Trigger Warnings: This post talks about body policing amongst teenagers. It does not repeat derogatory language or mention fat-shaming.

Content Warnings: Beware talk of bullying, some of the miserable parts of my childhood, and entirely the inadequate education provided me on sex and gender and their many complex interactions. So: warning for the patriarchy.

I kept thinking about this after I’d written it. Radical feminists who write about life beyond that safety net reminded me of the time before I’d woven it for myself. I’ve been reading Andrea Dworkin’s Right Wing Women, where she argues out that women get something out of sharing the patriarchy’s values, they get safety and a place in the world as long as they fit in. They don’t get to choose that place, but they know very well what it offers and what the risks of the alternative are.

Nowadays the people near me are almost all women and feminists, and that means I can’t picture how any woman could grow up as anything else. Social norms for women are so totally farcical, alienating, restrictive: so often inane, and so thoroughly and insidiously and obviously harmful that it’s weird that so many of us put up with them. But they’re ubiquitous. That makes it harder to see that they’re absurd. Me, I noticed quite young that sexism was something real and endemic. My mother kept her surname and the title ‘Ms.’ and she never taught me how to use makeup because I never asked, and that was my norm. That made it weird to me that most women were okay with moving from Miss to Mrs on marriage and that lots of them felt the need to invest so much time in their appearance before they felt like they were presentable to the world.

Kids get taught them, though, in spades. I had a kind, perceptive, feminist mother, and she made gender norms seemed weird to me, me whose natural inclinations led her to make playground kingdoms from spare pieces of wood and a hammer and nails. Not acting or dressing the way that was normal for someone of my gender made me stand out. That made peer pressure try and push me down again. Sometimes I was fiercely scornful of all the norms. Other times, I dearly wanted to ask for foundation and girly clothes with no pockets so I’d fit in.

In the end I was too proud and angry to ever try and compete that way. I’m glad I did, and I’m happy to be the person I am now, but I can see how other people got to all those other places they did. The way girls get taught about themselves is shit, and the way girls train each other to behave is shittier; and it’s not something I hear people talk about.

I’m going to be playing into a lot of casual dismissals of feminists here: they do it because they’re ugly, or, you’re just saying that because you got picked on at school. Yes, I did, and I’m sure lots of us were. Next time someone uses that excuse, I’m going to ask them: why do you think that is?

Because school’s where we pick up how to deal with people, how to do relationships, where we go through puberty and watch it in other people and pick up what’s normal and what’s not. Here’s a slice of my past: me, a thin white middle-class socially uncomfortable overly bright and then completely asexual girl-shaped-person, now a verbally confident queer with a degree and a selection of awesome friends as odd as her.

I didn’t realise women could masturbate until I was at least sixteen. I don’t remember the names of many teachers from my first school, but I remember being ten and prepubescent and being told by other kids it was disgusting that I didn’t wear a bra or use deodorant yet. At some point a while before my first period, my parents gave me a book that told me sex finished when the man ejaculated, that the female orgasm was a rare and unquantifiable thing, that gay sex was anal intercourse between men. I was vague on the role of the clitoris for a long time after that.

People fight to defend a hierarchy, when it’s putting them where they want to be, and the logic of the patriarchy sets femininity up as a competitions with rewards. Look at beauty contests and Austen novels and footballer’s wives. Even if you’re only doing it implicitly, you get in trouble for questioning the logic.

Kids get taught that early. I got into trouble for it on a pretty constant basis for years. A long-running battle took place over the fact a friend didn’t wax her upper lip. Whenever she or I disputed the claim that this was something shameful, the abusive commentary on it turned nastier and all the more ubiquitous, and my product-free and rather frizzy hair became the target of general mockery too. It was a threat to the established order. How dare you have body hair and not want it gone. Any verbal retaliation made matters degenerate to the point at which we had to retreat outside at lunch breaks.

