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.
Essexism: 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, and I aim to show the diversity of Essex - for example by age, ability, class, body shape, ethnicity, religion or geographical location etc.
• This is a long-term project, using natural light wherever possible, 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
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.
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?”
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
Becky describes herself as a ‘plus-size, fat-positive fitness instructor’. Photographed at the University of Essex in Colchester, where she works in the business school.
Sophie studied Sociology with Social Psychology at the University of York, and researched the Essex Girl stereotype for her final dissertation. She now works for a dementia charity, and was photographed in Basildon, where she lives.
As an Essex woman studying at a university up north, it was interesting what I encountered whilst I was living there. Some preconceptions were so far removed from reality; equally, there were elements I felt quite proud of and unapologetic about. As I was studying Sociology, it felt only natural to go on to do my final dissertation on the topic, where I gathered qualitative data speaking to women from Essex to see what their thoughts were on the stereotype. The four main themes that arose from the focus groups were:
1. Impact of the media:
A pervading theme across the study was that the media, namely the reality television programme, The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) contributed towards perpetuating the stereotype of the Essex Girl that already existed prior to the show. It did this by reinforcing and consolidating the idea that Essex Girls lack class and have a questionable sense of taste. A typical narrative portrayed for many women on TOWIE often involves owning a nail bar or hair salon etc; this has now become a common expectation for all women from Essex. Through the focus being on beauty parlours and therefore the engagement in beauty practices, TOWIE also contributes more widely to the illusion of social mobility through bettering oneself through bodily maintenance - this is reminiscent of 1980s Thatcherite values of individual opportunity, growth and hard work as being the pathway to success.
2. Conformity and competition amongst women:
In conversation, it was noted that if you are a woman from Essex, your femininity is gauged by how closely you conform to the Essex Girl stereotype - if you resist it, you will still be measured against it. As social beings we feel the need to fit in, making people want to adhere to common beauty practices even more. Thus, it is a tricky balancing act between conformity to and rebellion against common beautification practices that are often associated with Essex Girls. In regards to competition amongst women, some participants admitted that they compete against other women, and that their efforts are not in fact for the men. As a side note, it could be suggested that these women have in fact internalised patriarchal ideas of beauty via engaging in self-beautification practices in order to be accepted socially.
3. Essex Girl as a marker for the femininity of others:
Participants stated that many people who do not originate from Essex often express contempt towards the Essex Girl stereotype. This is played out through the “othering” and dehumanising of the Essex Girl, using the Essex Girl’s femininity as a marker of the type of femininity you should not display. Participants themselves largely seemed to have internalised the stigma of the Essex Girl, as some stated they did not want to be seen as conforming to the stereotype. They would disidentify themselves from the largely negative Essex Girl traits, such as dress-sense, by deliberately avoiding this and choosing a completely different style, therefore “passing” as not a stereotypical Essex Girl. All of the above reinforces the idea that middle-class value systems and their ideas of ‘taste’ and ‘class’ remain the dominant framework on which to understand one’s own femininity.
4. Negotiating the stereotype:
It was found that those that can manage different elements of the stereotype did this as a way of negotiating around their stereotype. Participants who were able to would actively choose different elements to suit them, exploiting the characteristics that they liked/benefited from, and distancing themselves from others. As a result of this, some participants expressed an ability to present themselves almost as having different onstage/offstage personas. This could be seen as an extension of having a stereotype to play into and up to. It was also noted that fortunate women who have made a living from appearing on the likes of TOWIE have found a way to turn the stereotype around to succeed financially. For these women, it could be argued that they have reclaimed their once detrimental and damning stereotype.
For the everyday woman from Essex, however, it was found that having a stereotype can be equated to being stuck within a frame - if you conform to original tropes found within the stereotype, whether that be subconsciously or not, then you are consolidating why the stereotype exists in the first place. On the other hand, if you veer away from the stereotype by trying to debunk it, creating an alternative monolith, the framework continues to exist as you are creating an opposition towards it. To this end, the trouble with disidentification strategies is that these women subject themselves to more insidious forms of control with every expression of ‘alternative’ femininity they make.
© Sophie Fisher
Published with permission.
Penny’s parents and grandparents used to live in Essex but she grew up in Plymouth as her father was in the Navy - she moved to Basildon herself in 2009. She is a volunteer with the local St John Ambulance unit and was photographed at Gloucester Park in Basildon.
There are positives to the Essex Girl stereotype. We are no-nonsense people, I think. We get stuff done. Honest and frank. Doing first aid volunteering needs that kind of mentality. You have to be caring and friendly, but also do what needs to be done, efficiently.
Basildon is a bit of an Essex Girl itself - stereotyped as a purely functional concrete New Town full of brutalist architecture - but there are more trees and parks than you’d expect.
So I chose Gloucester Park as it’s a splash of green in the middle of the town, but it’s also where we do the first aid cover for running events like the Race for Life. I’ve spent quite a bit of time standing in my uniform in the rain here!
