Natalie Neal explores the trials and tribulations of one girl’s first venture into womanhood
At the time, it just seems like the most face-clawingly hideous thing ever to have happened to you. But in retrospect, getting your first bra is a pretty seminal moment. On one hand, you’re still up trees and collecting stickers, but on the other, you’re transforming into a woman. A woman like your mother, or women you see in a shopping centre or on the bus. It’s actually kind of terrifying, and while it’s totally empowering in the long run, you are completely powerless to stop it while it happens. Curious about this, filmmaker Natalie Neal spoke to a bunch of female friends about this odd and somewhat-unspoken moment in life and decided to make Seashells to explore the concept.
How personal is this film in terms of your own experiences at that age?
Natalie Neal: The original concept for the movie was 100 per cent based on my own first-bra experience. I knew I wanted to make a movie about that, and started writing down my ideas. After five seconds, I realised I would need to interview my sisters, friends, and any woman I knew to gather information about their first bra if I was ever going to write something good.
In the end, my favourite story was that of my best friend, which the majority of the script is based on. She went through such a wide range of emotions in a two-day span. She went from confused to angry and embarrassed, and then by end of the next day felt super awesome and arrogant about her growing boobs!
Why did you make Seashells?
Natalie Neal: I first got the idea to make this project in 2012. I had gotten married about a year before, and the abrupt change in how people treated me as a married woman was such a slap in the face that my whole perspective in life changed. From then on, everything I wanted to make was centered around feminism. One of the things that had me very interested during that time was how women are expected to change their decisions based on how other people react to their body. I was ten when my mom first told me I needed a bra, and the experience was totally traumatic for me. Of all my memories, this is the earliest I have of what it meant to struggle in an effort to meet society’s unreasonable demands for me.
The film is really nostalgic – it made me sad that we don’t have the Spice Girls any more. Who do you think young girls look up to/listen to now, and are they good role models?
Natalie Neal: I think Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are really great, a lot of young girls look up to them. I think there are also a handful of pop or R&B artists that are great examples of feminism for grown women, like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, but that are terrible role models for young girls. The thing I miss the most about my days as a kid were girl groups that focused on a supportive community of women. Spice Girls were the best for that! Girl Power!
“I was ten when my mom first told me I needed a bra, and the experience was totally traumatic for me. Of all my memories, this is the earliest I have of what it meant to struggle in an effort to meet society’s unreasonable demands for me”
Throughout your work, you portray women as these sparkly, near-mystical creatures. What fascinates you about women and the idea of girlishness?
Natalie Neal: I grew up with five sisters and am the second youngest in my family, so a lot of what I understand about being a woman comes through watching my older sisters’ experiences when I was younger and they were still living in the house. My journey through girlhood was always influenced by their lives and what they were going through. I viewed my youthful experiences through a lens coloured by their dating problems, the gossip I would hear them talk about, an interest in dieting or make-up, and what I read in teen magazines.
I think this is probably the root of why I depict women the way that I do. I love pairing fantasy and escapism with the tragedy of social pressure and gender stereotypes. In many ways, I think the Spice Girls represent this paradox. They’re independent and powerful while simultaneously conforming to specific tropes. I like my characters to live in this space because it’s hopeful but it’s not naive.
What would you tell girls all over the world who may be battling the early stages of puberty?
Natalie Neal: It’s OK to be private about your body’s changes, and it’s also OK to be open and honest about it! No matter what you choose, don’t let anyone make you feel scared or bad about how you decide to deal with it.