In single-sex schools girls don’t see themselves through boys’ eyes, says Mary Wakefield
I remember quite clearly the moment I first realised how very lucky I was to have been sent to a single-sex boarding school. It was the summer of 1989 and my friends, Becca, Ilona and I were all 13 and arm in arm, collapsing into shrieks of laughter at the drop of a hat. We were at the Newbury agricultural show, as I remember, and still young enough to be thrilled by the corporate goody bags from the Massey Ferguson stand and to think stickers, any stickers, even ones that said ‘Invest with Natwest’, were cool.
Down at the far end of the field there were a few shonky fairground rides, and it was there that this revelation took place. We were standing by ferris wheel, flicking our hair, when two boys from Radley sauntered up. Both boys were called Henry, it turned out, and both handsome with dark hair, though one Henry smelled strongly of patchouli oil. Having been as carefree as a young teen can be, I was now forced to see myself through the Henrys’ eyes. It wasn’t pretty. Becca was a young Catherine Zeta-Jones lookalike, with long tanned legs and hair Jilly Cooper would describe as a ‘raven mane’. Ilona was a blonde Canadian who radiated street-savvy cool. I, however, looked like Blackadder, in the first series: a short-arse with a bowl haircut and black rings around my eyes. The Henrys knew what they wanted. Would Becca and Ilona like to come and play? For the next few hours I sat sadly in the shadow of the big dipper, sometimes wondering how Becca could breathe with the patchouli Henry’s face squashed onto hers, sometimes counting my stickers.
Girls behave differently when there are boys around. They see themselves through boys’ eyes, dress for boys, begin to judge each other by how the boys judge them. Pretty girls band together, fatties and freaks fade away. Back at boarding school, in our blissfully Henry-free environment, the social hierarchy was still brutal, but based on more noble things than looks, like who had a ghetto-blaster.
If there are boys about, they’re invariably the subject of discussion — who’s cute, who’s disgusting, who’s your secret crush. In my first term at boarding school, when we were all 11, my dorm had a terrifically earnest, week-long debate about fox-hunting after lights out.
We took it in turns to stand on our beds and present our case, and both the pros and the antis did an excellent job. The next term we discussed the existence of God. And so we continued, right on until I left at 16: boys on the periphery, life’s big questions centre stage.
The woods surrounding the school were our playground. At an age when most girls in Britain are already knocked up, we behaved like Just William. We crept, giggling out of the attic windows at the dead of night (9 p.m.), scuttled down the fire escapes to climb trees. Becca and I wove saplings together to make an excellent hide-out, with walls at least six feet high. It was called ‘the Shoe’. I am still inordinately proud of it. Would we have made the Shoe if there’d been boys about? No way. They’d have had all the fun, while we obsessed about our weight.
There will be time for the Henrys. The Henrys inevitably have their day and it’s Henrys all the way thereafter, till death do you part. So here’s a message to the mothers of daughters, brought to you from a sunny day in Berkshire, 1989, from a sulky teen in shadow of the big dipper: let your girls be children while they still can.