Tis the season

Of all the challenges I have faced this year alcohol free, Christmas is a going to be one of the least challenging. While for many of my acquaintance it’s a time for excessive drinking, I’ve never needed to be drunk to have a good time – I don’t need to fill myself full of spirits at Christmas to be full of Christmas spirit. Ho ho ho.

Being an alternative lefty anti socialist agnostic type,  this time of year can often make me feel a little it’s always a little awkward. Because I love Christmas. I really, really, REALLY love Christmas. I always have. I went through a phase in my late teens/early twenties where I pretended to hate it to look cool to my gothy friends and Christmas hating boyfriend, but on the inside I  knew I was kidding myself.

I have been challenged over the years by various people over why I celebrate Christmas.  For example – I am not religious at all. I went to a Church of England junior school where we had carol services, nativity scenes and seasonal lessons about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas. I always found it easier to believe in Santa than Jesus as a child, and considered the bible and the nativity story as likely to be made up as Santa, but less fun, so decided there and then that it wasn’t for me. But I still loved Christmas. When challenged by people of faith as to why I’d celebrate something I don’t believe in I mumble something about pagan festivals and winter solstice but to be honest I’m talking out of my tinsel covered ass. It’s not anything to do with Yule – although it’s a good excuse and not a bad way to avoid a debate.

I’ve been challenged on my known aversion to excess commercialisation. ‘Black Friday’ gives me the absolute rage – first of all I live in the UK and it SHOULDN’T EVEN BE A THING. Secondly when people are saying things like “I don’t even know how much it costs, I don’t know even know if I’m going to buy it. I just wanted something,” it’s an indication to be that we have a serious problem with an acquisition culture here.  I dislike the overly commercial aspect of Christmas – typified by a chain’s annual advert becoming an eagerly awaited institution. I should admit at this point I haven’t seen this chain’s Christmas adverts since 2012 when I suspect that my reaction of FUCK IT’S A SNOW WEEPING ANGEL wasn’t what they intended. But to be honest, it’s pretty easy to ignore the commercialism. I don’t own a TV, I have no children,  no desire to own the latest version of any particular piece of technology, and family and friends who appreciate thoughtful presents picked out for them over the latest fad or gadget. You can be bothered by the commercialisation of Christmas without buying in to it or letting it ruin it for you. For people that love Christmas, the fact that companies try to make all the money can’t take away our sparkly christmas joy.

It’s not even about family or tradition. I’m not expected to go ‘home’ for christmas, having grown up in a slightly unconventional family set up. Generally I get to choose where I am on the day and I tend to go with the flow. Of course, that’s possibly one reason why I do like it. I am given to understand that for some people going ‘home’ for christmas means days on end of family arguments, passive aggressiveness, tears and disappointment. I’ve experienced very few Christmases like that for which I am grateful.

I just…I just love Christmas. I love Santa. Christmas music. Fake snow. Decorations. Sparkly lights. Jingly bells. Snow, or even just the hope of snow (which is kind of better than actual snow, as hope of snow is always magical and actual snow means slush and cyclist fear.) Even when I am on my own, as I am this year, I find it hard to feel down about Christmas. I have had some really wonderful solo Christmas days. I’ve bought MY TREEmyself all the food I like, spent all day eating and watching dreadful christmas TV and not  getting dressed all day. In fact, I usually get myself special Christmas day pyjamas so when I wake up I can put my new pyjamas on. I am single this year and knew there was absolutely no reason to buy a tree. But I got one anyway. I decorated it this evening while watching the Sesame Street 1978 Christmas Special  (If you can watch all of this and not feel even a little bit festive then there’s no hope for you, you big old grinch.) My tree makes me so happy I almost have a little cry when I look at it.

I even love Christmas shopping, despite my aversion to crowds. I like finding the *perfect* little thing for a friend or my half-brother rockstar pirate and half-sister dinosaur princess. I like watching them open the gifts and seeing them smile. I like how other people seem happier at Christmas time – whether you’re religious or not there really does seem to be more goodwill and generosity at this time of year. People wishing each other ‘Merry Christmas’. People smiling. People wearing silly hats. Serious people wearing really stupid christmas jumpers.

I’ve been wondering if part of my love of Christmas is that I am a big old emotional sponge. Over the last few months I’ve noticed that even though I am not drinking, if I am out with a group of happy drunk friends I can almost feel drunk just on the atmosphere. Perhaps something similar is happening with Christmas – I am soaking up the joy and the goodwill of all the people around me also loving Christmas.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why I still love it in the face of some of my best friends absolutely loathing Christmas and being utterly perplexed at my seeming boundless joy in fake trees and plastic snow and really ugly fibre-optic reindeer. Or as one friend put it, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU”.

