A confused twenty-something.
I went to a talk this evening called “What Should We Tell Our Daughters?” by Melissa Benn. The fact that it has a question mark on the end of the books title suggests it is meant as a conversation-starter, not an instructional manual, as Benn said herself. I haven’t read it yet (got a signed copy tonight though, which is ace) but I will certainly be reviewing it when I do. I’m dying to read it.
It was a very serious atmosphere tonight, actually. Hosted at Sutton House in Homerton by the brilliant Pages of Hackney it had a very intimate feel to the room chaired by one of my fave writers Zoe Williams from the Guardian. I was surprised to see I was definitely one of the youngest there. We are the daughters, my friend Chloe said to me. We are the said girls who are bumbling along in this very confused landscape of things that are both a blessing and a curse such as: the Internet, Twitter, Miley Cyrus, twerking, out-of-date politicians — living in a society that has come so so far, but in other ways is so backward (cue the pay-gap discussion and the fact that white men in grey suits make most important decisions every waking day).
I’ve only really attended one other talk slash event that was branded as being “feminist”, even though I 100% identify as one, such gatherings would often intimidate me, which is a silly thing to feel I know. But tonight’s talk didn’t leave anyone feeling “left out”; there was no “scoring system” to rank you good-feminist or shit-feminist. We didn’t compare hairy legs or armpits, well, maybe a few (I haven’t shaved my legs for a good week, soz). It’s still a word that tends to need a lot of explaining as it means different things to different people. I just use it as a synonymous with “wanting equality” or “wanting to control my own body parts”.
What tonight did highlight for me is that the question of social “equality” still has a looming question mark over it and the work to be done is far from over. Melissa Benn opened with a positive outlook: yes the second wave (I think that’s the right wave) did amazing things, yes it was only 86 years ago women officially got the right to vote (WTF), but really how far have we come? Nimko Ali, from charity organisation Daughters Of Eve, used the word “complacency” a few times when she describing the previous lull in modern feminist action. It was something I could relate to, having thought (naively) until very recently that the work was done. Men and women were totally equal in my teenage eyes. How wrong I was.
Although I am not one to be bleak. Women have lots of opportunity in this day and age and life is what you make of it. There was an amazing older woman in the audience tonight who spoke about the “movement” of the earlier feminists. The days when there was one cause and one movement and it grew and grew and things changed tangibly. It made headlines. Rules were broken. Bras were burned. I felt like a phony feminist who thought that writing some tweets would somehow do something. Trying to change everything and nothing all at once. But what tonight really got me thinking about was how messy the social landscape feels for millennials – and if we’re confused then the poor teenagers of this world must be even more confused, or least they will come to be later down the line. Which is what I think Melissa Benn’s book aims to cover.
When I talk about feminism or any sort of topic that is branded “feminist” really all I care to discuss is equality: equal chances for men and woman. But really tonight for me was an opportunity to stop and think for an hour or two, and reflect inwardly on the struggles of a modern day woman. Kat Banyard, who founded UK Feminista, also spoke this evening on the panel, and it was truly inspiring. She spoke about female objectification and porn industry and this element of “brainwashing” that goes on today in the world. I must admit, until very recently I was a bit brainwashed. Of course there are elements of my life that still are. Liking the colour pink for example. (I joke).
Throughout school and most of university there was element of my personality that thought that my worth was synonymous with my looks. Success = what you look like. How cripplingly depressing is that? But I don’t think I can be blamed for that – being surrounded by perfect-looking girls, covers of magazines, compliments if you wore a nice dress, it all adds up and you think that looking attractive is a massive deal. This is not a unique problem and is an issue that so many girls deal with daily as we all scroll through Instagram and see yoga bunnies on surfboards and want to have a face like Kim K. But to think that if you’re not visually appealing to men then you are failing? That is dangerous. And my 20-something self now looks at younger me with quite a lot of pity and sadness. All of those hours wasted straightening your hair when you could have been reading a book. Tut tut.
It wasn’t really until I was on holiday by the pool three years ago that I read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. That book really really spoke to me. It wasn’t that Caitlin “dummed” it down, or simplified it – but she spoke in my language, in the Gen Y language. She references Lady Gaga, she references brazilian bikini waxes, she talks about periods in a way that makes you think OMG LOL CAITLIN THIS IS MY LIFE. It’s not too political or academic or ranty – she is just being so straight-talking and funny too. I don’t want to sound too dramatic but I wasn’t the same person after that book. I felt like all my internal struggles of having to be pretty, or worry that I wasn’t a “very good feminist” because I liked high heels, and fashion, and feeling girly and sometimes my dinner being paid for. I cast aside all of my “am i/aren’t i” dilemmas and thought fuck it: I just want to be an independent person who wants to do her own thing — and not be told what to do by a woman or a man or by a teacher or by a stranger.
I’m so glad I went along tonight, it opened up a can of worms, it opened up conversation. It threw me slightly at how much work there is to do with lots of different issues in society. The world is certainly not perfect, but it’s down to each and every one of us to change it. My other takeaway from tonight was not to ever feel bad about how “petty” your problems might seem. Don’t be shamed into silence. Do what you can, care and be aware of other people’s issues as well as your own. And speak out and speak up.
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