I was not good at playing a meek victim and following advice to rise above it; I was sarcastic and blank by turns and I stared at people until it unsettled them. I scribbled on someone’s shoes in pen. In response, my attempt at an assessed wordwork projects went missing regularly, until I’d repeated the same steps of a project so often I could make a lap joint with impressive confidence for a thirteen-year-old. I read my way through the library until I’d exhausted all the fiction except Agatha Christie novels translated into French. I didn’t talk to my friends about much that mattered to me. I made up storyworlds in my mind, and when I couldn’t shelter behind those and was left to wonder what I wanted for myself, I didn’t know. As far as sex went, I assumed I was a lesbian because I didn’t want to fuck men. The concept didn’t appeal.

For the most part I was less scared of the enemies I made than I was resigned and resentful: mostly, the inconvenient stubbornness to me gave way to common sense and got me out of situations before they escalated from verbal fights to physical, and when they did the fact I was willing to draw blood alarmed them.

I never conceptualised myself as someone bullied. I could see that what was hurting me was a whole system, that the individuals attacking me were just particularly loud parts of it. They were years I spent picking which fights needed to happen, judging how much retaliation I could stand to bring down on me. I couldn’t see any way for any teacher to really intervene successfully without a way to talk a few hundred bored state school teenagers out of believing in a whole culture.

I enjoyed hardly any of school, not until I got past the end of the compulsory school age and I carried reached sixth form while most of the loudest and most bullying-prone kids left. A few things stand out more than the rest: a teachers switched seats to sit me next to by another girl so my well-behaved self could be a good influence. She was friends with people who’d mocked me; she apologised for herself and them. I remember how she tried to make up for it: by telling me I could be pretty if I learnt to french plait my hair and got contact lenses and wore foundation and eyeshadow. She genuinely meant well by it: I’ll help you fit in.

I remember another day from the next year, with me sat in another classroom. There was a teacher in the room with us lecturing, and the boy sat behind me got out a cigarette lighter and set it to my hair despite her. No-one intervened until I noticed, and it was the teacher I turned on. I don’t remember what she or I said, but the thing I got furious about was that she didn’t even see fit to send the kid out of the classroom until I got up and asked her to.

It’s weird to be writing about this stuff now, but I think it’s important to remember it happened. There’s such a difference between me now and then, so much peer pressure that vanished with the half of the school that left the place at sixteen. But it’s important for the happy sheltered queer geeks like me to remember: that’s where and when this gets fixed in people’s minds, at schools. They try their best to teach us stupid rules about life, rules for a world that believes in thoughtlessly obeying gender roles and in seeing sex as heterosexual intercourse which men want and women surrender to but can’t initiate without being a slut. If we escape without learning those rule, we did it against all the odds.
Once or twice, I tried straightening my hair. I felt simultaneously guilty for giving in and ashamed that it didn’t make me look glossy and well-groomed. I never made a habit of it, it wasn’t worth the effort. I tried not to be ashamed of how I looked back then, but I was still was surprised when I went through photos years later. I was a good-looking kid. I was thoroughly and blandly conventionally attractive, and my fluffy hair in its unexciting haircut was fine, turned chic, almost, with the bob I got when I cut it all to match the burnt bits at the back.

This is a petty little piece of writing, set a long way in my past, recounted with no urgency at all. This is written by someone with a lot of different kinds of privilege, and not about anything that’s ever threatened my life. As a white and cis and thin kid who felt no urge to assert her queer identity back then, I haven’t ever been one of the more exposed. It’s just about little increments of damage, it’s about how the way we grow up shapes us. It’s about the climate there: a climate that got more hostile the further you obviously you broke rules about things like gender, and I’m sure similar climates sit heavily on people all over the country as they grow up and as they start to look for a sexual identity. I’d put it behind me, those schools, the time I spent there not very happily, but looking back now I think it’s worth remembering the place, and remembering all the holes it didn’t fill in my identity.