Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The debt women owe

I’m in debt to society. And it’s not just my student loan. It’s a debt I’ll never repay, something I will owe forever. But like that library book from about seven years ago, I have no intention of paying my dues. As a woman, I owe perpetual prettiness to society, but send in the bailiffs: you ain't having it.

Let’s start at the beginning. I remember a time when I wasn't self-conscious; the glory days of my childhood when my snap-happy parents would capture me toothless and beaming on a seaside somewhere, caked in sand. Simpler times. But as I grew older, into my tween and teen years, I realised that imperfect photos of myself were no longer funny or silly, they no longer captured an unguarded moment: they were deeply embarrassing and altogether unacceptable. If a photo caught me by surprise, I demanded the photographer delete it, lest I throw a tantrum and reap revenge with similarly coveted images to show our friends – or worse – the boys. My hair couldn't be too frizzy or cover too much or too little of my face, my chin had to be at the right angle to avoid the appearance of a sly second one, my shoulders couldn't be too hunched. Getting a photo that looked even remotely natural was not an option: my image had to be flawless. This fear of perceived ugliness has followed me for years, but never did it become more acute when I found myself on Facebook, ogling jealously at the girls who could look pretty while giggling or smiling with their mouth shut, coquettishly. And even now I have to stop myself from experiencing the same feelings of inadequacy when faced with my own complexion looking back at me. And what’s worse is that I bet not many, but almost all of the women reading this will feel the same about themselves.

Many issues are at play here: we live in a world where perfection isn't desired but required of our female role models. Even women who don’t make a living from their beauty, women who never bought into the beauty industry in the first place, are expected to perk up and slim down and breathe in. Hilary Clinton, Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez: some of the most powerful women of the modern age have been derided as sexless, ugly crones, their minds far less worthy of analysis than a particularly “unflattering” outfit or haircut. But what it comes down to, what I think is ultimately at play here, is the idea that women owe society something. In this case, women owe society prettiness. Prettiness isn’t just an arbitrary added bonus to an already brilliant woman; it is the price she must pay for occupying space in the public sphere. When women take up air time, the very least they can do is titillate the audience while they say their bit and before they bugger off into obscurity again. Those not pretty enough to meet some undefined yet ever-oppressive standard, can either expect to be blocked from the success they’re owed, or forcefully scolded on mass by newspapers, commentators and the trolls of the internet, who are absolutely outraged, literally spitting with fury, that a conventionally unattractive woman be allowed to rear her head above the parapet and actually say something. How dare she? Doesn't she feel mortally ashamed of herself for her inadequate looks?

It’s the same force at play on a smaller scale with me and my wee life in London, with my 500 odd Facebook friends. I’m belligerently forcing myself out of this mind-set but when left unchecked, my subconscious (and usually all too conscious) mind can’t bear to be seen looking less than lovely, for fear that people will think less of me. They may judge me. They may be surprised that such an unflattering image has surfaced. They may think I’m becoming sloppy. And this is because I've been socialised to believe that as a woman, I owe people perpetual prettiness, and that any less than this will result in a personal failure on my part, a failure to behave in a way that I know to be the norm. And when people, particularly women, behave in ways outside of the norm, we make ourselves vulnerable to scorn and harsh judgement. But that judgement is at fault, not your double chin. And in turn that of course means that, as a woman, other women owe you nothing too. You don’t have the right to feel repulsed or offended or incredulous when a fellow woman looks a little less than perfect. That roll of fat is fine where it is and that sweat patch is supposed to be there. I know this is a problem with patriarchal standards, but thanks to internalised sexism women can be as complicit in this problem as men, which makes it all the more tricky to navigate.

You may be thinking to yourself: hey now, lighten up, it’s not so bad. You don’t have to be pretty, nobody will die if you’re not. And sure, you’d be right. If I put a picture of myself on Facebook with a few spots and mad hair, I won’t be thrown from my home and branded a leper. But when women live in constant anxiety about their appearance and whether or not they've met this standard of beauty, it can make life significantly less fun and the internet significantly more hostile. For example, on Sunday I ran the Bupa 10,000 race in London. I've been training for this 10k endurance test for around a month, and as I waited among thousands of runners at the starting line, I nervously bounced from foot to foot, listening to the excitable titters of my peers. Two women directly in front of me were talking about this time last year when they’d run the race for the first time. One woman explained to the other that she’d beaten her target time by over three minutes but the photos that Bupa’s photographers took of her were disgusting. She described herself as mortified by the images. The other woman laughed empathetically and said that if she saw a camera along the route, she’d duck her head down, even if it meant running into a fellow runner. They laughed: I died a little inside. This woman had completed a very difficult physical challenge and exceeded her target by a significant margin, but the take-away lesson was how unacceptable it was that she’d looked sweaty and unappealing while she did it. The pride she felt in her achievement was marred by the way in which her moist, pink face had been captured in the act of her own success. How truly depressing is that? Had I not been crippled by a case of the ‘nervous-need-a-wee’s, I’d have leaned in (as Sheryl taught me) and patiently explained that she didn't owe those onlookers perfection: she owes nobody anything and she should be able to appear dripping with sweat, with seven chins and dodgy wonky boobs and feel absolutely no fear of judgement whatsoever. I refrained because that would have also been entirely patronising and far too complex an issue to tackle mere seconds before the klaxon rang.

I’m not suggesting that as a woman, trying to make yourself look attractive is a poor choice of activity. I get an expensive haircut once every eight weeks, I wear mascara, I wear clothes that suit my shape. I even occasionally pick profile pictures that make me look the nicest I can be. Just because I’m calling out the problem doesn't mean I’m not myself a victim to it, as I probably will be for life. But if a photo exists of you and you don’t look how you want people to think you look, try not to delete it. I hate to break it to you, but that is in fact what you look like. And what you look like is fucking brilliant, not “imperfect”. Also, unless you’re a model, it’s completely irrelevant.

And finally, to the men out there – the ones who this is news to, and even to the ones who get it right 99% of the time, but still grimace when they see a picture of Beth Ditto: women don’t owe you prettiness or sexiness, or a smile. Your gratification means absolutely nothing. Women also don’t owe you a sexy dance in a club, a kiss, or sex. Your entitlement as you stare at me in the street or grab at my hand in a club is ludicrous. If you want to look at a person who works in an industry where beauty is the currency, Google ‘models’ and have yourself a field day. Just don’t expect prettiness to be delivered to you via every medium you choose, then be disappointed when it’s not. 

I also owe this blog to somebody: Erin McKean of A Dress a Day first got me thinking about this a few years ago and I've partially stolen her words. Reading what she had to say for the first time was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. So check it out. And while you're at it, here are the photos Bupa's paparazzi took of me. See, I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Oh, and I beat my hour target and raised £565 for Refuge, so my appearance couldn't be further down my list of things to be proud of right now.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

What do we tell our daughters?

On Monday night I went along to an event held by Pages of Hackney, a brilliant independent bookshop down the road. The event was a panel discussion with Kat Banyard, co-founder of UK Feminista, Nimko Ali, founder of Daughters of Eve, Zoe Williams, Guardian journalist and Melissa Benn, author and campaigner. It was Benn’s book that inspired the evening and shaped the debate: “What do we tell our daughters?”

Benn’s book details the struggle and awkwardness but, ultimately, the empowerment that erupts in the conversations had between mothers and daughters. Sex, relationships, the media, pornography, the elusive female orgasm... Not topics for those prone to blushing. The awesome foursome spoke passionately about what it is we should be telling our daughters, often contradicting each other, frequently profound, occasionally depressing but unanimously honest.
The whole thing got me scratching my chin about what I’d be telling my daughter about the world, if she were here now in 2014 (and of an appropriate age for such conversations). But it’s not the first time I’ve considered it: in 2012 myself and my dearest pal Rhiannon organised an International Women’s Day showcase at our students’ union. We included Vagina Monologues passages, poetry, singing and three of us wrote letters to our daughters. It seemed so easy at the time. Mine was filled with gutsy 'girl power' rhetoric – you can achieve anything you set your sights on, don’t let no manz tell you different grrrl, and for the love of god, the hair under your armpits is SUPPOSED to be there amiriiiiiight. Just two years ago, that felt so authentic, so bloody revolutionary – but I’m not so sure my message would be the same now. The ages of 21 and 23 don’t seem like such a gigantic leap but when you’ve spent a year as one of only two women at the helm of a 22,000 strong students’ union, received violent threats after talking about equality, had a misogynistic 'parody' twitter account dedicated to you, and been reduced to your “sweet arse” by a colleague and peer, the whole “you can do anything, sista!” discourse just doesn’t seem so relevant. Or true.

