I had my tarot cards read when I was about twelve years old. Maybe I was thirteen. Either way, I was at an age when most adolescent girls have zero self-esteem, crippling anxiety and an awkward shyness that was compounded by a body that I was convinced hated me. The doctors had told my mum that I was in the very top percentile for height and the very bottom percentile for weight for my age throughout my childhood. When the only skirt in the shop that fits you around the waist is age 5 and you’re shopping for a new outfit for the year 8 disco, well, you’re not really listening through the tears when your well-meaning mum tells you that you’ll appreciate it when you’re older. That, however, is another post for another time.
I don’t remember much of what was said during the reading other than a blonde mother figure would play an important role in my life. Now, I did not inherit my fair colouring from my dark-eyed, dark-haired mother, so we looked at each other and shrugged. And that was the end of it.
I muddled through my teenage years in a blur of anger, frustration and a lot of glitter and cheap lipstick. Like so many other teenage girls, I spent years trying to piece together an identity from worn copies of Just Seventeen, Melody Maker, Kerrang and music videos on MTV2. I had no idea who I was but I knew exactly who I wanted to be.
Having decided that I was obsessed with Courtney Love before I’d even heard Hole’s music, I spent my time during year 9 IT lessons wisely: frantically typing her name into our school’s intranet which contained archived press clippings dating back years. Printing page after page of anything I could find that featured her name, I hungrily devoured every word. She sounded outrageous, caustic, compelling and smart. Every journalist would comment on the way she dressed, some deriding her as a grown woman who needed to take a shower; others believed that she was cleverly subverting the patriarchy’s sexualisation of young women and girls. And then I read something that changed everything for me and still does. It has been over 20 years so I’m going to paraphrase but what made Courtney Love so fascinating, this particular journalist thought, was that she unapologetically challenged what the world thought how a proper woman should speak, dress and behave. She took the archetypal Hollywood image of the blonde bombshell, the ultimate female beauty ideal, and made her punk. I was in love.
As I progressed through my teens, I would love to say that I soon saw Courtney’s problematic feminism and ill-treatment of other women as an issue and started hero worshiping more worthy figures like Kathleen Hanna but I didn’t. I adored Kathleen Hanna (and still do) but she just seemed too cool; I was never going to be as smart as her and I didn’t read feminist theory (it was mostly Valley of the Dolls and Plath). I so wanted to be a cool riot grrrl, and even said that I was one, but I craved tarnished glamour and tragedy from my sheroes as I dreamed of playing guitar as well as the boys while leaving a trail of broken hearts behind me like a feminist Valentino.
The women who shaped me and pieced me back together were all women who I fiercely believed challenged society’s expectations of traditional female beauty, intelligence and behaviour. They taught me how to build a thin layer of confidence strong enough to bleach my hair, wear red lipstick, wear whatever I felt like and still proudly call myself a feminist because it was my body and my choice. I was allowed to be ultra feminine, something that since childhood has always appealed to me, without having to apologise to my strident feminist side. If I hadn’t had role models such as Courtney Love, Madonna and Gwen Stefani as an impressionable young feminist, I may have ended up wiping off that lipstick and glitter that felt like an extension of myself and hiding behind what I thought I was supposed to be. I started wearing glitter smeared around my eyes, thick layers of red lipstick and I frequently lost my shit in the Hello Kitty section at Claire’s. Old slips found in charity shops were teamed with Dr Martens or Mary Janes and Barbie handbags. My natural blonde hair went through various shades of blonde, ginger, red, purple and pink before finally reaching the perfect platinum blonde shade in my early twenties by which time I’d settled on a more pseudo-vintage look.
It was no coincidence that most of my role models during my teens were blonde. I believed that bleached hair was the ultimate fuck you to traditional beauty standards and the wearing of red lipstick was just as bold. I understood from a young age that these women were not dressing or performing for men but for themselves. I fell in love with Debbie Harry when my mum explained to me that she was a pop star and a punk singer. This incredible creature who looked like she had stepped from the pages of Vogue was sweating and writhing around the stage in a bin bag snarling her perfectly glossed lips? Is this who we were allowed to be?
Beyond everything, the blonde hair, the red lipstick, the clothes and music, I knew that these were incredibly smart women. I adored Courtney Love and Marilyn Monroe for their insatiable appetite to educate and better themselves, to smash not just gender stereotypes but also challenge what it meant to be feminine.
This is why it is so important for our young girls to have strong role models whether they are pop stars, actresses, politicians, sports women, activists, mothers, teachers, you. Be the role model you needed when you were 13. These women built me, they run through my blood.
I’m no longer a platinum blonde but I still carry with me the lessons that these women taught me:
I will never apologise for being a woman.
I will never apologise for my femininity.
I will never apologise for what I do to my body.
I will never apologise for wearing red lipstick with every outfit.
“I’m not a woman. I’m a force of nature,” Courtney Love.