Bloody Disgrace.

pastel tampons

I knew it was coming. I knew what I had to do. I knew that it was ‘normal.’ I knew about the enormous nappy-style pads that we had been furnished with during sex education lessons. I knew where my mum and sister kept theirs. I knew that I was growing up.

But when my period arrived when I was 12, I went in to a kind of shock and tried to hide it and refused to talk to anyone about it. There was no tangible shame, confusion or fear. I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about it and hoped that if I ignored it, it would go away. Unfortunately, it didn’t and what followed were years of excruciating cramps, blood soaked clothing in public and periods that could last up to eight weeks at a time which resulted in anemia more than once.

As with most young females who menstruate, those violent and unrelenting visits from aunt Flo soon became more tolerable and regular but no matter what, throughout the 22 years that I have been bleeding, I have never wanted for anything I may need or want to provide me with health, hygiene, safety and comfort.

If I bled through my pads and leaked onto my clothes, I could wash them, have a bath and put on clean clothes. If I was in pain, I could take painkillers, heat a hot water bottle and stay in bed. If my body was craving sugar and carbs, I could buy a frozen pizza and a bag of doughnuts and eat them without guilt. If I ran out of pad or tampons, I could ask my mum to pick some up for me, borrow some from her and eventually buy my own as and when they were needed.

I don’t want for anything during those miserable few days many women go through each month and I think we forget that as we sit weeping at Dogs Trust adverts or losing the plot because the vegetable peeler needs washing up before it can be used. As I lay in bed early one Sunday morning a few weeks ago feeling like I had woken up with a horse’s head beside me, I couldn’t help but feel inexplicably lucky.

In the year ending March 2018, visits to food banks had grown by 13% on the previous year and the Trussell Trust had handed out 1.3 million three-day emergency food packages to people in crisis. It is no surprise to anyone that women bear the brunt of austerity and if they are struggling to feed themselves and their families, how likely is it that these women can afford sanitary products that are considered a ‘luxury’ by our ever so empathetic government that has put them in this position in the first place? Some women can spend up to £18,000 during their lifetime on their periods but this money has to be there in the first place.

Homelessness in England has more than doubled since 2010 and last year, over 57,000 households were accepted as homeless in England. Southend on Sea, where I live, had the ninth highest number of rough sleepers in the country last year with a 64% increase on 2016. South East England has the highest number of female rough sleepers in total and Southend on Sea alone had the sixth highest number in the country. Have we ever stopped to think about what these women do during their periods?  

If you aren’t already angry enough (or you’ve not being paying attention), here are some facts taken from Plan International UK about menstrual hygiene in young women:

    • One in ten girls (10 per cent) have been unable to afford sanitary wear
    • One in seven girls (15 per cent) have struggled to afford sanitary wear
    • One in seven girls (14 per cent) have had to ask to borrow sanitary wear from a friend due to affordability issues
    • More than one in ten girls (12 per cent) has had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues
    • One in five (19%) of girls have changed to a less suitable sanitary product due to cost

This improvising can be anything from bunched up toilet paper, old socks or rolled newspapers. Do you think you could concentrate in a maths lesson with the Metro stuffed in your knickers? I didn’t think so. There have been reported cases of girls missing school for days on end due to poor access to sanitary products. Missing out on their education will lead to poor employment prospects and directly impact their social and emotional well-being now and in the future.

Period poverty will never truly end until there is universal access to free sanitary products as there is with condoms. Men choose to have sex. We don’t choose to bleed. With a government that despises women and the poor, we stand absolutely no chance of this happening any time soon. So what can we do?

There are some amazing charities, such as Bloody Good Period, doing incredible work and activists like Amika George who are campaigning for free access to sanitary products for school girls on free school meals. Despite growing awareness of period poverty, it’s just not enough to be outraged.

In August I will be hosting a period party called Bloody Disgrace here in Southend for a local charity to raise awareness, funds and sanitary products for those who struggle to afford them. I am still finalising the last details but needless to say, it’s going to be awesome and will be posting about it soon!

What can you do?

  • Donate to a local food bank.
  • Set up a Red Box in a local school.
  • Donate to a charity via their Amazon Wish List.
  • Start a Homeless Period project.
  • Come and support Bloody Disgrace.    

 

 

 

 

 

War Paint.

I can still smell the sweet, plasticky peach lipstick from Collection 2000 that came free with a magazine (probably Shout) and thought was going to change my life at 11.  Instead, it gathered in the corners of my mouth and the cracks in my lips and smeared across my chin. As I turned 12, I sneaked into my mum’s room, opened her top drawer where she kept her make-up and found a well-loved eye shadow palette. It was a fragrant trio of neutral tones (it was the mid-nineties) and despite my later taste in vivid brights, I could only bring myself to try the pearlescent cream shade. I swiped it over my eyelids and I was convinced that I looked like a completely different person. THIS was the answer to all of my problems. This cream eye shadow was going to make me popular, interesting and attractive. But how was I going to sneak into my mum’s room every day to use it and become the person that I was destined to be? I didn’t and I just settled for clear mascara and white pearl nail polish which was the only makeup I was allowed to wear.

Over the next couple of years, I started a love affair with Rimmel’s Sugar Plum and Heather Shimmer lipsticks and brown mascara. You weren’t supposed to look like you were wearing a lot of  makeup in 1995. Then at 13, I discovered Kenickie shortly followed by riot grrrl. The glitter! Oh, the glitter! I swiftly discarded Heather Shimmer for a deep, passionate affair with Rimmel’s Black Cherries on the advice of Lauren Laverne in a Just 17 interview. I rubbed cheap glitter gels around my eyes and failed to reapply my lipstick when all I had left was a dark purple-red lip line. I felt like I had a new identity and people could finally see who I was. They certainly couldn’t miss me when I got my hands on a glitter encrusted purple lipstick by Miners that made my lips feel like sandpaper and left me struggling to talk properly. But I was visible. I didn’t look at magazines and adverts and want to look like the models advertising the latest way to wear sheer lip gloss. No, I wanted to emulate the audacious women who strode across stages and sweat their makeup off under blinding stage lights.

