Exposure Asks: what’s it like to be a girl? #HerTake!

February 22, 2023

L-R Top: Zaynab, Amelie, Jess, Ismahan, Sarah, Rosie, Rayaan, Ayanna, Kate. Bottom: Andreea, Chloé, Eva and Abi

Exposure asks young women to share their experiences, thoughts and discoveries about being female

Our generation, Gen Z, has endless connections with the world around us. Through the explosion of social media we have access to first hand sources for every news event breaking in our lives; from live updates of burning forests and rising oceans, to civil rights breakthroughs long overdue, and to the world stopping the global pandemic that’s still causing heartache everywhere.

Young people’s mental health has taken the brunt of the impact. In most countries, mental health issues among 15-24 year olds have more than doubled. An NHS survey about mental health disorder and treatment has found that young women particularly are at higher risk in the wake of these crises.

Reflecting on current events, we’ll be discussing ideas about the world we experience as young women; including sustainable fashion, the male gaze, equality, gender, girlhood, pornography, mental health, friendships, and solace.

Scroll down and use the slider tool to see what we think of these topics, and to view relevant thoughts and facts we want to share. The images to the left show what we feel, or invite you to think about, while the images on the right provide information on each issue.

To make your wardrobe more sustainable… — by Abi Greene, 17


The clothing industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions. With a 100 billion garments produced annually, and clothing kept for half as long as it was 15 years ago, the industry’s detrimental effects on the planet are skyrocketing.

Edge, the fashion intelligence platform, reports that to create a single T-shirt and pair of jeans uses approximately 5,000 gallons of water. In addition to its role as a violent creator of global warming, the fashion industry exploits millions of people. Fewer than 2% of workers earn the living wage. We only have ourselves to blame for these outcomes.

According to an article in contactmusic.com many of the items we consume are only worn 7 to 10 times before being thrown out. We’re actively demanding goods that we already have an excess of. Emma Watson has suggested a rule: ‘if you won’t wear it 30 times, don’t buy it!’. While this is sound and logical advice, we as a nation are evidently not acting on it.

Stop buying endless amounts of clothes. Source your wardrobe from thrifted, second-hand stores.

Selecting, assembling, and wearing outfits we have chosen can express our creativity and form part of our identity. The key is not to strip away our fashion tastes and styles. We can still express ourselves but in more sustainable ways.

One of thrifting’s biggest advantages for the planet is that it keeps clothes out of landfills. Involve yourself in this movement now to see a better future, not only for our planet but for the exploited workforce – and your wardrobe too!

You can read more by Abi here.

What is the Male Gaze? — by Phoebe Case, 17

The Male Gaze was coined in the 1970s by the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. Her theory highlights the sexual objectification of women in the media. You can read more about this here.

With men as the film’s target audience, their needs were put first with unrealistic versions of women created and idealised.

Alfred Hitchcock was the master of the Male Gaze, perpetuated by his exclusive use of blonde actresses. Hitchcock stated he preferred blondes and suggested they were ‘less suspicious’ than brunettes.

The Hitchcock blonde character had a cool and calm exterior as well as being bold and passionate in times of danger. Hitchcock himself remarked that the appeal of the blonde was their restrained sensuality, lurking under their polished and coiffed facade.

While being physically and emotionally desirable, the blonde mesmerised men who were often physically or psychologically disabled. At the same time, the women were transfixed by them. Essentially, the blonde was a Barbie doll for the man to play with and dispose of when necessary. Is that really all a woman is worth!?

Critically Hitchcock perpetuated the ideal that a woman’s worth is based on her looks and in his case, he promoted a damaging Eurocentric beauty ideal; blue eyes, fair skin and blonde hair. This beauty ideal is particularly harmful considering the international reach his films had.

Hitchcock weaponised beauty to create an unrealistic yet desirable character. Ultimately, Hitchcock’s Blonde existed to be an aspiration for women and an unattainable fantasy for men.

Young women frequently face sexual objectification in their daily interactions and through the consumption of multimedia.

Unsurprisingly, treating people and their bodies like objects has negative consequences for mental health.

Undermining a young person’s confidence and comfort with their own body can lead to emotional and self-image issues, such as shame and anxiety. When people feel critical of their physical appearance there is an increased risk of developing disordered eating and depression.

If you are affected by any of these issues, you can get support here.

Are you a Tomboy or a Girly Girl? — by Kate Rogers, 16

Most women are familiar with the age-old question ‘Are you a tomboy or a girly girl?’ Read more here.

It’s a problematic question that I track back to the male gaze coinciding with the world’s tendency to mould people into easily digestible, binary caricatures.

According to Melissa Hines, neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Churchill College, a divide begins to show when children first understand that they should identify as either boys or girls. This strict division has been labelled as the heterosexual market by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet in their 2013 article.