There’s just something that makes me happy about Christmas and I would be hard pressed to say why. I couldn’t tell you why purple is my favourite colour. It just is.  I couldn’t tell you why I love dodgems (that’s British for ‘bumper cars’ for the Americans reading), or why they make me laugh so much I cry. They just do.  And I can’t tell you why I love Christmas. It  just makes me happy.

One of my relatively recent Christmas traditions is to go to ‘Sing-Along-A-Muppet Christmas Carol‘ with a good friend. I mentioned to her that I had this difficulty with not being able to explain why I loved Christmas so much. I have no reason to celebrate it. As the ghost of christmas past started singing “it’s true wherever you find love it feels like Christmas” she nudged me and said “just write the lyrics of this song in your blog. Job done.”

 

 

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The ‘P’ word

2014-09-21 15.17.55I’ve mentioned before that I am somewhat argumentative. Where “somewhat” means “could start an argument while in an empty room on a deserted spaceship orbiting at the edge of infinite space”.  I’ve also got a highly developed sense of social justice which has been getting me into trouble from a young age. Mummy dinosaur had to, on more than one occasion, usher a pre-teen me quickly from a room to prevent me taking on racist comments made by acquaintances or older family members. Despite (or, perhaps, because of?) growing up in a predominantly white and affluent neighbourhood I guess I was an early adopter of the ranks of ‘ally’ before I really understood the concept.  So it’s with embarrassment, and a little amount of shame, that I recall the first time someone tried to introduce me to the concept of ‘white privilege’. More on that later.

We hear the word ‘privilege’ a lot online, and increasingly in the  media, these days. It’s a relatively new concept but one that has skyrocketed in terms of dissemination over the last few years – in that ‘check your privilege’ has in the space of about 6 months gone from being a useful checkpoint in discussion to a snarky debate-ending insult. Much like the word ‘feminism’, the word ‘privilege’ has a bad rep. It’s got some major baggage. Let’s face it, it pisses people the fuck off. But it’s a bloody useful word because it pisses people right off.  ‘Feminism’ needs to have that  FEM in there to bring people back to the basic point that yes, we’re should be all equal and work towards equal rights for all but it’s woman that are behind right now in the gender race and therefore ‘equalist’  (which isn’t even a word according to spellcheck) quite frankly doesn’t cut it and if that pisses you off then GOOD, it SHOULD. And ‘privilege’ needs to be a word that smacks you in the face and makes you think, because that’s the point.

It didn’t half upset me when I was first told I was showing white privilege. It was 2004, and I was an active and vocal (surprise) member of an online community discussing the show ‘Big Brother’. (Please don’t judge me. I was young. And bored.) I can’t remember what I said, or what the topic of conversation was, but another poster took me to task for something I said. I can’t remember much about the conversation, and it would take someone with better google-fu than I to track it down in the archives of The Interwebs. All I remember is that she wasn’t saying I was A Racist, but that assumptions I had made showed a lack of awareness of my white privilege, and therefore what I’d said was racist. I got terribly upset, all my (white) friends piled in on the thread to support me, I said that I wasn’t privileged because my mum and I were homeless once, retreated back to my own blog where I said “waaah some girl called me a racist” and I got lots of support from my (mostly white) friends. After patiently trying to reason with me, and posting a link to an article I didn’t bother reading because I didn’t need to because I am TOTES not a racist the girl left the thread with the parting shot that she “hoped I’d get it one day, and remember this conversation”.

And thus it was I found myself on the internet this week, getting into debate after debate with other white people about privilege – linking them to that same article that I never read at the time, trying to get them to realise that having privilege doesn’t make them A Racist, that just because they’ve had a shit time of it doesn’t make them not privileged and  hoping that just as I had my revelation, they too will one day look back on the conversation and have a lightbulb moment. Not all of my arguments/debates go well. Some I have to walk away from – because I get TOO ANGRY HULK SMASH MUST BREAK THINGS – but at least I *said something*.

The week’s debates have involved white privilege, male privilege, size privilege… all sorts. There are lots of different ways structural privilege can manifest – and this seems to be what is so difficult for people to grasp. They hear the word ‘privilege’, just as I did 10 years ago, and assume that they’re being put in a box that says ‘well off, happy, fortunate’. When actually you can be incredibly structurally privileged and completely fucking miserable. All ‘privilege’ means in this sense is that you have something innate and outside of your control which gives you a ‘leg up’ over other people purely because of the accident of your birth. If you are white, straight, male, able bodied, average sized, well off, with a nondescript accent then you simply don’t face as many difficulties as people that don’t tick all of those boxes.