But Black Cherries did not stand a chance when I finally bought my first red lipstick at 14. It was in the sale at Accessorize and it was beautiful: slightly creamy and bluish toned in a sleek silver tube. Red lipstick made me feel like the warrior riot grrrl that I dreamed to be. It made sure that everyone could see me. It made me feel visible and invincible. What followed was a lifelong quest for the perfect red lipstick to make me look like Courtney Love and then, a few years later, Gwen Stefani. I tried all of the high street brands and remained faithful to Max Factor’s Firebrand for a few years after identifying with Carole Morin’s obsession with the shade in Dead Glamorous. As my hair got lighter, my lipstick got bolder. I stopped pairing it with turquoise eye shadow and glitter and mastered winged eyeliner. I plucked my eyebrows nearly bare and started penciling them in and learnt how to use blusher. After years of trying, I had started to piece together my mask.  

 

Before a trip to New York for my 21st birthday, I had been hearing whispers about the holy grail of red lipsticks: Ruby Woo by Mac. I marched up to the counter in Bloomingdale’s and bought my first of many Ruby Woos. Blue-toned, velvet matte with incredible staying power. I was never going to wear anything else. My makeup bag became my most valued and valuable possession as I replaced everything in it with Mac products. I would not leave the house without a perfectly made up porcelain matte base, penciled eyebrows, black winged eyeliner and ruby-red lips. The only difference between a ‘day’ and a ‘night’ look for me was a set of false eyelashes. It was my mask, my armour, my war paint. Without it, I did not exist.

I have previously written about the excessive control over my appearance stemming from a lack of control and/or confidence so I won’t go over it again. It’s amazing what having no time, not enough sleep, ageing and greater priorities does for your self-esteem. As I reached my thirties, I found that I just didn’t have the time to paint my face and style my hair every day. I found myself leaving the house with no makeup on regularly and guess what? Nothing happened. The world did not end and people could still see me.  As a teacher, I valued that extra 15 minutes in bed and after cycling to work, I was glad that I wasn’t wearing any make up. I continued to wear my usual ‘face’ at weekends and I enjoyed not spending as much money on makeup as it just wasn’t getting used up. When I started to commute, I decided to start wearing it to work again as I would have time (I am literally a pro at putting on a full face of makeup on public transport). I started wearing BB cream and pink toned lipsticks which dissolved or rubbed off by morning play time. Who was I trying to kid with this natural make up? If I had the time, why was I not just wearing my normal make up? I now wear red lipstick to work most days, only these days, I wear it because I feel like me not because I’m trying to look like someone else. I no longer obsessively powder my nose every ten minutes and winged eyeliner has been relegated to special occasions.

But I am a feminist. One of the angry ones that will argue with your sexist grandfather at a family wedding. So what business do I have wearing makeup? I could now go into the beauty myth and berate myself for superficially changing my appearance to fit into the patriarchal idea of modern beauty but I won’t. My feminism has always been about choice and body autonomy. I wear makeup because I fucking love it. From the first time I wore that shimmery cream eye shadow to discovering how great I look in emerald-green liquid eyeliner just last week, I was finding myself. Makeup, along with clothing, music, films, friends and books, built this girl. When the eleven year old girls I work with want to talk to me about my makeup, we talk about it. I tell them it is great fun and if you want to wear it when you’re old enough, play around with it but always remember that it is there to enhance your mood, not to create beauty.

At 34, I finally feel comfortable leaving the house, going to work, the pub and even having my photo taken without makeup. In fact, I’m finding that as I age, I generally look better in photos without makeup because my chosen makeup is quite harsh and I look softer without it. Does that mean I’m going to soften it as I am ageing? You’ll be wrenching the red lipstick and lash fibres out of my cold dead hands because I care more about it making me feel fabulous than look fabulous.

*I no longer buy Mac as they test on animals but can highly recommend Barry M’s Matte Me Up lip paint in Paparazzi!        

The Razor’s Edge.

Since I was a teenager, I have been told by a multi-billion dollar corporation that the only way to reveal my inner goddess was to shed my body of it’s natural protective layer of hair. We have all been sent this message since childhood; that female beauty and confidence is inherently linked to hairlessness through aggressive ad campaigns selling us products subject to the ‘pink tax’ and the general representation of infantilised eurocentric beauty standards across all media. But what happens when you have been buying into it for years without really thinking critically about what you have been putting your body through and cost involved?

Body hair is a contentious subject for all women whether we like it or not. The dichotomy between bodily autonomy and adhering to the beauty standards of a capitalist patriarchy can be tricky to navigate. Surely, what I choose to do with my body is my choice and I’m in charge but how much of what I do to my body really is my choice? Have you ever paused, mid wax, and thought ‘who exactly am I doing this for?’ If it’s not yourself and only yourself, put the spatula down immediately.

We all know by now that women only remove their body hair because of large corporations telling them to and it didn’t start with Veet. It started in 1915 with the introduction of the first safety razor specifically for women. Gillette realised that they could expand their market by making women feel bad about themselves and the Milady Décolleté for armpits was launched. This emotional coercion continued over the decades to include legs, pubic hair and top lips with some women spending up to £23,000 on hair removal over a lifetime. It’s easy to know the reasons we started to do something 103 years ago and be sufficiently outraged but why do we still do it? Who do we do it for? What do we do it for?

I started shaving my legs with my mum’s rusty razors when I was 12. They sat in the bathroom cabinet for months only being used when she scraped them across her legs sporadically during the summer months. I had never given it much thought and my mum had told me that I could start shaving my legs at 15 like my sister had and that seemed fine with me. That was until a younger friend was about to start secondary school and her mum told her to shave her legs before she started so of course, I had to do mine too. This wasn’t about getting rid of my body hair, it was about the need to appear more mature and grown up to a younger child. My mum soon noticed that her razor were rusting quicker than usual and that was the end of it until I started buying cheap disposables with my pocket money. The blood spattered on the bathroom floor quickly gave me away. This was the beginning of a 15 year journey that saw razors, waxing, Immac and tweezing to rid myself of not really that much body hair in the first place. At one point in my late teens, I was even shaving my forearms! Not one person had told me that was what I was supposed to do. Not one person had told me that my body hair was unacceptable. No, I just knew that as a young woman, it’s just what you did in the desperate hope of being considered beautiful.

