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When I was 14, I met a couple of girls at El Rancho holiday camp in Waikanae, who would soon after become my two closest friends. One of them was witty and warm with enviably good boobs, the other an adorable weirdo who got kicked out on day two for smoking.
We shared a love for dumb jokes and a determination to roll our eyes at everything earnest – camp leaders, platitudes, and other campers.
At the time I went to Wellington Girls’ and they went to St Mary’s, so the second setting for our blossoming friendship was Wellington train station. Every afternoon this beautiful, high-ceilinged public space would be transformed into a boiling cesspit of teenage hormones, cigarette smoke, and Lynx spray, as kids from schools all over Wellington mingled, gossiped, and shoplifted from the poor kiosk owner whose two eyes couldn’t possibly have kept watch over the swarms that surrounded him, before catching trains to Kāpiti, Johnsonville, and the Hutt.
We were trouble, for sure; the nature of our trouble changing slightly depending on whose house we were crashing at that weekend. In Hataitai, we made mix tapes recorded from the radio and mingled with sensitive, pimply local boys who were wonderful friends and whom we also wanted to pash. In Waikanae, we swanned by the river, sunbathing topless with 20 cent coins over our nipples (they were bigger then). In Porirua, we drove without licences and shoplifted from Mr Big Jumble. But no matter what trouble we got ourselves into we felt safe because we were in it together. Through all the bitchy bullshit of high school, knowing there were two girls who would never backstab me, and whom I would never backstab, was incredibly important for my mental health.
Later I would change high schools and spend a couple of years trying on the role of “pick me” girl, surrounded by guy friends and with a fair bit of my self-worth relying on their view of me as “different to other girls.” With great pride, I demonstrated how I could drink like them, have sex with no feelings, and mosh to bad music like them, and objectify other girls as they did. I felt simultaneously buoyed by their affection for me and frustrated that none of them read my awesomeness as evidence of Girlfriend Material. Through my 20s my circle of guy friends widened to include actual beautiful-hearted men whom I still adore and treasure, but it wasn’t until late in that decade that I re-awakened to something I had known as a 14-year-old and somehow forgotten: that female friendships are affirming, sustaining, and absolutely necessary.
These days I’m surrounded by women who, when I arrive at work or when they turn up for a pot luck, make my heart swell with love. We talk about our feelings, our failings, our inevitable imposter syndrome. We reassure each other and like every one of each others’ selfies. We are also physically intimate in a way I adore. These are women I regularly kiss on the mouth, spoon in a crowd at a concert, side-hug at parties, and share reassuring arm and leg rubs with. The females of one of our closest related species, bonobos, exhibit similar behaviours as a way of relaxing and reaffirming bonds (actually they go next level and rub their genitals together which I’m sure feels really nice but is perhaps a step too far for most human friendships).
I once read a study about the same sex-friendships of young boys, which reported remarkable intimacy – participants would say things about their mates like “I couldn’t live without him” and “I love him” – before puberty hit and with it, the “no homo” impulse, those behaviours “corrected” for fear of being read as gay. There are countries where this doesn’t happen, but New Zealand isn’t one of them. In a country where both young and older men suffer greatly from depression and related stigma, loneliness, and suicidality, I can’t help but wonder how those stats might be affected if society allowed more space for the beautiful friendships of boys to continue throughout their lives. I do know some men who managed to largely escape this. Straight men who are now dads, who hug each other and tell each other that they’ve missed each other or that they look good without the need to add ‘no homo’ on the end. And I get some solace from knowing our sons are watching them, and that possibly – if we keep it up – they might grow up to know they have a right to enjoy the same supportive, sustaining and affirming friendships that women do.