From giving less fucks, to guy advice -- journalist Dolly Alderton shares what it means to be a woman.
Photography Joanna Bongard
Am I doing this woman thing right? Do you do this woman thing the same as me? Does it matter? Existential lady crisis -- we all have it. Notes on Being a Woman is an ongoing series that examines the many myths and meanings of what being a woman is all about.
We first came across Dolly Alderton when she was writing a weekly dating column in the Sunday Times Style magazine. A Carrie Bradshaw type -- but way more woke -- Dolly’s writing is raw and witty. She talks about dating, love, feminism, fashion… the list goes on but thankfully we won’t.
Studying in the Devon countryside at Exeter University, she spent a majority of her time pursuing the quintessential student experience before realising her interest in journalism, and subsequently moved to London to pursue that instead. After a few work experience stints, she caught her big break in the writers’ room for Made in Chelsea. In 2015 she produced her first short film Anna, Island, which was accepted into The London Short Film Festival, and is now working on a comedy about two best friends who vote differently in the EU referendum.
Dolly is pretty busy, she’s also working on a weekly pop-culture and news podcast, The High Low, with fellow London journalist Pandora Sykes, writing a particularly plucky newsletter called The Dolly Mail, and has just finished her very first book Everything I Know About Love, which will be coming to a bookstore near you next month. Until then, here’s a quick rundown on Dolly’s tips and tricks for how to be a woman -- whatever that means.
The best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun. No. That’s a terrible, terrible joke and one that I’m sure has already been made a few times by equally unoriginal minds. The best thing about being a woman is the tenderness, solidarity and strength, intimacy, fun and screeching, breathless, hysterical laughter that can be found in friendships with other women.
The hardest thing about being a woman is feeling scared all the time. I often wonder if I’ll ever be able to wander down a dark road at two AM with a grin on my face and a gut-full of wine, or sleep on my own in a house in the middle of nowhere or amble through a field under the stars and feel properly safe and free.
The best advice someone ever gave me about human bodies is: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26.” If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're 34.” Thanks, Nora Ephron. Also, in the past, when I’ve been obsessing over particularly cruel men who I felt had the power to make or destroy my life, I always found an abstract comfort in remembering they are 60 percent water.
If i could go back in time, I’d tell my 16-year-old self that I was wrong about boys -- they’re not nearly as exciting and scary and fascinating as I thought they were. And I was very wrong about the “gift” of a stunning physical appearance, everything wouldn’t be easier if I were really beautiful and thin.
The books I’ve read that have made me the woman I am today are The Bell Jar, predictably. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. Heartburn, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron. Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants by Jill Soloway. Good Girls Do Swallow by Rachel Oakes-Ash. Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull . I Love Dick by Chris Krauss. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy.
The most unexpected thing I’ve have found about being a woman is that I am constantly perplexed and amazed at how often our appearance is assessed and commented on; I had no idea that walking down the street would feel like I was a poodle trotting through Crufts, being assessed by an audience. Everything from a man at a till telling my I’m tall or a boss telling me I look tired -- I really never anticipated I would feel so on display constantly. I recently heard an interview with Miranda Sawyer and she said one of the best things about getting older is you become more invisible to this running commentary -- she said some women find this to be a very confusing loss of identity, which I understand, but she feels like a ninja that can just run through life getting stuff done much quicker. I really, really hope and pray I feel the relief of the latter what that inevitably comes.
My favourite song about being a woman is Cactus Tree, by Joni Mitchell. I was THIS close to having a line from that song tattooed on arm earlier in my 20s -- I’m so glad I was talked out of that. Just Like A Woman is a close second, which makes me cry no matter how many times I play it, and also qualifies for the rare accolade of having FOUR versions equally as beautiful as each other (Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley) and contains the most perfectly expressed line about sadness of all time: “Nobody feels any pain, tonight as I stand inside the rain.”
The woman I admire most is Emma Thompson. She uses her platform for more than accolades and glamour, and to call out injustice in a really useful, genuine, active way. I also admire my mum for her kindness, my best friend Farly for her unbreakable, resilient, Polly-Anna optimism no matter what life throws at her.
The best thing about getting older is giving less fucks . Every year I give 10 less fucks about what people think of me. I used to be imprisoned by the opinions of others -- now I realise that all that does is dilute the radical, technicolour experience of being alive. It’s like the less you care about being pleasing for other people, the more porous you become to everything the world has to offer. It’s pretty wild and I wish I’d realised it a bit earlier. Also -- shagging gets better and better.
The biggest lie about getting older is that you’ll be more appreciative of your school days. The older I get the more I resent my school days; the more I look back at the 13 years I was at school and I think: Christ, what a waste of perfectly good time, if only I’d been out working and creating in the world and befriending grown-ups.
I feel like a grownup most when I’m thinking about bins. I think about bins all the time -- sometimes it feels like my entire week is my bin schedule of sorting the recycling, emptying it, relining it and taking them out. When I was a student I had a small balcony in my halls of residence where I would put all the bin bags until they’d piled up so high at the end of term that I couldn’t see out of the glass door, it was just a pile of black bin liners. That cool-girl, laissez-faire attitude to refuse is a firm thing of the past.
I’m happiest when eating pasta. On a long walk. Chopping onions and peeling potatoes. During those perfect bright, cold, golden autumn days that make up about four days of October. Listening to those pedantic letters Graham Norton gets on his Radio 2 show. Dancing to Marvin Gaye in a circle of girls pissed out of their minds. Listening to Rod Stewart records. Drinking wine on my sofa with a friend on a weeknight. Swimming in the sea. Engaging with reluctant passing Norfolk terriers in the park. Purchasing something secondhand for my flat after three months of searching for it on Ebay. Playing guitar and singing with my mate Lauren to an indifferent audience. Being so engrossed in a book that I can’t wait to get on the bus or into bed. After eight hours sleep.
Love feels like a warm bath. It looks like a sunflower stretching towards the sun. It smells like the English seaside. It’s different when you’re in love, as one of my favourite Tracey Emin pieces states.
Honey Dijon asks: Do you lessen who are you are to be loved by men and liked by women, or vice versa? I definitely used to shrink or "declutter" myself to gain the attention and affection of men -- but that's firmly a thing of the past. I haven't experienced much dislike or hostility from women over the years, which I know a lot of people find hard to believe, as we're always told we're each other's own worst enemies, which is a belief I really push back against. Whenever women take an instant and irrational disliking to each other, it's usually rooted in anxiety or insecurity.
My question for the next woman doing this column would be: If you could have a big night out with one woman dead or alive, who would it be and where would you go?
Dolly's first book Everything I Know About Love is out 1 February, pre-order it here.