But I was lucky. You can only see the peach fuzz on my cheeks if you get too close. My eyebrows don’t meet and my top lip has nothing but a few blonde hairs and some dry skin. I haven’t ever really needed to spend a lot of money or time on hair removal. I can count the amount of times I’ve paid someone to painfully extract hair from my body on three fingers and I have about five hairs under my arms. As I sat in the bath last week stroking my fuzzy legs that hadn’t seen a razor in over a month, I contemplated whether finally hacking through the hair made me a bad feminist or not. Why was I about to run a metal blade across my skin if no one but my partner was going to see my legs for at least another 3 months? These days, believe it or not, I do it for comfort. I buy cheap own-brand razors and I don’t use shaving foam so the cost works out at about £2 per month. Once a week or so, I shave my legs and under my arms while the conditioner sinks into my hair (once in a while, I even do my big toes) therefore not taking up any additional time. I genuinely love the feel of smooth skin on my legs and I lay in bed after getting out of the bath, rubbing my legs together like a grasshopper.  As you can see, I have justified my internalised misogyny and will probably continue to conform to what a woman is supposed to look like whether I do it for the leg rubbing or not!

There are so many reasons why women choose to remove or not remove their body hair. And that’s what it needs to be: an active choice, not the unconscious fulfillment of what we think femininity should be. I have discussed this issue with quite a few women recently and the consensus is generally similar. One woman told me that she no longer removes body hair because she likes the way it feels and looks and she wants to set a good example for both her son and daughter. Another woman told her colleagues that she had stopped shaving her legs and was met with horrified questions about what her husband thought of her! Another tells of the negativity she received from other women when she stopped shaving under her arms. What I noticed about these conversations was that we are all now grown women and relatively comfortable in our own skin (ie, giving zero fucks for others’ negativity).

What about the young girl at primary school who is teased in public by a stranger about the low hairline on her neck? The teenager who wears a skirt longer than everyone elses to hide her legs? The young girl who is called moustache girl and teased for her hairy arms in the playground? The young woman she grows into who only wears long sleeved clothing for much of her twenties? The woman who cannot spontaneously go for a swim or wear a short skirt without worrying whether she can fit in a hair removal session beforehand? Body hair is intrinsically linked to race, class and gender and it is easy for me as a fair, cisgender woman to revel in my fuzzy legs because, quite simply, I’m allowed to. For a woman to ‘pass’ she has to conform to tired, old eurocentric beauty standards thus causing even more pain and discomfort (mental and physical) for women with dark hair, women of colour and trans women, not to mention the costs involved. For some, not removing body hair just isn’t an option that they are comfortable with and I am not here to convince them otherwise.

Lourdes
Lourdes Leon

Lourdes Leon was applauded last year for flaunting her unshaven armpits and Sophia  Hadjipanteli has been credited for ‘bringing back the monobrow.’ So, do we have a beauty revolution on our hands? No, because as Priya Khaira-Hanks points out, these women are  “an example of how female body hair in the mainstream is still confined to gimmick and novelty, only acceptable if your appearance conforms to beauty standards in every other respect.” Would Lourdes’ hairy pits be celebrated if she wasn’t a slim, nubile young woman? Would Sophia’s unibrow be deemed fashionable if she wasn’t an amazonian blonde? Of course they wouldn’t!

Sophia
Sophia Hadijipanteli

So the next time you book yourself in for a wax, ask yourself ‘Who am I doing this for? What else could I be doing with my time and what else could I spend the money on?’ If the answer is anyone but yourself, you know what to do. Whatever you do, don’t shame someone else for their choices. 

Thank you to the women of Essex Feminist Collective and my incredible friends for your insights. 

 

 

 

 

The Girl With The Most Cake.

Pizza. Pasta. Bread. Chips. Cheese. Pastries. Biscuits. I am well-known among my friends for my unapologetically beige diet of refined carbs. I have an intensely romantic relationship with custard creams and I can happily eat pasta for every meal. My long Easter weekend was spent eating and drinking with various friends followed by lying lazily on the sofa scoffing chocolate eggs. After seeing a few self-loathing posts on social media regarding the intake of a few too many chocolatey treats, I started thinking about my relationship with food and my own body image.

riotsnotdiets

The first thing I need to make clear is that whatever I write here, I write from a position of thin privilege. This means that my body shape, no matter the personal problems I have had regarding it, is considered the desired ‘norm.’ I do not believe that ‘thin shaming’ is the same as ‘fat shaming’ no matter how much it hurt me as a child because society is built as such that I will never experience hatred, oppression or the refusal of medical assistance due to my size. This, however, does not mean that I have always been happy with what I see in the mirror.

Long and thin is how my mother described me as a baby. With no fat on me, it was assumed my health conditions had affected my weight (I was born without an oesophagus) and I was the only toddler with knobbly knees and a scarred body at the swimming pool. Because I was thin, everyone felt entitled to comment on my size and some of my earliest memories revolve around eating as much as I could to put weight on just so people would stop looking at me and talking about me as if I wasn’t there. Buying clothes was always painful and despite her jokes, I wasn’t allowed to sit on my mum’s lap for too long because of my ‘bony bum.’ As I moved through school, the jokes turned into whispered gossip about eating disorders and graffiti on the toilet walls. Sometimes, the accusations about my eating habits were directed to my face and at times, by medical professionals. My classmates even diagnosed me with an overactive thyroid after seeing a photo of a big-eyed person with one in a biology textbook. (I’ve since had it tested and I don’t have an overactive thyroid; just a speedy metabolism and large eyes.)

Meanwhile at home, my mum would reassure me that I would appreciate it when I got older and that she too had looked like me at her age. This was no consolation to me as I watched my mum and older sister dance around in their underwear and swimsuits making their bums and thighs jiggle about and laughing as no matter hard I tried, my tiny bum waved from side to side without so much as a wobble. You see, I grew up in a house where jiggly bums and wobbly, life-giving tums were celebrated and instilled envy in a young girl who would eat five Weetabix for breakfast in the desperate hope that her thighs would start meeting at the top. I grew up in a house where food was loved and enjoyed and we were never scolded for eating too much. Big appetites were something to be admired and food seemed to be the only thing to bring our fractious family together, whether it was around big plates of fresh pasta or a Sunday roast. I don’t ever recall my mum mentioning the need to watch what she ate, lose weight or express guilt over food. Her motto was, ‘we live to eat, we don’t eat to live.’

