Essexism: about this project
The Collins Concise Dictionary in my local library defines an ‘Essex Girl’ as “a young working-class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous.” Other dictionaries there have similar definitions. It’s a stereotype based on a mixed bias of gender, social class, and geography, dating from the early 90s and more recently perpetuated by the TV series ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ (TOWIE).
As a lifelong Essex resident with a working-class background, I am challenging this pejorative, stereotypical portrayal with this ongoing series of portraits of real ‘Essex Girls’. I’m father to two young daughters, and wonder whether the stereotype will still persist by the time they become adults.
Each portrait is a collaboration and 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 include a diverse range of backgrounds, age, abilities, class, ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, geographical locations etc.
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.
Courtney is an NHS nurse and keen athlete, based in Stowe Maries. Photographed at 6:30 in the morning, just before she started a 12.5 hour shift as deputy sister on an orthopaedic ward at Southend University Hospital. The rainbow artwork was installed during the COVID-19 pandemic as a tribute to NHS workers.
This Essex girl is not your usual - I may enjoy a night out but I’m a nurse who loves triathlon. Essex girls I know are fabulous, strong women who support each other. I find it sad people are still judged on a stereotype especially such a derogatory one. Nevertheless what’s more fun than proving someone wrong?
I feel like the stereotype has shifted a bit in recent years - there’s more of a community feel amongst us now. People used to only see the bad side.
Elle studied fitness science and is now a fitness professional and personal trainer. She was photographed at one of her favourite local running spots, Roding Valley Recreation Ground, Loughton.
I often get the "you don't sound like you're from Essex remark!" Added to the fact I don't "look" like I'm from Essex.
Jodie is a BBC Essex radio presenter, and was formerly a BBC News online journalist. She’s reported on the Essex stereotype in her work, and uses the #iamanessexgirl on her Twitter profile. Photographed in the borough of Chelmsford, at the Great Baddow Mast - part of Britain’s early warning defence network during World War II. Jodie grew up nearby and says that every time she sees it she is reminded of home.
Like many others, I’m no stranger to Essex stereotypes being applied to me by complete strangers. From the ex-pat I met in a South African park who bluntly implied Essex Girls were promiscuous, to the BBC reporter who sneeringly told me my name was ‘appropriate for a girl from Essex’, the dictionary definition of the term is one of the most lasting stereotypes England has to offer.
Exploring the origins of this shamefully outdated perception - and that of ‘Essex man’ - has interested me greatly for years and I’m proud to have spoken to many people who illustrate the rich culture, intelligence, creativity and kindness you can find in my home county. I’m so passionate about showing the true Essex to those who make hackneyed assumptions, either through my radio work or bringing visitors to hidden gems around the county.
Eleanore Frances and Michelle Barrington
Eleanore and Michelle, based in Stanford-le-Hope and Rochford respectively, are co-artistic directors and founders of the Blown Fuse Theatre Company. They collaborate in the community and with young people, gathering and portraying stories using various theatre techniques and styles. Photographed in Southend-on-Sea, where they studied and make a lot of their work.
My entire life, to everyone I met abroad, I lived “just outside of London”. The Essex Girl trope followed me to all four corners of the world. From Egypt to California, the white stiletto wearing, bad fake tanning trope dragged behind me like Marley’s chains. I didn’t want to be one of them. But why? Where did it come from? And why did I want to disassociate myself from that notion? I am no better than any other woman who chooses to wear a certain type of footwear.
Since Michelle and I founded Blown Fuse, we’ve been scratching away at that old ‘Essex Girl’ character description to try and unpick its origin: why it’s so negative; why people poke fun at us for the postcode we were born in; why we are not taken seriously as businesswomen, as artists or even as human beings. Essex has given birth to some of the most talented women of our time, and if they could do that whilst being labelled ‘brash’ and ‘materialistic’, then I think they’re pretty damn phenomenal. We’re determined to follow in their footsteps – white shoes and all.
For a long, long time I found myself apologising for where I’m from, the accent I have and defending the place where I live. Convincing people that we’re not all like the stereotype, I barely ever see people wearing white stilettos and I thought a vajazzle was just a myth. In fact, the womxn I know and surround myself with in Essex are all smart, strong, know what they want, stand up for what they believe in and support one another. Why are they not celebrated? Why are those Essex girls not talked about in the media, on TV shows and films? Perhaps we need to start listening to real Essex girls and hearing those stories instead so the next generation can grow up celebrating where they’re from instead of being embarrassed about it.
