‘Of course I believe in equality… but I’m not a feminist.’ Such was the cry of my adolescence. I thought of feminism as a tired old movement, filled with irrelevant ideas and women who didn’t understand how the world had moved on. Women were allowed to shave their legs and wear make-up and that didn’t mean they were being subjugated by the patriarchy, it just meant they cared about looking nice. Feminists were shouty and overreacted to everything. They didn’t know how to relax and have a laugh. They turned everything into an issue and spoiled everyone’s fun.
Yet I also bristled when chores were handed to me and my sister while our brother was allowed to play and explore, our femaleness apparently endowing us with a greater capacity for cleaning. As sexism reared its head at home, in the outside world I began to hear warnings about ‘being safe’ and became aware of the threat that circled girls, not boys.
We don’t have to like every woman we meet. But we have to stop disliking them because we’re afraid they might be a rival for the male attention we’ve been taught to want
Don’t be loud. Don’t be sexual. Don’t be prudish. Don’t be challenging. Don’t be too fat or too thin. Don’t be too masculine or take up too much space. I feared all the irrelevant things that women are still taught to fear. Everything I observed about the world screamed for women to fight gender inequality, and yet I still believed that if I played the game, smiled at the right moments and giggled in collusion whenever men put my gender (or even just me) down, that I might one day win their attention and respect.
Realising that this was unlikely was a step towards embracing feminism. I embarked on a gender studies course and, very soon, everything I thought I knew about the world was demolished then rebuilt. A friend once told me that feminism helped her find a way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt; the hurt of feeling subjugated and alone, of knowing that whatever you say or do will be considered void unless offered in a way that men and the status quo find acceptable.
Feminism has helped me work out a way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt, too. It has given me strength, and without it I wouldn’t know how to breathe, how to laugh and, most importantly, how to fight.
Be kind to your MIND
A survey conducted by Girl Guiding UK found that 58 per cent of girls aged between 13 and 21 believed mental health in young women was a serious concern. Seventy-five per cent of responders said self-harming was a major health matter and 62 per cent had known a girl who had experienced a mental-health problem. Yet these issues are often overlooked or dismissed as girls simply being dramatic or overwrought. The survey also found that 82 per cent of girls believed the adults around them ‘didn’t recognise the pressure they were under’.
My battle with mental illness partially manifests itself in an existential crisis. In its grip, I’m unable to understand how and why I am me. I can’t connect with the world but am still aware enough to pretend that all is fine. It has been hard, and I suspect it will continue to take me down dark paths for the rest of my life.
There’s a lack of understanding and, perhaps, even interest in the mental issues of girls. The ways in which we cope (which can include hurting ourselves) are more hidden: solitude, addictions, self-loathing, irrationalities. And aren’t women supposed to be these things anyway? We have been imagined as irrational creatures from the beginning, our pain and suffering dismissed as overreactions or grabs for attention. We are hysterical she-demons, governed by the mystical movements of the moon; unknowable and dangerous to others.
Remembering to be kind to yourself can be the hardest thing. I seek help from a number of sources now – audiobooks of novels I’ve already read and walks where I’m reminded that life is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. My childhood was defined by eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, emotional instability and poor physical self-esteem. But I now realise we live in a world that seeks to control women and speak for and to us as if we’re children, forever reminding us that we are unreliable witnesses to our own lives.
Say yes to PLEASURE
I was about nine when, sitting at the dinner table, I asked, ‘What’s oral sex?’ My parents exchanged uncomfortable looks. ‘Er… it’s when you talk about it.’
‘Oh,’ I replied, once more illuminated by the wrong information. Years later I would reflect on how lucky it was that I hadn’t gone to school and answered any questions about what we’d done the night before with an enthusiastic, ‘We had spaghetti and then oral sex around the table!’
I also knew that women weren’t supposed to touch themselves. I had taken to acting out girl-on-top in the bathtub, leaning forward to kiss the wall in front of me. I assumed this was what sex was like. This time a hot feeling began to spread through me, my heart was racing. Suddenly an explosion! My enjoyment of my first orgasm was hampered by the fact that I thought I was having a stroke. This was what happened to ‘dirty’ girls. If I survived, I promised myself that I would never touch myself again. But trust me, this is definitely the proper way to exercise.
