This is an abridged version of the chapter Busy Girls and Good Girls from my forthcoming book, Enough! Healing from Patriarchy’s Curse of Too Much and Not Enough.
Hands up, who found school bloody hard? The education system offers a ton of opportunity to come face to face with the curse of too much and not enough, especially if you happen to be a girl. A fly on the wall back in the late 90s would be forgiven for thinking that I was sailing through high school; A grades in everything apart from maths – which I was failing miserably, a group of friends, thankfully no relentless bullying but only brief run-ins with a couple of the school bullies, a social life of trips into town mainly to window shop the hallowed grounds of Topshop and Miss Selfridge (I felt a pang of nostalgia for my teenage shopping habits when Topshop, my former playground, closed its real-life stores this year thanks to bloody Covid).
I was doing well (on paper) in a school system that, in the 90s, certainly did not care for the wellbeing of students. Truth be told, several of my friends and I were nervous wrecks during high school. Why? Because puberty is the worst thing ever and is made even more unbearable thanks to society’s refusal to hold open, unabashed conversations about the female-heavy topics like the menstrual cycle, or how to empower girls to recognise abusive behaviour and misogyny, and of course, the enormous elephant in the room named patriarchy, which pathologises and objectifies the female body even more oppressively when girls reach puberty. I used to roll up my school skirt because I wanted to attract male attention. I’m not going to lie about that, but what I was not wise to was that short skirts were not a prerequisite for commanding respect from peers of the opposite sex. With every roll of my skirt, my teen self thought I would be more popular. Little did I know that I was blindly following the structure of a society that wants women to gift-wrap ourselves for the reward of male attention. I did not know that attention is not the same as respect. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, hey? If I could go back in time, I would whisper in my own 13-year-old ear,
Roll up your skirt if you want, babe, that’s your choice and your right, but I promise it will earn you zero respect from blokes. Roll down a couple of skirt layers and make friends with yourself. You’re enough with a skirt to your ankles and enough with it just covering your bum.
Being Schooled for Not Enoughness
Puberty is hard for girls (yes, yes, I know it’s tough for boys too), but school makes it harder. Do you remember being tired when you came home from school? Or so tired that you struggled to get up on time to dash to the school bus? The UK school day starts too early and finishes too late. Teenagers need way more sleep than adults because their bodies are going through an inordinate amount of change. Sleep is when the body restores itself and replenishes energy reserves, not to mention giving the brain a chance to go offline from wakeful busyness and indulge in relaxation along with dreaming, which helps the brain to file events and make sense of our waking lives. Again, thank fuck I was not a teen with a smartphone ready to distract me into scrolling at any opportunity, rich with apps with algorithms to profit from holding my attention online for longer. Facebook does not care if it is stealing sleep from teenagers; it is designed to keep any user hooked, regardless of whether it is time for lights out and rest. So by the time morning rolls around, teens are tired because they need a longer sleep anyhow, plus they have had to part company with their online life in enough time to get proper rest, and they have to wake up to start a school day with classroom time kicking off before 9 am. The school day crams in at least five lessons per day plus homework, plus after-school team sports and extracurricular activities, should the teen want to attend. It is the same grind every damn day.
The vibe in my school towards productivity, effort, and attainment was clear. You better be doing your absolute best, but even your best may not be good enough because your classmate’s best might be better. It was academic competition all day, every day. Tired teenagers being cajoled to do their best which ultimately may not be enough because the world is competitive. A close friend of mine who is a high school teacher told me that the need for students to compete with peers is promoted all day, there is no break from it, while teachers are encouraged to compete with other teachers. School taught me and my peers that we better be ready for a life of proving ourselves because there will always be somebody who can outperform you. If you got an A this time, why not get an A* next time? More to the point, why didn’t you get an A* this time? You can do better. Better, better, must do better, nothing was ever enough in school. If you’re on the B team for netball, why not aim for the A team? Never enough. Even when I slogged my guts out to get an A in my science GCSE, my teacher did not believe me when I proudly showed him my grades slip:
‘Are you sure, Sarah? You’re not making a mistake, are you?’
Busy Woman in Training
School is so full-on, so entrenched in messaging to fulfil one’s potential. Latin maxims embroidered on school uniforms: Carpe Diem. Rinse and repeat. This is when mainstream school can be harmful to girls, steering us away from listening to what our energy levels need. Nobody in school was ever talking about the fact that female energy can nosedive dramatically in the lead-up to a period and be accompanied by myriad symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, and tension headaches. Girls are simply not designed to do the same thing day after day, the same school routine, homework routine, sports team routine, eating routine. The lack of awareness awarded by the education system to the physical needs of girls and their cycles is the training ground for the world of work which demands that women slay it at work every day, regardless of what our bodies need from us. School trains women to relentlessly produce results offering zero compassion to ourselves to tune into what type of work may be more suited to our cycle at any time of the month. Exerting our effort for the A* grade in a few years morphs into exerting our effort to work the hardest and longest, possibly for a promotion (or maybe not because men are promoted more often than women). Nothing wrong with working hard, but the systems we live in do not cater for the female landscape, which changes from week to week, whether a woman still bleeds or follows the moon cycles after menopause.
