Women Don’t Owe You Pretty: empowerment, influencers and the changing dialogue about relationships

Are they intimidating or am I intimidated

21-year-old artist and writer Florence Given’s seminal first work, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, has remained in the top 5 of the Sunday Times bestseller list for twelve consecutive weeks since its publication, making her the youngest person ever to achieve this feat. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that her rise to prominence was primarily through Instagram, where she has cultivated a devoted following of mainly young women who flock to her stylised illustrations and punchy captions. Converting an online presence to hardback sales is something that few have achieved – Chidera Eggerue, aka The Slumflower, is another notable example of a young woman who has made a career out of unapologetic female empowerment. 

So, what’s all the fuss about? Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has been advertised as ‘an accessible entry point into progressive feminist discussion’, turning abstract and academic debates about women’s liberation into simple and relatable mantras which stick in the mind and are easy to grasp. A large part of the appeal of her work is its punchiness and direct tone – there’s no beating around the bush (should you choose to have one), which is a breath of fresh air in a world where people, especially women, are often terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear of backlash and ridicule. 

Much of Florence’s work centres around the idea of ‘unlearning’ the pressures and judgements that keep young women feeling ashamed or scared to truly be themselves, with her first chapter entitled ‘feminism is going to ruin your life (in the best way possible)’. And it’s true – some of the revelations in this book are uncomfortable. Many readers get in touch with Florence and describe facing up to some hard truths about themselves and their past experiences – for example, realising a past relationship was actually abusive, or accepting having unwittingly ‘let the side down’ by judging other women for their life choices.  

One of the most valuable things about this book is that it doesn’t single out individuals or groups for blame or censure. This is no simple ‘men are trash’ rant. Instead, Florence points to the overarching structures of patriarchal society which harm all genders and keep people constrained within a very restrictive set of social norms. She encourages the reader to question everything they take for granted – why is it important to always look ‘nice’? Why is it important to always be nice? How do you know you’re straight (and are you sure)? Why do we take comfort in bringing others down? Why do we believe it’s better to be in a relationship than not? The list goes on. Even if you don’t change your opinions or behaviours as a result, it’s nice feeling as if you’ve, at the very least, checked in with yourself to make sure the beliefs you have still serve you. 

Florence Given is part of a growing community of feminist empowerment influencers beloved of young women trying to find their way in the world and work out what makes them happy. Over the last few years, there has been a real tangible shift in the way relationships are discussed among young women. The goalposts are shifting in all aspects of our lives – most of us are no longer expecting to be settled down with a mortgage and kids by the age of 25 and precarity and unpredictability are now just part of the game.  

However, with this unpredictability comes opportunity – if the markers of adulthood of previous generations are no longer certain or accessible, young people have the opportunity to redefine what success and happiness look like to them. Many will still aim to follow a more conventional path, get married, and have kids, but the important thing is that this is no longer being viewed as an inevitability or the only route to happiness. Increasingly, singlehood or childlessness are no longer seen as a consolation prize for the unlucky in love. As Florence Given says, ‘you are the love of your own life’, and it’s about time you started acting like it. 

Cathi Westall

Cathi is a Masters student with the PoLIS department and Deputy Editor (Print) for 2020/1.

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