Q&A: Laura Bates on Writing Girl Up and Building a Feminist Future

Through lists, drawings and inspirational messages, Laura Bates—founder of the Everyday Sexism Project and longtime feminist activist—tackles issues from body image to sexual harassment to mental illness in Girl Up: Kick Ass, Claim Your Woman Card, and Crush Everyday Sexism, a manifesta and guidebook for young feminists.

Girl Up uses honesty to confront the challenges girls and women face on a daily basis, and Bates tackles this challenge with aplomb by using words that some people feel uncomfortable with—including “vagina,” “slut” and “clitoral glans”—to emphasize the importance and impact of our collective language. She helps the reader pinpoint the plethora of sexist attitudes and policies ingrained in society—from language to patriarchal power structures—and doesn’t shy away from exposing the abundance of sexism surrounding the lives of women and girls in our modern world. Bates also includes women’s organizations, magazines and blogs to check out for girls—including Everyday Feminism, Girls for a Change, FemSoc, the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms.—and a list of resources including the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, National Dating Abuse Hotline, National Eating Disorders Association Helpline, National Runaway Safeline and The Trevor Project for readers grappling with these issues in their own lives.

“You’ve been getting messages since you were a baby,” Bates writes in the book. “Messages about who you are and what you’re good at, about how the world sees you and what you should do if you want to succeed. They’re the kind of messages you don’t really think about because they are all around you, all the time. Well, screw that. I’m here to tell you something else.” Later on, she lists “things for which this book has zero fucks to give,” including societal expectations, societal judgement gender stereotypes, any form of prejudice, sexist jokes and cronuts.

Though Girl Up is targeted toward young girls and women, anyone can benefit from Bates’ advice and insight. After all, don’t we all need to know how to organize a protest, what a vagina looks like and how to start a feminist society? Who doesn’t want to know how to deal with uncomfortable moments when you feel unpopular or awkward and how to combat sexist dress codes? From her exploration of the joys of feminism to drawings of different body parts and encouragement to cultivate self-love—there’s something for everyone in this book that will leave them with ideas to ponder and lessons to integrate into their daily lives. Part memoir, part cultural commentary and part feminist toolbox, Girl Up makes you wonder how you’ve managed to live without it for your whole life—and after you read it, you’ll be ready to change the world.

Ms. spoke with Bates about her inspiration for writing the book, the challenges she encountered and what made it so fulfilling to write.

Would you mind sharing what made you decide to write this book? As a longtime feminist writer, speaker, activist and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, you’ve been involved in advocating for gender equality for a long time. What compelled you to write this book and what story did you feel needed to be told?

When I started the Everyday Sexism Project, I was expecting to receive stories from adult women. When 100,000 testimonies that flooded in, one of the things that really shocked me was just how many came from girls and young women.

Girls as young as 7 or 8 who were having their bodies commented on by men in the street, girls of 13 or 14 being rated out of 10 by boys at school, girls of 15 or 16 who said it was “normal” for a man to touch their legs when they were on public transport in their school uniform, young women who were being pressured not to report sexual violence on university campuses. I was shocked by this, so I started going into schools and universities, talking to girls about their lives. What I discovered was really shocking.

We’re constantly being told that girls today have never had it so good—that sexism is dying out and they can be anything they want to be. But beneath the surface, young women are coping with a bombardment of online abuse, sexting pressure, slut-shaming, media sexualization, misogynistic online porn and body image anxiety that many adults neither seem to be aware of nor fully understand. There didn’t seem to be much support available that addressed these realities—the advice being given to young women is very outdated, and I heard from lots of girls who were very confused about their rights, and about issues like sexual consent and their rights to their own bodies. I spoke to students who thought your boyfriend couldn’t rape you because you had to have sex with him and a rapist is only a stranger in a dark alleyway, for example.

I wanted to write a book that attacked the sexism girls are dealing with, addressed these realities and offered a range of tools and resources for navigating them. I also wanted to create a window into that world for parents and adults, who were increasingly asking me: “how can I support my daughter when I don’t really understand what she’s going through?”

Something that struck me immediately about your book was its combination of eloquence and humor. How did you balance writing about extremely serious topics while managing to keep the book engaging and enlightening?