Though it is inevitable that boys and girls discover that they are different, I have a non-scientific question. Why do adults demand the strict division between girls who behave like their male counterparts and those who don’t? Why then are their lives monitored so heavily, from the age of five when ‘tom-boyishness’ starts?

Growing up as women we see this so often, a subliminal or sometimes glaring message to define ourselves, to get dressed up, or to be more boyish. But no one ever wants us to do it for ourselves.

Enjoying sports, being argumentative, and showing competitiveness is admirable in its own way. To be sweet, feminine, and approachable should be celebrated just the same. It’s also concerning that no one ever expects women to be competitive and sweet, or feminine and argumentative. So when these traits together are encouraged or introduced in film and media for the interest of male desire, they come across as rather sour.

I find that for young women in particular, typecasting only splits us up. The ‘I don’t wear makeup’ girls secretly envy those who paint their faces like a work of art. While the ‘How do you go out dressed like that?’ girls wish they didn’t measure their self-worth by how dressed up they are.

Recently, the lines between femininity and masculinity are becoming more blurred but under the fuzz of unisex clothes and diversity campaigns, everyone still wants to know if you’re a tomboy or a girly girl.

The obvious conclusion is neither, despite pressure to be otherwise. Women are 3-dimensional. It’s impossible to be only one type of woman.

As there is no direct resolution to this problem it’s daunting to discuss and address it in such a broad fashion. However, conversations about gender expression and the binary boxes that we’re put in, are vital to remove unneeded division amongst young women.

How many women do you think are architects? — by Andreea Pasol, 17

As a creative young woman exploring different pathways, architecture was a career that stuck out to me. I have used my time with Exposure to find out more about what this might entail.

Recent figures published by UCAS show a 10% rise in young women’s interest in architecture, which is very promising. Although Dezeen magazine report that only three of the world’s 100 biggest architecture firms are headed by women.

According to a survey from ‘The Architectural Review’, 32% of women claim to have experienced gender discrimination in their workplace within the past year.

Although these figures seem to be improving, there is no doubt that they are far too high. A blatant example of this inequity is given by an architectural director who says: “When someone calls up and asks to speak to the owner of the practice, they hang up as I am not a man.”

Gender discrimination is a source of stress and can directly affect our mental health. More than half of women will become a victim of sexual harassment at work and this is just one of many alarming statistics reported by inspired eLearning.

I feel diversity, equity and inclusion are increasingly relevant in the world of work and for me it is paramount we keep fighting to empower women.

I have found it liberating and inspiring to learn more about the women who have shaped the architecture industry and their secret to success. One amazing woman, Zaha Hadid, grabbed my attention. Hadid was one of the most successful female architects of the late 20th and early 21st century. She was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, the industry’s highest honour.

After finishing architecture school in 1972, in London, Zaha Hadid won a competition to build a luxury resort in Hong Kong. She had no actual building experience, but her talent was recognised from her abstract paintings.

Unfortunately, this early project never came to fruition. However Hadid’s unique paintings were described, in an article in Forbes magazine as having, “manipulated gravity and collided perspectives”. The paintings were praised by many and she went on to be a major figure in architecture.

Hadid is famous for her variety of remarkable designs around the world. From her Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow, with its spectacular zig-zag abstract design, and its huge 36ft glass front, to her majestic ship-shaped Jockey Club Innovation Tower in Hong Kong with its seamlessly fluid structure.

You can read more here about Zaha Hadid alongside other inspiring women in architecture.

Mental ill health among young women is on the rise…
— by Ayanna Huie-Manneh, 17

In a report by Agenda, Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk, social and economic factors put young women at greater risk. One in five young women experience a common mental health issue such as anxiety or depression compared to one in eight men. Those on low incomes or those having experienced physical or sexual abuse are the most affected.

Despite young women and girls being inclined to have better social networks than young men and boys, it can be a double-edged sword. While it provides the opportunity for support and help from peers, there tends to be an excess of images online that damage body confidence. Constant comparison; whether external or internal can destroy confidence in their own abilities. A shocking 70% of girls surveyed, in Girls Attitudes Survey, said they felt they had to be “perfect” in all areas of their lives.

Social and economic factors play an important role. This is why intersectionality is crucial in discussions of mental health and the treatment of young women. Certain societal norms and views on the nature of women contribute on a large scale to the handling of mental health.

Where girls tend to internalise their troubles, boys are more likely to act out their feelings through disruptive or antisocial behaviour. This outward action is likely to catch attention and be seen, whereas girls tend to suppress worrying thoughts which can be missed.

Girls are expected to be passive, self-indulgent, and to exaggerate and display irrational waves of emotion. These harmful gendered standards mask the serious mental health issues of young women. It can even lead to emotions being internalised to such an extent where they’re labelled as something ‘every girl goes through, you’re not the only one!’. In the extreme this suppression of harmful thoughts and feelings can take the physical form of self-harm.

