Friday, December 26, 2014


Habibi: friend or darling
Drawing by Stephanie Smelyansky, logos pictured from left to right are Gucci and Armani Exchange
Nukes. Burqas. Terrorists. Blatant sexism.

That’s how the typical image of the Middle East is painted on Western media. Under such conditions, you would bet that it’s impossible to grow up as a normal teen, no? I mean, when you’re surrounded by violence, poverty, and oppression, you’re bound to grow up just like everyone else, broken and bitter at the world.

Haha. No.

Believe it or not, growing up under Sharia law doesn’t remove your childhood or humanity. Not to even mention that Islamic law isn’t the ruling code of law in many Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. The Middle East is just as culturally diverse as any other region of the world, with religious and cultural practices ranging from state to state. And while some countries are more restrictive than others, that doesn’t stop the youth from thriving.

Take for example the Islamic Republic of Iran. For much of its history, Iran was a modern, Westernized country. Then, in 1979, the country was rocked by a revolution against the American-supported Shah. The religious factions took control of the government at the end of the revolution, imposing Islamic law on the nation and violently purging it of anything deemed as being Western. Men were no longer allowed to touch women who weren’t there wives, sisters or mothers, and women were required to wear the Chador in public. Liquor was banned, Western television renounced, and universities closed. To the West, the Islamic revolution was an abomination.

Fast forward thirty-five years, and we’ve got The Rich Kids of Tehran, and Instagram page depicting the decadent, Western, nay I say normal life of Iranian (or Persian) teens. These teens are pictured wearing bikinis at pool parties, driving sports cars, and celebrating their lives. That’s not to say their lives are as easy as our’s are. One post reported that the page would briefly go offline regarding an incident with the police. In Iran, arrests and enforcement of Islamic law is random and strict, and the fun has to occur undercover. But where there’s teens, there’ll be fun times, regardless of the circumstances. Afterall, no one wants to waste their youth.

On the Mediterranean Sea, the younguns are having just as much fun in Lebanon. Lebanon adheres to civil law based on the French system, but religious law, respective of each religious community as Lebanon recognizes seventeen different religions, dictates personal matters such as marriage and divorce. The government has been accused of censorship and undue violence against citizens. Additionally, the uber Islamic conservative Hezbollah party, an organization that is recognized by the US as terrorist, holds seats in Lebanon’s government, often codifying oppressive and reactionary ideals. But that doesn’t stop Beirut from partying on.

Beirut is the rise of a new scene in alt rock and EDM music. DJs from all over the Middle East travel to Beirut to show off their skills to crowds of raging teens. Many of the prominent dance clubs run a lot like 1920s speak easies, relying on secret passwords and changing locations. Websites like Lebanese Underground help organize and run these ragers. The Beirut music scene has attracted teens and twenty somethings from the West, even drawing the illustrious Nylon magazine in for a spin.

Why does it matter what teens are doing halfway around the world? Because it’s important to delineate the terrorists, dictators, and zealots we see in the media from the people that live under their rule. Our parents’ generation has made a lot of talk about peace in the Middle East but very little action. If we truly want to achieve world peace, our generation, the youth of today, will have to start it. And we can’t make peace if we view the people we’re doing it with under a turban-and-bomb clad stereotype that neglects their humanity.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Emblems of Solidarity

Illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky. Image of a Rolling Stones tee.
I wore my Phoenix “Bankrupt!” album t-shirt on the second day of junior year after getting to touch Thomas Mars’ butt during his stage dive at Lollapalooza. I thought I radiated cool, I was the girl that had lost her moshpit virginity. That came crashing down when one of my friend’s innocently complimented me, saying, “I like the Georgia peaches on your shirt!” Clearly, she was a part of the alt-rock plebeians.
I love band tees. I buy one whenever I go to a particularly striking concert. I relish the ratty Rolling Stones tees at the bottom of a bin at Goodwill, or the Beatles tee my uncle gifted me. I love band tees because they are an expression of my artistic and musical tastes (and proof of my more active social life outside of school). It’s my proclamation to the world that this is what I think is cool, and I’m effing awesome.

Virtually all teens listen to music. Between Spotify, Youtube, Soundcloud, and Pandora, streaming music is cheap, if not free, and simple. Even the punks are in tune with Taylor Swift and the classical music buffs jam to Queen B. Both the stoner and the type A can enjoy the same music festival, but what’s even cooler is that they can enjoy it together. Music plays on a commonality between all kids and is an instant connector between us all, no matter how different we may be.

The band tee embodies the connection music gives all kids because it’s an emblem of your past experiences, your tastes, your street cred. I wore my Foster the People t-shirt to school after seeing them live and as I walked through the halls, people I vaguely knew would stop me and ask me about the concert, or they would ask me if I was in the front row (sadly I wasn’t). Other people gave me silent nods of approval as I passed by. Wearing the Foster tee let me into an extensive, secret club that included kids from all walks of life. I felt like part of the cool kids club.

From the upper right hand corner going clockwise: Phoenix tee, Lykke Li tee, Beatles tee, Vampire Weekend tee, Foster the People tee

My favorite band tees are the inconspicuous, insiders only tee, like the Georgia peaches/Phoenix tee. They lack a band name or photo of the band, instead referencing album artwork or a song lyric, like the Lykke Li one. While these tees make certain music more exclusive, they feel even more sentimental and special. Running into a random person who gets the reference on the shirt is incredibly exciting because that person can’t be a poser, so you basically found someone who’s just as passionate about that artist as you are. It’s a way to make friends or instantaneous relationships.

A band tee is an emblem of solidarity. It’s a fist pump to music culture audible to the entire teen community. We trudge on every day; the school, work, sleep cycle plays on repeat. It’s easy to forget our individuality and simultaneous commonality during that cycle.The band tee is a subtle rebellion against an incredibly dull and dreary existence that we fall into. It’s a rebellion that all teens are a part of, a symbol of our resistance.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ergo Ego

Original Illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky

I read the book Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger a while back. You may have heard of it. If not, the book is a short story (Franny) and a novella (Zooey) published together as one volume. The book’s about Franny and Zooey, the two youngest siblings in the Glass family, which is comprised entirely of genius children. Franny and Zooey had an untraditional upbringing, mixing an education in religious philosophies with regular stints on the radio game show “It’s A Wise Child,” and they believe that’s why they have a hard time relating to other people. The plot of the novel centers on Franny’s emotional breakdown and how her brother, Zooey, tries to help her.

I’m not writing about this book to sake say that I liked it. I’m writing about this book because of the tumultuous journey the book makes you take with its characters that I think this is a journey every budding adult needs to take.

The thematic center of the book pivots around the main characters’ egos. As a result of their upbringing, both Franny and Zooey have unrealistic expectations for the world around them, but especially the naive and young Franny. When college, her passion for theater, and her love life all don’t live up to her expectations, Franny collapses. She realizes how conformist life is, proclaiming it all unoriginal, including the more esoteric bourgeois culture of which she is a member. That realization makes her lose faith in herself.

Franny may be a genius, but she’s just a twenty year old girl with the same insecurities and fears as the rest of us. All of us novice adults have hopeful misconceptions and idealistic notions of our futures. However, in the back of our heads there’s this nagging little fear reminding us that we’re bound to be disappointed, despite our attempts to ignore it. Salinger expertly forces us to confront the fear of disappointment by making the reader feel Franny’s turmoil and making the reader doubt their own character, lending to a tension that is insurmountable until the final pages of the novel. Franny’s attack at the disingenuous makes the reader fear that they themselves are an impostor, and as a budding adult, makes me feel like an actor in a world I’m not ready to handle.

As depressing as that sounds, the book’s resolution teaches both Franny and the reader a crucial lesson. Ego is defined as one’s sense of self and self-importance. If that’s so, Franny topples between two extremes: she topples faithful self-confidence and fearful uncertainty. For all of you fellow young’uns out there, there’ll be a day in your lives just like Franny’s when your entire ego is deflated by a pinprick. But as Franny learns, it’s her ego that is her savior. Franny realizes that the problem isn’t in having an ego as much as it is in projecting her ego onto other people. The message of the book essentially is know thyself, and hold thyself up to the standards thou believeth are supreme, but don’t force the same standards upon the world. At the end of the day, satisfaction results from the egotistical practice of individually living up to a personal standard, and no outside positive reaffirmation can replace that.

Ergo, love and hone your ego, as it’s all you really have. And read Franny and Zooey. You’ll learn so much more and gain so much confidence having read the book. Pinky promise.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


So I turned eighteen last week.

Yeah, I’m kinda an adult. Which is kinda weird, because I’m actually allowed to make pretty important decisions for myself that I’m not sure I should be making. You can actually pretty much do anything in the US when you’re eighteen except drink.