So I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to fill my hypothetical daughter’s head with sassy feel-good mantras; I want to prepare her for the complete and utter BS she’s inevitably going to face, and give her the insight to reject it. I’m sure if that was the flavour of my performance piece two years ago, I would have been met with 300 pairs of eyes, agog and horrified. So I guess it’s a good job it’s taken me this long to figure it out. So here goes.


The biggest lie you’ll ever be told is that men like sex more than women, or that men have needs to fulfil that women simply don’t have. This is a lie fed to you by films, tv shows, songs, your friends and pretty much any type of media that is driven by men – male writers, male producers, male directors, or just males themselves. The idea that men have “needs” that women don’t feel legitimises the imbalance felt by women in heterosexual relationships; it also legitimises male infidelity and partially legitimises rape and sexual assault. “Men have urges, they can’t control them, they are biologically wired to sow their seed”: this notion that male sexuality has a superior significance does women a huge injustice. At best, women miss out on sexual pleasure and at worst, men feel entitlement over women’s bodies and rape is normalised behaviour. But this isn’t just about women: this idea does a disservice to men too. Thoughtful, kind, passionate and exceedingly well-evolved men. The men who will work their tongues off trying to overcome centuries of female sexual oppression (and make up for lost time) by spending Frank Ocean’s entire album going down on you. The men who stand alongside you at protests over a woman’s right to a free, safe abortion. The men who fancy you loads but who’ll walk you home after a drunken night out, tuck you into bed, then see themselves out. Men are not brutish thugs who rape and pillage – we’ve evolved, get with the programme. But “boys will be boys” and we allow and expect them to behave this way so, of course, some will.
Just to clarify that point: your sexual pleasures and desires are equally as important as a man’s. Your lust is as strong, as potent and as natural. Those who tell you differently are afraid of what women could do if collectively we all realised this. Because there would be hell to pay. Or, more likely, we’d all become lesbians. If you’re a lesbian by the way, I’m totally down with that. I dig chicks.

A sexual relationship should be entirely reciprocal – if they’re coming, you should be too. It may take longer and result in some mild jaw cramping, but that’s the price we all pay for equality. If you’re not having a wild (and safe) time, find someone else to have special cuddles with. Trust me, you really don’t want to be missing out.


Relationships are really hard and usually boring. They’re also incredibly political even when you don’t want them to be – remember darling, we’ve discussed the 'the personal is political' thing before, I hope you were listening. But aside from that, a good relationship should be the most comfortable thing in the world, like wearing a giant woolly jumper in bed with an electric blanket with a packet of chocolate hobnobs. You should feel comfortable showing your partner what you look like in the morning, with no make-up and unbrushed teeth. If you let this person inside you, they should be able to see the outside of you as it really is. You should be able to say things, think things, do things free from fear or anxiety because that person should be your greatest advocate and ally and even the wildest of notions should be comfortably shared.
Sometimes men hit women. This has a lot to do with power and fear and anger and objectification, which we’ll explore in a minute. But sometimes relationships can pain you in other ways, and abuse has many different guises. If your partner ever tells you who you can and can’t talk to, or what you can and can’t wear, leave immediately. I’ll be ready with an open door, a cup of tea and a pillow to scream into. That last one is for me.


Unfortunately this is the most pervasive and inevitable of all these problems. And that’s because it’s at the very heart of bad sex and bad relationships. Sexism looks like many things and you often won’t know when it’s there and when it’s not. You may end up like your mother, where you can sniff it out when it’s probably imaginary, then you walk face-first into it when you were blissfully meandering. It’s the slipperiest, slimiest, stickiest thing: sexism is a slug that crawls across almost everything you’ll ever know or do. Sucks to be us, eh.
When you turn on the television and you see a male pop star in a music video looking pensive while watching a sunset, driving a car – that will seem normal. The next music video will be of a woman wearing a bikini washing a car, sponging her bulging breasts with suds and licking her lips – and that’ll seem normal too. We all accept that men and women look certain ways when they’re portrayed in the media, but this isn’t the way it should be. This is sexism. This shows that women’s bodies are more valuable than their talents, while men don’t have to live up to the same standards. And this will haunt you constantly; you’ll open a newspaper and a topless woman will greet you; you’ll go shopping and the magazine rack will taunt you with gaudy titillation; you’ll walk down the street and a man will wind down his window and harass you. And when you complain about this, people will call you 'over-sensitive' or a 'whiny bitch' or a 'feminazi' and that will be an attempt to silence you.

