What’s it like to be young, female and living in 2015? More pressures? More opportunities? A mix of the wonderful and the nerve-wracking? I think it’s a hotch-potch of so many things, most of them dependent on the individual and her circumstances. But to be a teenage girl right now is to be living through a time of unprecedented change (although I guess you can say the same of every generation), with all the challenges, possibilities, ideas, expectations and exploration that entails.
For starters, we’re still figuring out the internet – deemed ‘digital natives’. But we’re not really natives as such. We weren’t born into this online space, much as it may play home to so many hours in the day. Rather we’ve acclimatized quick-smart to new conditions, feeling them out tweet by tweet, blog post by blog post, selfie by selfie.
I was reminded of this again when watching a video put together by Gemma Cairney for the currently ongoing Women of the World festival – culminating today, on International Women’s Day. It made me want to simultaneously cry and applaud the AMAZING young women interviewed. They spoke perceptively on body image, sexting, exams, social media; immediately proving wrong any lazy generalisations one might be tempted to make about teens. But my god it’s frustrating too, especially in their observations on what was asked of them – whether it was from boys, school or society at large. So little room within that for a formation of identity and behaviour based on what feels personally right, rather than a reaction to the world they’re immersed in.
I’m a few years beyond that age – close enough for it to hit home, but with some healthy distance measured out in time and independence. I can recognize what they said without feeling it. I’m navigating other things now. But with each year that goes by, my belief in the significance of young people – in this instance young women – grows. And when I mean ‘significance’, I don't mean that there’s any kind of inherent wisdom, value, or precedence to be found among the next generation; more that the genuine concerns of teens and twenty-somethings often tend to be dismissed as having less validity than their older counterparts.
But what excites me is the momentum that’s building right now. Recently we had Yas Necati’s Campaign for Consent (with so many sex ed charities & other organisations continuing the battle). There’s an ongoing campaign run by the ace Integrate Bristol to eradicate FGM, with Fahma Mohamed and Muna Hassan (who once told David Cameron to "grow a pair"), among others, at the forefront. Malala is still being fucking awesome. My friend Azfa Awad has been doing her own show based on the experiences of female asylum seekers. Rookie is busy publishing engaging content, week in and week out. June Eric-Udorie is writing things like this and this. Jules Spector is fourteen (!) and runs this blog, while Ellen is 16 and has won awards for her writing on OCD. We’ve got the Guides being bloody brilliant with their Girls Matter campaign – asking us to all shout a little louder.
I mean, if I detailed all of the fabulous, fiercely inspiring campaigns, networks, communities, activities and individuals doing good things, this would be less of a blog post and more something the length of a book.
Special mention, however, goes to Kate Nash’s Girl Gang initiative – echoing the message first heard in her Rock N’Roll for Girls After School Music Club. She’s saying that young women are important, that they need a space to be creative and experiment and be taken seriously. I was lucky enough to go to the UK launch of Girl Gang TV a while back, and hear about the evolution of something that is ultimately about giving young women a space and a place to talk, collaborate, think, respond, act. What began as a series of informal chats in Kate Nash’s garage in LA has now become a fully-fledged global community with its own Youtube channel. As she says here, she wants to support “really cool girls who are interested in feminism, and making stuff, and changing the world.”
And my god, we need more of that – more adults encouraging (and listening to!) the next generation. Also more older women carrying on with being spectacularly cool, whether that’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Janet Mock or Bjork (those are the first three I plucked from my head, but there are literally hundreds I could name). Also more sensitivity to the challenges out there that huge numbers navigate daily, and awareness of the fact that there are numerous problems, prejudices and possibilities for girls globally. And more celebration too, ESPECIALLY of young women.
It’s a tough and scary time in so many, many ways, with much seemingly beyond control, but there are glimpses of thrilling potential too. Long let that momentum continue - and happy International Women's Day to all of you.
This portrait by Tuuli Platner is part of a wonderful series done at my uni titled ‘Oxford Women Speak Out’ (with Pam Robertshaw organising it). The idea was simple – to choose a message that means something to you, and write, or have it written, on your body. Nearly 300 of us took part. I ummed and aahed a lot over what to put, swinging between possibilities like “Stand tall & stride well” and “Embody the space you take up.” But ultimately I settled for this because a.) ‘perfect’ is a concept I’m both fascinated and appalled by, and b.) Having these words next to my scoliosis scar was aptly personal. Learning to be properly proud of the body I have feels like something of a small - but radical - personal achievement for me within the last year.