Well known New Zealand women talk to Angela Barnett about how they felt at 18 years old, to mark a new exhibition, 18x18
Being 18 is a tricky time. You look like you've got it all together but you seldom do and the government treats you like an adult but your parents still treat you like a child. It's an age of contradictions and discovery, where, according to Pinterest, "Everything is possible and tomorrow looks friendly." But when the future of the planet you stand on is uncertain, is tomorrow as friendly and full of possibilities for 18-year-olds today?
A new photo exhibition, 18x18 dives into the lives of 18 diverse young women on the brink of adulthood. Often dubbed "snowflakes", Gen Z is summed up by one 18-year-old, Allysa: "People call our generation sensitive but it's just we're more aware of what's going on around us." Another, Katie, shares her struggle to find that one occupation that will make her happy, like, forever.
Journalist and creative director of the project, Verity Johnson wanted to gauge how young women were feeling in their own words. "While there is naturally youthful optimism," she says, "there's also a deep sense that they are grappling with much more complexity, they are serious, focused and more anxious than millennials. From climate change anxiety to the youth mental health crisis, the girls get real and raw on exactly what it's like being 18 today."
Katie's story is one of stress and social anxiety and, in contrast, four women from different generations also share their own memories of being 18: singer-songwriter Moana Maniapoto, film-maker Julie Zhu, photographer Qiane Matata-Sipu and netball legend Dame Lois Muir.
"I did so well in year 11 and 12 but in year 13 I just didn't give a f***. Friendships played into it a lot … I had a very difficult relationship with my friends throughout high school, year 13 was probably the worst. The year before, hundreds of people came over for parties and then next year I had like five people I was hanging out with. It was like, "Well, if you're not throwing parties, why would we pretend to be your friend?"
It's because it all changes when you hit 18. It's like, "Oh you're an adult now, you have to sort everything out yourself." So people are focusing on that instead of relationships. It's brutal and depressing.
So I didn't show up to year 13 - and when I did, people would joke, "Oh you're finally here!" At the end of the year I realised I'd failed bio (and I wanted to go into medicine) which stressed me out, so I was like, "F*** it, I better take a gap year and figure it out."
Right now, I feel like there's so much I need to do that I'm not doing. I'm working in a store and as much as I love my work, I equally hate it. But if I quit my job what would I do? I can't go to uni until I know what I want to do. Mum keeps telling me, "You can do whatever you want." And I don't know what I want to do. I don't know what will make me happy. I know I could find something that I could do for now but part of me wants to pick something that I want to do forever ... which is super-stressful.
How many times have you gone into a store, seen a middle-aged person working there and thought, "That's not what they wanted to do"? It stresses me out because I'm working in a store right now and I don't want to be stuck there for the rest of my life."
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Julie ZhuProducer and film-maker
A champion for marginalised communities and their stories [East Meets East, Myth of the Model Minority], Zhu is part of the activist group, Asians supporting Tino Rangatiratanga. She was 18 in 2011, the year Adele released 21, Osama Bin Laden was killed, New Zealand won the 7th Rugby World Cup and the Christchurch earthquakes struck. Zhu was having an existential crisis.
"At 18, getting good grades was important to me. I grew up internalising that I had to be the smart kid. When I was little I thought it was from my parents but there was one point where my mum said, 'As long as you are happy you can do whatever you want.' I had somehow internalised how the media represents what Asian kids need to be: the smart ones. I never thought I'd be a film-maker.
"I really loved high school and had a good group of friends and in that transition to uni I felt really isolated. I remember crying a lot in the first year, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, having an existential crisis and feeling like I didn't know who I was or where I was going. Feeling lost. Looking back now, young people should be able to explore, try new things and feel okay about not knowing. Now, I have lots of different jobs and I never knew that would be a sustainable option.
"When I was little I used to run around the house and turn lights off and I have always had that awareness about climate change. In 2011, there was Generation Zero at uni and there was awareness then but not knowing how stark. We had social media but it wasn't used as obsessively.
"I think young people are so much more aware than I was and so articulate about the issue. Social media helps, there is so much activism that goes on and people don't even know it's activism; they are just sharing and are so open to new ways of learning and having their ideologies challenged. Looking back, I didn't have that many strong opinions at 18 — now I'm quite political and I'm more grounded in what I believe.
"I can see why 18-year-olds today are the worried generation, not knowing what the future may hold and the world may end. Little things are getting better but the bigger things are getting worse and I don't know how any of us can fix it unless all the major leaders in the world are on board. These are the moments I will get the most depressed, that the world will not change in my lifetime."
Qiane Matata-Sipu Journalist, photographer and social activist
Qiane Matata-Sipu, based in South Auckland's Ihumātao, is a champion for her people and their whenua. Co-founder of S.O.U.L. she's currently working on NUKU, a multimedia project profiling 100 "kickass indigenous wāhine". Matata-Sipu was 18 in 2003, when worldwide vigil protests of the Iraq war began, Beyonce took out the MTV awards, and Sars struck. For Matata-Sipu, whānau was everything then - and a boy.
"At our school in Māngere, a relief teacher came in with this thick careers book with a blue cover — the Internet was only new — and you flicked through and chose your job. I wanted to be a journalist as I had always been quite inquisitive-slash-nosy. The teacher said I should choose something else. I was a Māori, female, at a decile one school in South Auckland, she didn't think I'd get in. I applied for a vice-chancellor's scholarship and got it and the following year, at 18, I started at AUT. I am quite a confident person but I felt out of my depth in a lecture theatre full of non-Māori and PI people. Women wore makeup and dressed in a certain way and I didn't know how I fitted in. Then I realised that fitting in is boring.
"Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank was big and I thought she was cool as she was a boxer. I really wanted to be Michelle Rodriguez from Girlfight. She was bad-ass. No one could push them around. They were cool because they knew who they were and went out and did their stuff.
"That surf look was in around 2003, jeans with 'Roxy' across the bum. I had a purple and white Roxy backpack. There was Bebo and Myspace and chat rooms. Our phones were very expensive, so we didn't use them often.
"At 18, I was the chairperson of the Makaurau Marae Health Committee, attending meetings and participating in local body politics around land, water and iwi hapū issues. That is part of being a Māori woman; it's your job. That's the other thing I couldn't relate to at uni – they were going on holidays and I was going to help my grandfather at the marae. He was the one I wanted to impress the most.
"Climate change wasn't in my consciousness but Kaitiakitanga was - looking after our natural environment. was, looking after national relationships for the good of my people. There was a lot of self-discovery, not who I was but where I fit in my family and the world.
"Lots of my friends had boyfriends at 18 and everyone was talking about, 'Are you still a virgin?' Then I met Willie. There was never any 'dating', he asked me out and that was it. My grandfather liked him as he had shiny shoes. He said, 'If a man takes enough time to shine his shoes it shows a lot about him as a person.'"
Moana Maniapoto, MNZMSinger-songwriter, documentary-maker, Māori Television presenter
Moana Maniapoto has been on a mission to make Māori visible through music since the 90s [Moana & the Moahunters, Aotearoa]. Maniapoto was 18 in 1980, when Muldoon's refusal to stop the Springbok tour led to massive unrest the following year, France performed nuclear tests at Mururoa and punk was mainstreaming with Blondie's Call Me. At the time, Maniapoto was fighting to be heard - and having fun.
"I can't say I was a punk fan. I thought it sucked. Bob Marley was the first concert I went to. Me and my mate hitchhiked up to Auckland, which was pretty dumb but we thought everything was safe. A dodgy-looking car with all these guys pulled up but it started to rain so we jumped in. They turned out to be Mormon elders.
"I spent the first half of 18 at Waikato University, enrolled in Māori and social sciences because I was a wanna-be Donna Awatere-Huata. There was lots of freedom. We used to drink a lot; no one was taking drugs. The boys we hung out with became like brothers, they dared us to cycle from Hamilton to Tokoroa for a party. We did. I was on a pink 5-speed and couldn't walk for a week afterwards.
Then I moved to Auckland Uni and felt like a fish out of water at Law School, gravitating towards all the brown folk at the back, about seven of us. I was pretty set on trying to brown up the system. I was the shy one with way too much hair. I got teased for having a honky nose and then I would do television shows and the makeup people would say, 'You should register for nose modelling.'
"We supported Hilda and Hone Harawira's group, He Taua, who protested a bunch of white engineering students who used to do the mock haka. They were writing swear words and drawing sexual parts on their bodies, thinking it was funny. It summed up the arrogance of the time. That court case was important in terms of defining what was racist and inappropriate behaviour.
"I went to numerous protests during the Springbok tour and was at the famous one in Hamilton when the fence came down and all of us came onto the field. The police eventually came on, thank Ggod, as the rugby players wanted to kill us all. It was very terrifying.
"In 1980, the movie 9 to 5 came out, with Dolly Parton. That was all about how women were treated and was quite a radical movie in its time.
"At 18, we [Māori] were fighting to be visible, to be heard. It was that basic. Once I got into music, I was fighting to put Māori in people's faces. Looking at this younger generation, they're very articulate, courageous and bilingual. Now there are more Pākehā allies, standing side by side. That's uplifting."
Lois Muir, DNZM OBE Silver Ferns player and long-time coach
Dame Lois Muir has been advocating for the benefits of sport her whole life and was the first woman on the NZ Sports Foundation Board. Muir was 18 in 1953, the year Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest, a chimp became a regular on the Today Show, DNA
was discovered and Elvis Presley graduated from high school. Muir was planning for her wedding.
"Growing up in a rural environment everyone knows everyone but you're always looked-after. One day I was late for the train for Gore High School and I thought to myself, 'Can I try and jump on that moving train?' Somebody was watching, the grocer or butcher and told me I was not going to do that. They hunted around and somebody got me to school.
"When I was 18, I was starting to plan my wedding. I met a very exciting sportsperson, Murray Muir. You stayed at home until you got married then. I was the last to leave, as my mother was on her own. I felt responsible for her. She didn't drive and only saw me play one game in my life and that was at the end. It wasn't that she didn't care but she had to get there. All those complications.
"It was a simpler life and you planned for what you were going to do. When we got our first washing machine we skipped around the house for days. I can't remember worrying about money or if I was going to get anywhere or not — you always managed to get to training. People supported each other.
"In that era, you'd go to an event and all the women would huddle in the kitchen and the guys would huddle somewhere else, as if women didn't have anything interesting to talk about. And that's not true. I used to get quite upset. I always knew women had to believe they had skills but you had to build them. The more you interacted with people the more knowledge you got. I had a marvellous husband who was very supportive and encouraged me to share and talk. I have always had this feeling that you need to value yourself. We never had the philosophy that the women's place was in the home, it was important you have a home life but that's not your only life.
"Sport helped me get out of being at home too. We were pretty carefree and it's amazing now when I think about it, it was the greatest time to live. Kids now, somebody is making them compete against somebody else all the time so they never get the chance to feel good in their own skin. If you're not trying to compete with someone else and you have your own focus where you're enjoying things, I think it's good for you. That makes you happy."
18x18 is a YWCA Auckland initiative, sponsored by Huawei, launching November 28 - December 1 at Silo Park then hosted across Auckland art galleries this summer. See 18x18.co.nz for more information.