I didn’t want to sound like I was telling girls what to do or giving them a lecture—they get enough of that already! I tried to take the tone of the book from the thousands of young women I’d met— this is not a generation of cowering victims, it is a group of incredibly smart, resilient, funny young women who are fighting back and finding their own incredibly inspiring ways of standing up to sexism. Girls like the high schoolers who were told they couldn’t wear yoga pants to class because it “distracted the boys,” who came back to school with placards saying “are my pants lowering your test scores?” Or one girl who was told by boys that she was the only girl in her physics class because women are rubbish at science – she replied “10 people isn’t enough to be a statistically significant sample… some scientists you are!” So I wanted to reflect that strength and humor in the book too!

One of my favorite parts of the book was how you formatted presenting your information in different ways: from charts, to drawings, to lists. Why did you decide to organize this book in a non-traditional structure?

I wanted to find a way to communicate complex ideas but in a really accessible and engaging way. For example, using the computer game scenario to explain online abuse was helpful, because it’s hard to explain just how insidiously it all adds up and combines to have a wider impact than each individual incident might suggest. I also wanted to use different media to try and drive home really key messages—like “vagina is not a dirty word!”—and I thought that bold illustrations by brilliant Jo Harrison would help with that. And I also wanted to poke fun at some of the ridiculous sexist arguments we hear so often that we’ve started to accept them—like using the choose your own adventure style to explore what kind of mental process you’d actually have to go through to arrive at the idea that it’s acceptable to shout “tits!” at a woman you’ve never met in a bar.

One of the engaging aspects of Girl Up was how candid you were in sharing your (and sometimes others’) personal experiences and using words some people feel uncomfortable using. Was it difficult to write candidly in that way? Was it satisfying?

It was really satisfying and liberating actually! It made me realize how much I myself had also felt constrained, especially when I was younger, and pressured by societal norms about what you can and can’t talk about, how you should hide and be ashamed of your own body and that harassment and discrimination are your own fault. It was very cathartic to look back at my own teen experiences and realize just how much of that was absolute crap! I also think it’s really important to normalize words like vagina and vulva, which people are made to feel are somehow taboo, which creates stigma about our bodies.

Though the book is clearly intended for teenage girls and people who identify as young women, the book was accessible for anyone interested in feminism, empowerment and living a more fulfilling life. How did you manage to target the book to teenage girls while allowing it to still be inclusive towards others?

I think many of these experiences start in childhood but are actually universal. One of the major problems with sexism and harassment is that it starts so young that it becomes normalized and we then feel forced into accepting it later in life as ‘just the way things are’. This really struck me when talking to university students who said they didn’t report being sexually assaulted on nights out because it was just ‘normal’, and even to be expected. I wanted to write in a way that addressed young people with urgency, because we have to disrupt this normalization as early as possible, but I also hoped that there’d be a lot in those messages that was also useful for older women, because many of us never had the chance to address these things. I’ve heard from a lot of women in their twenties and thirties who said they really wished this book was around when they were younger, but that they had also found it helpful reading it now.

What chapter was the most difficult to write and why?

The chapters that cover sexism and abuse (That’s Not Your Vagina and It’s My Face and I’ll Smile if I Want To) were probably hardest to write because  they involved going through lots of the personal stories of sexual violence and harassment that young women have shared with me and that’s always very hard and upsetting. But I really hope that the book might help others in similar situations, particularly from the perspective of feeling that it wasn’t their fault, knowing that support is available and understanding that it isn’t and shouldn’t be normal.

What was the most fulfilling aspect of writing the book?

Feeling like there was something I could leave behind when I felt a school or a university after hearing from a group of young women who were dealing with so much crap. Previously, going in to do a workshop or a talk and then walking away felt awful, because there was always so much more to say. I wanted to throw young women a lifeline. I wanted to stop and help them with detailed plans for launching protests, or starting a feminist society. I needed more time to say “no, it isn’t normal, it really is bullshit and you shouldn’t have to put up with it and you’re not alone.” I feel like Girl Up gave me the opportunity to do that and I really hope that some of them will find it helpful.

Micaela Brinsley is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a rising sophomore at Smith College. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in labor and tenants’ rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just and inclusive place. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.

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