Florence Given is an illustrator, writer and feminist activist. She started her Instagram page as a 17-year-old art student in Plymouth to showcase her quirky feminist illustrations: it now has almost 600,000 followers, and her merchandise has won fans including Rita Ora, who asked her to design products for her 2018 tour. Given’s first book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, sold 100,000 copies and spent months on the bestseller lists. In 2019, Cosmopolitan named her its influencer of the year, and this year she launched the Exactly podcast, for which she has interviewed women including Jameela Jamil, Munroe Bergdorf and Sofie Hagen. Her debut novel, Girl Crush, is the story of Eartha, a young bisexual woman who becomes an overnight internet celebrity.
What prompted you to turn to fiction for your second book?
I wanted to write a book that showed that people are messy, and I wanted to create messy characters. Nothing makes me feel better than making people laugh, making people think, and also gently holding the mirror up to the reader so that they can reflect on themselves in a way that doesn’t feel judgy or shameful.
Social media is a theme in the book. How do you manage boundaries as an influencer?
The hardest thing for me is to extrapolate who I would even be without the internet. Social media is my gateway to the world and to making connections with people. When it comes to the physical boundaries I have with my phone: it’s never in my bedroom, it’s always charging in the kitchen. And when it comes to what you share online, I always take a beat.
Sexuality comes up here, and in your other work. What are you most interested in communicating?
I’ve described Eartha as a hot bisexual mess. The thing is, particularly for bisexual people, we don’t really feel like there’s a home. And then there’s home in that chaos, and not really knowing what you are.
My straight friends talk about their bodies so much. It was a shock to me
As an out bisexual woman myself, and as someone who has a podcast with an advice section, I get hundreds of questions from women every day. Most of them are: “Am I bisexual? I don’t know if I am.” And I can’t tell people! I’m not you. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know your life. What I wanted to do in this novel is say that it’s OK not to know. And it’s OK to be confused.
Women Don’t Owe You Pretty was a concise, witty, compassionate guide to navigating feminism. Did it achieve what you wanted it to?
It’s sold in Tesco: women have come to my book events saying: “I’ve never considered myself a feminist. I bought your book because it looked pretty. And then I came out the other end of it saying no to my husband, growing out my armpit hair, telling him when I don’t want to have sex.” I want women who think that they haven’t got the education to be a feminist to talk about this stuff. It should not be gate-kept.
What got you started?
I was a teenager in Plymouth and I experienced sexual harassment in a nightclub for the first time. All of my friends were, like: Floss, that’s just the way things are. I would complain about it and I would be shut down by other women. And that’s what I didn’t like: I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I was at art college studying fashion, and there was a segment on fashion illustration. You could do what you wanted with your illustrations. And I just fused this anger with the naked women that I was drawing. And then I put it online because no one in my life was listening to me.
You moved to London. Did you feel that you couldn’t do what you wanted to in Devon?
It was a wonderful place to grow up. I have so many amazing memories there. But I went to an all-girls’ school, and if anyone tried to break the status quo it was a bit like a cult. Someone betrays the cult or does something different to the cult, you’re shamed and you’re trying to worm your way back in. In small towns in general, people don’t want you to actually break the mould, and I needed to. There weren’t even many queer bars in Plymouth – there was one for gay men. I needed something to pull me out of it. And I have been thriving since I found people I love so much.
What’s the difference?
My friends have never spoken to me about their weight. We openly talk about sex we have, we openly talk about masturbation, and we’re very honest about our feelings with one another. We say no when we want to. But it is also because my friends are queer or they’re bisexual.
I do have a few straight friends though. I made friends with a group of straight people last year, just based on music tastes alone; an amazing group of women. And I’ve never heard people talk about their bodies so much. It was a shock to me because I hadn’t been around it for a while and I couldn’t believe it.
Can you explain why young people adore Love Island, when it seems like such a throwback from a feminist perspective? How progressive is the younger generation?
I don’t think I can explain it to you because I agree that Love Island is awful, but I still think it’s entertaining as hell. I can see why people are drawn to it, because it’s entertainment. It’s funny. That’s just reality TV. My generation is a lot more progressive [than previous generations]: we’re learning. So many more people are coming out as trans and queer because there are examples of it now. And I don’t think that you can ever give yourself permission to be something that you feel unless you see an example of it.
I’ve been asked if I’d like to go into politics. No! I’d be awful at it. I know my strengths. I’m a writer, I’m an artist. And I’m good at talking. But I don’t want to be a politician. I want to write books for the rest of my life.
• Girl Crush by Florence Given is published by Brazen (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply