Charlavail is a multidimensional creator who documents her work through photography. Her work spans painting, drawing, wood crafts, photography, paper art, and so much more! I followed her as a 13/14 year old while she was in her early 20s- one of the reasons I really loved following her was her genuine love of creating art without labels. Charlavail dabbled then, and still does now, with the art that she cared about at the time she felt was right. Right now she has an art camp and an RV she’s tricked out to be the ultimate creative haven. She’s touring across the country with friends and living her free spirited life. She also supported herself off of her art by selling sugar skull clips, illustrations, shirts, and more. Growing up following her allowed me insight into the life of a young person who was figuring out her own life in the ways she felt most right. I remember her being criticized for her style, her art, and generally attaching money to her work. I interviewed her to provide a writing sample for an internship I was applying to in high school- I didn’t get the internship but she was so completely gracious and humble and willing to help a complete stranger. It showed me early on the issues that can arise with putting yourself and your work out there, some people will ‘get it’ and be receptive of your openness and others won’t. Charlavail forever tbh.
Amanda Rae Stephens is currently the social media manager for Vans. When I started following her Amanda Rae was the social media content producer/coordinator who created content for, oversaw the production of, and basically formed Vans Girls. That’s f*cking awesome. She was in her early 20s and shaping a national brand’s creation. Amanda Rae posting about her job gave me exposure to a career I didn’t even know existed. In 2011, I was 15 and I had no idea that social media marketing was a potential career path. I didn’t know that people were paid to create photos, videos, blog posts, and other digital content to promote products. I had no context for online communities or brand voice. By posting about her job (which I’m sure felt super normal to her), I felt inspired to use my skills in video/photo/writing in a digital space. I followed Amanda Rae and became privy to career exposure that doesn’t often come to young women- especially first gen minorities. She was creative, fun, smart, and kind. I remember one year she sent out illustrated thank you cards to her followers and I still have it to this day. Because I followed her I was able to see a young woman traveling, creating art, and building her career in a digital space and now- as the digital strategy coordinator for MTV’s social impact team I feel like Amanda Rae definitely influenced my perspective on careers. I remember being 15 and telling EVERYONE I knew I wanted to do social media marketing and community building and they looked at me like I was crazy- it just wasn’t a career teens (or even some adults for that matter) understood back then. Look @ me now, thanks Amanda Rae.
Sam was a PA based photographer when I followed her- now, she’s traveling the country and creating art with her BFF Charlavail! They became friends a little after I started following Charlavail. I appreciated Sam’s photography because she has a way of capturing mundane moments in a beautiful way. She made me want to learn how to use my camera better, edit my photos better, and share my moments with others. I never felt tired of her work and how she shared it. My favorite photo era of her work was when she took a trip to Alaska with Charlavail- I was completely mesmerized! The combination of their friendship, way of creating and capturing memories, the beautiful Alaskan landscape touched me so much that I even purchased Sam’s photo diary of the trip. Sam was a huge catalyst in why I even wanted to get into visual creation. It made me strive to be organic, honest, and unapologetic. Sam showed me the beauty in capturing for your own sake and not for perfection but for practice.
Back when I was following her, Samii Ryan, was a small business owner based in a pretty rural part of PA who used social media to connect with others, sell her clothing and accessories, and build her brand. Fast forward she’s now LA based, modeling, and her style has changed a ton. I haven’t kept up with her recent work but what drew me to following her as a teen was that she created work, packaged it, and sold it. I thought that was awesome. I couldn’t wrap my head around a young woman (at the time she was like 21/22) being able distribute her work independently online AND land it in department stores across the country. I’m pretty sure I even did a project on her business model for my high school personal finance class. It was so wild to me that I could be following her on tumblr then have my mom drive me to Nordstrom where I’d be able to physically pick up a hair accessory— iconic. I really admired her for running all aspects of her business while also being a creator. I would have never thought at the same age I’d have my own business. Samii let me see that access to the internet was vessel for creativity and my way out of suburban NJ. My town and life might have felt small, but with the internet I’d have no limits.
Jac Vanek is another small business owner who created a brand by doing her own thing, being really damn good at it, and building community. Do you remember those super thick black plastic bracelets that everyone wore to warped tour? Yupp, that was all by Jac Vanek (or tbh designs stolen from her). Jac’s company really relied on the bonds of music and community that the scene fostered for kids who felt like they just didn’t fit in. Each of her bracelets had a bold message “LOVE” “FAITH” etc. One of my many said “JUST BREATHE”, and it really helped me through a lot of the anxiety I had at the time. Because of her friendships and working relationships with bands, she toured a ton. I looked up to her because like Samii Ryan, Jac also had her merch online as well as in stores like Bloomindale’s! It really resonated with me that she felt like an outsider growing up yet was able to find her way in life. At the time, I was dealing with depression, anxiety, self harm, and disordered eating and I really needed to see somebody who didn’t fit in still “make it”. She really made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I looked up to her so much that the second I saw a flyer online for an in store meetup at a local boutique, I begged my mom to bring me!! Thankfully my mom is an angel and brought me in the pouring rain to a town we’d never been to just to meet Jac. I waited in line and even in the super preppy store I felt out of place. When I met her, I’m sure it was just word vomit. I told her how much I appreciated her and loved her work and how I love that she creates and how her desire to be inspired and explore makes ME want to be inspired and explore. On and on. I’m sure it was overwhelming to be in your 20s and have a 15 year old just gush about your life- but she sat there smiling, was SO sweet, hugged me a ton, introduced me to her BFF at the time, and posed for pics with me and my mom. I still have multiple Jac Vanek shirts in my closet and my bracelets are all safely preserved.
A lot of young women reach out to me for career advice, info on art, or just generally about identity. I was thinking about online presence and growing up and transparency the other day and it made me think of these women, the women online who inspired me. In any and all interactions I had with these women, they were wonderful. Gracious, humble, kind, understanding, cool, smart, sweet. They gave advice while juggling their businesses, lives, and you got it: growing up. I wish I could thank them all individually for their impact on my life but I guess that’s what this is now.
Honestly, having young women look up to me is something I sometimes struggle with— did I sign up for this? Not formally, but I guess I did by opening up about my life online. It makes me feel a little bit of pressure sometimes to know that there’s teens following me and looking to me for some senses of security when I’m still growing up myself. These thoughts are usually the result of anxiety about other portions of my life and are quickly fleeting when I anchor down and think about how lucky I am to even have this kind of non issue. It’s amazing to me that when I was a teen I looked up to women I followed online for guidance, advice, or to feel less alone and now I’m that for others. I know that I want to be able to help young women and poc reach their potential and feel understood just as how other young women did that for me in the past.
I’m just working and building myself and being myself and others see value in that. I don’t by any means have a huge following. But in the last 2 ish years, over probably 50 young women (mostly WOC) have reached out to me online or off because of my work and identity. I answer every email, every dm, every message that I can manage. I did not think that at 23 I would work at MTV and have my own company for women and non binary filmmakers. I did not think that I would have my mental health at bay. I did not think that I would have learned, explored, or created as much as I have. I did not think that I would speak as openly about identity as I do. But this is me at 23 and I take it all as a blessing. The women above made a really big impact on my life- effects of which I’m still feeling now as I think about Amanda while at my digital strategy job and Jac and Samii as I package online orders for my company and send them out of my bedroom. They were just sharing their lives and fostered community and hope. If I can contribute to a larger conversation on minorities in the arts, women in media, first gen kids, or the destigmatization of mental health just by posting about it, connecting with young people online, and most importantly being myself- then I’m going to continue.