A Big Sister’s Duty: The Stuff No One Else Will Tell You

Today, I watched the Miss Representation documentary. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go watch it. It is so awesome, despite a really spacey, strange occasional voiceover.

Within nine minutes of pressing play, I was bawling my eyes out. Listening to a high schooler’s voice crack in pain as she described how her little sister cuts herself because she hates her body resonated all too clearly. As far as I know, neither of my sisters has ever hurt themselves, thank goodness. But the thought of the bullshit they’re going to have to endure just by virtue of being female is genuinely painful. With one getting ready to go to uni next year, and high school not too far away for the other, I know that they’re going to have to go through some pretty hard times, and that, being girls, they’re going to be told to think and feel and be certain ways, or face punishment.

So I’ve got a few messages for my two incredible, inspiring, strong baby sisters, based on my experiences of being a laydee, which I hope will help get them through the hard times.

Warning to family members: there will be discussions of S-E-X and other such girly things in this post.

fskLet’s start with your body, because honestly, that’s what lots of people are going to do. People will judge you because of your body, they will assume that they know things about you because of how your body looks, they’ll tell you that your body is wrong, they’ll use it as a weapon against you, they’ll assume that your body is theirs to touch and comment on.

Here’s what to do with your body in response to that: don’t change a damn thing. You are not your body. This is really tough to remember sometimes, because we girls have it constantly shoved down our throats that the only way to be worth something is to have a body that confines to somebody else’s conception of what sexy is. But honestly, your body does not define who you are. It’s just a vessel that carries your beautiful heart and brilliant mind around from one place to the next, and as long as you are keeping it healthy and strong (whatever that looks like!), then it’s perfect. Everyone always tells you to learn to love your body. I’d like to take that a step further and tell you to learn to love the whole of you. Love how your eyes crease up when you tell an awesome joke. Love how your wobbly bits shake when you dance like a crazy person. Love how you throw your hands around when you’re talking about something you love. You are so wonderful, and you have way too much to do in this world to sit in front of a mirror worrying that your legs are too fat.

This doesn’t mean I’m telling you to burn your dresses and snap your eyeliner pencils. Wanting to look good is awesome, as long as you are doing it on your terms. Don’t let anyone else define your beautiful, ever. Look however you want to look. Wear plum lipstick at 11am. Go out barefaced in your raggiest old jumper. Buy that teeny tiny little dress you love. Wearing lipstick doesn’t make you an attention seeker. Wearing a leather miniskirt doesn’t make you a slut.

On that note, it’s time to get super serious. I really don’t want to talk about sexual assault, because I wish that it wasn’t a problem. But 1 in 5 women in this country have experienced some kind of sexual violence since they turned 16, myself among them, so we have to talk about it. Like I said above, some people think that your body is theirs to touch. It isn’t. Unless you want them to, of course (more on that later). No matter how you are dressed, how drunk you are, how many people you’ve had sex with before, what you’ve done with the person before, NOBODY is allowed to touch your body without your consent. Don’t think that you’ve led anyone on, or feel pressured to act a certain way because of how you’ve acted in the past, or because you’ve already said you would do something. You have the right to refuse, every single time, and if someone goes against that, it’s sexual assault. I don’t care if you’re blind drunk, wearing nothing but a tinsel bikini. This does not give anyone the right to sexually assault you. This line of reasoning is such total bollocks that I can’t believe it still exists, but it really does, so let me just throw a stat out for you: only 9% of rapes in the UK are committed by a stranger. You are 9 times more likely to be attacked by someone you know in a situation that you thought was safe. So don’t ever be embarrassed to set limits, know that anything to do with your body is your choice, and if something does happen to you, don’t you dare ever for a second believe that it was your fault.

Okay, onto (gulp) consensual sex. I’m not going to tell you not to have sex, because let’s face it, sex is fun, and it’s totally normal, and it’s a natural part of growing up, but I would like to offer one teeny bit of advice. Wait and do it with a man or woman that you feel really comfortable with. Not because it has to be special or because losing your virginity to a random person means you don’t respect yourself. Shockingly, I think that a woman’s sexual experiences are nobody else’s fucking business, and anyone who thinks that they are in any way relevant is a flaming idiot. Have as much sex as you want, with as many people as you want – whatever you are happy and comfortable with. But the reason I’d say you should wait for someone excellent, and this is something that no one will ever tell you, is that the first time is so very fucking awkward. It hurts a lot, and your body does loads of weird stuff, and so does your partner’s, and you really want to be with someone you can laugh with when your bodies press together and make that weird farting sound, rather than wanting to immediately die. Oh, also, always pee afterwards. This is another thing that no one ever tells you until you’re laid up in your GP with a horrifying urine infection. But that’s more mechanics that actual advice. And as Forrest Gump would say, that’s all I have to say about that.

Alright, that’s enough sex talk for one blog, let’s get back to you. Society tells people that women shouldn’t have a voice, and both men and women internalise that message. You will find that men interrupt you, talk over you, don’t take you seriously and use the mere fact that you are a woman to discredit you. And a lot of women buy into this too: they take men more seriously, think negatively about ambitious women and say things like, “Oh, I just get on better with men. There’s less drama”. Every one of these things is designed to make women shut up, and keep us in our place. To hell with that. You have a voice, so don’t be afraid to use it. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward because some stupid societal structure tells you your opinion isn’t worth anything. I hate these structures, so I try to use my voice to change them. And if that makes some chauvinistic asshole think less of me, so be it. I speak up, so that the world will get better for you girls coming through. Pay it forward and speak up for the next generation. Don’t you ever listen to someone else’s idea of what you should be. Don’t try to be anything except yourself. When you write goals and wishes, focus on doing things, rather than being things.

