Buchanan’s new book The Sisterhood: A Love Letter to the Women Who Have Shaped Me (Headline, out 7 March) is a love letter to her five sisters, the only women she would kill for and equally kill, she tells me. But what exactly is a sisterhood, I ask, thinking of something straddling The Handmaid’s Tale and Little Women with an occasional flash of Sweet Valley High? You build your own mini matriarchy, she says, one in which your own femininity is “a fact of your existence rather than a tool you need to employ for your own defence. It never crosses your mind that cleverness and funniness aren’t female traits, because you’re with clever, funny women all day long.”
“Ulysses longed to follow knowledge like a sinking star. Sometimes I think I’m pursuing a Barbie body like a sagging arse.”
However, this sisterhood is by no means perfect. Buchanan explains “Culturally, as women, we have always been encouraged to compare ourselves with other women and having sisters is a really concentrated version of that reality.” Having five other women (Beth, Grace, Olivia, Maddy and Dotty) in such close quarters (even toilet breaks were not immune from a sister banging the door down) exacerbated that sense of comparison and jealousy, she says. This was never more evident than with body issues, says Buchanan who explains she suffered with eating disorders from a very early age, excitedly requesting SlimFast for her sixth birthday.
Dysfunctional body image
“As women, we are tacitly and explicitly encouraged to have a dysfunctional relationship with our bodies and with food. I just wish I’d been a better big sister. I was in so much pain at that time, struggling with eating disorders and it breaks my heart the effect that that has had on Beth (the sister closest in age to Daisy).”
“Suddenly I was being told that I was fat and all of these bad things were happening to me and you know, as children do, that was the conclusion I came to. Being fat was dangerous.”
Buchanan always felt she had a very different body shape to her Mum and sisters and she saw the negative effects this had on her, from name-calling and bullying to far more sinister consequences. “There was a real sense that my body was going to elicit a response I couldn’t quite control, it was something I never had any mastery of. It felt like it was something my sisters were protected from. They looked young and they got to be children.”
It wasn’t just a matter of envy, Buchanan tells me. Around the time that Olivia was a seriously ill newborn baby and her parents were in hospital a lot of the time, Buchanan was being babysat by an older man in the neighbourhood who began sexually abusing her. She was five or six at the time. “Suddenly I was being told that I was fat and all of these bad things were happening to me and you know, as children do, that was the conclusion I came to. Being fat was dangerous.”
Raising women up
The #MeToo movement is something she applauds and believes that social media will continue to have a great impact on, as women band together in a sisterhood. “Now it’s very difficult to keep women quiet. We have this means of communication – we can come together and find each other where we weren’t able to find each other before.”
What we talk about when we say ‘the strong woman’ is qualities we associate with masculinity – silent and stoic – we know that’s not doing men or women any favours. We need to re-define what’s strong.
Feminism has become quite an individualistic endeavour, Buchanan believes, but it’s in sisterhood that we can expand our power, by putting women forward and raising them up. “Women flourish and thrive when they don’t have to constantly compete for space but are allowed to just exist within it. What we talk about when we say ‘the strong woman’ is qualities we associate with masculinity – silent and stoic – we know that’s not doing men or women any favours. We need to re-define what’s strong.
As a woman, it’s making space for your sisters (spiritual or biological) and saying this is how I am and this is how you are and it’s all messy and glorious.” “I don’t particularly like sticking my neck out,” Buchanan tells me but I don’t believe her. Because when it comes to the sisterhood, her neck is well and truly on the line.
The Sisterhood: A Love Letter to the Women Who Have Shaped Me (Headline) by Daisy Buchanan is out 7 March 2019.
By Mary Cate Smith