But this is where my lesson is coming together; this idea of you being silent, subdued or suppressed – sexually, romantically or politically. Even when you feel like it’s quivering or unsure, your voice is your most powerful asset. You must build friendships, relationships and a career around your ideas and your beliefs. Thoughts are incredibly valuable, especially women’s thoughts – those can move mountains when they’ve wanted to. Solidarity and collectivism are the best things ever; I know I’ve been a bit doom and gloom, but knowing that you’re not the only one and that there’s a movement of people supporting, loving and helping each other will lift your spirits when you’re feeling low. Find those people and hold onto them. Plus, things will be a lot better for you than they were for me, and much better than they were for your grandmother; these things take time and constant belligerence, don't forget that. 
And of course, my dear, if you’re horribly bored and uninspired by feminism and politics and the like, I won’t blame you. I’ll still adore you, even if you turn out to be a Conservative – or worse, apathetic – accountant. Just don’t expect the crispy roast potatoes; they’ll be going to your revolutionary brother.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Language is a weapon

So as my last blog explained, I recently attended a course called Writing for Advertising. I was worried it'd be super wanky wisdom like "There's one thing you need to know about copywriting. And that is that there's nothing to know about copywriting" or similar. But in fact, it was a day packed with creative exercises and exploration and I left feeling surprisingly inspired.

One of our tasks during the day was to write 200 words about something that concerned us. Everything concerns me: that made this task tricky. But since we'd been discussing the very intricate nuances of language, I settled on how words, or the misuse of them, keep me up at night.

I'm concerned about how words silence people.

Words are slaps and smacks and bites. They just don't look like them and the bruises aren't visible.

Words we hear on streets, in classrooms, at dinner parties cement our stereotypes, while autonomy crumbles. We burden each other with a baggage we haven’t consented to carry.

Call someone a 'chav' and you affirm their social worth: destitute, frightening, useless and conveniently categorised by the arbitrary sum of money they possess, or their accent.

Call a woman a 'slut' and you affirm her social worth. Her choices warrant scrutiny, her decisions are humiliating, her agency is compromised; she’s conveniently categorised by the arbitrary sum of people she's been intimate with, or the inches of her heels.

And call a man a 'fag', regardless of his sexuality, and you affirm his social worth: repulsive, laughable, shameful, devoid of the acceptable dose of masculinity and conveniently categorised by the arbitrary preference of his partner, or what he wore that day.

I'm concerned that words oppress people: keep them packaged, downtrodden, and silent.

Because words were made to liberate, unify, civilise. To articulate what looking and feeling cannot alone. To lock lips.

So let’s choose them wisely.

... Boom, 200 words precisely. With not a single word to spare, I trail off a little at the end: I would've preferred a suitably rousing call to action but I only had five words and I'm not that imaginative.

The more I think about language, the more I see how the foxy stuff tries to pull a fast one on many of us. And all too often this is directed at women. Quelle surprise. For example, how frequently do we hear in our offices a senior female staff member be called a 'bitch'The same assertive behaviour or seniority exhibited by a man in the same position, however, wouldn't even induce the bat of an eyelid. We expect men to be in charge: when a woman is in control, we're uncomfortable and we project those feelings onto her. Ergo, she's a bossy bitch.

That gets me on to 'bossy'. Oh 'bossy', how I loathe you. I was completely overjoyed to see Sheryl Sandberg and the USA Girl Scouts' #BanBossy campaign, because that seemingly innocuous word has been plaguing me all my life. For a few of the guys in my office who didn't understand why it was such a big deal (and to any male dissenters), I'd ask you this: When you were growing up, did you enjoy taking on leadership roles? Were you encouraged and praised for doing so? Did you ever get called bossy for taking the lead on a task or activity? I'm imaging the answers will be yes/yes/hell no, which is a completely different story for little girls.

