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 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 encouraged suggestions on location, themes, pose and dress etc, so that every person is projected in the way that they would like to be portrayed.
All participants have a connection to Essex, and cover a diverse range of backgrounds, age, abilities, class, ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, geographical locations etc.
Project exhibited at: Eastgate, Basildon (21st May - 19th June 2021); Twenty One, Southend (1st August - 26th September 2022); Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch (10th October - 5th November 2022)
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 either.
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 hashtag 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.
Laura has an eclectic background - she’s a humanitarian photographer and also works for The Elders, a charity set up by Nelson Mandela. She is a poet and advocate for human rights, has an active interest in climate change, and has in the past worked as a marine biologist and teacher. 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 airheads. 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’.
Millie is a newly qualified firefighter. She is one of the few females in the role in Essex, and the first at Wivenhoe station where she is based.
Essex Girl born 'n’ bred.
Not that you’d think it, given the stereotypes. I don’t look too much into the pejoratives that coincide with the term ‘Essex.’ However, saying you’re from ‘just outside London’ instead of Essex just shows the bad rep Essex girls and boys have.
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever cared too much as to what others think of me as an ‘Essex Girl’, nor have I ever cared too much about fitting in to the stereotypical norm of Essex society. In fact, I do indeed love to challenge these notions and correct them where possible. The job role I have landed this year is just one of the few things I, and my fellow Essex matriarchy, have to prove that.
I am proud to say that I followed in my father’s footsteps and became a firefighter for Essex County Fire and Rescue Service. I am the first woman firefighter to work at Wivenhoe fire station - I hope not to be the last. I really do love my job and I am so pleased to be in the role I am. I have seen many other women in the service - it is most certainly evolving from just a man’s world. The support of my colleagues has been so great - all, for sure, advocate diversity within the service. I hope this notion of diversity continues in the fire service and younger generations will see many opportunities for both men and women.
In the Collins Concise Dictionary under ‘Essex Girl’ it states the following: "unintelligent, materialistic and devoid of taste." I can say for sure none of the real Essex Girls I know can be labelled under any of these statements - let’s continue to change these outdated definitions of Essex. I have to say I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family where the 'Essex Girl' stereotypes were not adhered to; I felt this gave me freedom to do what makes me happy in life.
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, and transferred 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, 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 sevens, 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-old 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 Trainor, 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.
Lyn, 70, has been a scuba diver for 23 years, and is approaching her 1,000th dive. She was due to reach that milestone in the Galápagos Islands in 2020 but the trip was cancelled due to COVID-19. About 14 years ago she began giving motivational talks at community halls, Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds all over Essex. Photographed close to her home in Thaxted, Uttlesford. She’s lived there 46 years but says that still qualifies her as a ‘newcomer’.
I’m no ‘Twiggy’, but as I tell people in my talks, your size or shape or age doesn’t matter - just live your dream!
Victoria is an engineer working on the new Ford Transit at Dunton Technical Centre, Basildon, a job which has also seen her working in Cologne and Istanbul. She previously worked for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in the West Midlands, and is an Ambassador for Women in Engineering and STEM. Photographed near her home in Shoeburyness, alongside one of the vehicle models that she has worked on.
I knew from the age of seven that I was going to be an engineer. I later studied for my Industrial Engineering degree at Coventry University, where I was the only female amongst 70 students.
I grew up in the Black Country and when I moved to Essex 16 years ago, friends in the Midlands made fun of me about becoming an ‘Essex Girl’. Where I’m from, the term ‘Black Country Wench’ is quite common, so I just laughed off the ‘Essex Girl’ comments!
I have made many friends here, mainly through work and sport. They really don’t fit the Essex stereotype at all - very smart, strong women. Shoeburyness / Southend is a wonderful place to live with my husband and bring up our family of three boys.
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 eight. 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 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 judgment 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 judgment 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 they 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 making a career change when having children. 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.
I always apologise for being from Essex - even the ‘About Me’ section of my website says “From Essex (please don’t hold that against me)”.
If I asked you about the first thing you thought of when I say Essex (if you aren’t from here at least) what comes to mind is probably TOWIE; the thick, loud accents, orange tan and a whole lot of fakery. Although I’ve definitely met some people who fit the stereotype they are definitely in the minority. My accent is mild at worst, I’m as pale as anything and have never had a fake tan in my life. The only thing fake about me is my hair colour.
I chose to have my picture taken at the iconic, controversial, and a little bit tragic Basildon sign which sits atop a roundabout on the A127, marking the Basildon border. A sign of a small town trying to pretend it’s as big and famous as Hollywood. I also worked in a place known as ‘Bas Vegas’ for many years - I didn’t think you could get much more Essex than that.
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 medallist. Photographed near the pool at Hornchurch Sports Centre, close to where she grew up. She recently retired from swimming in order to pursue a career in law.
