I’m a massive fan of doom and gloom, but recently I’ve had some soppy thoughts about being a woman which I’d like to stretch out properly and shove into people’s minds like fast food leaflets through letterboxes.
After fully digesting how manufactured and essentially unnecessary the anguish and discomfort of my adolescence was, I quite like to imagine what I would say, impromptu, to a hall of your average 11-16 year old girls – just like the one I sat in every week throughout my secondary school education at an all-girls school. I found being a teenage girl to be a fucking traumatising experience which has meant that I don’t find body and sex dysphoria as baffling as perhaps I should. Having not even an inkling of passion for your own face, your own thoughts, or for forming an enduring personality, is exhausting on a slow, long, soul-leeching level. Whatever personality trait you try to feel your way into, doesn’t quite fit. Trying to catch your natural self while you’re not looking is near-impossible in a body you’re thinking of as an object rather than an instrument. Teen girls are made to self-actualise backwards; it’s the music which comes out of violins which make them beautiful as a whole, because that’s what they’re for, but there we all were thinking that it was only when violins were beautiful enough that they made music.
I’m not sure I’d make it out the other end nowadays. Porn is more violent and more prevalent, and it’s increased acceptability has led to girls being asked to produce their own in the form of nudes. Advertising is more shameless than ever in its attacks on women’s natural form (please remember now to be embarrassed by dry skin on your feet. And contour them while you’re down there too). We have no exposure to authentic and unapologetic images of females; every image of women, whether it be friends or celebrities, are all filtered and edited and painstakingly lit to produce patently false pictures. I believe there is an abundance of suffering in young woman, and the statistics back me up.
After only a quick google my heart starts to tear; over 70% of 15-17 year old girls suffer from such low self esteem that it stops them partaking in normal life. Normal life is meant to be a particularly spectacular thing at that age, and the robbing of teen girls of joy and adventure and happy chaos sizzles my bones.Instead, girls are cutting themselves, smoking, drinking excessively and trying to lose weight to the extent of forming disordered eating, all while being depressed. We have got to stare plainly at the role boys play in making girls’ lives so painful. It’s worth pausing over the finding that “Teen girls that have a negative view of themselves are 4 times more likely to take part in activities with boys that they’ve ended up regretting later”. This tells you more about boys than girls. Boys are the type of entity in girls’ lives that they can be used as self-harm. We’ve all had female friends who have gone back again and again to a boy who treats them as an object, uses for them for sex and is not moved in the least by their pain.
Here’s the most important one though, which leads me to my silver lining I’ve promised you; “A girl’s self-esteem is more strongly related to how she views her own body shape and body weight, than how much she actually weighs”. It was when I saw red crosses scribbled across some of the shots from a photoshoot of Marilyn Monroe, done by herself on the photos she didn’t like, that I really got a sense of how this self-policing is just systematically injected into all women, indoctrinated into girl after girl, regardless of how they actually look and who they actually are. It really helped me think, fuck it. It helped me realise that you never ‘manage it’, you never look, finally, how you want to. That end point does not exist. And that is such an important lesson. It means you can choose where to draw the line, and I would recommend drawing it as fucking close to the natural you as you can. The beauty industry is a massive cross-race cross-class crunching machine which takes in women’s self-esteem and pumps out billions of pounds into the laps of despicable old white men, so that they can live luxurious lifestyles looking smug and hating women for not matching up to the impossible beauty standards they themselves set.
Leading on from the increasingly well-known sentiment from Gail Dines, that “if tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business”, I think there’s something kind of cool about how intrinsically politically revolutionary a woman being too damn busy living life to obsess over her looks, is. It’s a win-win situation when tunneling yourself out of self-hatred and constant anxiety into a confident, healthy and fulfilled person is simultaneously a fuck you to a massive portion of capitalism and patriarchy – a system of putting money and power into men’s pockets by tying women into an inferior position, knotting them up with the expected roles of being inanimate ‘beautiful’ dolls, carers of men and houses and children, unfit for the workroom or the same wages as men. This is what I’d like to impress onto teenage girls today; that your self growth is so much more important and powerful than you probably realise yet. Liberating yourself is one human being closer to the liberation of women. It’s the way to making the world better, and people talk about that literally all the time.
The next most powerful thing you can do with beautifully unapologetic and demanding individual women is to forge friendships between them. Female-female friendships are diamonds in this society, harder than the hammers of patriarchy. Men like us to dislike each other, labeling our interactions as ‘catty’, infusing us with jealousy for each other, tricking us into seeing each other as competition for their attention, and encouraging us to dislike outspoken women just like they do. This is girl hate. If we love each instead, men are in trouble. We’ll realise that we never deserve to be humiliated for sleeping with a lot of men, because our choices are deeply complex and shaded by complicated emotions that only friends can fully acknowledge. We’ll realise that we don’t deserve to be raped, for any reason, because we don’t want the girl who wore less and drank more than us to be raped, we want none of them to be raped. We’ll realise that the cool girl is the girl fearlessly speaking out in board rooms, unafraid to bring women’s issues to male politicians and dicks in the pub. Not the girl disentangling only herself from ties of femininity. We’ll realise that we have a right to female-only spaces to discuss our harassment and anxieties from sexism in our lives, because we’re sick of seeing our friends anguished and disrespected.
It is us girls, sitting in canteens and costas and our own sofas with our ears to a phone, that will strip away the stigma from vaginas, periods, contraception, abortions, rape. Our silver lining is that in a world which spins based on women being suppressed, we can knock the whole world off course by making ourselves happier and simultaneously, our sex freer. Just as is needed in good musical improvisation, detach yourself from your fears of mistakes and go with the flow, play your music, reverberate into the world, invoke emotions in the people around you and be proud of that before anything else. It’s a big and tricky undertaking, but the rewards are astronomical.