All this arguing with people who don’t see-your-point-yet-but-one-day might-see-your-point is exhausting. And if it’s exhausting for me, a white person with all the advantages that confers upon me (like, for example, being taken more seriously and not ‘self serving’ when I talk about white privilege) then how exhausting must it be for people like the woman who tried to engage me ten years ago? How exhausting must it be to be subject to the casual systemic discrimination of our culture and then still have to argue with people telling you that your lived experience of being a person of colour is flawed because LA LA LA NOT LISTENING. Well, actually, I can sort of understand it because I am female, and that’s what I experience when men (#notall) tell me I am wrong about the  sexism I experience daily. But I am still better off than a woman of colour, who is battling even greater levels of systemic prejudice than I.

That’s not ‘white guilt’ talking. It’s my acknowledgement of my unearned privileges, which I have, whether I want them or not. And no, of course it isn’t fair. And it doesn’t matter whether you like it or  not, or whether you even agree with this concept or not. Much like gravity, you can not believe it and/or disagree with it all you like but you’re still subject to its force.

So far most of my debates have been with people I don’t know – friends of friends or random strangers commenting on friends’ public posts. It’s easier to debate with strangers than people you care about, because a stranger’s opinion matters so much less.   I need to get better at challenging people closer to me. At doing it in a calm and measured way, so that my point doesn’t get lost in a sea of facepalm gifs which I am wont to post when debates become hopelessly cyclical. Finding out that a friend has a point of view which you find problematic is potential-friend-losing territory. But then, if that person’s view is so very offensive to you, perhaps you should be either talking to them about it or evaluating your friendship anyway. But it’s worth taking on, because even as the debate might be frustrating. circular and full of cat gifs, even if you have to walk away, you never know when someone might remember the conversation, realise they were wrong, and add their voices too.

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a vicious cycle

gentleman-dino-riding-a-bike-27226-1680x1050Earlier in the year I wrote about my frustration over the ‘them and us’ rhetoric that dogs every conversation about improving road safety. EVERY conversation. On the internet, in person, in the pub – wherever there is a discussion about road safety someone will always point out that cyclists go through red lights and someone else will go well so do cars and someone else will say well what about buses and someone will go well what about pedestrians that step out into the road while texting and everyone agrees on that point at least but then someone else will complain about cyclists on pavements and BINGO we have reached derailment. Well done. We were trying to talk about safety, and now we’re just gong round in infinite circles talking about how cyclists are bastards and pedestrians are stupid and cars are dangerous, trapped in an infinite loop of blame throwing.

Earlier this week I decided to get the train into work instead of cycling. Alas, the trains were messed up so I decided to get a bus. Arriving at the bus stop there was clearly an issue with the traffic too, as there were about 150 people at the bus stop, so despite my tiredness I  headed home to get my bike. I’d wanted to avoid cycling because I hadn’t slept well, and was feeling pretty tired. I don’t like to cycle when I am tired, as part of my commute is pretty hair-raising and I like to be as alert as possible. I either have to tackle a big busy A-road with patchy cycle lanes, which often have cars parked in them, which is also frequented by buses and HGVs, OR I can go a back-roads route which in theory should be safer, but most of the time feels worse due to the rat-runners taking the narrow roads – at quite frankly ludicrous speed – in order to avoid that same big busy A-road. Therefore taking the big busy A-road actually feels safer half the time. Ok so there’s fast-moving traffic and buses and thundering industrial vehicles but at least I’ve never had to literally fling myself sideways onto the pavement to avoid being taken out by a rat runner unwilling to follow the 20mph speed limit on a narrow road with parked cars or witnessed nearly head-on collisions as a motorist decides that he’d rather overtake on the other side of a traffic island than wait until it’s safe to pass me.

As I neared the halfway point of my commute, having chosen the In-theory-less-safe-A-road route, I discovered the reason for the terrible traffic. It wasn’t clear what had happened from what I observed at the site, and I don’t want to assume – but I will point out that this particular section of road has a pavement-based segregated cycle lane which filters back onto the main road at the exact same point that HGVs turn out of an industrial site. It’s a section of my commute where I’ve always been particularly wary. It just isn’t very safe for anyone. Not the HGVs coming out, not the cyclists merging onto the road, not the drivers heading over the bridge. It doesn’t help that this section of the road is notorious for street racers due to the long, wide straight roads.

There were three different  vehicles in this incident, all occupants of which were taken to hospital, the cyclist most worse off, and in all the comments and conversations that took place over this terrible accident was how the cyclist probably deserved it, because cyclists. BLOODY Cyclists. GOING THROUGH RED LIGHTS. COMING OVER HERE, TAKING OUR ROADS.