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.
Hullbridge-born 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 as follows:
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.
Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills
Pippa was born in North Ockendon and is the Deputy Chief Constable of Essex Police - the first female in the force’s history to hold this position. She began her career in the Metropolitan Police over 20 years ago working mainly in East London, transferring to Essex Police in 2017. Alongside her day job in Essex, she is the National Police Chiefs Council Lead for Protest and Police Dogs. She is pictured here with Police Dog Diesel, photographed by the memorial to fallen officers at Essex Police Headquarters in Chelmsford. Pippa says she is keen to break down any barriers to women joining and progressing within the police, championing it as a varied and interesting choice of career.
Freya, originally from Rayleigh, has represented her country at wheelchair basketball, rugby 7s, and para ice hockey. She has lived with muscular dystrophy since 2010, and before her disability she played rugby and football at county level. She was the Essex Sports Personality of the Year 2019, is an Active Essex ambassador, and has campaigned at parliament for the NHS to promote disability sports at the time of diagnosis or prognosis. Photographed on the basketball courts in Chalkwell Park, Chalkwell.
I’m incredibly proud to be from Essex! Nothing makes me feel more at home than seeing the “Welcome to Essex sign” on the M25 after being away with work or sport. I’ve definitely encountered negative preconceptions because of where I’m from and the stereotyping around being an ‘Essex girl’. People just assume you’re unintelligent, vain and naive and when you’re disabled too, some days it feels like you’ve got no chance. It’s easy to succumb to stereotypes because it’s comfortable, but it takes courage to stand out, speak up and help challenge and change misconceptions around being a female and from Essex, because what is an Essex girl? That’s why this project is so important. This is for every young girl who hears “oh you’re from Essex” with that disappointed/disapproving tone, or often followed by “shut-uppp!”, thanks to TOWIE. But being from Essex isn’t defined by looks or traits, being an Essex Girl is a movement, a community of women from all walks of life, empowering each other because of where we’re from, not in spite of it. I’m from sunny Saafend-on-Sea! We’re not posh, we don’t say our Ts, I don’t own white stilettos, I’ve never danced around a handbag and I’m proud to be an Essex Girl!
Scarlett is a 15-year singer / songwriter, currently studying at the renowned Brit school in Croydon. Photographed in her hometown of Southend-on-Sea, by the amusement arcades on the seafront. She has performed at the local Village Green festival, and says her musical influences include Melanie Martinez, Yungblud, Meghan Tranior, Panic! at the Disco and Mother Mother.
I am very passionate about this project as I hate the “Essex Girl” stereotype. The main thing I get told from people at my school in London is that I “don’t look like an Essex girl” when in reality I know very few people who actually live in Essex and fit the Essex stereotype. Everyone here is unique in their own way.
Elleanna, from Shoeburyness, is an 18-year old fine art foundation student at St Martin’s in London. She chose to be photographed at Southend East train station as she says the trains have played a big part in giving her independence.
I was aware of the stereotype from a young age because when I was growing up my parents would encourage me not to speak in my Essex accent when we were on holiday. We’d say we were from near London. My family is very much culturally working class, but I had the privilege of receiving a grammar school education and that has enabled me to embrace where I come from. Being from Essex is now quite an important part of my identity for me.
Rebecca is a freelance post-production film colourist based in Leigh-on-Sea, where she was photographed. She also sings with the Leigh Operatic and Dramatic Society (LODS).
I was once in a conference call with a group of clients in Los Angeles. When I introduced myself I was immediately told I don’t sound like a ‘TOWIE’ girl and found myself having to defend myself against the stereotype.
Abigail is a 17-year old sixth-form student from Colchester, and has been sailing regularly since taking a course in Shetland at the age of 8. She was photographed with her dinghy by the River Colne at her club, the Brightlingsea Sailing Club.
