Have you heard of The Unslut Project? It began with Emily Linden sharing her middle school diaries online in a Tumblr page. It’s now a memoir and a documentary. Unslut is the all-too-common story of a preteen girl who was slut shamed and bullied. Lindin shared her story to reassure other girls suffering from sexual bullying that they’re not alone and this time will pass and their lives will get better. Definitely a message that needs to be heard.
The experiences in UNSLUT: A DIARY AND A MEMOIR are familiar to me, probably because like most women I experienced sexual bullying myself and witnessed it happen to my friends as well. But I was particularly struck by a sentence in a footnote on page 61 in regards to Lindin’s eleven-year-old self wanting to commit suicide: “So many different factors go into a child’s decision to end her own life, but one common thread is that, as children, we lack the understanding that life can get better.”
I stopped and read that sentence over, puzzled. Do children not understand life can get better? I don’t remember that. When I was young, I always daydreamed about the future and how it would be better than the present. My friends and I talked about what we’d be when we grew up and what we’d do. Well, admittedly, not all of us – some were bigger daydreamers than others. But I personally had the outlook that the BS I was dealing with in my youth would not last forever.
Where did I get that idea?
It certainly didn’t come from the small town where I lived, a place steeped in sexism. And like a lot of young people, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my parents about any of this. So where did I get the notion that things would get better?
The only answer I can come up with: books. My two favourite books as a child were Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Both novel series feature spirited, independent heroines who overcome hardships and grow up to follow their dreams. These stories gave me hope that I could do the same. The other important thing these stories imparted is that boys are not the be-all-and-end-all of a young woman’s life. Both Anne and Jo turn down marriage proposals to pursue personal goals. Young me was sooooo impressed with this! And I carried that message, that boys don’t give girls worth, with me all through my childhood, into my teens, and throughout adulthood.
Books are powerful, and studies have shown that the benefits of reading include emotional intelligence, knowledge of self, and empathy, all things that help people navigate life’s challenges.
I know the stories I read gave me the strength and hope I needed to survive sexual bullying. This is not to say that if bullied young people read books they will never consider ending their lives (the problem is much more complicated than that), but I believe books can help kids feel less alone and provide the hope necessary to continue on. Books that tackle issues (either directly or indirectly) of gender, sexuality, race, class, etc, in a realistic yet hopeful way help everyone, young and old alike, understand that life can get better.
What books influenced your life? Do stories help you get through tough times? Please share in the comments.