I’ve felt this attitude on the road over the last few years, every time I’ve got out on my bike. I’ve felt the heat from the engine at a too-close pass. I’ve had “get off the road” yelled at me. I’ve had “I PAY ROAD TAX” yelled at me. I’ve had drivers deliberately swerve at me and then drive away pointing and laughing at me. I’ve started to fear for my safety on my bicycle in a way I’ve never feared before – and it’s all because of the increasing amount of hatred directed towards cyclists. Interestingly, the less I look like a ‘cyclist’ the better I am treated. On my new girly looking bike, with its little basket decorated with flowers and with my every-day clothes and my normal winter coat and normal shoes and with my long hair down, I am treated almost civilly (apart from the occasional ‘lucky saddle hur hur’ comment but that’s a whole other subject in of itself) but if I ever wear my cycling jacket, or have wet weather cycling gear on, or go out on my old single speed racer bike, then that instantly makes me a target. I’m no longer a girl on a bike, I am a BLOODY CYCLIST  BASTARD.

I get on my bike and cycle to work and immediately I am judged not by how I cycle, but by the perceived behaviour of ‘cyclists’ as a group. That is the very definition of prejudice. Being judged as part of a minority group, being victim blamed,  being ‘othered’, is exactly what women experience when discussing street harassment or sexual assault. It’s how young black men are treated when discussing stop and search or police violence. They are told to behave differently, dress differently, act differently, be different. There is a constant message that if something bad happens to you it was somehow your fault simply  because of who/what you are.

I’ve always been a safe and confident cyclist. But that no longer feels enough. I am now starting to feel unsafe on the road simply for being a cyclist. The level of aggression on our roads seems to be getting worse and worse – and this is be backed up by recent research that suggests that Britain has a road rage problem – in fact the worst in the world. This right here? Not my shocked face.

I get it. I get that driving is frustrating. Sitting in traffic is annoying. I get that other road users piss you off with their failure to indicate and their crappy overtaking and their shitty lane etiquette. But you know what, that’s ALL road users. Ask yourself, next time you’re in a car, why it is you are so  much  more pissed off when a cyclists does X shitty thing than when a motorist does it? I am willing to bet it’s because if a driver does it and you have an accident chances are it’s an irritating loss of your  no-claims bonus. But if a cyclist does something and you hit them? You might actually kill them. And I get it, that’s scary. And that fear of what-might-have-been comes out in defensive anger. But actually, not every cyclist out there is actually doing something dangerous, or even wrong.

I don’t WANT to have to #notallcyclists every conversation about improving road safety. It’s not helpful. I cycle 5 miles to work and back every weekday, and I could list 100 incidents of dangerous, selfish and downright idiotic behaviour from road users of all descriptions. But if I do that you know what I am NOT doing? I am not participating in a productive discussion about how we can make this situation better. HOW can we reduce anger towards cyclists? HOW can we improve driver behaviour and reduce road rage? How can we encourage people to use their cars less?  How can we reduce the impact of car use on the environment? HOW can we stop cyclists going through red lights? I am not interested in the wheres and the whens and the how manys. I want to know what we can do to create safer and sustainable public spaces for us all. And until we can get over the prejudice that someone faces simply because they got on a bike, it’s going to be hard to have those conversations. And if we can’t have those conversations, we can’t make the changes that will make it safer and easier for us all to use the road.

 

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No drunkscuses then I know – it’s okay

Copyright Jeff Krouwel 2014I mentioned back in Summer that as the year has gone on I’ve had to face up to the fact that I’ve used alcohol as a way to drown out the anxious voices. That alcohol both gave me the courage to do things that I wanted to do (dance on tables, throw myself at that cute person I kind of fancy, wear that outfit) and also gave me an ‘out’ if those things didn’t come off well (Oh, how embarrassing? I was SO DRUNK when we got kicked out for dancing on tables; oh HOW embarrassing, did I come on to you? I don’t remember I was SO DRUNK; oh HOW EMBARRASSING can you believe I wore that? I was so drunk when I got dressed…).

But I’ve realised that actually most of the things I’ve done while drunk are things I am perfectly capable of doing sober. I’ve started to wonder whether it’s less that alcohol genuinely lowers our inhibitions, and more that culturally ‘being drunk’ becomes this wonderful catch-all get out of jail free card that can magically wipe away all transgressions. It wasn’t so much that alcohol *made* me do these things, but that if these things went wrong no one would judge me for it because DRUNK. I am not saying that every decision I’ve ever made while drunk was a good one that I would have made sober. Of course not. I have made some fucking dreadful decisions while drunk that I’ve bitterly regretted in the morning – but that’s more to do with alcohol affecting your decision making skills, not your inhibitions.

If we’re really, truly, totally honest with ourselves – how much of That Thing you did was because you were drunk? And how much of That Thing you did was something you wanted to do anyway, but you got drunk so you could do it without really having to deal with the repercussions if That Thing didn’t work out? If you can’t make drunkscuses any more, if That Thing is just A Thing you did – how would that feel?

There’s a lot of research out there that suggests this idea that alcohol lowers our inhibitions isn’t really true, and that’s it’s almost entirely culturally biased. Most experiments suggest that people act drunk when they *THINK* they have been given alcoholic drinks, even when they haven’t. And ‘drunk behaviour’ is a cultural construction.  Anthropologist Kate Fox believes that “The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.

This idea that you can feel drunk while not actually being drunk at all certainly rings true for me. I have found myself this year at various events, stone cold sober, on nothing stronger than 3 soda water with fresh lime and maybe the occasional cheeky soya latte, feeling inexplicably high and full of delight and glee, engaging in such activities as dancing on the bar, having dance offs and twerk offs, interpretive dancing to Bloodhound Gang’s “Bad Touch”, flirting outrageously with people I’ve always hidden my partiality to, wearing all sorts of ridiculous outfits and generally having fun like nobody’s watching. Once you let go of the idea that you need alcohol to do these things, and that you just have to own your own behaviour as being your own, you suddenly realise that actually nothing is stopping you from having fun. There’s been nights out where I’ve actually felt no different than when I have while drunk – the same sort of delirious emotional high. The only difference is my mental decision making equipment is intact and I don’t feel like crap the next day and I have more money left in the bank at the end of the month. Or I can treat myself to a taxi home with the money I haven’t spend on buying everyone else jaegerbombs so I feel less of a shambles about drinking more and more.

It has taken me the better part of the last 11 months of not drinking to tap into this feeling, but now that I have got the hang of it I kind of don’t want to let it go. When people ask me if I am looking forward to having a drink next year, I am actually no longer sure. I’ve achieved what I set out to do, and then some. I have proved to myself I can not only Not Drink, I can also actively enjoy it. I can live a perfectly full and happy life – if not an even fuller one – without alcohol being a significant part of it. Part of me isn’t quite prepared to let that go. As the year draws to a close I am starting to think about what my new relationship with alcohol will be like. I am not sure I want one.

And it’s dawned on me. I like not drinking. I like being able to tap into an emotional high with friends without needing alcohol – by just being happy. I like how gloriously long weekends feel when 50% of them aren’t spent being hungover. And I actually like not being able to make drunkscuses. I like to have to stand on my own two feet and face up to a decision I’ve made, a dance I’ve twerked, a crush I’ve been rebuffed by, and just deal with those feelings head on. I’ve made choices, I’ve dealt with the repercussions. I’ve not shrugged, made a drunkscuse, and made the same bad decisions again a week later.

I’d already decided what my first drink would be. Back in summer, when I started swimming, I made a pact with a group of friends to do the new year’s day swim at the ponds. Apparently they were 3 degrees last year. I’ve kept up the swimming, in all weathers, and so far have managed to swim at a rather brisk 8 degrees. Mulled Wine will be supplied for the new year’s day swimmers – and to me I couldn’t think of a better or more fitting way to celebrate all I’ve learned and achieved in 2014 than for my first drink of 2015 to be that cup of mulled wine. It would represent so much more than the first alcoholic drink in 12 months. And yet, the closer I get to that day, the less important that mulled wine seems.

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Keeping up breaking it down

A few years ago I didn’t own a television. I didn’t miss it. I have little interest in reality TV shows other than Strictly Come Dancing (Because SEQUINS) and have little interest in celebrity culture. Then I moved in with a friend who owned a big TV and every channel appeared to be 24 hour coverage of something called the ‘Kardashians’. I didn’t know who they were, and the first time I heard someone at work talk about them I ended up involved in a rather awkward cross-purposed conversation which embarrassed all participants – particularly me  – where I thought we were talking about Star Trek.

I had to google to find out who they were. And that search wasn’t very helpful. As best as I could work out they were famous because the Dad defended OJ Simpson then one of the daughters had a sex tape leaked onto the internet, and also they have bigwhy is bottoms. I was perplexed as to how this can make a family so meteorically famous, rich and successful, and I remain perplexed to this day. Granted, I am not the demographic. I have no interest in the faux-reality show format and cannot fathom why anyone finds them remotely interesting.

Despite this, when this weeks Big Internet Fuss (TM) broke, I looked. Of course I looked. Everyone looked. That was the point, I am sure. Whether or not the release of the photos actually #broketheinternet I don’t know – it seems to be running at around the same speed as usual and there’s just as many cats as there were before. But it certainly did get everyone talking. And even someone as resolutely uninterested in celebrity culture and families famous for being famous as I am looked.