Even as I started to fill out and put on weight in my late teens and early twenties, my appetite did not abate and I continued to maintain a voracious appetite. I lovingly gazed at my fresh stretch marks that marked my thighs like tiger stripes when I discovered I could finally make my bum and thighs jiggle at the age of twenty-one. I am incredibly proud of my stretch marks and cellulite because they brought me the first body acceptance I had ever experienced. Perhaps I would have the Amazonian body of my dreams after all?

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I still eat as though I’m trying to close my thigh gap (another massively happy achievement for me) because no matter what, I will always get more happiness out of eating a pizza with friends, scoffing bag after bag of crisps over gossip in the pub or lovingly preparing a dish of macaroni cheese with all the leftover cheeses in the fridge and scooping up the sauce with garlic bread. Kate Moss was very, very wrong about nothing tasting ‘as good as skinny feels.’ I’m not giving up chips just to be able to see my hip bones again because it never, ever made me happy!

As a teacher, I am very mindful about how I eat and talk about food and my body in front of children. I make sure they see me eating relatively healthily throughout the day but also enjoying chocolate and fizzy drinks in moderation. I make sure they know that I am happy with the way that I look and that I take pride in my physical strength. We tackle fatphobic language with the understanding that ‘fat’ is an adjective not an insult and being an unkind and hurtful person is worse than being a bit bigger than some of the other children because we all grow at different rates and we are all beautiful the way we are. Children learn how to relate to food from the adults around them so please think carefully about how you talk about needing to ‘lose a stone’; express guilt at eating an Easter egg; not being ‘allowed’ certain foods and talking about how much you hate how you look in front of them. Children hear everything.   

I try to ensure I eat fruit and vegetables when I remember and now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve started to exercise to ensure that my body remains strong and healthy. When I look in the mirror, I see someone who is so much more than a body covered in scars, tattoos and stretch marks. I see a warrior ready for battle. I think, as women, we forget how important it is to be physically strong to ensure that our bodies can fight what life throws at it. Our bodies are not museum pieces, clothes horses or trophies. They are part of us and who we are and they are a map of our experiences and journeys. Scars, tattoos, tiger stripes and all. It is the only body you will ever have so please, please take good care of it. Feed it good food and tell it just how much you love it.
“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman loves her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights. It’s true what they say about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, childcare, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world.” Naomi Wolf- The Beauty Myth

kathleenhanna2

Women’s History Month part 2.

Naziq al-Abid, activist, army general and suffragist (1898-1960) 

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I learned about Naziq al-Abid on the Bitchery of History podcast a little while ago and I cannot believe that I had never heard of this incredible woman, who was known as the Sword of Damascus and the Syrian Joan of Arc, before now.

An activist for national independence and women’s rights, she was the first woman to earn rank in the Syrian Arab Army and she played an important role in forming the Syrian Red Star (similar to the Red Cross).

Born in 1898 into an influential aristocratic family with close ties to the government, she spent her childhood in Syria, Turkey and Egypt and spoke five languages. As a student in Mosul, she organised a protest against the unfair treatment of Arab students at the hands of Turkish teachers, which resulted in her being exiled from the country while still a child.

Back in Syria, she formed the country’s first women’s rights organisation while still a teenager. The club fought for women’s suffrage as well as Syria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. She was described by her third cousin as “very liberal with a strong character. She was a true rebel.” Exiled again, this time to Cairo, she returned to Damascus upon the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Continuing her campaign for women’s suffrage, her motion was finally debated. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the interference of the French, who thought they could do a better job ruling the country, Syria may well have enfranchised women before the US!

Syria, with 1,500 troops, went to war with France, who had 9,000. Among those 1,500 was Naziq al-Abid. Discarding her veil and a rifle slung over her shoulder, she went to war against France but unfortunately they won and she was exiled yet again. She returned to Syria a year later in 1922 and founded the Light of Damascus organisation for women, a school and the Syrian Red Star. She was instructed to abandon all political activity so instead, she empowered other women to continue her work while remaining active behind closed doors. Mounting pressure from the French forced her to flee to Lebanon but she of course eventually returned.

At the age of 35, the founded Niqâbat al-Mar’a al-‘Amila (The Working Women’s Society), which campaigned for women’s workings rights and believed that economic liberation was a means to political liberation.

Upon her death in 1960, Syria was a very different country to the one she had grown up in and fought for; women had entered the workplace, been enfranchised and an increasing number of women were unveiling. Of course it is now, once again, a very different country to the one Naziq left behind but her legacy for Syrian women lives on.

 

 

Still We Rise.

On Saturday 10th March, my friend Tahera and I attended the Million Women Rise march in London. In its eleventh year, the annual march calls for an end to all forms of male violence against women and girls. While the profile of workplace sexual harassment has taken the spotlight in the past few months, male violence against women and girls takes many insidious forms and not just that of an overweight movie mogul in a dressing gown.

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Trafalgar Square

Statistics taken from http://www.millionwomenrise.com on violence against women in the UK:

  • One woman in four will experience domestic violence at some point in her life.
  • Domestic violence has more repeat victims than any other crime (on average there will have been 35 assaults before a victim calls the police).
  • Two women are murdered every week by their partner or ex-partner.
  • One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute.
  • One woman in four will experience sexual assault as an adult.
  • Only 5% of rapes reported to the police result in the perpetrator being convicted in court.
  • Women are more worried about rape than any other crime.
  • 250 cases of forced marriage are reported each year.
  • Up to 1,420 women per year are trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation.
  • One woman a month is murdered in the name of ‘so called’ honour.
  • Nearly 90% of local authorities do not have a rape crisis centre.
  • More than 20,000 girls could be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the UK.