When I first started sailing I was a particularly short, little blonde girl, and I feel I was often treated differently because of it. Looking back I can see that, because of this, it took me longer than most to get my confidence. Now, almost nine years later, when I sail, I feel focused and powerful. That I am good at it. Something I think many would not have anticipated if all they knew was that I’m a teenager from Essex. My generation are pressured to fit into so many different stereotypes. We are named as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘careless’, and are boxed into other people’s expectations. When we fit the mould we are called out on it, but when we don’t, we are called out on that too. And we can’t speak up because then we are labelled snowflakes. I often find it challenging to live with all these restrictions, but where I am successful in wearing and enjoying what I want without any worry of other’s opinions, I take pride and feel great satisfaction. This is something I can only strive to normalise to the people around me, as well as myself.
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.
Ciara Waterfield and Sam Waterfield
Ciara is a professional actress, singer and performer. She trained in musical theatre in Romford and has worked as an actress across the UK. She is also a qualified yoga teacher. Her mother Sam is a complementary therapist, holistic medicine practitioner, yoga teacher and spiritual mentor. They both have their own businesses but also work together running ‘Moon Baths’ every month. They were photographed at their home in Onslow Green.
It had never really occurred to me how much people have passed judgement when I tell them that I am from Essex. Either laughing and saying that they feel sorry for me (which is bizarre because there are some beautiful towns, villages and countryside / seaside views around Essex), or making a judgement immediately on the way I should be as a woman born and bred in Essex. But upon reflection, this happens when meeting most people who aren’t from Essex. When I attended college, to begin with people didn’t believe I was an ‘Essex Girl’ because my accent didn’t sound the way they’d expect, and would then proceed to tell me where I should be from because of the way I sounded. I recently auditioned for a character who was from Dagenham, and I automatically exaggerated my Essex accent without thinking about it in line with what I thought the caster would want, even though my accent is totally valid as a true Essex accent, because it’s the only place I’ve ever lived! I am always proud when I tell people I am from Essex. It is a beautiful, dynamic and diverse county.
I used to work in the City towards the end of the Thatcher era before taking a career change when having children, and that’s when I first noticed the emergence of the Essex Girl stereotype. I was born in and grew up in Harold Wood. I worked on a dealing floor with almost all male colleagues, which certainly gave plenty of room for jokes about white stilettos and a lack of intelligence. I never took this to heart as I knew I had earned my place in the job, especially as many of the men I worked with had come from extremely affluent areas, backgrounds and education. There I was, a woman from Harold Wood, often telling them how to do their job. In my experience, Essex girls are hard working, no nonsense and get the job done. I have a friend who has openly said she likes to hire Essex girls, as she knows that they will do what she needs them to do to a high standard!
Emily is a talented 17 year-old racing driver from Langdon Hills. She began with karting and progressed to formula car racing, and has recently raised the funds to enable her to enter her first open wheel championship in Miami. She has competed around the world and has won numerous awards, including Essex TV ‘Sportsperson of the Year 2019’. Only 1.5% of racing licence holders are female, and Emily was the first female to win the 'Motorsport UK Young Driver of the Year' (also in 2019). She recently created a scheme called ‘Motorsport in Education’ to get more local kids into the sport. Photographed at the Everyone Active centre in Basildon.
There’s a lot of prejudice against being a female in what is predominantly seen as a male sport. I’ve found it’s mostly from parents and older people, though. Most of the other drivers don’t have a problem, although there have been occasions in the past when some haven't wanted to race against me.
Jenni describes herself as a ‘chronic illness vlogger and blogger’. She studied drama at university and now works for a charity in Upminster. In 2016 she was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (PoTS). She was recently nominated for the Positive Role Model Award for Disability at the National Diversity Awards for her work in the chronic illness community. Photographed close to her home in Basildon, alongside the sometimes controversial Hollywood-style sign that has become synonymous with the town. The zebra-print of Jenni’s dress reflects the ‘medical zebra’ symbol associated with rare and undiagnosed conditions.
Swimmer Amy won a bronze medal for the 200m individual medley at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, and also competed at the 2012 London games. She’s a former World and European Champion, and 14 x international medalist. Photographed near the pool at Hornchurch Sports Centre, close to where she grew up. She recently retired from swimming in order pursue a career in law.
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.
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-on-Thames 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.
