First lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Orlando, Florida, Monday, November 5, 2012.
In the summer of 1995, a mini social ice age swept through my high school holidays. I’d had a big fight with my mum and was grounded for the better part of the two-month break. As an awkward teenager, socialising made me nervous. But not socialising somehow made the anxiety worse.
That summer, I became obsessed with a girl called Josie. She was a quippy, Italian-Australian girl who, like me, grew up in inner-city Sydney and went to an all-girl high school. She had long, wild hair and despite routinely getting into trouble, she was also the vice-captain of St Martha's high.
Above all, she was four years older than me – which meant that her life was a tiny window into how things might turn out to be – flirting with boys, parties, a proper part-time job at McDonalds – in other words, the blueprint of a 13-year-old’s dream.
Role models ... Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama.
In fact, I was so smitten with Josephine Alibrandi that it didn’t even matter she was a fictional character. I’d rescued a copy of Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi from my neighbour’s discarded book pile and developed my first girl crush on Josie – who would later join a long line of women that I’d idolise from afar.
“Girl crushes are part of being a woman,” says Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for The New York Times, “It evolves from the time you’re little. We look to our sisters, friends, and classmates. You get obsessed with how they wear their hair and how they walk—and [the way] everything’s so easy for them.”
In a way, our ‘crushes’ are projections of who we want to be – women who are impossibly talented, smart or sassy that it makes us simultaneously want to be them and befriend them. (Often it’s hard to tell which.) The feeling is generally platonic, but it’s also the closest thing to a romantic crush – because they often inspire the kind of giddiness and awe that paralyses the best of us.
Ultimate girl crush .... Michelle Obama.
While the term ‘bromance’ has found its way into the pop culture narrative in recent years, this unique strain of platonic infatuation certainly seems to embody a more female-skewed history. Admiration between men tends to be heartfelt but brief, with the highest praise likely to be little more a variation on, “Oh yeah, he’s a good guy!” Women, on the other hand, are more likely to ‘swoon’ over the finer points of worthy ladies.
Remember Beyoncé’s gushing handwritten letter to US first lady Michelle Obama earlier this year? Filled with uppercase and a generous helping of exclamation points, the singer lovingly detailed the many reasons she is a fan of the first lady. Her effort didn’t go unrewarded though. The graceful Mobama not only tweeted thank you, but also returned the praise in a recent People magazine interview, saying that if there is anyone she’d consider trading places with, it would be Beyoncé herself.
So what exactly makes someone crush-worthy? It doesn’t necessarily depend on fame or status (although in the Beyoncé Mobama love fest, both are clearly present). Rather, they are women who have achieved something unique through hard work and tenacity – yet somehow remain totally relatable. As author Sheila Heti sums up succinctly in her book, How Should a Person Be, the people we most admire tend to be those who are “perfectly themselves in every way.”
Beyonce's handwritten letter to Michelle Obama.
Perhaps it goes some way to explain why some of the most popular girl crushes of our time include Tina Fey, Sofia Coppola, Michelle Obama and Zadie Smith. “Each of them has accomplished something the rest of us dream of doing. And because they’ve done it, we feel we can too,” says Thessaly LaForce, web editor of The Paris Review.
Last year, LaForce, together with fellow journalist Jenna Wortham, has launched an indie zine called Girl Crush to celebrate the women who inspire them. It’s an anthology of love letters to the women who have inspired each contributor. “[The term] girl crush might sound silly, but sometimes it takes something ‘unserious’ to get us talking about a serious subject: the ambitions of young creative women and the need for worthy role models,” writes LaForce.
Crushes are also important, argues Guardian Journalist Eva Wiseman, “because they bypass jealousy”. While the sentiment isn’t ‘overtly feminist’, the result is such that it breaks down the age-old stereotype that “women just don’t like other women”.
Jenna Wortham and Thessaly La Force's Girl Crush zine.
Interestingly, the foundation for a girl crush is also the perfect primer for envy – here is someone who represents a composite picture of how we want to be, yet instead of inspiring a paralysing sense of envy, why is it that some women’s success actually feels as though they are paving way for our own?
The answer, it seems, lies in a sense of vulnerability on the crushee. In being open and authentic about the struggles of their own, these female role models show us that there are risks worth taking, boundaries worth pushing – and while you can be damned sure there will be pain – our girl crushes are proof that it can be done without losing sight of our love for the sisterhood along the way.
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