I hear from friends who chose the thankless career of teaching within the mainstream (State) school system that things are changing; students are actively encouraged to be aware of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and the triggers for these illnesses, such as cyberbullying and peer pressure. It is good news that the school system is waking up to the importance of nurturing teen mental health. But something tells me that the school system itself starts to make girls sick from inside the system as schools churn out swathes of young women who have been worked for six hours per day (excluding homework or extracurricular activities) with no regard for whether this is the right time of their cycle to be working so hard. I absolutely think that girls should pursue the highest grades, but only if that is what they truly want. If I had believed that I was enough with or without the A grades or with or without enough exam points as my passport to higher education, I would never have pushed myself so hard. Perhaps I would have been satisfied with a string of Bs and better mental health. I would love to go back in time and tell teen Sarah:
‘Listen, it is a savvy plan to aim high, but as you grow, you will see that life has so much more to offer, and you have so much more to offer than a bunch of letters on your grade slip.’
This way, we might empower young women to believe that they are more than a commodity that can only vouch for her worth with a few letters on a piece of paper. Patriarchy loves commodification. The system wants to see what women have to offer (which is obviously loads) but also what it can take from us – again, loads. Patriarchy wants women who are perfect packages, commodified on LinkedIn profiles as evidence for their intelligence, schooling, a Russell Group or Ivy League university, with skills to be offered up to careers that will pay them less than men and frown upon their choice to procreate (or not) then chew up their energy and spit them out, especially if women work for institutions like the NHS or the police service. One day there will be a LinkedIn profile that reads:
‘This is me. Take it or leave it. I am enough either way. PS, Fuck the system.’
I Promise to Be a Good Girl
School is not the only place where girls get trained to follow patriarchal conditioning. When I was seven, I started going to Brownies. I loved it because on Brownie night, my best friend would come over for tea and then we would walk up to the church hall together for the evening’s jolly frolics. Many a Brownie meeting was spent doing wholesome, useful stuff like learning to make a cup of tea, learning semaphore (slightly more interesting than making tea) and sewing, before the evening would descend into enjoyable organised chaos as 35 girls all under twelve ran around the church hall playing a game not dissimilar to British Bulldogs.
My bestie and I would laugh uncontrollably while playing games and singing weird songs. I was not a boisterous child and didn’t feel the impulse to ever deliberately behave badly for the fun of winding up adults. In fact, I was a shy child but I still felt the repetitive sting of being made so aware day in and day out at school that stepping out of line, not waiting my turn, or questioning the point of certain activities were traits that were frowned upon. As a child, I do not remember ever feeling autonomous or brave enough to say, no, I did not want to do something. I was reserved and didn’t play up at home or school, so Brownies felt like a safe space to be around other girls of my age, be silly and raucous, and I know this really coaxed me out of my shell. However, looking back, I cannot help but think critically about the narrative of well-loved institutions like the Guiding Association. There was some questionable groupthink, behaviour control, and patriarchal propaganda touted at Brownies in the 1990s, and some of this groupthink still underpins the movement, perpetuating the curse of too much and not enough.
At Brownies, I believe I was being trained to become a good girl. Being good meant being cheerful and obedient while habitually doing stuff for other people and ignoring one’s own needs. Girls who were not cheerful and obedient were too much and not enough. There were badges to earn to prove you were enough. These badges proved your productivity levels to show how much good stuff you had done, or what skill deemed useful by the Brownie Handbook you had demonstrated to a high enough standard by the Tester (still sounds creepy almost 30 years later!) to be deemed worth a badge. The Handbook of the 1990s read like a behaviour guide for how to be accepted as a girl in society. The bottom line was roughly, be good, don’t be a nuisance, do your best no matter what and keep your uniform clean.
If there were a Good Girl Manifesto, the Brownie Promises and Laws (yes, they seriously call their guiding principles a Law) would be it. At age seven, I promised to always put other people before myself and to always ‘lend a hand’. On reflection, this promise bred hordes of little rescuers, eager beavers too keen to help others, perhaps to the detriment of the rescuers’ own needs and boundaries. To this day, when I attend therapy, I hold space for my ingrained belief that I am not enough, not important to people if I am not useful, while recovering from compulsive helpfulness. Things have changed in the Guiding Association now, and young people no longer have to promise to serve God, nor do UK Scouts. Sadly, the Boy Scouts of America do not allow atheist or agnostic members. This is a relief because the God which is referred to is the male interpretation of God, and it is sinister to think of little girls promising to serve him. I thought it was totally weird for me to say I wanted to serve that God when I was making my Brownie Promise over 30 years ago, but I didn’t question it. I believed it was what I had to do. Girl Guides now pledge to be true to themselves, develop their beliefs and serve their monarch and country (Girl Guide Promise, 2014).
This is an improvement, but let’s take a breath because promising to serve the monarch remains problematic. The monarch is the head of the Church of England and is responsible for appointing clergy in the upper hierarchy of the Church. The Church of England believe pretty damn strongly that God is male, so was it even worth the Guiding Association removing the religious aspect of the promises taken by young girls if they still must serve the monarch, who represents the highest order of the Church? Maybe I am making a tenuous link here, what do you think?
Do you agree or disagree with how children are educated in the mainstream system? Why?
What do our little girls need to know?
What would you tell your little self about working hard and competition?
What kind of anti-Brownie ceremony would you like to hold for your younger self? What promises would you make to yourself?
Do you believe that any effort you make is enough?
Enough! will be available to buy online in September 2023.