I’m an identical twin and growing up we found clear ways to differentiate ourselves. I cut my hair short with the kitchen scissors, sitting behind the sofa when I was about four. I wore yellow and my sister wore green. I mostly wore trousers and shorts, and she wore skirts and dresses. I was a “tom boy” (although I think that’s a silly term: I was a girl who wore trousers and climbed trees; but it is a useful short-hand and you’ll all know what I mean by it). At my primary school, the girls wore grey skirts and gingham dresses. I didn’t want to, so I was the first girl at my school to break tradition and my parents had to buy my new, little grey trousers from the “boy’s” section of the shop. Yet, it felt comfortable and natural to me at that age and I didn’t care what the other children or the teachers said.
Fast forward a few years and by the time I was at secondary school, I was too nervous to wear a skirt, although that wasn’t a feeling I think I would have been able to name, let alone say aloud. There was something about wearing one that made me feel self-conscious, made me feel I’d be looked at. I was extremely tall as a teenager (taller than all the girls, most of the boys and some of the teachers) and it was always a struggle to find a uniform that would fit me, within the strict parameter of my secondary school’s rules. I look back now rather longingly at my skinny long limbs, but at the time - although always proud of my height - I didn’t have the benefit of being popular or cool, so it wasn’t something I would ever have flaunted confidently.
In the summer term of Year 10, when I was 15 years old, I wore a skirt to school for the first time since I was six. I remember feeling self-conscious, like I had a neon sign above my head. And when I got on the school bus at the end of the day, the bus driver pulled me onto his lap, in front of all of the small, shrieking Year 7s, and wouldn’t let me go. I remember I had lots of bags, and the gearstick was pressing into my leg; I couldn’t get off him and I didn’t know what to do. I remember feeling humiliated, but acting like it was funny. One of my male friends came and pulled me off him and made a big show of it, to ‘lighten the mood’, saying “Oi! She’s with me!” and then dragging me to the back of the bus. I remember another friend, a female one, telling me I had it coming, that I shouldn’t have been so friendly. In 2003, I wouldn’t have been familiar with the term “slut shaming”.
That’s not the end of that story. That’s not the end of the messages I was given around it. Another few years later, at a house-party, that same teenage boy climbed on top of me when I was lying down upstairs, horribly drunk, and said “I really hope you don’t remember this tomorrow”. I remember rolling to face the wall, in the hope that it would form some protection. Fortunately, a couple of female friends came upstairs at that moment and shouted at him and got him off me. Although not before they’d taken pictures, which one girl posted online. That’s not the end of that story either. That’s not the end of the messages I was given around it. That’s also not the worst thing that happened to me as a teenager.
So when I see the recent articles in the media about school skirts, it doesn’t bring back the best of memories. And what makes me livid, is that for a new generation those memories are being created right now. Right this second. And we haven’t stopped it yet.
So, I’m trying to stop it. I know I can’t do it on my own. I’m standing as a candidate for the Women’s Equality Party (WE) because I want to end violence against women and girls. I want to end violence against everyone actually. I want young men to stop killing themselves, because we live in a world that sees courage as weakness. I want teenagers to be taught what consent is (which is why that’s one of my day jobs). I don’t want any part of the body to be used as a weapon to inflict pain, or be a source of shame. I want to see an end to the systemic gender inequality that underpins almost every single thing. I’m trying to end it. But I can’t do it on my own and WE can’t do it on our own. WE need your votes. WE need your confidence. WE need your bravery.