St Trinian’s comparisons and lesbian-fantasies aside, a lot of people seem to have pre-conceived assumptions about what it’s like at an all-girls’ school. Sometimes, the papers like to commend single-sex education for girls, touting league tables and academic achievements of their alumni. On other occasions, the press are quick to denounce the environment I went through the most defining years of my life in as a hotbed of hormones and bitchiness; a suffocating atmosphere of competitiveness and social-exclusion that breeds mental health issues and leaves us unable to talk to men well into our adult years.
It’s nearly a decade since I left the girls-only school I attended from age 10-16 but, a few weeks ago, something happened that brought the memories – and the politics – of my time there flooding back to me.
I had pretty much the same group of friends from my first day there until my last. We went through a lot together. We helped each other through parent’s divorces, accompanied each other on cringey first dates, knew – quite literally – the ins and outs of each others’ first sexual experiences, and shared many of the defining points as we headed into womanhood. I still remember exactly the moment each and every one of us started our period for the first time – unabashedly passing around spare tampons in class, with no need to sensor or feel embarrassed about the very nature of being female. I also remember replacing every other word in hymns with the word ‘penis’ during assemblies, seeing who could yell the word ‘scrotum’ more loudly in science lessons, and shadily passing round erotic teenage novels like Sugar Rush to read under the covers at home.
Granted, there were some shit times at girls’ school, but some of the main memories I have of my time there never fail to bring a smile to my face. The break times spent doing things that can only be described as absolutely fucking weird. I still have photos from that lunch break where we all decided to make giant hats out of the lined paper in our notebooks, write nicknames on them and then pretend to be sailors, in an even bigger origami paper boat. Or the sex-education lessons where teachers handed out condoms and we promptly filled them with water, pierced a hole in the end and pretended to piss with them. The time my friend and I hid under the teacher’s desk and poked her in the leg with a biro, just to see if she’d say anything.
For all the ridiculously petty rules it imposed (skirt hems, blazers, colour of hairbands, no make-up), girls school also gave a lot of freedom. If you were good at something, you could be the class swot, without the risk of it marking you out as unfanciable or too opinionated. I can’t speak for others, but I definitely didn’t feel restrained by the status quo of what was cool. I sung on stage, was (mega-cringily) made Choir Captain in my final year, and played guitar appallingly badly whilst wearing questionable combinations of long-sleeved T-shirts under short –sleeved ones. I know I’d never have done any of those things under the pressurising gaze of teenage boys. There was never any specific formula for being a ‘cool girl’, because there was simply no paradigm of the ‘cool guy’ to alter ourselves for.
Then there were the not-so-good memories. People’s faces viciously scratched out of photo montages on bedroom walls; weeks of ‘freezing out’ one particular person; the malicious gossip that circulated at whip-sharp speed throughout the class; the invisible cliques that formed, and stayed until the last day of Year 11. The combination of soaring hormones, insecurity and the general minefield of growing up can make the friendships of teenage girls an extremely toxic thing.My class was very small – there were only 30 of us – and this exacerbated any perceived ‘group warfare’ that went on. The relationships with girls outside of my own ‘clique’ were pretty much non-existent, but the barriers between us were obvious. To this day, I still couldn’t confidently tell you which of my peers actually liked me, such was the two-faced nature of a lot of my time there. I made a few friends individually within these groups, but the shadow of their particular clique soon loomed large over any common ground we may have had, and we resumed our usual roles as soon as we were inside the school gates.
In my own friendship circle, passive aggression was rife. I don’t remember any occasions where full-blown arguments actually occurred but, nevertheless, there was usually a pervading undercurrent of acrimony, which cycled around the group. At that age, the most important factor in your happiness is fitting in and it can lead to utter misery when you don’t. Girls know this, and they play on it. It’s far easier to use group dynamics to ‘silent-treat’ somebody than it is to explicitly call them up on something that’s upset you. By freezing somebody out, you communicate a hierarchy very, very loudly. There was rarely an obvious catalyst but it was inevitable that, at some point, your own run of good luck would be up, and it would be your turn to try to figure out why you were in the bad books. None of us were fully immune.
These days, I’ve drifted from pretty much all of those I was friends with back then – only one person from my group remains a constant in my life. It happens: people change a lot after 16. Our lives have simply taken different geographical and metaphorical paths.
I don’t know whether I would send my own daughter to a single-sex school but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. It wasn’t without its problems but, far from being purely the hotbed of bitchiness it’s often portrayed as, girls’ school presented us all with an environment where we could unashamedly experiment with who we were and what we wanted to be. Never was one single, solitary shit given about what others might think of us and, in today’s social-media-saturated age, that’s not to be taken lightly. For all the in-fighting and second-guessing involved, there’s a lot to be said for being able to explore freely your own definition of femininity, without the constraints of somebody else’s.