Book review: Girl Up by Laura Bates
by Ian Sinclair
23 May 2016
Set up by Laura Bates in 2012, the Everyday Sexism Project, which allows people to share their experiences of sexism, harassment, discrimination or assault, has become a hugely influential online feminist campaigning tool.
Bates has since published her bestselling debut Everyday Sexism and become an important voice for women in the media, speaking about gender inequality at the United Nations Commission On the Status Of Women and the Council of Europe. She has also toured the UK speaking to school groups, and it is this experience that informs Girl Up, her second book.
Aimed at young women and girls, it is laugh out loud funny, irreverent and deliciously sweary. I imagine it’s like having a cosy but honest chat with your knowledgeable older sister. There are dancing vaginas, a colour by numbers vulva and a page of slang words for the word “penis”. The motto “masturbation is normal” appears in huge letters across two pages, while a “sexist bullshit klaxon” parps up throughout the text to warn readers of, well, sexist bullshit.
The chapter on women’s bodies is particularly good, with Bates noting that issues such as ‘looks’, ‘weight’ and ‘size’ are common worries when she visits schools. “You might have seen 100 women in one day but you’ve really only seen one woman”, she notes about all the idealised women in advertising and the media we are exposed to everyday. “She is almost always tall, young, thin, white, conventionally beautiful, made up, long-legged and large-breasted.” Our culture’s obesseion with women’s bodies is a trap that keeps women pre-occupied and under-confident, she argues, with the media, fashion and diet industries profiting from this damaging status quo.
Covering topics such as popularity, confidence, friendships, careers, pornography, and romantic and sexual relationships, Bates is part brilliant agony aunt (which I suppose is a gendered term in itself) and part inspiring feminist activist. The book ends by focusing on the latter, with Bates slaying the bizarre myths spread about feminists and amusingly stating that “everybody is either a feminist or an arsehole”.
Essential reading for young women and girls, Girl Up is set to become a key guiding text for the next generation like The Beauty Myth and The Feminine Mystique have for preceding generations. And though they are not the book’s primary audience, arguably it is young men, under intense pressure to conform to the dominant (and highly damaging) masculinity, who need to read the book the most.
Girl Up is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99.