Here are a few of the ways I’ve taken advantage of my oldness:

  • I voted. I got lucky and election day was the day after my birthday, so I decided to be a good citizen and partake in our political system.

  • I got three (!) new piercings: a helix (upper cartilage), and my doubles (a new lobe piercing in each ear). My family was not too pleased even though they were given ample foresight beforehand.

  • I signed a contract to pick up some medical records. That didn’t make me feel mature, it just made me feel ancient.
  • I signed a pro-gay rights petition.
  • I drove home at midnight from a friend’s house and stopped at a 24-hour Taco Bell without breaking curfew (though I’ll admit I still felt rebellious eating  grade D meat in the middle of the night).
  • I bought tickets to an 18 and over concert. Nothing screams maturity more than a sweaty mosh pit and angsty rock music.

Here are a few things that I did not do:
  • I didn’t buy a lottery ticket.
  • I didn't get a tattoo. It's something I'm considering, but I'm not ready for the commitment yet.
  • I didn’t go to a strip club. Not really my ambiance, if you know what I mean.
  • I didn’t buy cigarettes because I’m not as poetic as Augustus Waters. 

What I did learn when I turned eighteen was that the age on my driver’s license doesn’t determine if I’m an adult or not, I do. And I’m not ready to be an adult. I struggle enough trying to get my homework done, so I’d probably be a hot mess if I had to always do the laundry and cook for myself and....PAY TAXES! There’s a part of me that enjoys the perks of being legal, but for right now, I want to relish in being a teen for a little while longer. I still feel kind of nervous about life in general, as if I still need quite a bit of guidance and support. My mistakes are to a certain degree still forgivable because they’re shrouded by a bit of naïveté, and wowza do I make a lot of mistakes.

Around this time last year, before I turned seventeen, I was venting to my older cousin via text about how I both enjoyed and feared getting older. I was scared that as soon as you turn some magic number, all innocence was lost. She assuaged my fears by texting back, “Naïveté has no age limit.” I visited her in New York for my birthday and she repeated those words in person as I blew out the candles on my cake. In a way, New York City helped me understand what she meant. NYC wasn’t new to me; on the contrary, it was probably the fifth time I’d been there. But even though I’d previously traversed the streets of Manhattan, everything felt new and beautiful to me. I still had an innate curiosity in the city and the people that lived there that no matter how many times I visit never disappears but rather manifests itself in new and different ways, and that’s the same naïveté that I was afraid I’d lose.

There’s probably some document sitting in some big marble building in DC stating that on the day of my eighteenth birthday I’m suddenly an adult and I must think like one. Personally, I’m not quite sure a wrapped up piece of parchment rings true in my life. I’m eighteen and yes that means I’ll be confronted by several important decisions and responsibilities pretty soon in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t approach the world with the same curiosity and wonder that I did when I was seventeen or even seven.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Serhiy, 19. Protestor from Obuhiv. February 26, 2014. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind, taken from

Sometimes, I feel like a small helpless part of the world that has no responsibility or capability to affect others. It’s both a scary and lovely feeling because I’m free of the burdens of adulthood. In places around the world, however, not all people my age are as lucky.

I was browsing through some blogs when this interesting TED article came up. The article focuses on photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind who created a series of provocative portraits of the Maidan fighters and mourners during Ukraine’s recent revolution. I have a strong personal connection to the fighting as I have family members and friends who were caught up in the middle of it. However, what arrested me most about the portraits weren’t the clothes or the faces of the subjects, but how young they were. The youngest one, Serhiy, was 19, just one year older than I am, and the oldest, Olena, is a mere 26. And there they stood in the middle of a combat zone.

I forget the capacity that young people have to affect world events and change their circumstances. In Ukraine, the revolution was fought carried out by lots of young kids from all over the country. Students who were studying English in school translated BBC and American news into Ukrainian and Russian so as to provide unbiased news for the masses; my cousin was one of those translators. Boys my age and older were taking up arms against an unjust government. While a horde of young adults overthrew an entire government, I was concerned about passing a biology exam. It was the youth who carried the burden of an entire nation.

