Arts Books Muse

Book Review: Women Don't Owe You Pretty

Annabel Mulliner reflects on the lessons Given’s debut novel taught her.

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Image Credit: Octopus, 2020

Florence Given herself said she wishes someone had slapped her around the head with her debut book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, when she was in her teens. Upon completing the leopard-print clad masterpiece in a mere five hours, I felt a terribly similar pang of regret. There were frequent, distinct moments of familiarity; throwbacks to times when I felt a lot less secure in who I was, times when I’d been subject to sexism and didn’t have the confidence, or the tools in my arsenal to fight back. This is an empowering guide to tackling everyday sexism, which everyone will be able to take something away from.

Given is a prominent queer, feminist illustrator and social activist, who rose to fame thanks to her popular kick-ass slogan designs, and distinctive art style. With 494k Instagram followers at the time of writing, she has also become a loud and influential voice on the platform. She is well-known for coining terms like ‘to hetrify’ (to be bombarded with heteronormative narratives) and for speaking out on a variety of social issues. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is a culmination of all that she preaches, written in a non-condescending agony aunt style, with all the brutal kindness and honesty of a stranger in the nightclub toilets.

The book is a beauty to behold, which is only to be expected given that Florence began her career as an artist. The brightness and boldness of the front cover continues within Given's no-nonsense approach to her subject matter. Far too much feminist dialogue is still confined to the halls of academia and the unnecessarily complex metaphors of  people like Helen Cixous. Given’s writing style is sharp, to the point, and incredibly accessible.

Though the book covers a variety of issues from internalised misogyny to rape culture, the thread that runs throughout each chapter is self-discovery; working backwards to who you were before the patriarchy crept in. I felt myself reflecting on the ways in which I express myself, through my behaviour and physical appearance - how much of it is purely for other people, and how much of it genuinely makes me feel “electric”? After all, “life is too short not to love the shit out of yourself”. Self-love should not feel like a vain indulgence, it should be a daily practise. Given wants you to know your worth - to not settle for crumbs when you want the whole damn cake. As the illustrator points out, self-care isn’t all about face masks and bubble baths. I guarantee that taking a day out to read this book will be more restorative than any of the above.

This isn’t to say that the book is an easy or luxuriant read. Certain chapters may feel over simplistic to a seasoned reader of feminist criticism. You may find yourself having to take breaks in between chapters, as ‘this book will ruin your life in the best way’. Given covers such a variety of issues, that I guarantee at least one of them will provide you with an unsettling epiphany. Reframing your perspective can cause you to become uncomfortable with the things which are familiar to you, your own habits and that of those around you.

I felt at times that I was being told things which I already knew deep down, but that I didn’t want to address. From my misogynistic judgements of other women, to my submissiveness towards the toxic people in my life. I found myself wanting to hand this book to my mum, my sister, my dad, my boyfriend. Men; you will find this book even more eye-opening than women. After all, the title does speak directly to you.

However, this isn’t an all-encompassing guide to being a ‘modern woman’ - whoever she is. That would be an impossible mission. Given clearly writes from a position of privilege, but she dissects this in detail. A considerable proportion of the book is dedicated to ‘pretty privilege’; the favourable treatment received by white, cisgender, skinny, able-bodied women. Thus, it feels quite often like Given is addressing this specific audience of women who look like her, and like me.

The chapter titled ‘Check Your Privilege’ hits the nail on the head in terms of ensuring that your brand of feminism is intersectional. Given doesn’t hold back - the chapter may just as well have been called ‘Don’t be a Dickhead’. Here, Given acknowledges that her experiences, and therefore her writing, can never be universal, and she urges her readers to support, read and listen to women who don’t look like her. A whole host of black influencers and writers are listed in the book’s acknowledgements, and would make for an excellent springboard for diversifying the authors on your bookshelf.

Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is both affirming and earth-shattering all at once, and a must-read for all ages and genders. In Given’s words: “baby, once those goggles are off, there’s no going back” - and why would you want  to?

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