Don’t be afraid to speak and use your words to confide in trusted people. It’s crucial we share our difficult thoughts and emotions and get through any feelings of shame. Young women’s mental health needs to become a priority. To tackle this crisis, we must raise awareness of the pressures girls face.

For girls of colour and members of the Queer Community, poor mental health can be triggered specifically due to distressing experiences of discrimination and inequality. Feelings of exclusion and inferiority can contribute to anxiety, depression and other dangerous mental issues. According to a report by Unison increased rates of mental health problems are experienced among young black women, compared to other races in the UK.

Don’t be afraid to speak and use your words to confide in trusted people. It’s crucial we share our difficult thoughts and emotions and get through any feelings of shame. Young women’s mental health needs to become a priority.

You can find support at The Mix with any mental health issues you might be experiencing.

How likely are you to have a toxic female friend?
— by Ismahan Hussein, 16 (in photo) and Zaynab Ali, 17

Even strong friendships sometimes have rough patches and can be fraught with conflict and tension. Difficult or toxic friendships, on the other hand, never seem to go smoothly. According to an article in Forbes magazine toxic friendships are all too common with 84% of women having a toxic friend at some point.

What’s tough and confusing is if a friendship was once fun, comfortable and safe but it’s now not making you feel good about yourself. In fact, you might often feel unhappy and isolated.

To us a good friendship is when you both feel chilled together, you can have good banter, as well as feeling safe when you’re confiding in each other.

Our discussions have given us both a real insight to what makes a friendship toxic. Here is a scenario we came up with based on some of our experiences. I’m sure you’ll have been part of something similar or have witnessed this stuff at some stage.

Daniela and Olive have been friends since year 8 at secondary school. The girls will soon be starting at the same sixth form. Olive is feeling anxious about this but doesn’t quite understand why. Eventually she starts to recognise her friend’s negative patterns of behaviour. The trouble starts in the summer break.

It’s a hot summer evening and the two friends are meeting some guys in the park. Olive is full of good vibes which Daniela soon diminishes by embarrassing her. She tells everyone about some personal stuff Olive confided with her a few days before. Olive tries to confront Daniela about it later but she brushes it off and puts Olive down some more. Olive ends up feeling shamed and miserable.

A couple of days later Daniela suggests she helps Olive study all night for a maths test. Olive is surprised and not totally comfortable with it but agrees anyway. Olive does very well in the test. Daniela barely congratulates her and immediately changes the subject to talk about herself and a boy she’s met. Olive is left feeling frustrated and uneasy.

Olive is waiting for Daniela at their usual hangout. After half an hour she gets very worried and calls her. Daniela picks up saying she’s at a great party. Feeling foolish and isolated, Olive asks whose party it is. Daniela fobs hers off with, ‘oh it’s just this guy’s party that I like. You won’t like the vibe. Just looking out for you babe.’

After the results of another test Daniela is excited and can’t wait to tell Olive about how highly she scored. Olive hugs her and congratulates her warmly. However, when it turns out that Olive has got a better grade, Daniela dismisses it and puts her down, implying she does so much work it’s weird and anyone who put that much effort in could do well. Olive walks away feeling hurt and guilty.

A few days later, after another uncomfortable encounter, Olive realises she’s had enough of feeling undermined and confused and tells Daniela that she needs some space.

It’s not easy to extricate yourself from a toxic friendship, we’ve all been there. Click here to find great tips and advice on how to move beyond it.

Do men create their own performance anxiety?
— by Eva Chard, 17 and Rosie Aslett, 16

With the ever-increasing availability of the internet and access to smartphones it’s unsurprising that the amount of pornography being viewed is at its highest in over a decade.

Econotimes reports that young people are encountering porn, from an early age, with a broader mixture of content, which influences not just their sexual lives.

With most porn produced by men for men, is it only women who it damages?

When over 35% of all internet downloads are pornographic, obviously society has an overconsumption issue. It’s no surprise that an industry centralised around the Male Gaze captures an audience, of which more than two thirds are men, reported by Webroot.

Predictably then, all porn to an extent will inhibit feminism. The projected female image will remain morphing and unattainable. Though this esteemed standard can’t materialise, a digital etching of these requirements can stick, severely damaging female mental health and liberty. But why should a man care?

As this stream of uploads exponentially increases, so do the unconsidered consequences for the regular male viewer. Falling down the X-rated rabbit hole can inflict distorted beliefs about relationships and sexuality that can interfere with emotional stability and personal life.

Excessive exposure to unrealistic figures can cause harmful perceptions of body image, leading to deep insecurity and damaging affirmations of female passivity. And it doesn’t take a crippling addiction for this to happen. Studies reported by Frontiers in Psychiatry, concluded that of all internet related activities, online porn had the greatest potential to be addictive.