In America, there is no compulsory military service. For the most part, a middle class life here is simple. Around the world however, kids have to grow up fast. In Israel, everyone is conscripted into the army once they’re 18. My cousins in Israel, instead of prepping for college, are currently learning how to hold a gun. There’s a wickedness in stealing a kid’s innocence the second they become a legal adult, but many kids grow up with that as a cultural norm. Are they ever really innocent if they all grow up knowing that one day they’ll learn how to kill someone? In other countries, there is no such notion of growing up at all. Go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance. Books such as The Poisonwood Bible illustrate the lack of a childhood kids experience. Girls are married off at age 12, if they even survive that long. Children’s lives in places such as the DRC a struggle for survival that they have to fight for themselves.

I grew up with an unparalleled luxury: the luxury of innocence. I never had to worry about where to find food, or if a bomb would fall on my house. Yet I never stopped to think how lucky I am. I’m lucky simply because of where I was born; I have no other privilege than the privilege of location. Staring at the portraits of people who’d be my peers carrying guns haunted me. Those portraits reminded me that while I may feel helpless and free from responsibility, in another place, my actions would carry consequences heavier than a ton of bricks.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Heads Will Roll


Original illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky  

There’s two types of skulls in my book: calaveras, and the rest of them.

I personally find typical skeletons depressing, grotesque, and taboo. Where’s the fun, the hope? I find so much more inspiration in calaveras. Maybe I’m just obsessed with calaveras because they’re so colorful or maybe because I’ve watched The Corpse Bride so many times that I find subterranean maggot parties fun. Calaveras take the macabre and literally sweeten it with sugar and adorn it in color. They allow for death to be celebrated as a greater part of the circle of life.

Well, I may adore calaveras, but the younguns in Mexico do not. In Mexico, calaveras are a usual part of Day of the Dead celebrations, which commence on November 1 and run through November 2. The Day of the Dead is an annual holiday that honors the dead with custom-made altars filled with marigolds, favorite foods and beverages, and calaveras. The holiday is festive and happy. Yet Mexican teens are rejecting it with the full angst of Harry Potter a la Order of the Phoenix.

According to the Mexican newspaper El Occidental (apologies for the Spanish language article), Mexican youth are falling out of touch with Mexican traditions, specifically the Day of the Dead. The United States heavily influences what youth consider "cool" in Mexico and as a result many Mexican teens are drawn to American traditions such as Halloween. Nowadays, many kids walk through the streets on the Day of the Dead asking, "where's my calavera?" a play on the American "trick-or-treat." Some Mexican kids dress up in costumes like American kids do for Halloween. Yet I, as an American kid, want to dress up as a calavera*.

It may be difficult to understand why Mexican kids would reject a tradition as rich as Day of the Dead. To a Mexican teen, however, there's probably nothing particularly unique about Day of the Dead because it's such a normal part of their culture, same way Halloween doesn't feel special in America. And just North of the border lies a giant behemoth that floods social media with what “cool” should be. The macabre has no funny place in the hearts of Americans, and as Mexican teens absorb media from their Northern neighbor, they too lose their respect for death. The desire to fit into a global community feels synonymous with leaving one's own cultural identity and assuming another one, one built by the US. All because different feels special.
And maybe I and other American teens like Day of the Dead celebrations and calavera skull makeup because it's different from typical Halloween ghosts and witches, which in turn makes us feel special. I want to say that American teens dress up as calaveras completely out of respect for Mexican culture, but in reality many do so to just to feel unique. I and other US teens are no different from the Mexican kid across the Rio Grande in that regard. On both sides of the border, kids are trying to establish their identity and it’s hard to feel like an individual when everyone is doing the same thing. The spookiness and horror of Halloween resonates with some Mexican kids as much as the light hearted festivities of Day of the Dead resonate with myself and other Americans.

On both sides of the border, we’re just kids who are still trying to make heads and tails of who we are and where we’re from. We’re experimenting and exploring the world from different viewpoints, even if that is from behind a calavera mask or a witch’s hat.

I painted my face to look like a calavera using Target facepaintI used Michelle Phan's tutorial as inspiration for the look. If anyone wants to replicate the calavera look, please do so respectfully of the cultural heritage of the holiday. 

*Before anyone accuses me of cultural appropriation for wearing calavera makeup, please note that I have a deep respect for the holiday and I truly admire the message behind calaveras and Day of the Dead and makeup is just a medium through which I chose to express my admiration.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

School Spirit

Photo by Stephanie Smelyansky
I felt slightly bombarded by crepe streamers and overly-revealing togas last week. Everything was in the name of good fun however because it was homecoming week. It was that archetypal high school spirit fest that unites the entire student body via spirit days, the pep rally, the parade, the football game, and the dance.

Except there was no football game.

Now I’m not that super peppy person that goes to every football game and sits in the student section amidst the sweaty mob of my peers, but even I was a tad upset about the lack of the football game. For me, it’s always been the football game that’s been the most exciting aspect of homecoming rather than the dance or the pep rally. There’s no stress about buying shoes, or figuring out who to vote for for the queen’s court. The football game has always been something I could just enjoy with my friends in the marching band section of the bleachers.

What I loved most about the football game was that it was the one time the entire school’s student body felt united. We aren’t split up into grades at the game like we are at the pep rally. The student section is too dense for cliques to mark their own territory. The football game forces the student body to actually act as one body and not several smaller entities that enjoy the walls of my high school. I was afraid we’d lose that feeling of unity with losing the football game and maybe it’s just my overly deep analysis of homecoming but I feel like we did lose something without the football game. For instance, the marching band was doing a half time show on the field as if we did have a football game and in the middle of it we hear a “freshman suck” chant start. I saw some cliques start sitting in new spots, away from the student section, because there weren’t community spectators there to take up those seats. And in the week leading up to the pep rally and the dance, I’ve never seen fewer people dress up for spirit days. Where was the school that prided itself on being one community?

I’ve realized over the past week that school spirit is a large formative part of my high school experience; it’s the only thing I’ve shared in common with the jocks, the popular kids, the bandies, and the mathletes all at once in a "The Breakfast Club" sort of way. Regardless of clique, ethnicity, or personality, school spirit is unavoidable at my school. No matter where I went at my school, I always felt like I was part of a community. Before, I thought that the community consisted of the select group of peers I interact with outside of class. Now, I realize that the community is the entire school because the entire students body determines the cooperative attitude of the school. When the source of our homecoming spirit, the football game, was taken away, the student body lost a reason to look out for one another, to care about everybody and in turn it descends into Mean Girls-esque clique warfare.

School spirit is that cliche, love-it-hate-it element that in a way is universal to the American high school experience. Without school spirit, I feel like students miss out on feeling like part of a community at a time when they need that feeling most, which is maybe why school spirit is such an archetypal element in media aimed at teens. School spirit is the pacifist element that reminds students that we’re all just teens going through the same roller coaster ride together, so we might as well enjoy it together too.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Welcome: Searching for Magical Youthify Fairy Glitter

Youthemism (n): colloquial slang word or phrase spoken by teenagers; aspects of youth culture.

Original Illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky
Hi, I’m Stephanie, and I’m scared. I’m scared because in a few weeks I’ll be eighteen, which means I’ll be an adult, and I’m not ready to be an adult. As the days trickle down towards my eighteenth birthday, I’ve become more and more nostalgic for my teenage years. I find myself glorifying the past and wanting to relive it (upon further thought, the acne riddled days of my early teens are something I’d rather forget rather than relive). There’s something magical in experiencing the world from the lens of a youth, teenager or young adult. At that age, people already have a set of morals and beliefs but simultaneously are incredibly impressionable; the naïveté is a function of trying to make sense of the world. Like, that lens is so magical that Urban Outfitters should co-opt it as a wonderful bottle of fairy glitter. And if Urban did sell it, I’d buy out the entire stock because that world view is what I’m scared to lose. And as I get closer to the big one eight, I find myself latching onto the youthemisms that shaped me into who I am today.

Youthemisms is my literary attempt to stay grounded and connected to the lens of youth, one filled with naïveté and curiosity, as I grow up. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to remain a child forever, but at least I can maintain a childlike charm and interest in the world, at least while I’m still figuring things out. As a fledgling adult, I’m curious about how my interpretation of culture, events, and life in general has shaped me as a person, as well as how these aspects shape other teens and young adults. Youthemisms seeks to explore the cultural influences that have affected me and my peers, ranging from Beyonce to the iPhone. I started Youthemisms because, well, I had to for an English project. But I started this blog specifically and not one about cute cats because I’m hoping it will help me make sense of the world during probably one of the most exciting and stressful parts of my life.

I feel completely unprepared to be an adult, but I’m one of millions of other kids still figuring out who they are and what their place is in the world. Maybe writing about it will help me find my place in the world or maybe it will help someone else. If anything, I hope writing about being young and growing up will keep the child within alive.