 

I find these events leave me drained. It is incredibly empowering to be surrounded by people fighting the same fight; women united by their need for a fairer, more equal society but if I spend too long thinking about why we need these events, I get sad and want to take to my bed with a packet of custard creams. Instead, I remind myself, I must harness my anger! Angry people get shit done. Sad people end up sitting in a bed full of crumbs being asked by Netflix if they’re still watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

This weekend was no different. Armed with our double-sided signs (displaying the signs that my Mighty Girls had made me), we marched from Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square.

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Tahera and I: “Hatred is not the future, Equality is much more cuter!”

You know that feeling when you’re talking to someone but really all you’re thinking about is whether you’ve left the house in your slippers and you’re too scared to look down and appear rude? And when you finally tune back in, they’re saying something sexist/racist/homophobic/fucking dreadful and you don’t know how it happened and what if they think you agree with them and what if other people think you agree with them and despite them being an awful human being, you can’t bring yourself to tell them to do one as you’ve been smiling benignly the whole fucking time? This happened to us on Saturday but instead of one person being verbally oppressive, it was a whole group of them with a megaphone and they had signs. And we were standing next to them!

Tahera and I had found ourselves among a group of trans exclusionary feminists. I have seen them in action online before and I have always found it disappointing when I have found myself following someone on social media who denies an already massively oppressed group of society their basic human rights. I started to feel sick and I wanted to cry. There were great big signs mocking the trans experience and spiteful anti-trans chanting into a megaphone. All I could think was, “Is this feminism?”

I don’t know if I’ve made it clear in previous posts but I suffer from crippling imposter syndrome in every single area of my life. I started questioning myself and whether I’d been getting feminism wrong for all these years and if these women were getting it right, I’m not sure I wanted to be part of it because it just felt so awful and wrong. We left the rally in Trafalgar Square early and discussed it over coffee. What made their hate-filled ranting any better than a religious/political zealot standing on a street corner denying a group of people their basic human rights?

If trans women cannot find a place in modern feminism, then I don’t think I want a place in it either. According to recent Stonewall research, 41% of trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the 12 months leading up to the 2017 report. 28% of trans people surveyed in a relationship in the previous  year had faced domestic abuse from a partner. 25% have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. 40% adjust the way they dress because they fear discrimination or harassment and this number increases significantly to 52% of non-binary people. (http://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/lgbt-in-britain-trans.pdf)

As cis women, surely we can empathise and be enraged with this level of abuse, harassment and injustice? Surely we know what it’s like to live in fear of having our own gender weaponised against us on a daily basis? Surely we understand what it’s like to be oppressed by a patriarchal system designed to benefit rich, white men?

I don’t want to get into gender identity politics because I don’t believe anyone’s human rights, much less their existence, should be up for politicisation. All I know is that when I finally get my seat at the table, I’m bringing extra chairs and making room for all of my sisters not just my cisters.  

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

Women’s History Month has been celebrated during the month of March in the UK since 2011, Australia since 2000 and since 1987 in the US (kind of ironic given their, you know, general attitude towards women and girls) while Canada reserves October for celebrating history’s fiercest females. It coincides with International Women’s Day on 8th March and because one day is just not enough to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and contemporary times and until the history books are rewritten to include the social, cultural, political and economic contributions of women, we spend the month of March saluting these incredible rebel girls.

While I identified as a feminist from a young age, my love of history has only recently been ignited. I absolutely hated history at school and even though I can reel off trivial facts about the Tudors and Victorians (subjects that I learnt at primary school through art, DT and drama), I cannot remember any history I learnt at secondary school (subjects I learnt about from text books about old, white men). I could not relate or see why it was important for me to know and I dropped it as soon as I could.

As a teacher, I now understand how important it is for children to see themselves and their own history and culture reflected back to them. They see the value in their own potential and the power of their actions. Every year, we celebrate Black History Month for the duration of October in my classroom and last year was the first year we celebrated Women’s History Month. I try to make sure that my book corner is an inspirational, as well as aspirational, place for children to get lost in; a place where they can learn about the achievements of women, people of colour and lgbtq+ people throughout history and current times. People like them. Recently, I have had a young girl tell me she wants to be a wing walker when she grows up after reading about Lillian Boyer in Linda Skeers’ Women Who Dared. Another girl dressed as Michelle Obama for World book day after struggling to find a black character she identified with (her second choice was Ada Twist, Scientist). We’ve had open discussions about transgender people thanks to Coy Mathis’ inclusion in Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. These books matter.

My own love of women’s history has been thanks to my discovery of several podcasts. Late to the party, I only discovered podcasts when we moved to the suburbs and started commuting into London for work but now I can’t live without them! I have learnt about incredible women from ancient history through to contemporary times; women whose full, nuanced stories were either edited for the history books or not included at all. So, during the month of March, I am going to be posting about some of these amazing women from history that have touched and inspired me to do better and be better.

Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt (1507-1458b.c.e)

Hatshepsut

Married to her half-brother, King Thutmose II, she became co-regent when his son Thutmose III, her step son/nephew, became Pharaoh at the age of 2 although it is generally believed that she assumed the role of Pharaoh herself (being only the second woman to do so). Reigning for around 22 years, Hatshepsut is regarded as one of the greatest Pharaohs in Ancient Egyptian history.  Major accomplishments during her reign included establishing important trade networks and the construction of countless ambitious building projects, temples and obelisks. While she was not the first female pharaoh, her reign was long, prosperous and included long periods of peace and she was considered a great ‘king.’ She was portrayed in images as both a male pharaoh (at her own instruction) with a ceremonial beard and in some, more feminine regalia. Dying in middle age, she was buried in the Valley of the Kings and Thutmose III finally ascended the throne. During his reign, he had Hatshepsut’s image all but erased from artefacts, buildings and sculptures in what is believed to be an attempt  to remove a powerful woman’s legacy from history. Because of Thutmose III’s fragile male ego, nothing was known of Hatshepsut until 1822 when hieroglyphics were translated and then in 1903, her empty tomb was discovered. We now know about this incredibly powerful, ambitious woman despite the attempts of the patriarchy to literally erase her existence.