Lesley is a Sunday Times bestselling author of psychological thrillers. She was born and raised in Chelmsford, and now lives in Frinton-on-Sea, where she writes full-time. She chose to be photographed in front of the beach huts on stilts, because the fictional setting of her first two novels is inspired by Frinton and some of the key scenes take place on or near the beach.
I detest the term ‘Essex Girl’. It is deeply misogynistic and is also an overt form of class discrimination, because let’s face it, the stereotypical image of the ‘Essex girl’ is of a working-class woman unafraid to speak up for herself and in full control of her sexuality. I cannot understand how in this day and age it is considered appropriate to denigrate women from our county in this lazy and offensive manner.
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’.
Maddie is a 19 year old student from Leigh-on-Sea. She is studying English and journalism at Cardiff University, and writes a blog ‘Living My Best Life’. Photographed on the Gypsy Bridge, a well-known local landmark.
I’m currently on a gap year and spent the first three months of 2020 travelling the east coast of Australia. When I meet new people in the UK, I rarely tell them that I’m from Essex - it’s always ‘just outside of London.’ However, in Australia, I started revealing my Essex roots. I was shocked to find that people from all over the world knew where Essex was and were all too familiar with the stereotypes that were linked to my hometown! Prior to this, I had no idea that the ‘Essex Girl’ was a worldwide stereotype, but I’ve always known that the way we are portrayed couldn’t be further from the truth. By participating in this project I hope that we can change people’s perceptions of Essex girls.
Revd Hannah Cooper
Hannah is the Priest-in-Charge at St Luke's Church in Highwoods, Colchester, where she was photographed.
Our church meets in a community centre, so as well as challenging people’s perceptions of what a priest looks like, we’re also challenging the perception of what a church look like.
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.
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
Terri is an academic and creative thinker who has studied imposter phenomenon, something which is in turn fuelled by the whole Essex Girl stereotype. She lives is Felsted but was 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.
Michelle is a best-selling author of children’s books, including the Widdershins adventure series. She grew up in a council house in Grays, and was photographed outside the nearby Blackshots Library. She has also written about the Essex Girl stereotype for the Telegraph, noting that whilst mention of TOWIE inspires eye-rolls from the vast majority of Essex, outsiders appear ‘bizarrely fascinated’. She says that in her first year away at college, she was confronted from the outset with "Shouldn't you be blonde?" or "Cor blimey, where's your white stilettos, then?".
Liz is a businesswoman from Colchester - she has sold vintage clothing for many years and recently turned it into a full time business, having been made redundant from her previous job. Photographed at her weekend pop-up shop, Easy Tiger, in Leigh-on-Sea.
Essex is a cosmopolitan, vibrant and diverse county. I do encounter the Essex stereotype - TOWIE has not helped. But you’ll see girls in mini-skirts in any town in the UK, and you shouldn’t judge them anyway. I’ve also found there are now lots more women running businesses in Essex.
Vicky is an open water swimming coach. She works with all levels of swimmers from novice to elite, helping them gain confidence and improve their technique so that they can become efficient outdoor swimmers and achieve their goals in the open water.
She is based in north Essex and regularly coaches at what she describes as three of the most beautiful swim spots in Essex: Gosfield Lake near Halstead, Mersea Boating Lake in East Mersea (where she was photographed) and in the River Stour at Dedham.
Davina is a transgender women living in Benfleet. Formerly a mechanic, she is now a civil servant, and is actively involved in the Scouting movement and is a co-ordinator for Scout Pride Essex. She also teaches archery and is an avid gamer.
You need to feel happy within yourself, believe in yourself and be proud. But you also need support - some people have it and some don’t. I like to reach out to those that don’t have support.
Some discrimination we face as transgender women is from older people who don’t realise they are discriminating, but most of it comes through the media, rather than personally. I found it harder before and during my transition, but I’m a lot happier now. Everybody has a right to live the way they want to live. As the song says, “I make no apologies - this is me”. Our voices are a powerful tool.
Joanne is an Ilford-born actor and director, and has appeared regularly on stage in Essex. She’s also lived in Romford and now Southend, and was photographed at the historic Gunners Park in Shoeburyness, with her puppy Daisy.
Southend-on-Sea is full of talented people. We have a vibrant arts scene, and always have had. The Essex arts cross generations and backgrounds, and l am proud to be involved, and to have met and worked with some incredible people.
