Life Lessons Part 2: Kirstie Allsopp, Leyla Hussein & June Sarpong on what every woman should know

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It’s time to sit up and listen as our recent inspirational speakers Kirstie Allsopp, Leyla Hussein and June Sarpong share their most valuable Life Lessons

Words: Lizzie Pook, Kate Sullivan. Photography: Rex, Deborah Anderson

There are some lessons drilled into us from childhood. Don’t walk along strange roads late at night, for example. See also: be nice to people and they will generally return the favour; eating baked beans from the can really isn’t becoming. Some lessons are learned, of course: the fact that ‘dry clean only’ isn’t something they put on labels just for fun, or that, sometimes, our gut instinct is actually right and that man did in fact end up being about as eligible as a turnip.

And then there are the real pearls of wisdom; the treasured lessons handed down by those women who inspire us. The sage nuggets of advice we keep for best and pass on to our nearest and dearest. These pearls don’t tarnish, they don’t spoil. They stay valuable, solid and most of all, useful. This (celebratory fanfare please) is where Stylist’s Life Lessons come in.

In June this year, we invited three phenomenal speakers to share their most valuable advice (and get us talking), at our first Life Lessons event. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, actress Francesca Martinez and Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, all took to the stage to share the single most important life lesson they had learned.

Our second instalment – held just last month at Soho’s Ham Yard Hotel – was even bigger. And we invited three speakers who all chose to speak on topics they felt weren’t being addressed widely.

The 175 ticket-holders were encouraged to face up to the facts of fertility by Kirstie Allsopp, Nleft moved by anti-FGM campaigner Leyla Hussein’s account of her own abuse, and motivated by June Sarpong’s speech on questioning your beliefs – during which she asked the audience to chant her favourite Ghanaian catchphrase “I am aware”, back at her.

We were beyond inspired and, luckily for those of you who weren't able to come along on the night, we took notes…


Kirstie Allsopp: “Remember, nature Is not a feminist”

Location, Location, Location host, master craftswoman and mother of two sons, Kirstie Allsopp hit headlines in June for speaking out about the fertility window, advising women to start a family by 27. Here she backs up her argument…

1. “You don’t always have to follow the same path as others. I wasn’t brought up to be a professional. My mum’s work was never a priority in our family. I was the eldest of four children and my parents had an extraordinarily devoted marriage, but it did revolve around my dad’s work and his life. I didn’t do particularly well at school, I didn’t enjoy the environment, so I didn’t go to university. I started working instead and I thought, ‘This is brilliant, you are in an environment where you can actually prove yourself – by staying late and coming in early and making more tea and coffee than anyone else. From there I built a career for myself, eventually started my own business finding flats for people and that’s how I ended up on telly.”

2. “Think carefully about timings. I wanted a big family, but I don’t have more than two children (although I do have two wonderful stepchildren) and there’s a reason for that. It’s because I was 35 years old when I had my first child and 37 when I had my second child. There is no third child. I didn’t think about timings enough.”

3. “Don’t ignore the facts. Women throughout history have achieved so much, but there is one thing that hasn’t changed: we are no more able to have children later than we have been in the past. Some studies suggest that you have as low as a 10% chance of conceiving a child if you’re over 40. 

4. “Don’t rely on science. One of the Twitter responses I got to my comments said: ‘Duh, you’re so stupid, don’t you know you can freeze your eggs for free?’ That scared
the living daylights out of me because it’s not true.  If you suffer from cancer, the NHS will freeze your eggs for free. It then costs £5,200 per annum to lookafter them and another £2,000 for each round of IVF [some NHS data places the average cost of IVF at around £5,000].”

5. “Women need to be much less tough on other women. We have to stop thinking there is a set path – we can have careers and go to university at any age, but we haven’t opened the fertility window any wider. This country has the oldest average age of having a first child in the world and it has gone up in the last five years [to a record high of 30, almost four years older than the average age in the Seventies]. We need to stop frowning on people for having children young.”