Watching pornography can lower men’s satisfaction in relationships. While for women, male partners’ pornography use can reduce intimacy. It can feed the perception of women as sex objects and body shame or involve coercion into sexual acts.

In the long term, pornography seems to create sexual dysfunction, especially the inability to achieve erection or orgasm with a real-life partner. Commitment to a romantic partner also appears to be compromised with the belief that casual sex is more normal than a loving and stable sexual relationship.

Pornography’s reinforcement of traditional and out-dated gender roles also pressurises men into macho confinements. Twisted ideals of manhood can be incurred with premature erectile dysfunction killing love.

If this skewed view of women also hurts men, maybe porn should not be treated simply as a coffee break!

Despite the growth in pornography, making it one of the biggest forms of media consumed in the UK, the industry remains lightly regulated with little understanding of the ongoing harmful impact it can have on young people.

Check out more about how porn affects young people in this episode of Exposure Listens.

What is girlhood? — by Chloé Adewunmi, 17

Growing up is about recognising that change is a painful process.

Growing up isn’t giving into peer-pressure or accepting the prescription for how you should walk or talk or dress.

Growing up isn’t about fitting inside a cookie-cutter mould with all the frills that make up ‘girl’.

When I was growing up, coming of age meant (or so I was told) wearing dresses like they were a second skin, pairs of Nike 95s, glittering parties and boys. There must have been some unsung song, or some unwritten rules, telling me that I had to let a part of myself go, the more creative, curious part of myself, in order to be the perfect girl.

Coming to terms with the fact that you don’t fit the mould is difficult but liberating. Realising that a girl isn’t stirred by sugar, spice and everything nice but by the beat of her own sound, whether that’s Bubblegum-Pop or Hip-Hop. Like she is gracing through her own cinematic experience as the heroine, with infinite possibilities.

I can remember a specific moment, a person, that struck a chord with me. I must have only been sat a few rows in front of her; Zadie Smith, mixed-race (a milky-coffee colour that was familiar to me) with a casual glamour about her.

I was mesmerised by everything she did, by what she had achieved as someone who looked like me and how she thrived as a woman. She was an author embarking on her first theatrical production, no less! I felt invigorated to reconnect with myself. To delve into the stirring humanity of her books and rediscover my own passions.

Similarly, seeing all the strong women of hip-hop, like Missy Elliott and Aaliyah, who have made it in a male-dominated industry, motivates me to stand my ground and own my identity. 90s hip-hop is what draws out my authentic self; with its poignant poetry, its powerful energy and its electric rhythm. It’s what makes me feel alive.

Discovering new music is like tasting a new flavour. It’s not only a way to discover new pieces of yourself but also brings about new connections with others; music can unite an entire generation.

Growing up is about recognising that change is empowering.

Girlhood is learning, growing and thriving in whatever way is true to you. Keep it all, from your childish wonder to your teenage defiance. There are no rules.

The way we perceivethe importance ofcomfort is rapidly changing in the media — by Sarah Hussein, 16 and Jess Thomas-Iganski, 16

It’s not unusual for us to seek out a sense of comfort in places, food, or with people. During the pandemic and with the harsh lockdowns however, films seem to be where more of us are turning to for that sense of comfort and safety.

Although, for each person the favourite film may differ, the warm, secure feeling we get is a universal experience.

A recent study in Science Daily discovered that nostalgia manifests itself physically as warmth and comfort.

Jess: There’s a lot happening for everyone right now, especially for teens, I guess. It’s nice to retreat and just find comfort in something familiar, like re-watching our favourite films.

Sarah: I love ‘Little Women’. That’s it, that’s the movie. Like I don’t know, I adore everything about it, even the sadness of it. The main character Jo is so loveable. She’s bold, brave, and authentic.

Regardless of the genre, whether it be comedy, drama, sci-fi or horror, we seem to find comfort in the fact that we know how the movie ends more than anything. Psychologists have suggested that those who suffer with anxiety or depression may find comfort in re-watching a film. Knowing the storyline allows you to be prepared for what’s coming. Not everyone likes a surprise or plot twist.

Movies can typically trigger a happy memory or time, and nostalgia may be part of the psychology behind comfort movies. Re-watching a childhood favourite repeatedly transports us to a happier, safer time in our lives, as well as providing a sense of hope for better times ahead.

Ultimately, comfort films are a form of self-care. Watching them is a way to relax and recoup. So, when you next find yourself returning to the “watch again” section on Netflix, whether you are seeking comfort in familiarity or revisiting happy memories, try not to feel guilty. It’s good for you and you’re not alone!

Check out more about what brings us comfort in this episode of Exposure Listens.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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