Book Review: Girls Will Be Girls


Girls Will Be Girls, by Emer O’Toole, is an exploration of identity, gender and social conditioning. It starts with the premise that “all the world is a stage” and that “gender is an act which has been rehearsed”. The reasoning behind these assertions are well articulated in the opening chapters making this a thought provoking, challenging but never difficult read.

By drawing from her own life experiences, and sharing many amusing if sometimes poignant anecdotes along the way, the author looks at how people are conditioned to act out the part prescribed for their gender from birth. This is more than just dressing girls in pink and boys in blue. It looks at the way adults treat little girls (isn’t she pretty?) and how women are admired for attaining an acceptable aesthetic (thin, tanned, long hair on head, no hair on body).

The author talks of how she would feel social love and acceptance when she conformed, and how difficult it was to be seen in public with a more natural look.

“Why does so much embarrassment and shame surround women’s bodies?”

“it made me see how deeply engrained body policing really is”

I remembered the furor in the media when Emer appeared on breakfast television with visible underarm hair. Women grow hair on their bodies at around the same stage in their development that they grow breasts. How differently these natural protuberances are treated. Visible body hair, other than on the head, is viewed with disgust. Female breasts are so desirable that they must be covered, particularly in a professional setting, for fear that men will lose control, poor dears.

“The taboo on breasts successfully convinces us that women’s breasts are provocative, that men cannot possibly come into visual contact with them without losing all reason to a degree that we actually blame women who are attacked for failing to sufficiently hide their bodies.”

The chapters on sexuality were explicit but written to inform rather than titillate, a refreshing change. Women perform their socially influenced, learned behaviours in public and in the home, but even more so it would seem in bed. And that is what is expected, especially by men. The influence of porn is discussed, as is the lack of knowledge of the functions of the female anatomy. This is not an anti male text in any sense but rather an eye opening account of the roles society expects the genders to play, roles which are often painful as well as degrading for women.

The author writes of experiments she has carried out with her looks and how these have been received. She has shaved her head, grown her body hair, dressed as a boy and a girly girl. She reports on how each of these incarnations have been treated by friends and strangers, of the confusion and anger that can be induced when a women strays from what is considered the norm.

“My experiment […] was a visceral reminder of just how socially unacceptable the unmodified female body has become”

“we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right”

The sociology and psychology are fascinating. I would love to put this book into the hands of so many people, yet I suspect that those who could learn most from it would dismiss the reasoning as feminist ranting, political correctness gone mad. Why should the beneficiaries of a system try to change it?

Personally I did not need to be convinced. As an over 50, overweight woman who eschews make up I am often reluctant to leave the house knowing how I will be viewed by society. I currently sport body hair because of comments regarding my size that have been made when I have gone to be waxed. I have suffered my share of sexual harassment in the workplace and socially.

In one chapter the author talks of how expectations change over time, and where this might lead. She ponders if the next generation will consider surgical changes a necessary element of their beauty regime, a real possibility given the direction in which our culture is moving and one which, as the mother of a daughter, terrifies me.

And this is why books such as these matter and must be put into the hands of young adults. If the patriarchy see no reason to change then the catalyst must come from elsewhere. Society is not just made up of boys and girls but also of those whose gender cannot be so neatly defined. Difference is natural and normal. Accepting this will require a radical shift in learned behaviour.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion.