The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

My personal journey with girl love

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:

  • Once I was taken aside by a senior female co-worker and told that my breasts and the way I dressed was offensive and embarrassing, and that she was leaving me out of a key workplace opportunity because of this.
  • Once my boss from a former job told me in the tone of voice one would use when describing a disgusting bug that I was the most confident women she had ever met.
  • Once I was told that I was a “young woman” so I should just “stop acting like I know anything”
  • I was told by my current boss: “I would like to be a mentor to you if I have the time, but if it doesn’t work out I would hate to have to tell the sector all about you, because it’s a very small sector and that wouldn’t be good for your future.”
I genuinely don’t think that there is a big jump between two 14 year old girls tearing shreds of their friend behind her back because they want to celebrate feeling more powerful than her, and having a lady in your office who relishes in making you feel like you’re 5cms small. I think it is all part of normalised girl hate which society uses to sell us shit and to make men feel more powerful. And I really really hate it. When I first left university I was desperate for a more experienced woman to mentor me, to help me celebrate my strengths and learn from my mistakes. Now I am just desperate to have the women I work with cut the nasty shit with each other.

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.


13 responses to “My personal journey with girl love

  1. Draco T Bastard October 5, 2011 at 12:35 am

    It’s hard not to when I feel like society deliberately pits us against each other.

    That’s because society does deliberately pit us against each other. We’d all be better off if we cooperated but then some people wouldn’t become rich, powerful, non-productive and then call the rest of us bludgers.

    Men against men, men against women, women against women and it’s all so bloody stupid.

  2. tallulahspankhead October 5, 2011 at 7:55 am

    It’s funny, I also went to a single sex school, and yet had a markedly different experience. Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t cattiness and awful girl on girl crime, there was. Especially in the netball season. But I guess, as someone who was reasonably good at sport, reasonably popular, reasonably clever, and a joiner, I never really noticed it. What that school did teach me is that Women Can Do Anything. Not in a twee-girl-guidey way, but just by never acknowledging that the world could be different. In some ways, that was a brilliant thing to teach young women, but in some ways it was a disservice, because when I left school, and was faced with sexism and attitudes, I didn’t understand what was going on. I’d never had to face it.

    My massively privileged private school education aside, one of the things that frustrates me, is when we talk about the beauty industry, and things like that, and we say “women don’t dress for men, they dress for other women!” As if that makes it OK. As if that competitiveness isn’t a by-product of patriarchal structures which pit us against each other, because there can be only One True Woman. One woman always has to be the hot one, one has to be the clever, bookish one. One’s the talented one. Etc etc etc. And we accept these roles and fight over them. Which is understandable, when society tells you, you have to be one of Those Women, and the only thing standing in your way is that bitch with the blond hair.

    If I could give your teenage self anything, it would be this article by Tavi. Especially this line:

    Girl hate is not hating someone who happens to be a girl, it’s hating someone because we’re told that, as girls, we should hate other girls who are as awesome as or more awesome than ourselves.

  3. Muerk October 5, 2011 at 10:13 am

    This post is _exactly_ why I enjoy being a stay at home mum rather than being in paid work. I loathe, loathe, work place nastiness. It just completely derails me. I’m happy to work hard and take constructive criticism, but I just do not want to deal with the nasty behavior.

  4. Deborah October 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I went to a very small, single sex Catholic girls school too, ‘though in the provinces, and I don’t recall it as being a particularly bitchy place. Like many schools, it wasn’t very tolerant of difference, especially for being a nerdy intellectual… Mind you, this was over quarter of a century ago.

    But … (thread merge coming up), I have three beautiful daughters, the eldest of whom is off to secondary school next year. I’ve been working very hard with them on developing a sense of morality, about all sorts of things, one of which is being supportive of people, and celebrating their successes. The image thing is not really rearing its head yet, ‘though no doubt it will. I’ve been trying to help them to develop a sense that one person’s success does not entail another person’s failure, and that we should always look for something positive about someone. I hoping that they can hold onto that ethic as they become young women. I think the next step will be to help them learn how to turn back nastiness directed towards them, I hope by naming it to the perpetrator. Things like responding with, “That’s not a very kind thing to say.”

