Wear what you like, read all the books you can – and ignore EVERYTHING boys say: My manifesto for young women
13:01 GMT, 25 June 2012
Brains over beauty: Janet Street-Porter does not let looks rule her life
As a teenager I was horribly thin, had a mouth full of big frilly teeth, wore unflattering National Health glasses and was cursed with drab, beige hair that refused to curl, no matter what my mother did to it.
That was the external packaging —but inside, I was 100 per cent rebel.
Mother Nature might have given me unpromising raw material, but I realised at 12 that my brain — not the size of my bust — was my ultimate weapon.
I swiftly honed an evil sense of humour and a ruthless streak of competitiveness. Daredevil Janet would (and still will) stop at nothing to succeed in life.
I grew up in a household with a rule for everything, from not speaking at meal times, to what length of skirt was permitted.
Dad would check me in and check me out at night, having scrutinised my attire. (His catchphrase seemed to be: ‘You’re not b****y well going out looking like that!)
It was a bit like being in the Army, without the uniform. The modern equivalent of my mum and dad is Michelle Obama, who has admitted she’s banned Facebook for her daughters (aged 13 and 11), forbidden computer and television viewing during the week and only let her eldest daughter have a mobile when she reached 12.
Madonna is another famously strict mum — she banned television, Christmas presents, revealing clothes, sugar and unhealthy food when Lourdes was a teenager.
Based on my own experience, ‘sensible’ rules are bound to fail. I flouted them all, and from the age of 13 conducted a war against my family, which ended when I walked out at 19.
My school told me I would have to have elocution lessons to succeed — naturally I took no notice. I was told I’d never get on in the media because of how I looked and sounded — well, I think I’ve had the last laugh on that score.
All rules do is encourage you to work out how to get round them. They make everything that’s banned seem exciting. I couldn’t wait to lose my virginity to see what all the fuss was about.
If rules aren’t the answer, what about a set of role models girls can aspire to For my generation, successful women were middle-aged politicians such as Barbara Castle — or film stars who seemed impossibly glamorous such as Brigitte Bardot or Julie Christie.
I didn’t have a role model — except, perhaps, David Bowie. Today, young women are bombarded with airbrushed images of female perfection everywhere they look. Women such as Rihanna, whose idea of a stage costume is a pair of knickers, or Cheryl Cole, whose main talent is wearing hair extensions and crying on demand.
MY TEN POINT MANIFESTO
1. Wear whatever you like, even if it means swapping outfits outside the house and changing back before your parents see you.
2. Only show flesh if you can deal with the attention.
3. Never drink without a mate who can help you get home.
4. Class A drugs are for losers — just don’t even bother with them.
5. Work like hell at school and make sure you pass every single exam you can. You’re doing it for yourself, not your teachers.
6. Ignore what boys say — they aren’t important. One day, you’ll find the one who thinks you’re brilliant.
7. Hold your head high — you are better than people who sneer.
8. Input is priceless. Swap telly trash and internet twaddle for books, exhibitions and live events.
9. Set your goals and keep them a secret.
10. Practise your interview skills — no one owes you a job. When you land one, make yourself indispensable. You’re on your way.
Rich despite their lack of hard work: The success of women like Tamara Ecclestone and Kim Kardashian makes it hard to tell young women that perfect hair and nails don't matter
I can’t deny that Cheryl has a massive following: when she visited Newcastle to promote her new album last week, girls queued for more than 12 hours to meet their ‘heroine’.
Education and achieving qualifications, or practical skills if you’re not academic, might seem to be redundant when you consider how much money these high-profile women make from the way they look.
But for most of us, the reality is that grooming and appearance — our external packaging — will only work up to a degree.
What’s needed is a plan for life and goals to aim for. Targets to be achieved in your own time — you can set the pace, but don’t be distracted.
When I grew up in Fulham, South-west London, I decided I would never be like Mum, who left school at 14 and worked as a school dinner lady and a clerk in the civil service, having lied about her qualifications.
