Book Review: Laura Bates' Girl Up

4:54 pm

Girl Up by Laura Bates

So, well all agree that 'man up' is basically the worst phrase ever, right? Good. Now we can begin.

Laura Bates wants us to Girl Up. She's here to tell us that we don't need to be thin to be beautiful (or even need to be beautiful at all), we can wear what we want on a night out, we don't have to 'flatter' our shape when we pick out clothes, we don't need to be quiet and hide our opinions, we should rock the boat and do things that 'aren't for girls'. In her second book Girl Up, Bates tells us to ignore the stereotypes and stop apologising for every little thing we do. She also gives us some colour-by-number genitalia.

Published by Simon & Schuster UK in April, this luminous orange book was already on my radar when I spotted it in Waterstones on the day of my masters graduation. I was killing some time before meeting my friends for drinks and I had book vouchers burning a hole in my coat pocket. They were all spent five minutes after crossing the threshold, I kid you not. Unfortunately I would discover on the way home that a rogue beer spillage earlier in the evening had invaded every single one of the books I bought, so they've all now got fuzzy corners. My copy of Letters to my Fanny was almost unreadable.

Girl Up is a book I desperately wish I had as a teenager. The lessons within its pages were things I learned far too late in my life, with a handful I only learned from reading it. It covers topics including slut-shaming, anatomy, mental health, porn, shame, and feminism. Most importantly for me it also covered the new issue of sex and social media, something I was fortunate enough not to have to grapple with during my teen years, but is incredibly prevalent today for young girls. A quick aside: in a recent Note to Self podcast, presenter Manoush Zomorodi interviewed Peggy Orenstein on her new book Girls and Sex which deals with this topic. It's such an interesting listen even for an adult, so I would really recommend it.

The book is rife (rife seems like a negative word, but I mean it in a good way) with diagrams and photographs that illustrate the book's points. There are full-page spreads with snappy, colourful phrases in attractive typography, making the book at times become akin to a blog or Tumblr-page. I found this made the book even more engaging, rather than less so. The endpapers have dancing vulvas wearing top hats. It's charming.

The content itself is non-condescending and I found it just as readable to an adult as it would be to a teenager. There is no pandering with cringey phrases or outdated internet references. It's simple and straightforward, always with a sense of humour that doesn't compromise the message. Too-often books aimed at young people try to be 'hip' and on-trend, but Bates manages to put across a modern message in a timeless manner. She knows that many teenage girls these days are already switched-on to the subjects she covers (just look at Jazz Jennings, Amandla Stenberg, and Marley Dias), but doesn't treat the ones who aren't like they're stupid either. Not everyone was brought up on read Betty Friedan. 

This is Laura's second book, after 2014's tremendously popular Everyday Sexism, named after the blog that inspired it. If you want to know more about this project, I recently watched a MAKERS interview with her that sums it up nicely. She peppers Girl Up with her own experiences with sexism, particularly in the film industry, but also in her everyday life. There are also mini-interviews conducted throughout with various women about their experiences as teenage girls, including Josie Long, Anita Anand, and Paris Lees.

As a final point, Bates also shows an awareness of LGBT+ issues and successfully weaves a dialogue that doesn't assume everyone reading is straight, has periods, has a vagina, or identifies as female. She speaks using phrases such as 'people with vaginas', 'people who are attracted to men' and 'self-defining women', explaining her reasons before the book even starts. I don't think any book published in 2016 on feminism and women's issues should bypass an explanation like this, and it'll be nice when we get to a point where these things don't need to be explained any more.

I would genuinely recommend Girl Up to anyone of any age looking to learn something about growing up and treating one another with respect, but aren't averse to swearing and internal diagrams of a clitoris!

Come for the humour, stay for the vulvas.
M x

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