As I’m sure many of you know, Monday was International Women’s Day. As always, I have my finger directly adjacent to the pulse and am three days late posting a blog for the occasion. One day a significant event will play along with my posting schedule and have the decency to occur on a Thursday. Then I’ll finally be timely.
I spent a lot of International Women’s Day feeling totally overwhelmed. My Instagram feed was full of incredible women supporting each other and sharing each other’s work. My inbox was full of newsletters about events that were occurring (virtually) on the day. There were so many articles to read, films to watch, talks to attend, women to learn about, and it all got a bit much for my tiny noisy mind.
In the midst of all this gleeful glorious girly goodness, I was struggling to think what I could contribute to the occasion. I started lining up people to mention/tag/shout out but then got scared that I’d miss someone out. I considered sharing a few recommendations but panicked at the idea of picking two or three things out of the sumptuous selection of treats on offer. In the end, I binged my way through a belly full of beautiful films in the No Man’s Land Film Festival lineup and sat back and basked in the awesomeness of my fellow females. I also quietly made a couple resolutions to myself.
Firstly, to find some badass women to climb with when life and lockdown stops getting in the way. And secondly, to get more involved with the women doing all these brilliant things and do what I can to further our joint and individual endeavours. Two slightly daunting prospects for an introvert who’s barely spoken to anyone outside of her immediate family for about a year.
I also stumbled across a piece of writing that fell out of my head and onto the page in September 2019 titled “Where Did All The Women Go?”. Re-reading this piece reminded me how much my relationships with other women have changed since I was a teenager. As you’ll read in the piece below, though I had some great female friends, the friendships I had with boys generally felt safer and simpler. I wasn’t especially drawn to a lot of the things I associated with being a pretty and proper teenage girl. I had more in common with the lads I spent time with and felt less pressure to behave “like a girl” in their company.
Now I can see that my definition of “like a girl” was far too narrow. The women we celebrate every day, not just on International Women’s Day, show us that the actions of women and girls don’t have to be limited. They don’t have to fit into a box of what a woman should be. I’m glad that I, and the rest of the world, are waking up to that fact and redefining the meaning of “like a girl”.
Where Did All The Women Go?
(I confess, I’ve tweaked it a bit but it’s mostly in its original form)
I always used to love hanging out with boys.
I am the daughter of a tomboy mother and my only sibling is an older brother. The friends I remember playing with the most at primary school were boys. I would generally be found playing get-down bulldogs or attempting to kick my good friend Tim in the shin during break times. Most of my best memories from secondary school are of the times I spent hanging out with boys.
A couple of memorable summers with two of my closest male associates stick in my mind. Predominantly, we dicked about in local parks and tried to see how long we could spin around on children’s playground equipment before throwing up. We watched Jackass, chatted shit, and marveled at all the disgusting names we could come up with for my period. “On the blob” was my particular favourite. It was the early 2000s and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in a sleepy town in the northwest of England. I had friends that were girls but, on balance, I preferred spending time with lads.
As soon as I was given the choice over what I wore, I shied away from anything I would describe as especially feminine. Items of clothing that I loved included a Manchester United shirt, a camouflage fleece (recently rediscovered in my parents’ attic and enjoying a long-awaited revival tour), a ridiculously baggy pair of Levi jeans (which have undergone many transformations and are currently patched to hell and living their best life as a pair of “distressed” shorts) and a navy shirt passed down to me from my brother. It was far too big but ridiculously comfy and it initiated my love affair with the shirt as an item of clothing, which is still going strong today. So, I blended in pretty well with the boys.
I liked playing sports, despite never being the best at any of them. However, my memories of playing sports with other girls are not all positive. As with most activities in life, I’ve always preferred individual sporting pursuits rather than team games. I was a slightly podgy nerd and therefore open to ridicule during PE lessons involving team activities. I was playing centre against a much speedier girl (members of my family are not built for sprinting, we’re stubborn plodders) during one notable netball match and the captain of my team screamed in my face to simply RUN FASTER. This charming pep talk and an incident involving a hockey stick making swift and painful contact with the top of my head didn’t exactly provoke positive feelings towards team sports with the girls in my class.
The majority of my early positive experiences of sport came from playing badminton outside of school with a male coach and predominantly male fellow badminton enthusiasts. In this environment, I remember being encouraged, not cruelly screamed at. No man ever shot me down for being too nerdy, too fat, or too slow to take on the biggest and fastest players on the court. It probably helped that a lot of the club members were adults so bullying a teenager would have been somewhat frowned upon. Regardless, the atmosphere was extremely supportive, and nobody hit me with a hockey stick. Win-win.
To be totally honest, I don’t remember any authority figures in my childhood and adolescence who made me feel restricted or pigeonholed because of my gender. My parents didn’t give me dolls or classically girly toys any more than they gave me dinosaurs and trains. My favourite toys were all Power Rangers themed. Although I was, and still am, an absolute sucker for a teddy bear or anything soft and cuddly.