Lisa’s main passion is cycling but she also takes part in obstacle running. Photographed with her gravel bike at Hornchurch Country Park.
I am an Essex girl and for sure I'm proud to definitely not be the stereotypical Essex girl! I like to poke fun at myself and rather than being covered in fake tan I would definitely prefer to be covered in mud and having fun whilst at it. The strapline I use on my blog is “be fearlessly unapologetically you.”
Helen is an ironman triathlete, endurance cyclist and horse rider. She’s run the London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Chicago marathons, is a marketing manager for a London bank and a former full time riding instructor.
Photographed with her horse Blue, at his stables near Upminster. Blue was purchased 16 years ago and has been a part of her life ever since.
When talking about the Essex Girl stereotype I am hugely guilty of denying that I’m an ‘Essex Girl’. When people ask where I live and I say ‘Langdon Hills, Essex’ they invariably raise a smirk, to which I always roll my eyes and reply ‘but that doesn’t make me an Essex Girl’.
But why doesn’t it? I am a girl and I live in Essex. In fact when I think of all the girls I know who also live in Essex, not one of them fits any element of the stereotype... Essex girls are often thought of as shallow, fake, all style no substance, goodness I could go on, the stereotype is horrendous. But when I look at the Essex women I know they are all strong, driven, determined, down to earth ladies, with a vast range of interests and attributes!
Essex has a lot to offer and as a keen sports person and equestrian I appreciate the beautiful surroundings, gorgeous country lanes and little villages, stunning country parks etc. It’s full of amazing locations for me to train. I wish this natural beauty and incredible open space was what everyone thought of when they think of Essex.
The county we live in does not determine our personalities or attributes.
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!
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.
With a love of Bowie, Idles, jazz, funk, soul and disco, she 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
Jo and her wife 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 - Jo at the long-established Rose restaurant.
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.
Ray and her wife Jo 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 she says a lot of her poetry has been influenced by the sea.
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!
Tonya is headteacher of The Westborough School in Westcliff-on-Sea.
I was born in Tilbury, and when I was at school I wanted to become a teacher but was told that ‘people like you, from here, don’t go to university’ and that I should aim to work in an office instead. Even though I was in the top set for everything, my family had to pay my ‘O’ Level exam fees, and I was encouraged to focus on typing and home economics instead. Through hard work I became the first person from my family to go to university, and I’m really proud of my Tilbury roots.
I tell my story to our Year 6 at their leaver’s assembly each year, and read Paul Cookson’s inspirational poem ‘Let No One Steal Your Dreams’ to inspire the children to go for their dreams. I have proved that with hard work and determination anything is possible and just because you are born in to one situation does not mean that you cannot aspire to greater things.
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 as a result decided to train as a hypnotherapist. After qualifying she rented a room at the Mayura Yoga Studio in Southend (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.
Dr Sarah Ives
Sarah has a PhD in American Literature from the University of Essex, has spent time in France, Hong Kong and Japan, and now lives in Westcliff-on-Sea. She is a practicing poet with a confessional style, exploring themes of trauma and mental illness. Photographed on the pier in Southend-on-Sea.
I first encountered the Essex girl stereotype in secondary school, and became motivated to prove myself and be taken seriously, especially through academics and writing.
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!
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!!
Sandra Rundqvist, Sweden
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)
When the Essex girl stereotype emerged I was studying for my GCSEs. I remember having a passionate debate in our drama class about how unfair and untrue it was. The local radio station had that morning sat on a bench next to Billericay station waiting for an “Essex girl” to walk past - of course none did. Then there was a TV interview in a gym where only “Essex looking men and ‘girls’“ were allowed to be in the background. As a 16 year old girl, this was very upsetting. Suddenly, I had to prove I wasn’t stupid or vacuous or any of the other negative connotations the term carried. This has stayed with me to this day, even now if I admit to my Essex connection some will say “oh so you’re an Essex girl!” So I’ve distanced myself from where I grew up to avoid it.
Julia Knight, Cornwall
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.