Accurate information is as important for girls as it is for boys. And masturbation is awesome. I truly believe that discovering the abilities of my body at a young age has led to an easier experience with sex generally. Pleasure has always been within easy reach and I’ve been able to convey to partners exactly what floats my boat. I’ve always been bothered by the idea that it’s someone else’s responsibility to ‘give’ a woman an orgasm. How can you expect someone to invest that kind of time in you when you don’t even want to do it yourself?
Love your BODY the way it is!
What kind of world do women occupy when 97 per cent admit to thinking ‘I hate my body’ at least once a day? Being thin will solve all your problems. Being thin will make boys like you. Being thin brings you worth. Being thin gives you control. And never underestimate how fiercely girls will grab on to the opportunity to feel in control of their lives. The flipside of these messages is pretty terrible for the average girl to contemplate.
I had an eating disorder at 13, and after I had regained most of the weight I had lost, during a meal with my mother she admonished me as I reached for a second helping. I stared at her, hand in mid-air, a mixture of humiliation and indignation swirling inside me. ‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because I think you could do without it,’ she replied. ‘You once made me promise to tell you if you started to get fat again, and I’m just keeping my promise.’
I was astounded that she’d remembered something said years ago by a child in the grip of an eating disorder, and that the existence of that illness seemed to have been erased from her memory. Fatness is considered a sign of weakness and failure. A woman has the responsibility of making the ‘best’ of herself. I remember my father getting very agitated one day because my stomach was peeking out between my shorts and T-shirt. I was just schlepping about at home but he suddenly pointed to the exposed flesh and yelled how my stomach was ‘hanging all over the place’. Another time he observed how unfortunate it was that a woman he knew was fat, ‘because she’d be pretty if she lost some weight’.
I learned to like myself more when I started playing roller derby [a contact sport on roller skates]. Being in a community of women athletes was fun and it was also empowering. I began to look at my body as something with a use and a purpose, something that could do things, rather than something that existed just to be looked at and critiqued.
The world can be hard for us women but if you have a girl gang you’ll never be alone
Find something that your body likes, then do it regularly. When you’re feeling down or insecure about yourself, remember that you have a good body. Try to banish negative thoughts by replacing them with something positive. As comedian Luisa Omielan says, grabbing her tummy, ‘Do you know what this means? That I go out for dinner with friends. This is my present to myself.’
Fatness is not a disease and it’s not contagious. The only thing that is contagious is the temptation to pile hatred into a completely random and often genetically determined physical self and turn it into a symbol of disgust and worthlessness. We need to stop passing on the toxic messages that have travelled down from generation to generation. We need to tell our children that they are everything that they need to be. We need to tell our girls that their bodies exist for them to use, not for others to look at.
Mad about the GIRLS
We know at a very deep level that women are supposed to be beautiful and accessible. But we’re also aware how unfair this measure of our value is. Instead of banding together to reject this, we tend to put ourselves down or judge other women. We tell ourselves that they might be pretty, but they’re empty-headed. They might be sexy, but they’re a slut. We are so used to feeling the gaze that we learn to view each other with men’s eyes.
How powerful would it be if we could look at another woman and say, ‘She’s beautiful and she makes me laugh’ or, ‘She’s really intelligent – I can tell why so many people enjoy her company.’ Or even, ‘She has sex on her own terms and I really admire her confidence.’
We don’t have to like every woman we meet. But we have to stop disliking them because we’re afraid they might be a rival for the male attention we’ve been taught to want, and thinking that bringing them down a peg for being too slutty/arrogant/bitchy will earn us points.
Discovering the transformative power of female friendships at university has helped me. We’ve grown up together, stayed out late and got drunk together, fought, made up and shared two decades’ worth of emotions. Instead of feeling judged by my girlfriends I now find relief in their company. They make me feel safe and supported because they don’t respond to my shared experiences of being a woman with the suggestion that I might be exaggerating or imagining things. When we are together we have each other’s back against whatever obstacle might be blocking our paths. With the support of my different girl gangs, I feel strong and equipped to live confidently as I choose rather than according to outdated, gendered ideas of womanhood, which reinforce the comfort of men.
If you have a girl gang, you’ll never be alone. The world can be hard and unforgiving for us as women, but with female friends by our side we can build a protective barricade, which our enemies will never be able to tear down, no matter how hard they try. Find your Steel Magnolias, the Thelma to your Louise. Find it and never let it go.
■ This is an edited extract from Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford, to be published by Oneworld on 2 August, price £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39 until 5 August, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15