Mum was bright, but she was denied the opportunity to exploit her talents, which made her deeply bitter.
77 per cent of women say they have more opportunities than their mothers did
Nor should modern women think that marrying the right bloke will help on their journey through life. I should know — I’ve tried it enough times.
Look on men as an optional extra — never let a man deflect you from your ultimate aim, which is to make the best of your talents.
That doesn’t mean running a big business, landing a record deal, or getting a part on a television show, but charting a path — even if kids come along — that makes you feel happy and fulfilled.
Recently, the head of a girls’ school association declared that they should be taught how to choose the right kind of husband, one who would support them in their career as well as helping at home.
Helen Fraser said that schools should limit the number of exams girls took and devote far more time to teaching life-skills. She wants them to switch off their mobiles and computers and read a whole book, absorbing ideas and making contact with another mind. It’s great advice.
I spent my teenage years working in the local library, and kept carefully annotated logs in the back of my teenage diaries listing all the books I had read — I was a single-minded self-improver.
But I profoundly disagree that finding a Mr Right who will encourage your career as well as cooking supper is a mission any young woman should devote one minute of her time to.
Let’s be realistic, these blokes don’t exist. Or if they do, they’re extremely rare, and women could waste time fruitlessly searching for them.
Another headmistress, Dr Helen Wright, is worried that images of busty women such as reality TV star Kim Kardashian, pictured in her underwear on the cover of Zoo magazine, ‘sum up almost everything that is wrong with our society today’.
She says teenagers ‘really are soaking up a diet of empty celebrity and superficiality’.
But before we dismiss Kim and Co., let’s consider their net worth. Kardashian has made a career out of posing in her pants, but she’s now worth an estimated 22 million, 10 million of which Forbes magazine reckons she earned last year. Not bad for a woman with a large backside and a double set of fake lashes.
We might sneer at Amy Childs and the over-tanned The Only Way Is Essex set, but they own boutiques and have created clothing and perfume ranges.
Tamara Ecclestone might have inherited millions from dad Bernie, but she’s also a canny property developer. Multi-millionaire Katie Price has ‘written’ 30 books and is launching a swimwear and perfume range. Cheryl Cole, a woman who admits her voice is not that great, tops the charts and fronts lucrative advertising campaigns.
All of the above does make it hard to tell young women that academic qualifications are important, that you should stay at school and acquire skills, and that long nails and perfect hair are not essential to success and admiration.
Better role models: From left, Olympians Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Adlington
But don’t denigrate these women as evil influences, because when it comes to business they are infinitely cleverer than the average bloke their age. They have all made what little intellectual grey matter they possess go a very long way.
In spite of the warnings from these female educationalists, there are some encouraging signs.
For the first time, computer games have replaced Barbie as the most popular toy for girls. Academically, girls have been outperforming boys for some time.
On the debit side, a new study finds that some girls exercise for just 17 minutes a day, which is far less than the recommended hour, but I’m not too bothered. Just look at the outstanding female athletes in Team GB, from Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Adlington to Zara Phillips and Jessica Ennis. Our female hockey team have a chance of a medal.
All these women are brilliant role models: they work hard and exhibit laudable dedication; they are articulate and deal with the demands of modern media extremely well — Rebecca Adlington spoke out against internet bullying recently.
When their athletic careers come to an end, they will exploit their fame in numerous ways, and good luck to them. When it comes to sport, British women really are high achievers.
So are the soothsayers of doom who whinge on about the young being ‘obsessed with celebrity’ really reflecting a true picture of today’s youth I think not.
Last month, a survey found that young people had exactly the same values as the over-55s, placing a long-lasting marriage and raising children high on their list of aspirations, above wealth and possessions.
I’m optimistic about today’s young women.
Sure, Cheryl and Co. have done well, but most girls realise they have to plot their own journey through life. At a time when a million young people are unemployed, it’s more important to believe in yourself than ever.