Girls are largely socialised to be compliant and quiet, and we see this in the aggressively gendered nature of toy marketing. Girls get pretty dollies to nurture, boys get cool trucks to smash. And helicopters to craft. And Lego to build. Girls are carers. Boys are doers. Girls get used to putting others first and boys get used to standing up and getting shit done. There’s a ton of interesting research behind this, I’m just paraphrasing. Language like ‘bossy’ works in collusion with media and marketing because it punishes and chides girls for stepping outside of their prescribed gender roles. And that’s seriously hefty cultural practise to overcome as a child, or indeed as an adult. 

While I hate to be a killjoy, I think it’s time we all rethink some of the language we use. ‘Bitch’ and ‘slut’ and ‘chav’ don’t have the same historical weight as racially motivated terms like n*gger of course, but any language that seeks to make a person subordinate, ashamed or marginalised is unacceptable. Plus it’s lazy and narrow-minded and that’s not sexy. So the next time your friend calls a bloke in a tracksuit a ‘chav’, ask them why they felt the need to denigrate a working class person. That’s sure to be an awkward conversation.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Move over, Saatchi; there are new kids on the block.

Today I attended a day-long course called ‘Writing for Advertising’. Now there’s nothing I look forward to more than a day of learning (and a day out of the office), but in the last few days my excitement has been marred by a burning discomfort: I hate advertising.

Advertising is an industry that, minus a few notable exceptions, brazenly profits from peoples’ insecurities. An industry that is institutionally sexist, racist, ableist, classist, homophobic and offensive in any other way imaginable. A bit like politics or religion, but with a bigger budget and, worryingly, a bigger audience. It’s run by people who insist on clutching an old, safe, familiar idea about how things should be in the world and then aggressively and intrusively reproduce that idea over and over again until we all blindly accept our place in life and affirm this with our wallets. Fast cars are for men. Fairy liquid is for women.

But I work in advertising: I’m a copywriter for a cancer charity. Sure, I’m advertising great stuff – Think about the needs of others over your own pathetic pain threshold! Spit into a tube and you could cure cancer! If you donate your stem cells you’re the best person, like, EVER!”1! – but I’m in advertising nonetheless. I leap a mile from the association ‘copywriter’ brings with it thanks to Mad Men, because I’m a socialist. I abhor private wealth bound up by a few of the super-rich at the top and anchored off a boat in Morocco, private business that’s exclusively for profit and bereft of social benefit or goodness. The thought of turning my hand to write for Barclays, let’s imagine, makes me cringe. Why would I pour my energy and passion into copy that, if successful, would convince even more people to give their hard-earned money to Barclays, an organisation so deplorable I can only imagine it’s run by pantomime villains who snatch bags of loot and laugh derisively as they speed off in their yachts driven by moustachioed British butlers? And since I’m neither willing nor capable of shutting up about the deep wounds of social inequality that private finance induces, working there would be pretty #awks anyway.

But as I listened to what the bright young things around me on the course were saying, I realised that there were clearly people in advertising that thought a bit like me. In fact, they didn’t reflect what I perceived to be the “advertiser” trope at all; they were just witty and articulate people who started writing stories when they were six and want to write more. One woman worked for a Pharmaceutical company and when we were tasked with writing 200 words on something that concerned us, she chose the unfair distribution of wealth within America’s healthcare system. Another spoke of how she worried that social media was brimming with cats, gifs and Ed Balls, allowing stories like the kidnap of schoolgirls in Nigeria to be relegated as unsexy and irrelevant. Right on, sisters. If these are the sorts of thoughts that fresh faces in advertising harbour, maybe we’re not all quite as effed as I’d thought. If those same people, benefiting from the hard-won and ever-increasing opportunities of women’s liberation, get themselves into positions of power perhaps the sound of our media’s rhetoric will shift. I don’t doubt that the pressure to stick to the status quo will be oppressive, but small steps by the right people are a lot better than strides in the opposite direction. A gay couple here, a boy with a doll there – I’m not fussy. I should embrace the diversity of those going into the field, not simply mourn potential talent lost from the public sector. If a smart-talking socialist got themselves to the top of Barclays, they’d have to compromise during their ascent, sure, but perhaps our nation’s economic landscape would make for a prettier view from the top.

So while private sector work may not be on my horizons any time soon, it’s reassuring to know it’s not an industry entirely filled with mindless arrogant armpits. Hurrah! This celebration may seem premature but since I’m almost constantly filled with despair, it’s nice to get the optimistic moments on paper so I’m less likely to forget them.