In December 2011 the UN decided to create the International Day of the Girl, which is October 11 each year. The day is to raise awareness of the many inequalities faced by girls around the world, and to celebrate their achievements. Women of the World (WOW) at Southbank Centre, London, mark the occasion by a day filled with activities for girls, including speed mentoring early in the morning with successful women in a diverse range of fields, on the London Eye. I took part as a mentor on Tuesday and found it very rewarding. I remember how much I could have done with some good advice on real life matters when I was a young teenager. At that age the adults you mostly get to speak to may be family or teachers, and may not touch on all your areas of interest. I was very moved and this is what I wrote.
Caitlin Moran said, this country has been run by men who went to boarding schools for far too long. These schools are like businesses that people pay to send their children to. They are not like the real world where people care about each other.
She said, she’s met these men, and they are not more clever or special than many of us. They were just brought up to feel entitled to lead, but they do not understand most of us. She said, no one will ever just hand you power, you have to go and get it. Don’t worry that you don’t look like the others who have power, it’s ok to look different. She said it’s an exciting time because we have the possibility to change things in massive ways.
She had a message for the teenage girls, to be kind to themselves, and to learn how to accept compliments, because many find that very difficult and struggle with low self esteem. She advised them about their future – to follow their passion and make something of their own, a project or career. Because in the end the satisfaction you get from those achievements of what is within you to succeed, will be far more rewarding than what you get from a marriage or from having children. My heart sang. It is so important that girls are told this, that they (we) are reconditioned.
She said Love yourselves, and be nice. Be kind to each other and support other women.
This Day of the Girl had already moved me so much. It was afternoon now in the Royal Festival Hall, but breakfast had brought me to tears.
I had been so hard on myself the day before, so angry because I thought I had failed. I had performed Girl in Suitcase at the weekend and was looking back with unflinchingly self-critical eyes. I knew I must do much better, and told myself sternly what needed to change in future.
Still I went to bed early and though it took a while to quiet my mind for sleep, I was woken by the alarm when it played at 5:30am. Deliberately getting up at that hour is usually reserved for journeys to foreign lands. This, however was to take a different sort of flight. I showered, dressed, grabbed a bite and then cycled to Southbank Centre. I went in the building and was given a name badge and told I was in Capsule U. I got a cup of tea and waited; I was in good time. To my surprise when the voice on the tannoy announced the first groups to make their way to the London Eye, U was one of them. As we gathered, I recognised one of the women. I was unsure if she was facilitating, or mentoring like me, as I had seen her working at Southbank Centre before, as well as giving a talk at this year’s WOW. It was about her experience of the criminal justice system – serving time in prison and coming clean off drugs after many years’ addiction. I introduced myself and told her I had seen her powerful talk. She said it had been an important moment for her as since then she had gone on to give many talks in prisons and to the NHS for example. By telling her story she could destigmatise people with addictions to help health and legal professionals understand that treating them like patients is far more positive than as criminals. Her name was Nina, and she was also mentoring. It was her first time, my second. I had taken part in this 3 years ago, but had since doubted how helpful I could be to school girls. This year however I had regained confidence and felt that this would be a very good thing for me to do. Meeting Nina before we even started really reassured me. I was not alone with my dodgy past and unconventional pathway. I was in brilliant company! I settled into my group with ease, feeling absolutely certain that I had very valuable contributions to give to the girls we would be mentoring. Whatever they wanted to know, I had real life experience, and I had come a long way. I knew things they for sure were not taught in school. What a privilege and wonderful opportunity for me too.
We were on the Eye for an hour, in each capsule a group of 8 mentors and 8 mentees, and each mentor spoke with 3 different girls for 15 minutes each, answering their questions, having a dialogue. Two of the girls I connected with were considering futures in the arts, one with singing, the other in musical theatre, so I was at least partially in the right ballpark. I know how tough it can be in the arts as a performer, but also how important to follow your calling. I have been through drama school, a bit of university and chanced my way as a jobbing actor before deciding I preferred to create my own work and perform it. Mostly the girls’ questions and conditioned attitudes reminded me (remarkably after 25 years difference! – they were 14 years old) of how school and middle class norms taught me to think when I was their age. How little has changed! It’s not all bad, but it’s not necessarily realistic, or helpful. Mostly the prevailing attitude talks up the importance of financial security, so anyone considering a career in the arts is advised to have at least one back-up plan in case it doesn’t work. That’s all well and good, but starting out with that in mind is a bit like sabotaging your truest desires. Thinking you have failed before you begin. No one wants to prepare young people for the possibility of being out of work for a while, taking low level jobs so you have the headspace to be creative, and definitely not that you might end up doing a more dodgy job like I did. But it happens, quite a lot. My pathway is unique, but so many women try similar things to get by and maintain their independence. The reality is, for most of us if we want to make it as an artist, it will take a while to find our niche. There will be struggles, but that doesn’t mean the moment there isn’t a stable income (!) we should give up and become an accountant. Unless that works for you, and, some people are better at managing several jobs at once, so again you have to find how it is for you. How many of the older people I model for say they wanted to be an artist, but needed a proper income, so after going to art school decided to train in something else. They then got caught up in a mortgage and raising a family until much later in life when freed up, they decided to enrol in art classes. This generation might not have such options – perhaps it’s better to follow dreams in the present instead of deferring.
