When I first read Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl in 2014, I was struck by the similarities between us. She was the oldest of six siblings. She got her start in the world of journalism by writing music reviews. She wears copious amounts of eyeliner, and she has a bit of a potty mouth.
I’m the oldest of six children: it goes me, my sister and then four boys. I started reviewing live music events when I was fifteen and I started my own successful entertainment blog ‘The Indiependent’ when I was still at school. I am rarely seen without eyeliner, and when I go home to visit my family I get told off for swearing. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that I took inspiration from Moran’s story, and resolved to work harder to make my own dreams of writing for a living come true.
Fast forward a few years and upon re-reading Caitlin Moran’s book, I realised that whilst I had immediately identified with her as a teenage reader, there was something deeply unsettling about some of our shared experiences.
Moran regales readers with stories about how she learnt to masturbate, her first sexual encounter and her first period. These stories are about her personal journey into womanhood and they are laced with frankness and humour.
More recent autobiographical accounts that follow a similar formula include Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love and Bryony Gordon’s The Wrong Knickers. I read these books aged 22. They made me laugh. But then I paused after reading them and reflected, and I felt deeply uncomfortable.
In trying to pinpoint why these books unsettled me, I realised that it made me angry that these women hold their tales of love, sex and heartbreak up as ‘entertainment’ — when frequently their stories are sadder than they are funny. Their clever, witty writing manages to disguise tales that are actually upsetting accounts of the trials many young women face as part of their journey into womanhood.
The concept of writing about the female experience of sex and relationships is not new, so these women can hardly be blamed for adhering to a tried and tested formula. Just think of the tremendous commercial success of the Bridget Jones or the Sex and the City franchise. You can hardly blame them for wanting to capitalise on this market — sex does indeed sell.
I also recognise that I am a bit of a hypocrite for holding this view about such books, as I once wrote for a sex column of my student newspaper called ‘Cliterary Theory’. There was a time when the sordid details of my sex life were strewn all over the city I studied in for all to read as they pleased. My relationship and attitude to these stories has changed, though.
I once used my sexuality as a tool to get people to like me
I once used my sexuality as a tool to get people to like me. I used to talk loudly and uncaringly in the local pub, boasting of my liberal attitude towards sexual relationships and almost daring my friends to challenge me on my latest encounter. Once, when I was drunk, I sat on some stairs surrounded by other female students — most of whom I did not know — and advised them all to buy vibrators. I was the cool, sexually liberated student who slept with who she wanted, when she wanted and then told anyone who would listen about it afterwards.
But actually, when you look at some of my stories on paper, the details are a bit grisly. Remembering some of the things I have been through makes me deeply uncomfortable, but I know the lessons I have learnt can be imparted to others. The only reason I repeat these anecdotes now is in an effort to prevent fifteen year old girls from making the same bad decisions I once did.
I don’t need readers who like me, I need readers who listen to me. I haven’t always made the best decisions. I have acted selfishly. The consequences of my actions have often put my own and others’ physical well-being at risk. I have hurt people I care about, and I have entangled myself in a web of lies and secrecy that has only recently started to unravel. I am still learning how to be a better person. I am still learning how to be a loving, supportive girlfriend. I don’t claim to have cracked relationships, dating or sex. What I can offer you, though, is an intensely personal guide telling you and your daughters how not to navigate the vast, terrifying experience that is growing up a girl.
Like Caitlin, like Dolly, like Bryony, I hope my story will make my readers laugh along the way — but fundamentally, I hope it teaches them something. Above all else, I hope my articles help readers realise that it’s OK to make mistakes: as long as you learn from them.
Have you had similar thoughts regarding your attitude to sharing intensely personal stories as a writer? If so, tell me about your journey to feeling comfortable in your own skin!
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