Essex girl (n)
[British derogatory] a contemptuous term applied (usually jocularly) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.
About this project
• For this ongoing project I am photographing real ‘Essex Girls’ as a series of portraits, in order to challenge the pejorative, stereotypical portrayal.
• Each portrait is a collaboration rather than just my interpretation. I encourage suggestions on location, themes, pose and dress etc, so that sitters are projected in the way that they would like to be portrayed.
• All participants have a connection to Essex, including for example achievers such as artists, scientists, writers, sportswomen etc, those that have questioned the Essex Girl stereotype, unsung or inspirational heroines, and everyday people. I aim to include a diverse range of age, abilities, class, ethnicity and geographical locations.
• This is a long-term project, using natural light and shot on medium format film - this slows things down, allowing more of a connection.
• The Essex Girl stereotype is based on a mixed bias of gender, social class, and geography. As father to two young daughters, I wonder whether it will still persist by the time they become adults.
Mark Massey, 2019
Variously defined as an unintelligent, sexually promiscuous woman with garish fashion sense, lacking in social graces and standing, the term “Essex Girl” prominently entered the lexicon in the late 20th century.
While it could be said that the use of the term is “jovial”, the associated jokes and jibes underpin a misogynistic rhetoric descriptive of women who have social aspiration and mobility coupled with a command of their own sexuality. In isolation, these behaviours are often met with snobbery and derision but together they are perceived to deliver a dangerous cocktail of self mastery, rejection of social convention, independence and increasing consumer power.
Overt discriminatory practices may be applied to women who carry with them a negative “Essex Girl” stereotype simply by virtue of their background or residence. While overt discrimination of this nature may, on occasion and with evidence, be challenged, it is the implicit bias (unconscious, first thoughts and actions) that terms such as “Essex Girl” perpetuate. This is far more insidious.
Language is a magical and powerful thing. It gives us the capacity to manifest thoughts and ideas, and to develop a shared meaning. Words are invested with value and intent. If one is aware of the disparaging definition of a term such as “Essex Girl” then the characteristics will be applied to the individual to whom it is directed. The stereotype allows us to quickly, and often erroneously, apply understanding about an individual based on a few selected characteristics. That understanding then informs thinking and behaviour.
By virtue of my social and geographical background I was no longer an educated professional woman undertaking a university education, I was a promiscuous bimbo reaching above my station and disparaged for seeking social mobility.
Dr Terri Simpkin
(Anglia Ruskin University)
This is an edited version of an essay originally published on The Conversation (theconversation.com) and reproduced with permission.
Trained at Bristol Old Vic theatre school, Pippa describes herself as a working class Essex actress. Photographed outside the Cliffs Pavilion in Westcliff-on-Sea, where she once did work experience. She also worked at the local Odeon cinema, practicing her lines in front of the screen whilst picking up litter. She is specially trained for combat scenes such as sword fighting and martial arts - hence the pose in the portrait. “I can throw a punch and swing a sword”.
Dear world, stop telling me I don’t sound or look like an Essex Girl. Just because I am not what YOU think an Essex Girl should be, doesn’t mean I am wrong. Born there, lived there, love there.
Lu is an artist, curator and founder of Grrrl Zine Fair, based in Southend-on-Sea. They create installations, workshops, printed matter and projects considering feminism, gender and class, and have a socially orientated practice. Grrrl Zine Fair celebrates feminism, trans, NB and LGBTQ+ communities. In 2019 they were awarded the Essex Cultural Diversity Project's Basildon commission, hosting public zine workshops and creating a collaborative zine. Photographed at the Grrrl Zine Fair x gal-dem Talks Tent at Village Green in Chalkwell.
Syd is a bestselling author, also works in the arts and is a founder of the Essex Girls Liberation Front. Photographed on Two Tree Island, with Leigh-on-Sea in the background - both of which have association with the history of witches in Essex, which she has researched extensively and based her novels on. Legend has it that sea witches on the marshes around here would invoke storms at sea if the sailors refused to pay for a charm.
I know an Essex actor who was told her accent was not ‘Essex’ enough, and to ham it up - thereby perpetuating the stereotype even more. Apparently a genuine Essex accent is not real enough.
I do think there are parallels with the persecution of witches and the Essex Girl stereotype that persists. The witches were portrayed as lower class and as loose women, like Essex Girls are today. That’s why the stereotype should be turned on its head and show the attributes of an Essex Girl as positives – she is a strong, ballsy woman who knows what she wants. Southend Echo
Jo Overfield and Ray Morgan
Jo and Ray are both performance poets, storytellers and writers from Leigh-on-Sea. They’ve also run a non-profit mixed arts organisation in Essex. Both were photographed on the seafront at Southend - Ray’s portrait is by the Thames estuary as a lot of her poetry has been influenced by the sea.
The stereotype is so well known that when I was younger, I wouldn’t say I was from Essex. But now I am proud to say so.
Elsa is an artist and activist, photographed at Firstsite in Colchester, where her ’Black Girl Essex’ residency focuses on contemporary opinions held towards people of Afro-Caribbean heritage and the stereotyping of Essex women. Her past projects have looked at historical experiences of black women who came to Essex. She is also a member of the Essex Girl Liberation Front.