 

Ida B. Wells, journalist, suffragist, civil rights activist (1862-1931)

Ida B Wells

Born in Mississippi months before the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved parents, Ida B Wells grew up in a time of great social and political turbulence. Both parents, who died from yellow fever when Ida was 16, were politically active and she learnt her great sense of justice and fairness from them alongside a love for education. To allow her to keep her siblings together following her parents death, she became a school teacher, which fuelled her interest in civil rights after finding out that white teachers were paid over double a black teacher’s wage.

At the age of 22 in 1884, while riding the train to work, she was ordered by a conductor to give up her seat in the first-class ladies’ car, for which she had a ticket, and move to the smoking car which was already full. She refused to give up her seat and three men forcibly removed her from the car while onlookers applauded. Ida hired a lawyer to sue the railroad company and wrote about her experience in a local newspaper. Despite winning her case, it was later reversed on appeal.

She continued to teach, act and participate in a debate society and at around this time started writing for a black owned newspaper called the Living Way.  At 27, she became the editor of an anti-segregation newspaper which published articles on racial injustice. Following the lynching of her friend, Thomas Moss, Ida urged black people to leave Memphis in her newspaper article which covered the lynching. She began a tireless investigation into lynching in the South which resulted in her fleeing Memphis, fearing for her life. She campaigned to raise awareness of lynching throughout her life, along with campaigning for women’s suffrage and was one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909.

Never afraid to speak her truth and fight until the very end, she remains an important figure in intersectional feminism as a woman who fought against racial injustices and for women’s rights.    

If you’re interested in learning more about these brilliant women and other great women from history, check out:

http://thehistorychicks.com/about/

https://deviantwomenpodcast.com/

http://www.shethepeople.libsyn.com/

https://www.facebook.com/UMPBOH/

Blurred Lines

“I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist.” Roxane Gay, 2015.

My entire adolescence is up for questioning thanks to Netflix.

Despite never really leaving the public’s consciousness due to incessant reruns and its pervasive presence in our vernacular, Friends is apparently ‘back.’ The show that dominated every xennial’s Friday night plans. The show that shaped the way we viewed friendship. The show that launched a million haircuts. The show that gave us unrealistic expectations of what it meant to live in a large city in your mid-twenties. But like all good pop culture that was so of its time, watching it through a 2018 lens can make for some uncomfortable moments (Joey’s treatment of women, jokes about Chandler’s ambiguous sexuality, transphobic jokes about his father and fat-shaming jokes at the expense of Monica who married the man that shamed her into slimming. I could go on…)

So what happens when your favourite pop culture is massively problematic? What happens when you realise that a show which was an intrinsic part of your life during your most formative years (11 to 21) was in fact homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic and lacking in any kind of diversity? What happens when you still love it despite all of these issues?

Friends

I recently started to take a closer look at some of my favourite pop culture after watching Roxane Gay’s incredible ‘Confessions of a Bad Feminist’ Ted Talk in which she discusses her attempts to reconcile her love of “thuggish rap” and her feminism. I am white so I am not in a position to discuss the nuances of a genre of music and poetry that was created by and for black people. I am, however, in a position to look at my own problematic pop cultural preferences.

Music

I have always been quite particular about the music I listen to. TV and films? Not so much.  When I was a teenager, I was mocked mercilessly for my music choices by my more musically discerning friends. Now in my thirties, I am still mocked mercilessly for my taste in music by my partner. I have always prefered my music to be made by women, punk with pop melodies and the lyrics had to tell a story, preferably a political one.

But I also fucking love commercial pop music and the first time I heard Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, I just wanted to dance for hours! Then I listened to the lyrics and I didn’t feel like dancing anymore. That was it. Robin Thicke was cancelled and the song turns my stomach whenever I hear it now. When the children in my class asked me if they could listen to ‘Timber’ by Pitbull during their free time, I told them absolutely not as it was not ‘appropriate’ (teacher code for sweary/sexual language). They argued with me but how do you explain to an 8 year old that the song they want to listen to is essentially about date rape? Pitbull? cancelled. I know that Taylor Swift is being hailed as a feminist icon for the social media generation after her victorious sexual assault court case but her political neutrality to maintain her fanbase and constant score settling with former lovers and friends in her songs just doesn’t sit well with me.  

TV

While I developed unrealistic expectations about what my life would be like in my twenties from Friends (great hair, massive apartment and a LOT of free time to drink coffee), the unrealistic expectations I had for my thirties came from a show that first aired when I was 15: Sex and the City (great hair, smaller, cooler apartment and expensive shoes). Being a grown up was going to be amazing! Because of its far more adult themes, Sex and the City comes off even worse than Friends when I look back on the heavy-handed treatment of anyone or anything that was non-white, cisgendered or heteronormative. Throughout the series, we witness the unrelenting slut-shaming of Samantha Jones and we watch as all four white, middle-class women indulge in biphobia, transphobia and islamophobia. We see the fetishisation of the black male body and the tired ‘angry black woman’ trope wheeled out for some ‘diversity’ when Samantha claims she ‘doesn’t see colour.’ Alcoholism and sex work are also up for ridicule in what was supposed to be a progressive and groundbreaking show which celebrated female friendship and women’s sexuality. But only if you’re cishet.

Sex and the City

I could have been the third Gilmore Girl. I cannot function without black coffee, I talk a mile a minute and I consume unnatural amounts of junk food. I fell in love with Rory and Lorelai the first time I met them in Stars Hollow in my mid-twenties. I was like a kid counting down the days until Christmas when the new Netflix series was announced so I rewatched all seven series in anticipation for the grand event. And there it was, that nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Upon third viewing, I had finally realised what a spoilt, privileged little brat Rory was and there was nothing funny about Emily’s cyclical disposal of ‘the help’ who were rarely able to speak English. While there are people of colour in prominent roles, they conformed to tired old stereotypes: Michel, the closeted Celine Dion fan who adored cotillions and Mrs Kim the Asian ‘tiger mom.’ We are encouraged to celebrate free-spirit Lorelai’s emancipation from her wealthy, uptight parents and the new life she has independently carved out for herself and Rory but the truth is, nothing that bad was ever going to happen to either of them while Emily and Richard were around to foot the very expensive bill for a private education or a new marital home. It’s essentially a show about two very privileged white women progressing nicely along in their lives, doing the things they always wanted to do with various handsome men throwing themselves at their feet and wealthy benefactors bailing them out when things get a little icky.  