My other mentee wanted a career in games concept design. Not so much my area but I do model for quite a few animation studios and games design students at university, as well as having dated the odd geek, so I knew a wee bit.
After our Eye revolution, I caught up with Nina a bit more over a coffee, before the talks in the Clore Ballroom led by Jude Kelly. I filled her in more about my past; Soho and the drugs. She asked if I, like her, had told my story. I said I’d been inspired by Jude’s rape survivor talks at WOW, as I had largely buried some of my own experiences, or classified them as insignificant, not worthy of note. A misappropriation, since rape was being opened up for discussion now in the 21st century, and the definition considered more widely without fear of shame. I told Nina I have been writing about some of my experiences, and performing them. Some of it is quite recent. She has a few years on me, and she looked at me wisely and said, “You’ve just begun to tell your story”. I could tell she meant that I would need to tell it and tell it and keep telling it before I was properly healed, and empowered by it. I knew in my blood that this was true, I felt it. I shed tears, and welled up some more as Jude got started with some very stirring speakers.
There was Fatima Manji, the news reader who wore a hijab whilst reporting on the recent Nice attack, and was subsequently criticised for doing so by a Sun journalist. She had spoken up bravely to make it known that it is not ok to discredit someone because of what they choose to wear. There was Frances Morris who is the new artistic director of the Tate Modern – and the first woman to have the job. There was Chi-chi Nwanoku who founded Europe’s first BME classical orchestra, and Luisa Omielan, an award winning comedian. There was also an inspirational 6th form prefect. Two other teenage girls were given the mic too, later in the day on stage with Caitlin reading excerpts from her ‘Moranifesto’, and I think it was important to include them. To show we are not just listening to the mostly white “successful” women in our society, but are also aware of younger women of colour (as it happened) who may be lesser known now, but are already making their mark. One was a spoken word poet leading a collective of performers in her school, and the other, June Eric-Udorie. The very articulate June successfully campaigned a year ago to keep feminism on the Politics A Level syllabus (it was going to be removed), and as well have more female thinkers added, as there was only one (Mary Wolstencraft) out of 16, included. Whilst doing her A Levels, she also writes for the Guardian among other publications.
By the time we went upstairs to listen to Jo Brand and Jude chatting, I was beyond speaking during the networking periods before and after. Nina had gone to a meeting, and I had spoken all that I needed to for the morning. Something had moved inside me, in my heart something was healing but still tender. I was very happy to sit on the floor and just enjoy Jo Brand’s deadpan wit combined with reassuringly human nature. I am quite used to listening to Jude, so it is a more familiar pleasure watching her in conversation with many amazing women.
The strong warm glow and buzz that I left Day of the Girl with, was the same feeling I get at WOW, but I think it’s growing. I really felt that the intelligent women in this country and beyond who have achieved some power, have gotten together and decided that they want all girls and women to share that, to have the same and more. They want to change the world and they are inspiring all of us. They wanted to support us all, in a really loving way, to big us up and encourage all our aspirations. It is a political movement, but there is spirit in it too. It is full of heart and Matriarchal Love. I felt like I belong, and I never want to lose that feeling. I noticed afterwards that some of my usual default thought patterns of comparing myself with others negatively especially when tired, had evaporated. I could overide them now, I was on a higher level. There were more important things to connect with, and bigger aims were possible. I ceased to self criticise as well, as I felt in my heart that there was a reason my weekend performance hadn’t been polished. A superficial shine hadn’t been important for this show – it was all about the content. I was delivering some very personal lines for the first time, live. Revealing sensitive material about my past, to both friends and strangers in my own city. That was what counted, Nina had reminded me without realising. That was what I had to prioritise. Not the blood and glitter, nor interacting with the audience like a cliched hooker, nor allowing them to body paint me – albeit this created a beautiful connection. My focus must be the lines of truth concerning delicate intimate secrets of my past. That’s all. My performance, my therapy.
Caitlin said, we don’t yet know what the world looks like and feels like when women have equality, it hasn’t been created yet. It’s up to us to make it, to have a revolution. Everything could be different; we might invent new economic systems since capitalism doesn’t work. We might create new political systems as the current one is definitely corrupt. Family, social, religious and geo-political structures may completely change. If each of us chooses to live our lives as fully as possible, to make the world better for everyone.