    My working life has also been mostly positive, and I’ve developed some great friendships with female colleagues. But there were some dodgy experiences in my early work years – the same sort of inclusion and exclusion that can go on among children and teenagers. Power games, I suppose, and younger people usually have much less power, so they are much more vulnerable to it.

    Really interesting post, Coley.

    • tallulahspankhead October 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Things like responding with, “That’s not a very kind thing to say.”

      My personal favorite is “why do you say that”, or if it’s a question, like “why don’t you lose weight/haven’t you got a boyfriend”, “that’s interesting, why do you ask?”. It forces the person to justify their question. Which they rarely can.

    • coleytangerina October 6, 2011 at 12:43 am

      Thanks Deborah! I do wonder if it will get better with age, as people see me as their equal or whatever…but I really don’t think young women should have to ‘do their time’ as the office punching bag before hand.

  5. Jackie Clark October 7, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Thanks Coley. I’m big on girl love – that’s how I enact my feminism these days. It’s how I always have, I think. But then I’ve always been attracted more to women, in a heartfriend way, than men. I’ve thought alot about it over the years, and I put it down to a couple of things in my case. I have 4 brothers, and 4 sisters. I was much younger than my sisters, so spent a lot of time with my brothers. Who were, to put it bluntly, dicks of the highest order. (Except for one, whom I have always adored. Happily two of the others are now lovely men.) And I also spent alot of my time at private single sex schools. Boys were never my favourite people. I didn’t like them, I didn’t want to spend time with them. And so, I never saw other girls as competition of any kind. I’m not saying I have never felt that way in my adult life – of course I have, from time to time. And of course, women hating on each other is all about insecurity. Insecurity that comes from not feeling good enough, pretty enough, whatever. Everyone has their issues, and women seem to feel the need to put theirs onto other people. Either way, all we can do, as lady lovers is to support each other, be kind to each other, and hope that other women follow our lead.

  6. Lad99 October 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    The mentoring thing is huge. We’re dying for mentors who won’t patronise/ fear for losing their position. I was lucky to have an incredible role model in my first job, she was made redundant for her constant attempts to keep the Old Boys Club in line. Cheesy as it is, her inspiring legacy lives on. Thanks for the write up, you speak straight to this young woman

  7. Catherine October 10, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    If any one ever has a petition to make all schools co-ed I would love to sign it. I think that would be a step in the right direction of girl love. Amoung many other benefits, it would also help men and women to grow and see each other as equal individuals.

  8. Rebugger October 12, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I went to a co-ed school and didn’t experience the same kind of thing of that all – of course there was the cool girls versus the rest of us, but by the later years that had disappeared as well…..the super cool girls dropped out of school (don’t they always – ha see, case in point! 🙂 )!!!

    But I have noticed the girl vs girl stuff post uni & school that’s for sure.

    Re “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” – couldn’t agree more.

    I experienced the same thing & because I didn’t shag around (or at least, no where near as much as what some would have liked) so couldn’t be labelled a slut (per se!) & because I didn’t go on the piss & buddy up to everyone quite as much I always felt ostracized. Never had anything overt as what you experienced, but ostracized all the same. And when I got promoted it got worse. Nobody likes a pretty, clever & diligent girl to do well, especially if they can say you have been sleeping your way up the ladder.

    SInce having children I have come across the same sort of thing – women against women – but in a completely different way in terms of competitiveness around baby’s development, breastfeeding (I wasn’t completely “exclusive” so that raised eyebrows & generation snarky remarks about my milk supply & other bullshit like that).

    So it seems this kind of crap never ends. All you can do is live your life the best that you can & tell the rest to fuck off.

  9. Rebugger October 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Oops meant to say “especially if they can’t say you have been sleeping your way up the ladder”!

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