“I’m 27, and winning national media awards,” writes Lizzie Marvelly, in this edited extract from That F Word. “I’m 28, and writing a book.”
I’ve never shied away from a challenge. Which is lucky, because life seems to come at me hard and fast. When I pause to look back over my shoulder, I see a collection of vignettes and overarching themes.
I’m seven years old, being taught how to not “throw like a girl”.
I’m 11, being called a slut.
I’m 18, signing an international record deal and feeling like an imposter.
I’m 21, and trying to put myself back together after a mental breakdown.
I’m 24, and being sexually abused for the umpteenth time.
I’m 25, and starting my own media company.
I’m 26, and crying after being abused online for days on end.
I’m 27, and winning national media awards.
I’m 28, and writing a book.
It’s been a whirlwind. One I wouldn’t change. But it’s a journey that would’ve been very different, had I been born male.
Being born female and being raised as a girl brings with it a series of expectations that start almost from birth. Even in a life filled with joy, as much of mine has been, these expectations are always there, just below the surface, and we quickly learn that there is a price to be paid for refusing to live up to them. As a girl, and then as a woman, there are certain codes and conditions that should be respected at all times.
I’ve never been very good at doing what I was told. When I was a little girl, I was told off for being “aggressive”. It was one of the many words used to describe me. I was also “bossy” and “competitive” and “not very ladylike”. Children, though we often underestimate their abilities, are avid readers of subtext and tone. From the facial expressions and the inflections that accompanied these labels, I knew that all of them were bad.
As a child, I was a cacophony of contradictions. I loved Barbie dolls, the Spice Girls and Beauty and the Beast. I also loved playing cricket, rescuing wild animals and wandering the fields for hours with my black Labrador, Lace. I was over-sensitive, stubborn, caring and opinionated. Part tomboy, part girly-girl, part nerd, and part ringleader; I could never seem to find a category that I fit snugly into. Come to think of it, twenty-something years later, I still haven’t.
When I was 10, my teacher told my parents that I needed to be brought down a peg. She voiced what I’d already long suspected. I was too much. Too loud. Too difficult. Too different. My parents were outraged, but I was ashamed. I was set apart from the other kids, in an environment where to be “other” is about the worst thing you can be.
Today, when I speak at schools around the country, I meet girls who are going through the same thing. When I listen to their frustrations, I wonder how long it will take before being a young woman who knows her own mind is unremarkable. Have you ever heard a young man described as “knowing his own mind”? I wonder when strong young women will finally be celebrated and encouraged rather than knocked down.
I am socialised, like most women, to stop and think about the impact of my words before I dare to say them. Should I call myself a feminist, or will that mean that I’m dismissed as an emasculating shrew? Can I say that I’m angry about the pervasive inequality that women still face in 2018, or will I sound like a humourless, nagging bitch? Should I speak up for what I believe in, or will I come across as “aggressive” and “bossy”? The words may change as we grow older, but the insinuations remain the same.
And yet, I am arguably an empowered woman. I am not the 10-year-old girl ashamed of standing out. I am not the young woman fighting for her life against depression. I am not the woman buckling under the weight of a torrent of online abuse. Those women are old friends who I feel protective of. I have many of them. They’ve been with me throughout my life, in one form or another. They are the sister selves that many women have, as we walk along the way. If there’s one thing my old friends have taught me, it’s that there are many interesting stops along the road to empowerment.
It’s time that we took a long, hard look at our culture and the impact that it has upon all of us – men, women and people of all genders. It’s time that we deconstructed the expectations, the assumptions, the representations and the generalisations ascribed to our identities.
This book is for the bossy little girl in all of us. It’s time that we disrupted the fuck out of the patriarchy.
That F Word: Growing up Feminist in Aotearoa (HarperCollins, $34.99) is launched tonight at 5:30 at the Rotorua Public Library. Lizzie will appear alongside Kim Hill, Paula Penfold, Dame Anne Salmond at a sold-out event on Thursday night at the Christchurch WORD Festival. That F Word is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.