Alice is a creative theatre producer, and studied Shakespearean Adaptation and Performance Academia at university. She went to the same school as actor Helen Mirren, in Westcliff-on-Sea, and now lives in east London. In the future she hopes to create her own production company - one that offers opportunities for artists from counties surrounding London to break into the (often exclusive) commercial environment of the city. She says there are still stigmas facing creatives from outside of London.
Too often the negative stereotype of Essex, specifically that of the ‘Essex girl’, overshadows how much the county and indeed its women have to offer. Growing up I spent so much time trying to tone down my accent, to avoid stereotype fashion - all because I had big dreams and didn’t want the way I presented myself to ever stand in my way. Now, as a young woman building her career, I am proud to look back on my childhood and teenage years in Essex; proud of the opportunities I had in the arts, proud of the communities I was part of, and proud to say I AM AN ESSEX GIRL! I am a professional, I am a creative, I care about the environment, about making opportunities for underrepresented people in the arts, about finding a way for my industry to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic, and yes… I love to dye my hair blonde.
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 alongside 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 looks 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, and was 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.
Sarah is a business manager and owner of a beach hut hire company in Walton-on-the-Naze, where she lives. She grew up in Ilford, was formerly CEO of a charity, and holds a masters degree in charity marketing and fundraising. She gave up her charity job to start her own business and spend more time with her young family. She was photographed at Eastcliff Beach in Walton.
Essex is often overlooked as a travel destination. We’ve beautiful beaches and countryside here. It’s not that far from London, and yet it’s a whole world away.
I feel incredibly lucky to live and work by the sea. I hope my children look back on their childhoods with memories of endless fun summers on the beach.
Being self employed has its own challenges, but I don’t plan to ever go back to working for someone else.
When I’m sat in a beach hut on a summer evening with no one but seagulls for company, I am very grateful that my business has allowed a change in lifestyle that gives me more time with my family, and an appreciation for the place that we live. I get to make memories with my children, and to help other families make lovely memories too. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Deja moved to Clacton-on-Sea from Hornchurch nine years ago, to be closer to the sea. She works in a charity shop and has ambitions to join the police force or to help prisoners rehabilitate with performing arts. She also enjoys roller skating, theatre and travelling. Photographed on the beach at Holland-on-Sea.
I am not a babe or your hun
I am just your average no one.
I am for success (and I don’t mean the perfect tan)
and my life goes further than looking for a man.
I am a 23-year-old girl of Afro Caribbean descent
and I apologise, as no offence is meant.
I just want to make it very clear,
that it’s not your average Essex girl here.
In the past I have worked numerous jobs, from retail to a support worker to an inclusive workshop facilitator to an NHS 111 health advisor and more.
I am diagnosed with autism; I feel like this provides me with a unique perspective on the world, as well as motivating me to always exceed my own and others’ expectations.
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.
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.
Maria is an award-winning writer and performer from Romford. In her second one-woman show, ‘Essex Girl’, she plays Kirsty, a 16-year-old girl growing up in noughties Brentwood. The play looks at the expectations she would face due to her class and gender, and the opinions projected onto her by others. Maria was photographed outside the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, one of many venues where she has performed.
In my adult life I feel like I have been pigeon-holed and judged by where I’m from, predominantly because of my accent. My voice has been described as ‘endearing’ on more than one occasion when I’ve had to speak at literary events. When asked what I do for a living and I reply, "I’m a writer’" I am always met with the same response. "But what do you do for money?" Often, when I perform the show I’m asked if I ‘escaped’ Essex and when I say I now live in London, I’m met with a "well done you". It makes me question whether we can ever transcend the identity of where we were born and raised.
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 big 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 and 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 sportsperson 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 (subsequently cancelled due to COVID-19). 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 whom 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 is a performance poet, storyteller and writer from Leigh-on-Sea. Together with her wife Ray, she has also run a non-profit mixed arts organisation in Essex. Photographed at the long-established Rose restaurant on Southend seafront.
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 is a performance poet, storyteller and writer from Leigh-on-Sea. Together with her wife Jo, she has also run a non-profit mixed arts organisation in Essex. Photographed by the Thames estuary on the seafront at Southend - chosen as Ray 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 own dreams. I have proved that with hard work and determination anything is possible and just because you are born into 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. She is chair of the Essex Women's 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, but 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. She then 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. Once qualified, 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!
Born on Canvey Island, Ashleigh now lives in Benfleet. She spent ten years with the Royal Air Force Air Cadets, first as a cadet on Canvey and then serving with Rayleigh and Wickford Squadron as a Pilot and then Flying Officer. She holds a private pilot’s licence and by day is an Associate Director in Institutional Banking, with one of the UK’s largest banks. She is also Global Co-Chair of the bank’s Gender Network. Ashleigh was photographed here at five months pregnant alongside a Piper PA-28 Cherokee plane at Southend Flying Club (in Rochford), of which she is a member.
Davina is a transgender woman living in Benfleet. Formerly a mechanic, she is now a civil servant, 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.
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 workshops, and is 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".
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, a micro-funding project to inspire people to make a difference on their doorstep.
All quotes in italic are by the participants, either verbatim as told to myself, used with permission, or as attributed.