At school I did well in all subjects (nerd!), including Maths and Science and all those things associated with being a clever boy. Although I also loved the artier side of life and spent most of my time working on Textiles and Drama projects. My head of sixth form actually encouraged me to stick with the subjects more stereotypically associated with boys. He tried to persuade me to study Maths at university rather than Costume Design and Construction, which I eventually chose (turns out, he had a point on that one, but that’s a discussion for another day).
During this time, I can honestly say I have very few memories of my gender being an issue or something that held me back. I’m sure being white and middle-class gave me a leg-up with that one though. It’s not all about reproductive parts after all.
It was not until I moved to Edinburgh, and my boyfriend (now Husband) to Durham for college and university respectively, that I started hanging out in more mixed groups of people. Not just mixed in terms of gender but mixed in terms of people from different walks of life with different experiences than my own. Considering I came from a rural area in the northwest of England, it wasn’t especially difficult to find more diverse groups of people than the ones I’d experienced before the age of 18.
In an attempt to sound smart to all Husband's fancy academic friends, I joined Skeptics in the Pub, where I learned about the truth behind a veritable smorgasbord of bullshit topics including alternative medicine, psychics, and faith healing. The group was a pick and mix of amazing people with fascinating areas of expertise and I soaked up all the knowledge like a happy little northern sponge. This was also where I first remember being made properly aware of feminism and the patriarchy.
It is with horror and disgust that I remember chatting away to one lady in the group and proudly proclaiming: “Hey, what are us ladies making such a fuss about? Equality is basically sorted right? We can work, we can vote, we can keep our own names after we get married. It’s all good, isn’t it?”.
Before I go on, I must say this is clearly shameful for me personally but also a major criticism of the British education system. I dropped History as soon as possible but I feel like they could have mentioned the whole feminism thing before students reached the ripe old age of 14.
Anyway, this was my introduction to the world of feminism and equality. Thankfully, my fellow skeptic didn’t just laugh in my face or shun me for my ignorance. She provided me with a concise explanation of how the world is ridiculously bias against not only women but also people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community and basically anyone who isn’t born a middle/upper-class, heterosexual, cis-gender, white man. Mind. Blown. I felt like I was seeing things clearly for the first time.
Since then, the balance of my friendship and social groups has shifted. It now features more members of the XX chromosome community than the XY (or has at least reached a more balanced percentage than it had during my teenage years). Now, I would say that the people I value most in my life or look up to most in the world are predominantly female.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of wonderful men in my life. However, last week I was sitting on a crash mat at the bottom of a climbing wall, having tumbled inelegantly from a difficult and powerful boulder problem, and I felt lonely. I was surrounded by men. Lovely, kind, and friendly men, but still, everyone else in the gym was male. Not just in my training group. I was the only women in the building. And I felt lonely. As a teenager I would have relished this scenario. I’d have loved seeing myself as one of the lads. I would have enjoyed not feeling like I had to behave “like a girl”, as I often did when surrounded by other teenage girls.
However, as I’ve grown older, and hopefully a little wiser, and experienced the vast diversity that comes under the label of “girl” or “woman”, I’ve gradually learned to embrace the parts of myself that felt wrong or like they didn’t belong to someone female. The women I call friends, heroes, and inspirations have helped me to expand my definition of what a woman can be.
I swear, a fucking lot. I wear shirts (not blouses) and a shit load of black clothing. I eat like a fucking horse. I do pullups. I don’t like pink. I wear my hair short. I speak my mind (often without thinking). My shins are covered in bruises and hair. I rock climb and I pole dance. I drink gin and tonics and cider. I watch Coronation Street and superhero movies. I talk about my period, politics, and psychology. And these are all part of what makes me a woman.
Maybe it seems like I’m giving men an unreasonably hard time. The men I climb with are great. They don’t doubt my abilities. Their shouts of “venga, venga” are no less encouraging for me than they are for any other member of the group. My coach doesn’t shy away from setting hard moves because he’s worried that I can’t do them. The atmosphere is just as supportive as the badminton sessions I enjoyed when I was younger. But something is missing. Now that I am used to hanging out with more women, this male dominated group feels wrong. It feels restricted. Uniform. Lacking in something integral.
So, I shall continue to fly the flag for women in this small part of my life, while appreciating the fact that this situation is rare for me these days. Next time I’m sitting on the crash-mat feeling lonely, weak, and surrounded by testosterone I will remember that I am none of these things. Well, I probably am surrounded by testosterone, but I am by no means weak and alone. My life is full of fabulous women who spend their days running the world and sticking it to the patriarchy. And in the meantime, I will get up, pull harder, and climb like a fucking girl!