Gilmore Girls

Film

Roxane Gay finds it hard to make peace with her feminism while listening to rap music; I find it hard to balance my love of classical era Hollywood films and my feminism. They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh? The casual, or even explicit, racism, the absence of diversity, the normalisation of gender-based violence, the clear objectification of women and the trivialisation of poverty and working class struggle. Doesn’t sound so different to the films that are being made these days, does it? Of course there were films with strong female characters, mostly made in the thirties and forties featuring women like Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunn and Rosalind Russell. But these films are not above reproach and the main goal of our female protagonists was always marriage. Again, it doesn’t sound so different to the films being made these days that continually fail the Bechdel test, does it? I’ve also read enough about the studio system during this time to know what horrific atrocities were afforded to the female stars of the time at the hands of studio heads and directors but this is about problematic art, not problematic artists.

Bringing Up Baby

And there is a difference. I can easily make a conscious decision not to watch a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski film. I can easily not listen to Chris Brown or R Kelly. But misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia and islamophobia permeates everything from music, movies, tv, advertising, sports to literature. If I was to turn off or away from everything that was problematic, I would be sitting in a room, well, not doing a whole lot. I can see what was wrong with these TV shows and films and that allows me to enjoy them for what they were; I see their flaws but I also see what was right with them too. I cannot change a TV show that was made twenty years ago and I’m not going to give up the happy memories that it gave me growing up but I can, going forward, make better choices with the pop culture I buy into and support. We can all bring about change with the choices we make with our remote controls, radio dials and box office pounds. Instead of just turning off, turn on. Seek out and champion the musicians, filmmakers and artists that are doing incredible things. The rich, white men in charge will soon get the message.

So, I will continue to watch Gilmore Girl reruns and loathe myself for it and if that makes me a bad feminist, to quote Gay, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”    

Roxane Gay

https://www.ted.com/talks/roxane_gay_confessions_of_a_bad_feminist/transcript#t-7727

Mediocrity Rules.

“Do you ever get scared of being mediocre?” a friend asked me as she tried on a pair of ostentatious sunglasses in a shop mirror.

I laughed. “Look at me, I’ve spent my life being terrified of being mediocre!” I thought no more about it for another ten years. 

Recent revelations about myself as a teacher and as a woman, however, have brought the kind of peace of mind that yoga never could but I am battling with myself as it contradicts everything I tell children to believe about themselves every day.

I am not special.

I am mediocre.

Coming to terms with my own mediocrity has liberated me in a personal, professional and creative capacity. Whose standards am I trying to live up to now? My own and I am setting the bar pretty low these days so I am never disappointed!

Being told you’re a genius from the age of 4 does things to an unhappy, grieving child who already feels like they don’t fit in anywhere, especially their own family. Being sent to an academically selective school at the age of 11 with the encouragement, “you’re going to be a doctor” does things to a desperately unhappy child who really doesn’t fit in, especially in a school full of overachieving, ruddy-faced hockey players. As soon as I could write my name, I was told that I was destined for greatness (or, at the very least, I would be the first person in my family to go to university). There was nothing I couldn’t do in the eyes of my family and teachers.

Then I went to secondary school. It has only been since becoming a teacher myself with a focus on Carol Dweck’s teachings on fixed and growth mind-sets that I have realised that my complete and utter rejection of and failure at secondary education was because of an intense fear of failure itself. At least my failures were on my terms and no one else’s.

So, I was no longer special because I was smart. I would never be special for being pretty (I was informed in a very matter of fact way by my mother that I was the ‘witty sister’). I could, however, make myself special with the way I dressed and painted my face. It became a form of control as I got older; a mask I could hide behind. I knew that if people could see me and hear me then I knew I existed

My hair went through every shade of pink, red and purple. It went from platinum to black then back to platinum. Twenty years down the line, I cringe at the cultural appropriation of wearing a bindi and henna and my short-lived fuchsia dreadlocks. I pierced my nose and my lips and I wore makeup that me made me look like a strung out Courtney Love at Mardi Gras. I wore a massive pink fur coat and my behaviour became, at best, attention seeking. This soon morphed into a more polished vintage look in my twenties which was no less mask-like and still a form of control over how people saw me and therefore thought of me. I was visible. 

For around 15 years, the first thing people would comment on was the way I looked. Wasn’t I thin? Wasn’t I glamorous? Wasn’t I quirky? Could they touch my hair? They bet it took me forever to get ready! The truth was, it didn’t. It took the same amount of time to put my rollers in and false eyelashes on as it did to artfully clip Hello Kitty hair clips into my hair and smear Max Factor’s Firebrand lipstick around my mouth.

Becoming a teacher in my thirties changed the way I dressed and presented myself to others pretty much over night. I was working with people who literally couldn’t care less whether I wore the right shade or brand of red lipstick and if my dress was repro or original. Although, I have found that nine year olds get really freaked out if you don’t wear mascara. I still wear red lipstick to work most days but it’s generally worn with my hair scraped up in a bun and an old pair of converse. Old habits die hard.  

I still continued to compare myself to others in various ways. Why were my class misbehaving? Obviously, I wasn’t managing them properly. Why did they get those test scores? Clearly, I wasn’t doing my job properly. Why did I want to run to the toilets and cry in the middle of lessons? I knew deep down that I was not cut out for this job.

Aside from all the magnificent things about being a teacher, the feeling that you could and should be doing better haunts every waking moment. At least, for me it does. The hours are long and emotionally draining and I was finding that not only was I hardly ever seeing my friends, I was not a present partner and I had no time for my own hobbies and interests. I wouldn’t have minded all these sacrifices if I was an amazing teacher; we all secretly go into this job hoping to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society with the patience and wisdom of Atticus Finch.