One last thing and then I promise, I’ll shut up for a while. Be kind to other women. Don’t buy into that rubbish that tells you that ambitious women are manly, or successful women are bitchy, or pretty women are stupid and slutty. This is tough, because these stereotypes are pushed hard, every day, by a £71bn per year business. But we can be smarter than them. Just remember, we’re all complicated people, who are trying our best. Let’s be excellent to each other. I love you. You’re going to move mountains.

Great Storybook Role Models For Little Girls

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Dolly Dowsie. Reposting today in honour of National Libraries Day.

When I was a little girl, I could usually be found curled up in a corner with my nose in a book. I could disappear for hours on end, only emerging once yet another story had been devoured. The courageous, feisty heroines within their pages were my best friends, and from a very young age, they taught me what kind of girl I wanted to grow up to be. Long gone are the days where girls in storybooks are passive damsels in distress. Now, girls can turn to books for aspirational, strong female role models. I’d like to share with you a few of my favourite childhood books and the characters in them that helped make me the woman I am today.

1. Matilda, from Matilda by Roald Dahl

As a slightly strange, extremely bookish girl, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Matilda. Matilda tells the story of a little girl who uses her intelligence and special powers to outsmart her bullying headmistress and apathetic parents. She is wildly imaginative and a little bit mischievous. Although she plays tricks on the grown-ups in her life, she is very fair, and only punishes people who really, truly deserve it. Those who treat her well, such as her friend Lavender and her teacher Miss Honey, are met with respect, love and loyalty from. As with most Roald Dahl characters, Matilda encourages children to see learning as an amazing journey that should continue outside school. Once I had begrudgingly accepted that I didn’t have telekinetic powers, I focused on attaining Matilda’s second and even more important weapon, her brilliant mind. Matilda shows little girls that reading voraciously and learning just for the love of it can be just as powerful as having a magical superpower.

2. Charlotte, from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte is a spider living in the dark corner of a farmer’s barn. She befriends Wilbur, a young pig who is horrified to learn that he might some day end up on the farmer’s breakfast plate. With the help of the other farm animals, Charlotte hatches a plan to save Wilbur from this terrible fate. Charlotte is intelligent and well spoken – it’s thanks to her that I can greet someone with “salutations”, or aspire to create my “magnum opus”. She is kind to all the animals in the barn, despite their apprehension towards her because she is a spider. She is firm, but gentle towards the naïve Wilbur, and never lets him give up hope. She often puts the needs of her friends before her own. Charlotte taught me that it doesn’t matter how people perceive you, as long as you have a kind heart and a quick wit, you will always be loved.

3. Henrietta Hickathrift, from The Stray by Dick King Smith

This one isn’t a very well known book, but it is one of my absolute favourites. I first read it as a little girl, and now, as I pass it on to my littlest sister, I’m finding that it hasn’t lost a single bit of its charm. Henrietta is an old woman who decides to run away from her nursing home and go to the seaside. She is plucky and compassionate, earning the admiration and friendship of everyone she meets. Although she hits a few speed bumps along the way, the book eventually sees Henrietta’s kindness and generosity returned on her tenfold. She faces her fears with great panache, inspiring me to live life to the full, and taught me that no dream was too big or too small.

4. Sophie, from the series Sophie by Dick King Smith

Sophie is a stubborn but loveable four-year-old girl, who detests frilly dresses and dreams of becoming a lady farmer. The series follows her between the ages of four and eight, passing milestones such as beginning school, starring in the class play, taking riding lessons and informing the farmer’s son next door that they’re going to get married some day. She is steadfast and loyal, and a great lover of all animals. She is incredibly proud of her impressive vocabulary, and frequently uses very long, complicated words, albeit with a few endearing mistakes. Most of all though, Sophie works conscientiously to achieve her goals. She puts her heart and soul into everything she does, which frequently causes accidental chaos, but usually also ends in success. She taught me not to sit around and wait for things to happen to me. With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I could achieve anything.

5. Hermione Granger, from the Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

I know, I know, this one’s a big cliché, but I just couldn’t exclude Hermione. I have a special soft spot for her because we were almost the same age when the first book came out, and with each passing year, we grew up together. The Harry Potter series could more accurately be titled “Harry Potter gets confused, Hermione fixes everything”. She is intelligent, meticulous and motivated, leaving the boys in the dust both in and out of the classroom. She isn’t afraid to be herself, despite taking pretty much constant stick for being clever. As she matures throughout the series, she becomes increasingly considerate and understanding, acting as mother, teacher and friend to a great number. In the final couple of books, she has her heart repeatedly broken, but instead of sulking, simply continues to rid the wizarding world of evil until the object of her affections realises what a colossal mistake he has made and comes back. Hermione is beautiful, but this is completely outshone by a stunning personality, a keen intellect and a willingness to do anything that is necessary to protect her friends. She is a true leading lady: so, so much more than just a pretty face.