Lata is a visual artist specialising in contemporary sculpture. She was born and brought up in India but is now settled in Essex. Her work reflects upon her experience of migrating from the East to the West. Photographed in Purfleet by her artwork ‘Transit’, an ordinary white Ford Transit van which she decorated with South Asian truck art. This brings together cultural signifiers from the two places she has called home - the British ‘white van man’ being a stereotype first coined around the same time as ‘Essex Girl’. The installation represents the range of communities who live in Essex and the valuable contribution of immigration.
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.
Photographed at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff-on-Sea.
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.
Arooj is an arts practitioner, researcher and academic. She has worked on a number of community arts projects in Thurrock and London, including the Thurrock Arts Trail, and at the Hayward Gallery and the Barbican. She is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Birmingham, observing the impact of regeneration on the lives of young BAME people in Tilbury. Most recently she was commissioned by Essex Cultural Diversity Project to explore the intersections between the increasingly diverse local population of Grays and the ongoing regeneration of Thurrock. She functions under the artistic alias of Artem et Populis. Photographed outside Du'a Foods in Romford, one of the first Pakistani owned grocers in the area - one that has given the Pakistani diaspora in Essex a taste of home.
I moved to Romford from east London when I was about ten or eleven; we were one of two non-white families on our road and as a result we attracted a lot of racist abuse - ranging from the unimaginative ‘Paki’, to having our front door kicked in and cars smashed up. It was a lot of trauma to go through as a family and I think we are only just beginning to unpack this and address the impact it has had on us.
The Essex Girl stereotype has always fascinated me; she is a take on the misogynistic ‘bimbo’ persona, with fake tan, blonde hair and white stilettos (source: Wikipedia). Despite feeling no connection to her (my hair is black, I have a natural tan, as well as penchant for all black outfits), the stereotype was still applied to me by virtue of my accent and postcode. I remember this one time, I was leading a university seminar and being told to repeat what I was saying as my accent was ‘too thick to understand’.
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.
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.
Yasmin (formerly Kim) Stannard
Yasmin grew up in Hullbridge before leaving Essex in 1991 to study law at university. Whilst there she researched Islam and became Muslim in 1993. She is married with three daughters, and has been involved in many community projects in Luton, where she now lives. In 2016 she founded the Carers Eating Disorder Association which provides support for carers who have a loved one with an eating disorder. Photographed near her former school, Greensward Academy, in Hockley.
I feel my teen years at school were a mix of happily living life to the full but also having to deal with some life changing experiences. All of these good and bad experiences were pivotal in forming my future life which later led to me becoming Muslim. I feel I am so far away from the ‘Essex Girl teen’ I once was. I converted to Islam whilst at university and since my early 20s have worn Islamic dress and the headscarf. For this reason I always love to tell people that I’m an Essex Girl as I know I definitely to do not fit the stereotypical picture of one.
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.
Paula Butteriss Hartman
Rochford-based Paula is a mum and works full time but still finds time for all kinds of sport - for example cycling, open water swimming and kayaking. She has run the Paris marathon and at the time of the portrait she was training for the Rome marathon. She is also a cancer survivor and an ambassador for This Girl Can. Photographed with her kayak at Two Tree Island.
It’s so frustrating to me how we are portrayed constantly by the media. I feel strongly about the perception of Essex Girls - I have had to live with it my entire life!
Jenny plays as a flanker for the Essex County RFU women’s team, and as scrum half and captain of Romford Ravens. She enjoys all sports, including boxing, and has been playing rugby since the age of eight. Jenny also volunteers as head coach of the Essex under-15s girl’s rugby team. Photographed on a cold winter’s day at the Romford and Gidea Park RFU ground.
People are always surprised when I tell them I play rugby and that I play for Essex. They say I don’t look like I do, or don’t think I would be good enough.
Josephine is an 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.
Nikki is a self employed yoga teacher and massage therapist, a mum to two teenage boys, and a recent breast cancer survivor.
She has a love of Bowie, the band Idles, jazz, funk, soul and disco, and is a DJ with a radio show on a local internet station, ‘Ship Full of Bombs’. Photographed at the Railway Hotel in Southend, a pub which prides itself on its community involvement and all-inclusiveness, and is also the home of the radio station's studio.
I’m proud to be from Essex. But honestly that wasn’t always the case. Working abroad and studying and working in the capital I took on the status of Londoner to avoid embarrassment. But now I wear my Essex girl status proudly and support my young sister and all my Essex sisters. And at 50 I’m still getting tattoos and piercings and dying my hair like it’s 1989, but now I don’t need anybody’s approval. My ink is my story.
