If you’re of a similar generation to me, you might remember being given one of those cringe-worthy text books when you started secondary school, to help you prepare for sailing those treacherous oceans of adolescence. You might also remember then, how the books glossed over or missed out all the important bits that you really wanted to know like, ‘What exactly is a [insert sex act here]?’ and ‘Can you get X from doing Y?’, and yet they promoted bizarrely archaic things like the belt loop sanitary towel even though it had probably been on display in museums since about 1975.
Well, I remember this vividly, and Laura Bates’ perfectly penned Girl Up is the book my teenage self was missing all those years.
With a preface from Emma Watson warning that it’s not for the faint-hearted, and beautiful illustrations of tap-dancing vaginas on the inside cover, Girl Up provides a gloriously frank, all-cards-on-the-table, no holds barred approach to coping with those agonisingly awful adolescent years (and all the bits that come after).
The book moves chapter by chapter through a whole host of terrifying, mortifying, deeply-burning, cringe-worthy, thought-provoking, life-saving issues that young people might find themselves up against.
In a tone reminiscent of someone’s cool older sister (but with genuinely useful info and no scaremongering), Laura Bates offers practical solutions, on-point information, empowering alternatives and sound advice about everything from how to tackle sexist dress codes at school, what constitutes ‘consent’, that every body is a good body, and an important reminder that pornography is not a documentary about what you must do in the bedroom. There are also inspiring tales of badass women, tips on how to become successful in various careers, and a surprisingly educational colour-by-numbers of the anatomy of the vulva (hey, it beats trying to study it with a hand mirror).
Some of the chapters answer the exact same questions my friends and I were whispering about at the back of the school field in the late nineties, or discussing late into the night on MSN. Other chapters, like the ones about dealing with unwanted attention or challenging stereotypes in the media, highlight issues that my friends and I didn’t even question when we were kids, because they seemed so normal to our everyday lives.
Many topics on the other hand, like how to respond to an unwanted dick-pic, and the pressures of whether or not your hips are wider than an A4 piece of paper, are very specific to a new generation of millennials, proving that teenage girls today ought to be the most revered human beings on the planet. Having looked at what they’re up against, I know I wouldn’t want to be one.
No teen-bible would be complete without an arbitrary flow chart diagram to help its readers make important life choices, and Girl Up has them coming out of its ears. The genius thing about these diagrams, however, is that they’ve been cleverly worded so you literally can’t lose...
And as there’s a lot of information to take in, the really important bits have been given a double page spread, just to make sure you don’t miss it. There are some things that you really can’t afford to be shy about, like this...
At the back of the book, there are pages of useful contacts that point readers in the right direction for information about STIs, pregnancy, mental health issues, LGBT* support, as well as ways to get involved in activism, and even where to team up with other girls interested in coding and STEM. Nice.
I loved the fact that every chapter of the book felt like being handed another weapon, slowly building a shield of armour around its reader - the young feminists of the future. It equips them with ways to respond to a sexist joke when they’re the only one not laughing; it gives advice on how to shut down those braindead misogynists when they can’t quite find the words; it helps them to recognise all those uncomfortable situations that left them feeling sad or weird, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on why; and it fundamentally spells out to them that there’s so much more to women than tits and teeth.
And though it’s primarily aimed at girls, there’s a real need for boys to read it too. They shouldn’t be given a different rule book when they’re all out there in this big wild world together. My advice? Buy it for every young person you know. Buy it for your teenage daughter and buy it for your niece. Slip a copy onto your son’s bookshelf, and if he’s awkward about the title, let him pop an Alex Rider dustjacket on the cover. Buy it for yourself and reflect on how far the world has come in your lifetime, and how much further it still has to go.
There is definitely more profound, highbrow feminist literature out there, but this is a brilliant place for young women to start. I don’t think I read anything half as useful in my adolescent years, and if my malleable, teenage mind had been exposed to this sort of information at school instead of being filled with the bits I’d cobbled together from the back of toilet doors, and Encarta 1997, I can only imagine how much simpler everything would have been for me and everyone I know. Knowledge is power after all.