And as I looked, I felt uncomfortable. Something about the photos bothered me, and I couldn’t work out what it was. The more I thought about it, the more tricky I found it to identify  and explain what exactly bothered me about the photos. Yes, of course, the photos are hugely problematic when it comes to the racial aspect – this has been discussed elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it,  merely direct you to this excellent article. But this wasn’t the only thing on my mind.

You all know I am a big old passionate feminist. I like to think of myself as pretty sex positive (as in, sex is awesome, and women can  and should be subjective sexual beings with their own sexual agency and sexual freedom) and body positive (as in I have a body, you have a body, our bodies are our vehicles through life and we can and should be able to feel that our bodies are beautiful and pleasurable – no matter what shape you happen to be). So, as a sex-positive and body positive feminist type, it was really really hard to discuss these pictures. And the more I thought about it, and the more I tried to put it into words, the more in a muddle I got.

I guess the first thing I noticed when I looked at the pictures, I’ll get this out of the way early on, is the oilyness. The sticky  sheen of her apparently lubed skin. It brought to mind a Krispy Kreme original glazed. But that wasn’t what was bothering me. Some people like doughnuts. If that’s your bag baby, who I am I to say otherwise.

I wasn’t bothered  by her nudity. I found her cheeky FUCK YEAH expression rather compelling. Her face expresses a confidence, a cheekiness, a YEAH-this-is-my-body-what-you-gonna-say-about-it kind of battle cry that I actually rather liked. No passive shy wallflower here, she’s in control of her sexuality. That, I liked.

It wasn’t her sheer nakedness that bothered me. I am all for it, if a woman feels confident in her being and in her sexuality if she wants to take her kit off and be naked. It’s her body, her choice.  I was bothered by much of the comment over these pictures shaming her – that she shouldn’t be showing it off, that she was a ‘slut’, that she should know better “as a mother”. As if the minute you become a mother you forfeit all right to be sexy or sexual.

And then there was her much discussed bottom. It was indeed large. Really large. Anatomically unlikely, if you will. That’s not to say that no woman ever had this figure – no T no shade no body shaming here – I have a large bottom myself, comparatively to the rest of me. But something about the proportions of the photo looked mighty strange to my eye. Curious, I googled for other pictures of Kim Kardashian and noted that  the pictures seem to have been altered to make her waist to hip to ass ratio seem significantly greater. Her ‘real’ waist is larger, her ‘real’ bottom is smaller. And thereby lies one of the key problems I have with these pictures.

Be a confident woman. Be proud of your sexy body, your huge bottom, your curves. But be proud of WHAT YOU HAVE, not what a skilled photo editor can make you look like. That’s  not really saying “HEY there, big bum girls. We’re hot. Big asses are hot right?”. It’s saying “Big assess are sexy BUT ONLY IF THE REST OF YOU CONFORMS TO THE BEAUTY STEREOTYPE.” That’s not really body positivity, is it? And this isn’t just your mate posting an altered filtered ‘skinny app’ selfie on Facebook while saying how much she loves her body. This is a woman famous for having a luscious ass and being proud of that luscious ass having that thing she’s most famous for being clearly edited, well, literally out of all proportion.

The second thing that bothered me was  less about the photographs themselves, but how these photos feed back in to a society that reinforces the harmful message at every step to young women and girls growing up that the single most important thing about them, their greatest power, their greatest asset and the only thing that matters is how they look. Kim Kardashian’s fame, and that of her family, is built solely on the foundations of their relationship to men (a father, a husband) and how they look. That’s it. Nothing more. These digitally edited pictures reflect an image to which women are meant to aspire – a body, a lifestyle, which is unattainable by 99.9% percent of the women of the world.  They reflect a society with a devotion to how women look to the exclusion of almost everything else which is bordering on the obsessive.

In 2011 in her book ‘Bossypants‘ Tina Fey wrote:

I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now.

Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.

Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful.

Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

Three years on even Kim Kardashian is unable to adhere to these beauty standards. And if she can’t, the rest of us almost certainly can’t. The goal posts of what women’s bodies should be are ever shifting, with the pressure mounting on women to Be Everything and Look Perfect while you’re doing it, with the constant pounding message that your looks matter before anything else, that what you wear matters before everything else. Even a woman with a much celebrated figure can’t just be naked without having her figure digitally morphed into something else.

Of course, none of this is Kardashian’s fault. She didn’t create this culture. But she typifies it. In stripping off and being altered, shamed, criticised, ridiculed, admired, reviled and discussed ad infinitum she may not have ‘broken the internet’ but she has inadvertently held up a  mirror to a toxic broken culture.

