Whether it’s books, music or photography my favourite thing about art is finding a piece that helps bring to life a thought or feeling you have had but never been able to pinpoint. I was astounded to read Florence Given’s book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty and feel as though my own thoughts had been translated to a page. Although I lack the ability to express myself on topics such as feminism, I really resonated with her words. Especially the lines that cut through the essay tone and simply say ‘honey, this is for you’. Her written voice in these instances reminds me of my own friendship circle; all the times we have banded together to celebrate and build each other.
2020 has been a pinnacle year in activism. There appears to be a lot more people taking conscious approaches to issues that oppressed groups have been trying to pull the spotlight to for decades – I use the word appear because a lot of the attention this year has derived from social media and we all know how deceiving it can be. Only time will tell if people have really had the change of heart they posted about. In this respect, Given’s book is perfectly timed and perfectly executed. It has become a sort of tag line to say WDOYP has changed your life, or messed it up in the best possible way, but that is a perfectly adequate way to describe it. Reading this book (I devoured it, by the way, in a day) gave me a lot to think about, as well as reaffirming some of my deeply rooted beliefs.
I proudly stand on the side of advocacy for feminism and destigmatising mental health; these two in particular I am happy to share with people because I have reasonable knowledge of them. Though I have discussions surrounding both with my friends, I have often felt like I do not do enough in terms of activism. It would be unknown to anyone not close to me where I stand. 2020 has felt very positively influential to my thinking: how couldn’t it be with more resources than ever being made available to those who didn’t know where to begin? Almost as though my own awareness has made my lack of contribution inexcusable.
If this wasn’t the intent with the book, it definitely became my favourite thing about it anyway. What I mean is, though Given wrote the book intending to talk about her journey with feminism, she takes it much further to explore the wider aspects of activism. The most fascinating aspect to me was the discussion on how you can be both the privileged and the oppressed depending on the situation. Given draws parallels between feminism and many other social injustices – racism, fatphobia, transgender and queer communities to name a few – reinforcing that you cannot simply advocate for your own misgivings. Feminism is about standing for all areas of oppression. The role of the activist therefore, is not only to project your own voice, but to be a voice for those who do not have the chance.
Activism itself is a privilege. This is an integral idea that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since reading Given’s book. Where I have always approached with a ‘be the change you wish to see’ mindset, I am learning that this is not plausible for everyone. Life for the underprivileged is easier when played by the rules. Just one small example, I know it is easier to get along with my day if I look how people expect me to (it is frustrating to be a woman and be questioned on your well-being for deciding to not wear make up one day. We are not taken seriously if we do not pander to the beauty standards set). Starting with yourself is a good place, but this is not personal. We are dealing with victims of systems.
This year my eyes have been opened to some ideas I now can’t help but consider when I am living my day. In particular I have found a deeper connection to the transgender community and have a piqued interest in ableism. Although I am on the privileged side of both, I am beginning to find it frustrating that these groups are so often misjudged, or completely forgotten. I feel that I have spent a lot of this year feeling frustrated with the world. Internally I know ‘being the change I wish to see’ is not quite cutting it anymore. As I mentioned, activism itself is a privilege and I believe I need to find some way of using mine. Of encouraging others to do the same. I still believe that a lot of people making a few changes outweighs a few people making a lot of changes.
There were tears in my eyes at the end of this book. A lot of what Florence has written will make a lot of sense to a lot of people, and this book was certainly filled with thoughts I have had myself, yet never been able to put so succinctly into words. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty can be considered essential reading. Florence, stating she wanted to write the book she needed a whack over the head with, has certainly succeeded in creating a book we all need a whack over the head with.