Banter in the Garden
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Tea and Strumpets
I went to a tiny, single sex Catholic school for all but one year of my high school education. When you think of a cliché Catholic schoolgirl in a heavy woollen skirt with too much hair product trying to get the attention of some boy at a bus stop after school – you are probably visualising a memory of mine. The school was too small for comfort, everyone knew your business, everyone had probably crushed on or drunkenly pashed your current/ex/future boyfriend and compliments from other girls were either given bitterly or in exchange for one back.
I remember the first time I ever had a genuine compliment from a group of other girls. I was 16 and at my boyfriend’s school play for his large, co-educational public school known for its diversity (which in 16-year-old-girl speak means ‘gay kids and goths’). Backstage during the play my boyfriend had pointed me out to his mostly female castmates, who then told them how pretty they thought I was. When he told me this later I recoiled and asked him what they wanted from me. When he looked at me with confusion and said “What? What do you mean? They just thought you were pretty.” I knew then that there had been something deeply wrong with my interactions with other women up until that point.
The following year, for my last year of secondary education, I enrolled at the aforementioned large co-ed public school. It was the best decision I’ve made in my life for many reasons, but one of the main ones was my exposure to girl love. The culture at this school was different; boys weren’t seen as distant prizes – they were classmates, heteronormativity was criticised, competitiveness between girls was seen as immature and ignorant, and every day was mufti day. Meaning that my usual routine of planning 3 months in advance for the 2 non-uniformed school days of the year so I could wear my Most Expensive Clothes was out. And good riddance.
On my first day I was taken by the hand and shown where all my classes were by a girl who was to be one of my best friends from then on. I was warmly welcomed and complimented by my new classmates, which sounds shallow but cannot be under-valued as an important part of feeling good about yourself as a teenager. I formed a strong, solid group of friends made up of boys and girls who loved each other fiercely and are still just as tight today.
Thanks to the amazing standard set by my friends, in just one year I changed from a deeply competitive teenage girl, to a young woman with an appreciation and celebration of the beauty and wit of other women. I also learned that I, like many other young women, were attracted to other women. And that this was OK. This transformation is something that spoke to my inner most ethics that had probably been there all along but was buried and confused by what was seen to be ‘normal’ (competitive) interactions with other girls.
Since discovering and celebrating girl love, I have taken it with me everywhere I have gone. Am I perfect? Fuck no. Have I still been competitive with other women? Of course. It’s hard not to when I feel like society deliberately pits us against each other. However, girl love is something I am committed to and will always strive for, because at the end of the day it’s a fuckload better than the alternative which I have lived.
That said, this bubble that I have created for myself with my amazing lady friends means that my interactions with ‘the real world’ can be very, very disheartening. In pretty much every workplace I have been in I have experienced competitiveness, one-upmanship, and pettiness from other women. Yeah sure it is probably all ‘normal office stuff’, in the same way that teen girls vying for popularity while slicing others down is ‘normal’ – but that doesn’t mean it is good for anyone. And it is disproportionately female on female.
I am an assertive, confident women who also manages to be a total bumbling goof sometimes. I am very young (always the youngest in my post-university workplaces), I am talkative and easily excited, but I work my butt off. I am curvy and fairly attractive. And to be honest, I don’t feel like these qualities have done me any favours in the workplace:
I am, however, hugely fortunate to have become involved as a volunteer with a women-centred sexual violence agency run by a group of women who have inadvertently become mentors to me, but have also created an environment of two-way guidance and support. I am so thankful for these women, and for this agency, however I wish it wasn’t such a rare find. I am not the only young woman at the beginning of my career desperately wishing that she didn’t have to look too far outside the office for guidance and support from women who have established their careers and learned a lot in the process.
I am also not the only young woman who had a nasty shock when she realised the school yard girl hate doesn’t stop in the school yard. And I’m not sure how to make it better; I’m not really sure if there’s anything I can do about it from my end. However, what I feel like I can control is how I act towards women who will be me in 5-10 years time. I am trying to take every opportunity I have with younger women to give them the girl love I would have wanted myself, and I am trying to encourage everyone else to do the same.