At Christmas, convinced I was going to quit, I had a thought: What if not being an amazing teacher was not the worst thing that could happen to me? What if just being an OK teacher was, in fact, OK? What if I stopped putting pressure on myself to be ‘special’ at something and accept that not overachieving and standing out is not the same as failing? What if, stay with me, being mediocre was actually the best thing to be?

It’s been hard to undo years of conditioning and I remember someone asking me what happens when I go out without makeup on (because I do all the time, I just fucking love wearing it). ‘I’m invisible,’ was my immediate answer. This was nothing to do with beauty standards for which I have given zero fucks about since childhood, but the way I saw myself and my worth. If I couldn’t be seen, I couldn’t be heard. It has been the same feeling coming to terms with just being OK at being a teacher, being a friend, a partner and a woman. When you are taught to be an overachiever and you can no longer fulfill that role, well, everything else just feels like failure.

We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be outstanding at anything and/or everything. I have always lived by the rule that you shouldn’t be friends with anyone, follow anyone on social media or watch anything that makes you feel bad about yourself. I am more than capable of doing that on my own thank you very much. But I’m doing it less and less these days and I’m starting to slowly listen to friends when they tell me I’m good at something. Not amazing, just good.

Good. OK. Alright. Mediocre. They are no longer scary words.

 

How To Build a Girl.

 

I had my tarot cards read when I was about twelve years old. Maybe I was thirteen. Either way, I was at an age when most adolescent girls have zero self-esteem, crippling anxiety and an awkward shyness that was compounded by a body that I was convinced hated me. The doctors had told my mum that I was in the very top percentile for height and the very bottom percentile for weight for my age throughout my childhood. When the only skirt in the shop that fits you around the waist is age 5 and you’re shopping for a new outfit for the year 8 disco, well, you’re not really listening through the tears when your well-meaning mum tells you that you’ll appreciate it when you’re older. That, however, is another post for another time.

I don’t remember much of what was said during the reading other than a blonde mother figure would play an important role in my life. Now, I did not inherit my fair colouring from my dark-eyed, dark-haired mother, so we looked at each other and shrugged. And that was the end of it.

I muddled through my teenage years in a blur of anger, frustration and a lot of glitter and cheap lipstick. Like so many other teenage girls, I spent years trying to piece together an identity from worn copies of Just Seventeen, Melody Maker, Kerrang and music videos on MTV2. I had no idea who I was but I knew exactly who I wanted to be.

courtney
Courtney Love

Having decided that I was obsessed with Courtney Love before I’d even heard Hole’s music, I spent my time during year 9 IT lessons wisely: frantically typing her name into our school’s intranet which contained archived press clippings dating back years. Printing page after page of anything I could find that featured her name, I hungrily devoured every word. She sounded outrageous, caustic, compelling and smart. Every journalist would comment on the way she dressed, some deriding her as a grown woman who needed to take a shower; others believed that she was cleverly subverting the patriarchy’s sexualisation of young women and girls. And then I read something that changed everything for me and still does. It has been over 20 years so I’m going to paraphrase but what made Courtney Love so fascinating, this particular journalist thought, was that she unapologetically challenged what the world thought how a proper woman should speak, dress and behave. She took the archetypal Hollywood image of the blonde bombshell, the ultimate female beauty ideal, and made her punk. I was in love.

As I progressed through my teens, I would love to say that I soon saw Courtney’s problematic feminism and ill-treatment of other women as an issue and started hero worshiping more worthy figures like Kathleen Hanna but I didn’t. I adored Kathleen Hanna (and still do) but she just seemed too cool; I was never going to be as smart as her and I didn’t read feminist theory (it was mostly Valley of the Dolls and Plath). I so wanted to be a cool riot grrrl, and even said that I was one, but I craved tarnished glamour and tragedy from my sheroes as I dreamed of playing guitar as well as the boys while leaving a trail of broken hearts behind me like a feminist Valentino.

The women who shaped me and pieced me back together were all women who I fiercely believed challenged society’s expectations of traditional female beauty, intelligence and behaviour. They taught me how to build a thin layer of confidence strong enough to bleach my hair, wear red lipstick, wear whatever I felt like and still proudly call myself a feminist because it was my body and my choice. I was allowed to be ultra feminine, something that since childhood has always appealed to me, without having to apologise to my strident feminist side. If I hadn’t had role models such as Courtney Love, Madonna and Gwen Stefani as an impressionable young feminist, I may have ended up wiping off that lipstick and glitter that felt like an extension of myself and hiding behind what I thought I was supposed to be. I started wearing glitter smeared around my eyes, thick layers of red lipstick and I frequently lost my shit in the Hello Kitty section at Claire’s. Old slips found in charity shops were teamed with Dr Martens or Mary Janes and Barbie handbags. My natural blonde hair went through various shades of blonde, ginger, red, purple and pink before finally reaching the perfect platinum blonde shade in my early twenties by which time I’d settled on a more pseudo-vintage look.

It was no coincidence that most of my role models during my teens were blonde. I believed that bleached hair was the ultimate fuck you to traditional beauty standards and the wearing of red lipstick was just as bold. I understood from a young age that these women were not dressing or performing for men but for themselves. I fell in love with Debbie Harry when my mum explained to me that she was a pop star and a punk singer. This incredible creature who looked like she had stepped from the pages of Vogue was sweating and writhing around the stage in a bin bag snarling her perfectly glossed lips? Is this who we were allowed to be?

debbie
Debbie Harry

Beyond everything, the blonde hair, the red lipstick, the clothes and music, I knew that these were incredibly smart women. I adored Courtney Love and Marilyn Monroe for their insatiable appetite to educate and better themselves, to smash not just gender stereotypes but also challenge what it meant to be feminine.

Marilyn
Marilyn Monroe

This is why it is so important for our young girls to have strong role models whether they are pop stars, actresses, politicians, sports women, activists, mothers, teachers, you. Be the role model you needed when you were 13. These women built me, they run through my blood.

I’m no longer a platinum blonde but I still carry with me the lessons that these women taught me:

I will never apologise for being a woman.

I will never apologise for my femininity.

I will never apologise for what I do to my body.

I will never apologise for wearing red lipstick with every outfit.

“I’m not a woman. I’m a force of nature,” Courtney Love.

Me at 24