6. “Be honest with your partner. Fertility isn’t about your ‘choices’, it’s about being a proud feminist and being brave enough to say to them, ‘If you love me then you need to know I cannot have children for as long as you can’. If my sons are committed to someone at 30, I will encourage them to say to their partners, ‘Shall we try now?’ Because it’sgoing to be easier than when they are 35.”

7. “We also have to change attitudes to mothers in the workplace. A woman with children is a multitasker extraordinaire and often even more focused on getting the job done. Employers need to get that into their heads.”

Leyla Hussein: “Never underestimate the power of your own story”

Leyla Hussein co-founded Daughters Of Eve, a non-profit organisation to help survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM) like herself. She presented the BAFTA nominated documentary The Cruel Cut in 2013 and triggered a parliamentary debate with her 110,000-signature petition

1. “Be honest about your own experiences. After 12 years campaigning against FGM, what finally made people listen wasn’t describing what FGM was, or that I was a trained psychotherapist, it was telling my own personal story – that when I was seven, living in Somalia, I was pinned down by four female relatives and had my clitoris cut.” 

2. “We can’t ignore the statistics. Over 140 million women live with FGM globally. Every single minute, five girls will undergo the procedure. People have this assumption that it happens in a faraway village – it is practised in 28 African countries but also, due to migration, it happens in parts of Asia and Europe, too – over 66,000 women in the UK are living with FGM and 24,000 girls are at risk here.” 

3. “We need to change the UK education system in order for FGM to end here. Sadly in 2014 we are still having discussions about whether to even teach children about sex – something that we are born to do. Proper sex education needs to be introduced before discussions about fertility, FGM and abuse can have any weight.”

4. “Be honest with your daughters. I’ve never taught my daughter another word for a vagina – not a ‘cherry’, a ‘noony’ or a ‘minny’; it’s a vagina. My best sex education came from my own mother – she said to me at 12, ‘Leyla, sex is a great thing, just make sure that it’s with the right person’.”

5. “Women shouldn’t feel ashamed about sexual desires. Women all over the world ask me about the orgasm – it’s still a very mysterious thing. My advice is this: you find what works and then guide your partner. If you don’t know where it is then how do you expect [your partner] to. Orgasms are a natural thing – that’s the kind of thing I wish I’d learnt about in school.”

June Sarpong: “Questioning your beliefs can change your life”

Former T4 presenter June Sarpong challenged Tony Blair over the Iraq War and was awarded an MBE for services to broadcasting and charity. She co-founded the Women: Inspiration & Enterprise Symposium in the US and returned to the UK this year for a role on Newsnight

1. “Respect your upbringing. I’m from Walthamstow in the East End of London and I’m so proud of it. It was a real melting pot of cultures – I had Indian classmates with whom I would celebrate Guru Nanack’s birthday and Diwali and Eid, and my best friend was Chinese. It grounded my media career as I met people from all over the world.”

2. “Know your values. Being open-minded, tolerant and appreciative of others are the things I value most about myself, but that was challenged in America. Filming in Las Vegas, I met a gruff-looking sound assistant with scary tattoos. I immediately, and wrongly, judged him on his looks. I know what it’s like to be judged – as a woman of colour – and in that moment I experienced it from the other side. I realised I needed to get over myself.”

3. “Question your beliefs. We have to reconsider the stereotypes we hold and our role in perpetuating them. Step outside your boxes and question what tweet your favourite quotes from our amazing event using #Life Lessons stories you are holding on to when you meet someone. Are they ours, our parents’ or our society’s? Give other people the opportunity and the courage to do the same.”

4. “Western women can learn from Ghana, where my family are from. Age and curves are revered there and we have a saying, ‘I am aware’. Lots of the women are curvaceous and wear tight jeans with their g-strings on show. If you say, ‘Excuse me madam,your g-string is showing’ she will say, ‘I am aware.’ It shows confidence and acceptance of yourself and your flaws.”

5. “Accept yourself for who you are and the outside world will start to respond in the same way. To quote Marianne Williamson: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world; there is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”