Laura Bates's Newest Book, Girl Up, Encourages Girls to Change the World
They say you have to taste something 17 times to get used to it. And unfortunately, young British women’s lives are saturated with so much “sexist b*******”, as Laura Bates would put it, that we’ve all become used to it, and the task of extricating its worst effects from every aspect of their lives is quite a tall order.
That doesn’t stop Laura, MAKER and founder of Everyday Sexism, an online space where people can catalog instances of sexism experienced on a day to day basis, from giving it a go. After years of unsuccessful lobbying for compulsory sex education for all schoolchildren, Laura wanted to provoke productive conversations about sex and sexism amongst young women, and so "Girl Up" was born.
A witty and wise guide to life, specifically, as a girl, it’s a book written with feminist principles rather than a guide to feminism for girls. So there’s no dumbed-down explaining the Brownmillers and the Cisouxs and the Sontags and the Greers, instead a feminism in action, not a discourse of the abstract. Laura takes each big issue affecting young women’s lives, from internet porn, to airbrushing, the way vaginas never get as much scribble-time as penises, consent, meanness, slut-shaming and social media, and uses extended analogy and sarcasm to point out how bizarre the sexist standards of each can be.
Each chapter begins with a bright, jolly or punny title: “Fakebook, Fitter and Instaglam”, “‘Mean Girls And Mental Health’, and, “That’s Not Your Vagina”. Laura proceeds to expose the status quo for the narrow rut it’s got itself stuck in. So, she writes, “You might not notice that the words for women’s genitalia are sometimes derogatory or violent (like ‘gash’ or ‘axe wound’)”, “A slut isn’t a person, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Like beauty, or an annoying eyelash” and “Although I hadn’t been aware of sexism while I was at school or university, I actually faced it on a regular basis. I just didn’t really pick up on it. Sometimes things made me upset and angry, but I didn’t know what to call them.”
Following this last sentence is a personal and extensive - though sadly, perhaps not comprehensive - catalogue of incidents whereby Laura ignored sexist treatment. If pressed for time, the modern millennial convinced of equality of the sexes could read through this passage with increasing alarm as they too realise that “sexism is a bit like watching a 3D film at the cinema. Once you put on the special glasses, it suddenly jumps out at you, as real as day, in all its technicolour glory.”
And for those many young women - and men, and everything in-between (Laura goes out of her way in this book to mention the “folk” who make up our increasingly diverse society) who do realise sexism’s a problem, the book holds solutions. The illustrations by Jo Harrison, who previously worked on the No More Page 3 campaign, helpful, snappy retorts and affirmations (“Consent is really too LOW a bar, HOLD OUT for ENTHUSIASM” and “SPOILER ALERT: Friend-zoning is not a thing”) ready to post to Instagram and Tumblr. There’s also life advice, guides on how to boost confidence, tips on how to return a “compliment” with a savvy put-down and careers coaching in the form of influential women giving their younger selves advice. There is also a step-by-step run-down of how a young woman can enact change, by, for example, challenging a sexist school uniform policy.
In the context of "Girl Up", a landscape where harassment, sexual assaults and rapes feature, school uniforms might not seem the apex of women’s problems. But Laura, in her encouraging tone, shows clearly how oppressions against women are interwoven, while providing girls with the tools to deal with this nonsense now. Because if they’re free to grow into enlightened and incisive young women, where will practicing the fightback take them? One might question why Laura felt it necessary to appear, unairbrushed, and then airbrushed in an underwear-clad before-and-after shot. She says these images expose how airbrushing sets “up reality against fake female perfection so none of us can ever win”. But what privacy she loses in this experiment, she gains in trust from her readers; like a big sister, she is friendly and warm, presenting the options and the agency girls have to change the world. To Laura, “it’s not just about smashing the glass ceiling, it's about passing the hammer to the next girl.”
The big question is, with this much b******* to smash through, will the message make its way to all those who still don’t know how much they ever needed it?
Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster