I joined a Sixth Form in Hertfordshire after secondary school when I was 16.
I had been at an inner-city all-girls state school in Islington for five years prior.
This new school had an entry exam and its own driveway.
All the normal routes to popularity at my previous school (getting kicked out of lessons, starting fights, failing exams, stealing someone’s bag, pretending to be an eighth Ethiopian…) weren’t the same there. There was only one other girl from a council estate in my year and I clung to her. Everyone else seemed to live in a big house with a garden and a pet and multiple siblings…
But the school was great, the education I received was great, choir was great, editing the school magazine was great, it was all great. Until the pressure of applying for university rolled around.
At my old school it had always been, do your personal best, whatever that may be. Here it was, do the best, period. It was A* or bust. Girls were having anxiety attacks and hurling themselves on to the floor with hysterical tears for getting 3 marks off an A* or only 1 mark into an A. Meanwhile I looked at my C in Mechanics with pride, I never liked physics so this was a success to me. Obviously no one congratulated me, just despondent pats on the shoulder and mutters of ‘there’s always re-sits’.
My most definitive and lasting memory of my time at this Sixth Form was during one particular history lesson.
Hatti walked in and dropped her Cath Kidston weekend bag, that she used as her school bag, down on the table with such force everyone turned around.
“I had such an awful nightmare last night.” Anguish crumpled her face like a napkin. She had missed out on being elected Head Girl by just a few votes so her popularity and our collective guilt for robbing her of her deserving title commanded the room.
“What happened?” The teacher, Ms Grove, asked; even she was concerned.
“I had a nightmare that I…. that I went to Fortismere!”
A brief silence and then Hatti was consoled by close friends and the teacher; ‘it was just a bad dream’ they told her.
But I stayed in my seat, confused.
Fortismere was a school and Sixth Form in her native Muswell Hill, North London. I knew girls from my previous school who had applied to the Fortismere Sixth Form, as it was renowned for its arts offering, and failed to get in.
I knew the girls to whom Fortismere was their goal, perhaps an unachievable goal. An aspiration. A dream.
At my previous school on results day I hid all my A*s, embarrassed and ashamed I might make one of the other girls feel bad about her grades in comparison. I didn’t publicly complain about my C in ethics as I knew not many of the others girls even passed. At my Sixth Form girls weren’t satisfied when they didn’t get 100% and went wailing through corridors about 97%.
The point of this story is not that Hatti is a bad person, or which school is better, but that, for all the faults (of which there are many) of my previous school, I did gain one thing no one at my new school seemed to have – perspective.
Perspective allows for sensitivity. It allows for understanding of what someone else might be feeling that’s different to you because of their upbringing, background, race, gender and beliefs. It allows for the opportunity to be considerate in light of that perspective.
I went to a play last week called Swifties that Tanya Cubric was one of just two phenomenal actors in. It was a high-energy, trash talking, deeply moving piece about two die-hard Taylor Swift fans. It showed the dichotomy of thinking you understand someone you don’t even know and not understanding yourself, or your best friend.
It was very easy to dismiss the protagonists of the play as delusional, crazy, far fetched, but in reality fans doing crazy, even tragic, things happens more often than you think and rather than dismissing it we should be trying to understand why it happens. What is it about our society, our social-media driven society, that can drive people crazy and to destruction. Only when we truly listen, understand and empathies can we help or make valid comments. And only with perspective is any of that possible.
Three nights ago I went to the last WOMEN IN REVOLT, an exceptional short film night I am extremely sad to be over, programmed by Girls on Film (which includes our girl Holly Thicknes) and Shorts On Tap.
The final chapter, appropriately, took place on International Women’s Day. The theme of this particular night was showcasing women of colour. After all the short films had been screened there was the usual panel discussion. This time there were nine ladies on the stage from a range of institutions and backgrounds.
Interestingly, three out of seven of the short films were about hair.
It unraveled a Pandora’s box of issues among the panel itself: why is hair and aesthetics in general something so focused on in the media when it comes to women of colour? If in fact women of colour set the conversation for what women of colour should be discussing why then was hair the topic of choice? Where there not more important things to want to shed light on through film? Or does starting with hair actually open many doors in different directions to problems women of colour face? And why should we dismiss the ‘less political’ issues? To a child growing up it’s so important, and that shouldn’t be undervalued.
A mixed race girl with a Northern accent spoke in defensive of her short film about hair.
“I personally really hated my hair growing up and I wanted to share this with other young girls and if it helps them realise that they’re not alone and that they will grow to love their curls then that’s what I do it for.”
A black girl in the middle of the panel was getting visible frustrated by this. I could even feel her annoyance as she brought the microphone up to her lips.
“I just… I mean, it’s crazy to me because you have such good hair, your hair is my definition of good hair. I actually have bad hair so it’s funny to me that you would even say that.”
I understood her point. She felt offended. I suppose it’s like a model saying ‘I’m so fat’ to, well, just about anyone. She probably spent her childhood wishing she had shiny curls, like many people do, like even I did.
But there was a sudden chill from the audience and Fola, sat beside me, practically stood up to speak from the audience.
“I think it’s great to agree and disagree at an event like this but I don’t think we should be using polarizing words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here. It’s not about good and evil, the Madonna and the whore, it’s about opinions and sharing them.”
I agreed with her, we all agreed with her.
Then the girl who made the film spoke again, in her soft voice.
“I was raised in Sheffield. I never knew the black side of my family. I was raised by white people. Surrounded by white people. My mum didn’t know how to do my hair. So I did feel like I stuck out in my surroundings when I was growing up. If I had been raised in London, a city with more diversity, perhaps I would have felt differently, but I didn’t.”
And suddenly I was back in that history lesson. Perspective is the ability to understand that everyone is different, raised in different circumstances and has difference experiences. Anyone can say they hate their hair and you can’t turn around and tell them they shouldn’t.
A model can say she hates her body and you can’t tell her she can’t because our society stipulates that her measurements are ‘beautiful’ according to the advertising industry. We are all allowed our insecurities. They are all valid.
Which brings me to yesterday and a touching and important blog post I read by Fifi Newbery. Following her therapist’s advice she decided to unfollow anyone on her social media accounts that she felt had a detrimental effect on her mental health: a ‘digital detox’. A total of 250 accounts were culled from her daily visual intake. She realised she had been bombarding herself with rage-inducing political opinions and unattainable images of women, relationships and lives that were not only making her feel worse about herself and bubbling her anxiety to the surface, but probably weren’t even real in the first place as we all put our best Chanel-heel-wearing foot forward on social media.
Doing something like this was purely to curtail the effects it was having on her own mental health, it was not a slight on friendships or a sign of disrespect to any of the women she unfollowed. It was not a dig at them or a demand for them to remove their images, or reconsider what they posted – they were all allowed to do whatever they please but Fifi was going to decide for herself if it was something she wanted to see everyday.
And yet, as we know, people will take offense.
They will take something that is about Fifi and make it about themselves with no consideration because we have this defence mechanism for the things we do. They will defend their posts, ‘you know modelling is a business’, and see it as a personal attack on them, they will put the blame on Fifi and wash their hands like Lady Macbeth.
And everyone was running to Hatti’s rescue again and I was glued to my seat in that history lesson, the only one that didn’t move.
When are we going to learn to look beyond ourselves and our worlds and our opinions and just accept what some people do as right for them, or painful for them without saying it shouldn’t be?
I’m so shocked every time I hear someone say something insensitive or offensive to someone they are speaking to, or someone listening.
Please THINK before you speak, or give strong opinion or want to tell your history class about what you believe to be a 'nightmare'.
Have consideration, understanding and compassion for others, even if they are Taylor Swift super fans you may not feel you relate to.
If you are a model, maybe don’t tell your friends who don’t understand the industry that you feel ‘so fat’ today because that might not make them feel great about themselves.
But equally don’t complain about how ‘boring’ this Victoria Secret job is to models who would dream of getting that job.
Step away from yourself for a moment, if you can, and take a little look around to see how other people are living or feeling and add that to the memory bank of information about people you store in your heart – it’s called perspective.
I don’t know if it’s the secondary school I went to, but if it was, long lived rough inner-city London state schools, may you always churn out bruised and complicated girls that don’t know much about maths but do know that everyone’s circumstances are different and that not everyone is academically inclined, or financially secure, of mentally sound, or from a conventional family or anything like you, really, and that it’s all gonna be OK.
Image: Michelle Obama's visit to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Girl's Secondary School