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Sew the end is near

As December draws close I’ve become more and more proud of what I have achieved this year.  I swim. I ‘ve lost weight and gained body confidence I never knew I could have. I’ve been writing regularly and one of my blogs reached an audience of over 2000. I’ve become single, explored my life as a single women in her late 30s, coped and survived and soberly comedy interpretive danced my way though the year. It’s actually jaw dropping to me how much in my life has changed – so much more than simply the three big resolutions: Learn BSL, give up alcohol, learn to sew.

It’s been 10 months now since this adventure started and I’ve faced most of the biggest challenges. Wedding season is over, birthday has been and gone and now my favourite ‘holiday’ of all – Halloween – has passed by totally alcohol free. Although it ended up not even being a challenge in the end, due to becoming striken with a lurgy which struck at pretty much dead on 2.30pm on the afternoon of Halloween itself. It  made itself known by a dry irritating tickle at the back of my throat, and by midnight it had developed into a full blown razor wire down the throat hacking cough lost voice monster of a lurgy. I was unable to speak at all for 5 days, and even now am able to make little more than a husky croak. Monsters and croaky voices – all so suitable for Halloween and yet so completely not fun.

Given the lurgy, you might think that the Halloween party was no true test of my alcohol free ways. However, in previous years where an eagerly anticipated occasion has arrived at along last and I find myself coming down with some sort of snot-plague, I have embraced the TOTALLY SCIENTIFIC rationalisation that:

  1. illness is caused by germs
  2. alcohol kills germs
  3. therefore alcohol cures illness

I’ve used that hypothesis for many years, and am clearly an excellent scientist because I kept repeating the experiment just to ensure that the results were to be trusted. I honestly wouldn’t recommend you try it to see if you can replicate the results as the results every time are:

  1. get really drunk
  2. get sick anyway
  3. therefore you’re hungover AND sick

Having resigned myself to being too ill to enjoy Halloween fully, I stayed out long enough so that I’d been at the party for at least 5 minutes longer than it took to get ready and headed home, rather disappointed to have missed out on the spooky fun I usually have, and somewhat annoyed that the one Halloween of my adult life where I could reasonably expect to be feeling well the following day was instead spent in bed, cancelling all my weekend plans and feeling rather hard done by.

I did have fun at the party, for the 4 hours and 5 minutes that I was there (it was a complicated costume, ok?) despite the sore throat and impending lurginess, so it still in a way achieved its aim: to prove to myself that I don’t need to drink to enjoy a celebration which is – for me at least – synonymous with epic drunkenness. I shall have to hold on to this thought for my next – and final –  big challenges: Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

As for the other two – as you know if you were here earlier I’d had rather more success with the sign language than the sewing, having passed BSL level 1 and starting level 2 in the next week. The BSL would have come in entirely handy in the week I lost my voice for 5 days, if only anyone else I knew spoke it. It certainly gave me a new perspective on how frustrating it is to communicate when you can’t just say words.

But just as I was feeling the pressure of the end of the year approaching, the pointy finger of fate jabbed me in the ribs and pointed at a sewing shop crossed with a community project hub more or less a stone’s throw from my current home which runs ‘Introduction to Sewing Machine’ courses.

I have always been a bit scared of sewing machines. From the first ever Home Economics (HE) class at school when we were encouraged to have a healthy respect for the danger of pissing about with the machines via horror stories of thumbs and fingers impaled on needles I have been wary of them. I am massively clumsy and when people say “oh, that’s very rare” what I hear is “it does happen to some people”  which is significant because *I* am the ‘some people’  to which shit  like this usually happens. I remained behind in HE for the rest of my school years due to my point-blank refusal to use one. I am the only person I know who got an ‘E’  grade for HE and had to do remedial sewing as detention as a result.

To learn to sew, properly sew, not just hand stitch the holes in my leggings that my thighs create (the only way I achieve a thigh gap is doing the splits), I have to get over this fear and use a sewing machine.

Our first task was to draw the sewing machine, to get us to really observe the20141108_155117 machine and try to note the detail, and to get our creativity flowing. An artist I am not, but I was always good at the observation round in Krypton Factor; according to the tutor  I am the first person ever in her class to have not only drawn the on switch but the power cable and foot pedal cable too.

Once we’d been given a tour of the machine and had learned how to thread it (the bobbin winding bit is, as far as I am concerned, WITCHCRAFT) she gave us all some material, showed us a drawstring bag she’d made earlier, gave us a small hint that we needed to leave a hole to thread a ribbon through and let us get on with working out how to make our bags.

Having got over the initial OMG FEAR of driving the actual machine I actually rather enjoyed it. I managed to make an entire little bag (which is now keeping all my medication nice and neat, instead of swimming around the bottom of my bag like a ransacked pharmacy) without any impaling incidents whatsoever.

