The pressure to be perfect: Mia, 15, on sexism in UK schools | ActionAid UK

Mia Saunders

Day of the Girl guest blogger

As part of our celebration of International Day of the Girl we're sharing the voices of 15-year-old girls and their mums. Read what Mia and her mum Paula, who live in Brighton, have to say about some of the difficulties facing girls in the UK right now and how they're standing up to them.

Mia taking photos with her camera - one of her favourite hobbies.
Mia taking photos with her camera - one of her favourite hobbies.

Mia, how would you describe yourself in three words?

Resilient, focused and creative.

What’s your proudest achievement?

Like many girls of my age I have experienced daily sexism from boys in my class and I am really proud I took a stand against the comments made. There was a point when “jokes” were being made about rape and I felt it was important to confront the issue, which opened up a debate about what was and was not acceptable. It was very difficult at the time, but I am glad that I spoke up. I think it is important as young women that we have our voices heard.

Are girls treated differently to boys in the UK?

There seems huge pressure on girls my age to look a particular way to “fit in” and be perceived as “acceptable”. It seems harder for girls to have their voices heard, than boys. Girls are judged on how they dress, when boys aren’t. If you speak up, you are seen as bossy or having too much to say, rather than simply being assertive.

Do you think being a girl holds you back or stops you doing what you’d like to do?

In some ways, yes - whether it’s under-representation in Parliament, or people falsely assuming that you are the “weaker sex” and can’t do what boys do. It’s hard for it not to affect your confidence but I try not to let these things hold me back. I aim to be as resilient as I can and take some responsibility for changing things, rather than resigning myself to the way things are.

What ambitions do you have for the future?

I would love to be an artist or photographer. At times I have struggled with perfectionism and anxiety, but I am learning that my work does not need to be perfect, and that art is a way that I can express myself. Perhaps in the future I will be able to help others who struggle with anxiety and perfectionism and help them see what I am learning: that just to try one’s best and be good enough, is ok.

Mia, 15, showing her support for gender equality - Goal 5 of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Why is it important for girls to have equal opportunities to boys?

Boys and girls are equal, so why should they not have equal opportunities? As a feminist I absolutely believe in gender equality.

It makes me feel extremely sad to know that girls in some countries don't have access to even a basic education because of their gender and are in some cultures perceived to have less value than boys. For some girls the situations they face regarding gender inequality are worse than I could possibly imagine. But I hope that we can still stand together and fight gender injustices together, pushing for change in our own communities, rather than suffering in silence.

In 2030, girls born today will be the same age as you. What changes would you like to see in the world by then?

I hope the pressures on girls to look a certain way or behave a certain way will have been reduced. Thinking of the UK, it seems to me that far too often a blind eye is turned in schools to how many girls (and boys too) are struggling with anxiety, eating disorders and depression. Too much focus is placed on academic achievement, at the cost of pupils’ mental health. I wish there was more support for mental health issues in schools generally.

I hope that organisations like No More Page Three or The Everyday Sexism Project won’t need to exist. And I hope there will be more women in Parliament and in currently male-dominated industries, like technology.

Mia and her mum, Paula, chatting at their home in Brighton.

Paula, tell us a bit about Mia?

In the latter part of her 15 years life has thrown Mia some curve balls. I am in awe watching how she finds ways of coping when life gets tough. She has recently become a keen photographer and I was thinking the other day how often, just as when she is taking a photo, when a situation is challenging, she takes time to reflect and then consider looking through a different lens.

I learn so much from her. She is incredibly resilient and tenacious. She is passionate about injustice and has a kind, kind heart. I love watching how she loses herself in her art. She is strong, but not afraid to share her vulnerable side. 

How do you feel about attitudes towards girls in the UK, and other parts of the world?

I am shocked and saddened that things have changed so little since I was Mia’s age, in terms of attitudes to, and opportunities for, women. A friend said that perhaps in our twenties we thought we were further ahead in the push for equality and took our foot off the pedal too soon. I never thought my daughter would be dealing with so much sexism in her everyday life. There is so much misogynistic vitriol on social media. It is shocking.

I'm angry that we live in a world where we cannot take for granted that women should, as Malala says, have a voice, have the right to live in peace, the right to be treated with dignity, the right to equality of opportunity, and the right to be educated.

Because Mia is a girl, do you worry about her safety?

At the moment Mia is more of a home body, more likely to be found drawing or painting than out late at night, but even at home I guess there are on-line dangers which might cause one to worry about your daughter’s safety. I don’t want her to grow up thinking there is danger on every corner. Nor do I want to teach her fear or wrap her in cotton wool, or life could become very narrow.

But I can’t imagine that should she start going out more that I won’t worry. I am sure I will feel the same way about her brothers too. I hope, as parents, we have given our children a solid foundation to make sensible decisions and keep themselves as safe as possible in any set of circumstances. 

Mia's mum Paula shows her support for Goal 5 for gender equality.

Do you think that Mia might be held back by being a girl?

Mia and I have always talked about the importance of standing up, speaking out, and asking for what you need. But it is hard not to be held back by being a girl when culture pressurises girls to embrace a version of selfhood that (as Rachel Simmons says in The Curse of the Good Girl) “sharply curtails their power and potential” and where there is a sense that girls should always be nice, polite and selfless. Girls have an impossible image to live up to and this too can result in damaging self-criticism, which has great power to hold them back.

Why do you think Goal number 5 - gender equality - is important?

There are so many answers to this. If you look at it from an economic angle it’s clear that inequality between women and men in terms of education, health and nutrition etc. ultimately slows economic growth. But I just want to answer simply, that gender equality is important because it is fair.

By 2030 I guess we would both agree we would like to see a dramatic decrease in gender based violence globally – sexual, physical, and mental; a reduction in the number of the women living in poverty and without education; and an end to gender based pay discrimination.

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Photos: ActionAid