“Why I'm joining thousands of women petitioning to remove Essex Girl from the dictionary”

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Any woman living in Essex will be familiar with the term "Essex Girl" and the negative connotations that come with it. But with the dictionary literally defining women in Essex as "unintelligent", "materialistic" and "devoid of taste", it's time for us to reclaim the phrase and get it removed from the dictionary once and for all. Here, writer and proud Essex Girl Sarah Biddlecombe explains why we all need to sign the "I am an Essex Girl" petition.

As an Essex Girl myself, I was well pissed off when I read the official definition of my breed, printed without apology in all Collins English dictionaries back in 2012:

Essex Girl (noun): a young working-class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous

I know we’re hardly living in an equal society (hello, gender pay gap), but blithely making such a sweepingly sexist statement, to be distributed to all corners of the globe as the official word on women born in a certain county, was surely a step too far.

So three cheers and a pat on the back for the “I am an Essex Girl” campaign, which aims to reclaim the term and get it officially removed from the dictionary (for those wondering, Essex Girl is also defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic”).

The petition, which has so far been signed by over 3,200 people (at the time of writing), was kickstarted by The Mother Hub bloggers Juliet Thomas, 32, and Natasha Sawkins, 34.

The pair live in Essex and – rightly – take offence to the demeaning label, writing on their blog, “To us (and to everyone else who has backed the campaign), ‘Essex Girl’ simply means ‘a girl from or living in Essex’”.

The petition, which will be delivered to representatives from both the dictionaries if it reaches its goal of 5,000 signatures, has also bred a brilliant social media campaign in which women are posting photographs of themselves with the hashtag #IAmAnEssexGirl.

Championing women such as Oscar-nominated actress Charlotte Rampling, from Braintree, and Olympic-medal-winning sailing star Saskia Clark, from West Mersea, as examples of true Essex Girls, the hashtag is an important and effusive celebration of all things Essex.

But most importantly, the petition has rightly sparked a debate about why girls and women living in Essex should be able to define themselves on their own terms, rather than under the constraints of an insulting and frankly unfounded stereotype.

Even the Oxford Dictionary defines Essex Girl as a “contemptuous” term, while Collins brands it “derogatory”. Quite.

In the post, the mothers slam the use of the words “unintelligent”, “materialistic”, “promiscuous” and “devoid of taste” to describe Essex Girls, writing “These terms simply don't define the women we know… and we sure as hell won't let them define us.

“People can argue that it's a bit of ‘harmless fun, all taken in jest’. But it's naive to say stereotypes are harmless, especially derogatory ones. They slowly seep into everyday lexicon, and in turn have a profound effect on general perceptions.”

The pair are right to worry about the wider impact of having such a belittling definition irrevocably branded onto all Essex Girls at birth. Even before the dictionaries started printing their “contemptuous” and “derogatory” definitions, being an Essex Girl came with all kinds of connotations, the likes of which I have bumped up against for all of my 28 years on Earth.

Even while backpacking around Australia, the literal other side of the world, back in 2007, I would get sneering comments about being an Essex Girl. Newfound friends would ask how many pairs of white stilettos I had managed to cram into my backpack, or jokingly ask which shade of oompa loompa I thought looked best under flashing club lights. I count myself lucky that I have only ever been on the receiving end of such joking comments made about my heritage, but I know the stereotype easily precedes much nastier judgements.

Take the general conception of the female stars of The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) as an example. They may run their own businesses and work hard for their money, but as Essex Girls they are branded in the press with negative connotations, and reduced to the sum of their lip fillers and push up bras. And herein lies the eternal problem: that a woman who wants to enhance her appearance must be all beauty and no brains.

Rather than branding all the women and girls in Essex with a stamp of negativity we should be saluting them for their individuality, just as we should for all the women and girls living in every part of the country. There is nothing in the water that magically makes all Essex Girls “materialistic” and “promiscuous”, although of course there is nothing wrong with them being either of those things, if they wish.

What is wrong is the overriding presumption that all Essex Girls are stupid, vain and up for it – a lazy generalisation that we should never have allowed to infiltrate the dictionary in the first place.

Let’s remove the definition and finally lay this tired stereotype to rest.

Image: Rex Features