Less than 2% of the Essex population are black, even though Essex – Tilbury – is the birthplace of multicultural Britain.
A nephew who lives in London once said to my daughter that his white girlfriend in London was ‘blacker’ than her in Essex, because Essex somehow diluted her blackness. That’s attached to the white Essex stereotype.
I used to be a bit ashamed of telling people, especially folks from London, that I live in Essex. They’d say “What are you doing in Essex?”
Sadie is an award-winning playwright, author and actor. Her play ‘Stiletto Beach’ is described as a “funny and heart-warming look at what it really means to be an Essex Girl”. It premiered at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch as part of the ‘Essex On Stage’ project which champions positive notions of Essex and celebrates theatre made by working class writers from Essex.
She writes strong and funny roles for women in plays centred on the female experience, and is co-founder and artistic director of the Old Trunk theatre company.
If my daughter ever tells me she feels held back, I will tell her simply to keep going, being brilliant and surprising the hell out of anyone still blinkered and boring enough to think being from Essex is a handicap.
I hope the Essex Girl taint dies out into a faint cultural memory. Like women being saucy for showing an ankle, like not having the vote, the pill, the mini skirt. Essex women have the strength and the talent and the brains and the drive to be a big part of the bigger picture, pulling us all forward.
Perrine, on a short break at home in Hadleigh, Essex, has worked as a midwife in Haiti for the past couple of years. There is very little healthcare support from the government, so the work of NGOs such as Midwives for Haiti is vital - it is currently the world’s poorest country outside of Africa.
Terri is an academic and creative thinker who has studied imposter phenomenon, something which is in turn fuelled by the whole Essex Girl stereotype. Photographed outside the ex-council estate home in Colchester where she grew up. She has researched the role of place in the development of later elements of identity, and says the working class nature of her background features large in subsequent feelings of the imposter phenomenon.
Essex Girl. A moniker loaded with collective meaning and resonant with visual connotation, the term is at once derogatory but more complex than simple insult. It is infused with a pejorative triple taint of class, place and gender. It binds together a long history of diminishing the feminine and the power that they might have if given the opportunity to wield it. Essex has an ancient and murderous history of keeping women with spirit and self-determination in check. We used to be called witches and we perished for it. Even now, woe betide a woman with her own mind and the capacity to use it well. More so of course the woman who has agency and opportunity to be sexually liberated and making choices on her own terms. A woman with her own means and a capacity to fearlessly traverse class boundaries is critiqued by the resident ‘old money’ and often belittled by those from a working-class heritage. Damned and vilified either way. A singular motif does not capture the essence of girls, women from Essex. Nor is the patchwork of a sneering stereotype fit to capture the diversity of the prevailing derogatory portrayal of ‘Essex Girl’. In reclaiming the mark, we reclaim our own agency, vibrancy and capacities beyond the boundaries of class, place and gender.
Josephine is a woman of many talents - actress, director, producer and writer. She is also the founder of the South Essex African Caribbean Association and organiser of Windrush celebrations in Essex. Photographed at the historic Tilbury docks where the Windrush and other ships first arrived in England.
My late father came to the UK by ship from Jamaica, and first settled in east London. Our family don't know what ship he arrived on, but it's likely that it docked here at Tilbury. Eventually moving from London to Essex with my family was a step forward for me - Essex is like my little Caribbean and I'm proud to be an Essex Girl.
Lucy is a triathlete from Hornchurch, and author of the Paddle Pedal Pace triathlon blog. She is an ambassador for This Girl Can Essex, an extension of the successful national campaign to celebrate and encourage active women. Photographed at the Thames Chase Community Forest in Upminster.
I’ve always been proud to call Essex my home. I was born here and have lived here my entire life. I’m told that I have a strong accent which gives me away.
Unfortunately, Essex possibly has one of the worst reputations of all regions in the UK. Being from this county carries with it a stigma, particularly if you are female.
Essex really is an amazing place for sport and fitness - we’ve got miles of stunning coastline, vast networks of trails, huge open green spaces and an array of quality facilities.
The county is also home to a vast range of professional athletes and coaches. Proving that Essex Girls are not just dumb blondes, I did a little research into inspirational sportswomen from my county… Laura Kenny (Harlow, cycling), Saskia Clark (Colchester, sailing), Sally Gunnell (Chigwell, athletics), Stephanie Twell (Colchester, athletics), Rebecca Gallantree (Chelmsford, diving) and Amy Marren (Hornchurch, swimming). These women are role models - they are doing great things for their sport as well as the reputation of the county. Celebrating the achievements of women from Essex helps to challenge the misconceptions and reclaim the label. I’m proud to be from the same county as these powerful, strong role models.
I am an Essex girl, but I won’t be defined by the stereotype.
Benedicta Makeri aka Kicassoo
Benedicta is an artist from Southend, known artistically as Kickassoo. She was born and bred in East London, is of Nigerian origin, and moved to Essex where she lives with her daughter.
I can tell the difference between my accent and my daughter’s - mine is east London and hers is definitely Essex.
Moving to Southend has been a major eye opener with a warm welcome. Since settling down here I’ve met amazing people - I hope to continue my journey quietly, peacefully and make the most of everything I have.