In celebration of International Women’s Day, Sonja Bajic, illustrator and author of What My Girlfriends Told Me, shares her story about the first time she realised that women are more powerful when they stick together!

Sonja Bajic

Sonja Bajic

The fog above my tea formed and drifted away as I listened to my friend agonizing about a kid who made her daughter eat dirt – literally! – in kindergarten. I looked at her in confusion: Who does that? Where are his parents?! And so, we went on and on about modern parenthood (of which I know nothing about) and about bullies (of which I know everything about).

I was in my early teens and I was already too tall, too clumsy, too loud and, at least in my own mind, too chubby. Most days, I loved being inside the big hallways and classrooms of my school, built in Yugoslavia during the later years of socialism. I loved reading and knowledge and learning new things in general. Basically, I was a nerd! Still am. But those bright and abundant days of my childhood – its happiness and carelessness – were tarnished by a boy. Nobody ever made me eat dirt, but I've heard all possible kinds of terrible words about my appearance (forever oh so fragile) and my attitude. Fat, pig, giant, big, whatever... Luckily (I guess) everybody had spots back in the day, so mine were left without commentary. He was kicking boys and mentally attacking girls in every possible way. I don't think there was a girl in our class who didn't cry because of him. Authorities were speechless – "oh, he's just a nuisance; oh, he's just a spoilt boy" – as though our freshly-formed complexes and insecurities cared about this, like it was something our broken 13-year-old hearts would understand! He made me moody, provoked me and, above all, made me feel paralysed. One day, kids would be your friend, and then he would make a joke about your looks and all those kids would laugh, and you would stand alone. All the boys wanted to be his friends and all the girls wanted to be ok with him just not to have any problems.

One day, I’d had enough and answered to his insult... and another girl laughed. Not at me, but with me! That was new! I hadn’t noticed her before then – she was a tomboy, a prankster, a joker and, above all, a smartass. Funny, strong and kind: Mushu to my Mulan, Mowgli to my Baloo, Little John to my Robin Hood. We were a team. The boy, we finally realised, was scared. He was afraid of the best thing we had to offer – our combined personalities and our connection. Together, we had a stronger and wittier response to every insult, outrage or offense. The tables were turned. We stopped being timid little girls. We became friends; a duo, a squad, a gang, a band... and whoever wanted to join us to fight against the Mongol army, Shere Khan the tiger and the Sheriff of Nottingham was welcome. But we two were the core. She was better at some things, I was better at other things. We taught each other how to defend ourselves with words and how to speak up for ourselves. I was the teacher, but she was too. With our forces combined, I learned how to protect myself with what I already had – brains, words and a sense of humor – and not to allow myself to believe everything that my teenage brain said about my exterior. I was only 13 and that meant the world to me!

With my new sidekick, everything was and still is much easier. For the first time in my life, I understood the power of female bonding and what we women can do when we stand together. I don't want to know who or what that boy became. There are people who try to make our small fights into big battles, and then there are those who come with magical herbs and help us heal our wounds. Friends often have those magical powers; they frequently come in the shape of small words of support in hard moments, jokes at the times when laughing is the last thing you are thinking of and, sometimes, a tough dose of reality when you need it most.

Whatever magical powers our female friends bring to our lives, we can always trust that we’ll be much stronger, better and happier when we all stick together.

Sonja Bajic’s celebration of female friendship, What My Girlfriends Told Me, is published 2nd March by September Publishing.