Laura has an eclectic background - she’s a humanitarian photographer and also works for The Elders, a charity set up by Nelson Mandela. In her spare time she is a poet and advocate for human rights using the arts through photography and poetry. In the past Laura has worked as a marine biologist and teacher, and has an active interest in climate change. She lives in Benfleet and was photographed at Belfairs Woods in Leigh-on-Sea.
What is an Essex Girl? For me I am a seasider and proud of my roots; I like some of the stereotypes as you can have fun with them and I favour hoop earrings, though I cannot walk in stilettos! I am sure there are ‘dumb’ Essex girls (and guys) but I am surrounded by smart, funny, courageous women who do not base their value on the way they dress or look, and who are certainly not air-heads. I am proud to be from Essex.
Growing up my Dad always worried about me having an ‘estuary accent’. The traditional Essex accent has changed over the last 50 years and been replaced with the ‘Saufend’ accent - an east London-influenced twang with drawn-out vowels. My Dad was concerned that, especially as a girl with that accent, I would find it hard to walk into rooms and be taken seriously. To an extent, sadly, I think he was right. When I was growing up and first entering work that accent would have been a disadvantage. I, with my Dad’s efforts, had learnt to ‘speak properly’. Now, I find it ridiculous that anyone would judge someone’s intellect or employability on their accent. Fortunately, local accents have also replaced the stereotypical BBC accents of the past in the media too. Now, even though my accent is not very strong, I have no qualms about ‘sounding too Essex’.
Kara is an artist and tutor, and founder of Creative Generations - a social enterprise running art workshops for children and older adults together, where life stories and creativity across the ages are celebrated to help combat loneliness. Photographed at Park View Gardens, Grays, close to where she lives.
I’m proud to be a woman from Essex!
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 now say ‘too right, yes I am an Essex girl and I'm proud to be so’.
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.
Alice is an actor and radio presenter from Leigh-on-Sea. She has received award nominations for her short films, has been producing and casting for indie films and touring with an award-winning educational theatre. She can be heard on radio travel bulletins across the country and on the Time 107.5FM Breakfast Show. Photographed at Hadleigh Castle, the location of a short film that Alice was part of.
Hadleigh Castle is a magnificent and tangible piece of history right on our doorstep; people often forget about the beauty of Essex in their insistence of the stereotypes. There are hundreds of stunning and educational places to visit and it’s something I often praise Essex for when discussing my home county.
The castle is at a position of power in Hadleigh and powerful women from Essex are often forgotten in favour of the loud mouthed, heavily tanned, stiletto wearing stereotypes. I believe that women from Essex can forget they have the power - it’s a place FULL of talented creatives and fascinating, ground breaking history. I always embrace it and accept the the power being from Essex gives me.
The thought provoking film I shot at Hadleigh Castle saw local artists come together to adapt a poem. Ultimately it was about a woman being persecuted for being different and this often happens to women who are from Essex. Instantly people believe one thing, and I understand for some people this can make them feel like it’s holding them back. For me it’s a chance to educate people on what being an Essex Girl is. We are surrounded by beauty, talent and good people no matter what the media may suggest.
There are hundreds of famous actors, activists, suffragettes, singers, sports personalities and educators that hail from Essex and I’m proud to stand alongside them as an Essex Girl.
Community activist Sherry, from Southend-on-Sea, is an advocate for the working class, mental health, and the environment. She describes herself as “your friendly neighbourhood anarchist - a campaigner for a better, fairer, greener world”. She also founded the Southend 'Soup' community, micro-funding project to inspire people to make a difference on their doorstep.
Emma Gibbs de Oliveira
Emma and her Brazilian husband Licio run Brazilarte, a Brazilian cultural centre in Southend, where they teach capoeira (an art form that blends together movement, music and dance), martial arts, samba carnival drums and other cultural activities and art forms.
Growing up in south Essex, we were surrounded by the Essex Girl stereotypes. Mostly it was relentless and direct. No one hid behind a device. It was very much to your face. A joke. A bit of fun. I was never offended, I think as I've got older I take things more to heart, but in my teens I was fearless. It gave me an excuse to rebel and push back. I did that in the way I dressed, with the music I listened to and the places I visited. I don't think I would have been here today doing what I do if I hadn't had experienced those negative comments. A chance to make something positive and shine a light in the dark.
All quotes in italic are by the participants, either verbatim as told to myself, used with permission, or as attributed.