Charlotte Hawkins and Joy M Louisa
Joy is a teacher and performance poet from Ockendon, and wrote this poem about her friend Charlotte who she feels is constantly judged. Charlotte has six children under the age of 11, is a married working mother with two degrees both studied and passed whilst working and bringing up her children - she is also a recently qualified midwife. Joy says that’s not what people see though. Photographed at Mopsies Park in Basildon.
Snapping the Stiletto
An Essex Girl
Bleach blonde hair
Five kids and one on the way
Judged by society
Look below the surface
She is a warrior
A working mother
Who juggles work and love with Mother’s guilt
An angel of womankind, delivering life
You do not see what I see
A strong intelligent woman
The ‘chosen’ life choices
The ‘snap’ of the stiletto
The young woman
I am ‘privileged’ to call my friend
Cassie is artistic director of her own theatre company, the Caravan Theatre, which uses a converted caravan as a mobile theatre space. They specialise is engaging young adults with hard-to-discuss subjects such as sexuality and mental health. Photographed in Wivenhoe, where she lives, by the Rose and Crown pub on the River Colne.
I have a very traditional tattoo on my arm, with a heart and the word ‘Essex’ on it. I got the tattoo whilst in Germany, just because I am proud of my background. It turned out the tattooist originated from Colchester, so I couldn’t back out!
Mel runs her own online luxury travel accessories business and also writes for food and travel businesses and about fashion for some national newspapers.
She moved to Essex from Kent for work and was hesitant at first to move there because of the stereotypical reputation. It took her six months to commit to Essex.
I must admit moving to Essex was a bit daunting for me considering how many people had portrayed it in light of the very well known and popular TV show TOWIE. However, it’s totally different to what I was expecting, the complete opposite to what I and others had been led to believe it was like - I love it here.
Originally from Brighton, a place that will always be my first love, but Essex is my home.
Around 1988 I was working for a businessman in Sweden. After a successful meeting with an English client, we went to dinner with him.
Breaking bread together is always a perfect opportunity to get to know clients a little better. During the pleasantries of ‘getting to know each other’ our client got around to asking where I was from. ‘Essex’, I said. ‘Not possible’, he said, based on his opinion of what he called ‘my dialect-free English’.
His next question was ‘where were you educated?’ I gave the name of my school in Corringham, Essex. Again he replied, ‘not possible’. There appeared to be nothing that I could do to convince him that I was Essex born and bred because he ’knew’ the standard Essex stereotype and apparently I didn’t fit the criteria or the picture he had of Essex Girls. To this day I don’t know whether I should have been flattered or insulted. In his defence I don’t think that TV series like TOWIE or even some of today’s stand-up comedians do anything to promote an image of smart and savvy Essex Girls!!
As a language teacher who's travelled extensively, there is such perception around the Essex Girl stereotype. 'Oh you must have had to have worked hard to rid yourself of that accent they have' or 'But you look so professional, with no white stiletto shoes - you can't be from Essex'. Suffice to say I think it's actual misogyny at play with an actual excuse to make it about 'Essex Girls'. And yes, I think reality TV does not help. I moved away when I was very young and I now divide my time between Greece and the West Country of Devon. I have fond memories of my earlier formative years in Essex though; my primary school in Leigh-on-Sea and my mother's craft shop, my secondary school in Benfleet. Some great movies have come out of Essex: 'Made in Dagenham' and Depeche Mode hail from Basildon. Don't be so quick to judge.
Rebecca Hall (travel writer / author)
Juliet works as a consultant but also juggles lots of other voluntary work with charities and community groups. For example, she is chair of the Essex Womens’ Advisory Group, works with mental health groups and is a Deputy Lieutenant of Essex. Photographed with her dog Reggie at some woods near Earls Colne, close to where she lives - “I walk there regularly and consider it a key part of my mental and physical health routine’.
Benedicta Makeri aka Kicassoo
Benedicta is an artist from Southend, known artistically as Kicassoo. 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.
Born and bred in Rayleigh after her parents moved from London, Karen went straight from school to work at NatWest Access and worked her way up to bank manager before starting a family. After an extensive period of anxiety, she had therapy and was so amazed at how different she felt that she decided to train as a hypnotherapist so she could help other people in the same way. After qualifying she rented a room at the Mayura Yoga Studio (where this photo was taken) and has been there ever since.
I am proud to be from Essex - it is a beautiful, sunny part of the country with some amazing people.
Michelle runs her own Essex-based marketing consultancy business, withMichelle. Previously, she had a successful marketing communications and business development career spanning twenty years, mostly working for international law firms in London and locally. Michelle is a tutor at Create98. She was the founder of WellbeingMatters, a voluntary group providing mental health peer support for people in the workplace. Photographed on the Leigh Steps, Leigh-on-Sea, close to where she runs her marketing training programme.
After spending my 20s and 30s hiding the fact that I am an Essex Girl, both professionally and socially, I am now proud to say ‘too right, yes I am an Essex girl and am proud to be’.
All quotes in italic are by the participants, either verbatim as told to myself, used with permission, or as attributed.