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At the end of the class I proudly announced that I had got through the entire class without impaling any part of my body with a needle but because I am extraordinarily gifted when it comes to being a complete twonk it was at this exact moment I managed to stab myself on the needle hard enough to break the skin. The teacher shrugged. “It takes more than one accident to make a confident crafter”.

Ok, it’s not a dress. And I don’t think I will be whipping up my own outfits for a while yet. But as far as The List goes, it’s 2 down, 2 months to go.

Posted in Drinking, i am a disaster area, Sewing, Sign Language, The List | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

when Hello is not just Hello

Click for HollerbackLondonMy first blog about gender based street harassment was back in 2007. I’ve written about it often since, and joined in various campaigns to raise awareness of the problem. I also experience gender based street harassment on a depressingly regular basis.

So much so that if I do something perfectly ordinary, say for example walk to the shop and back, and haven’t been stared at, followed, had kissy noises made at me, had a #notjustHello (more on this later), been propositioned or asked my marital status – well, I call that a successful walk to the shop. The fact that a walk to the shop that doesn’t feature one of or a combination of these things happens LESS often than a walk that does will perhaps indicate  how often I experience unwanted attention in public places.

So much so that if I walk past a lone man on the street at night, or a group of male youths hanging around, I am practically holding my breath, on edge, trying to look nonchalant, trying to look confident,  and I don’t relax until I am past them; because I am expecting them to say something. If they don’t say anything at all I am surprised, relieved and impressed. This, alas, doesn’t happen often.

So when this video, of a woman receiving more than 100 cat calls in a 10 hour walk – which averages out at 10 per hour – went viral this week, I wasn’t shocked by the content, but I was surprised by some of the reactions I saw, and some of the most common comments I saw made about it.

But this is in New York. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in London.

Yes. It. Does. ALL THE FUCKING TIME. New York isn’t some sort of magical badlands full of crazy street corner mad men whooping and hollering while London is a sparkly unicorn mecca of impeccable gentlemanly manners. This isn’t even limited to big cities. This happens everywhere. All over the world. To almost every woman who ever walked in a public place ever.

Some of those guys were just saying ‘hello’, that’s not really harassment.

Other people have already dealt with this eloquently, so I will be relatively brief here. Sometimes ‘hello’ is not actually ‘just hello’. It depends ENTIRELY on context, tone and intention, and to try to imply otherwise is disingenuous at best. You are working in a shop, A woman walks up to the counter. You say ‘Hello’. congratulations, that’s appropriate. You are in a pub. You have made eye contact with the same woman on multiple occasions. She has smiled at you. You go up and say Hello. This is appropriate –  as long as if it turns out she’s not actually interested you back off.  However, at night, a man saying ‘Hello’ in a suggestive tone to a lone woman? #notjustHello. A group of guys yelling ‘HELLO’ at a lone woman walking past? #notjustHello. If you get pissed off with a woman you’ve said ‘hello’ to because she didn’t respond favourably? #notjustHello. No one owes you a reply just because you said ‘hello’ to them and if you in any way feel entitled to a response then it’s #notjustfuckinghelloisit.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. Before you say ‘Hello’ to a woman you don’t know when there is no obvious context for your ‘hello’, consider this question: “would I say ‘Hello’ to this person if this person was a man?” If the answer is no, then it’s probably #notjustHello. So don’t say it.

Holy shit, this is terrible! It must be so tiring having that happen all the time! I had no idea it was so bad. Does this really happen? Woah!

Forgive me, I need a few minutes to metaphorically kick a few chairs over while I roll my eyes and scream into the void. Really? REALLY? REALLY????

Street Harassment is something women have been talking about and trying to raise awareness of for years. There are countless articles, blogs, features in newspapers. Your female friends have been telling you about their experiences. FOR YEARS. And it took this video for you to realise what it’s like? The relentless, every day, constant, draining ENDLESS parade of men trying to get our attention because somehow they feel entitled to it? This grinding, wearing every day experience that we have been telling you about for years and NOW you get it? Forgive me if that doesn’t exactly make me want to give you a fucking cookie.

I have had too many arguments with men over the years (#notallmen, sure, but then I haven’t met them all) telling me that my subjective experience must somehow be wrong, because it is not the same as their experience. It turns out that to get people to truly understand what I experience nearly every time I leave the house I would have had to get someone to walk around in front of me with a video camera recording it all. Because the words of women was not enough. You needed proof.

Well, now you have it.  You’ve seen the proof. And don’t get me wrong, even though I am clearly frustrated that you didn’t believe us before, I am really glad that some of you are now on our side.  Because we need you. We need male allies here, because this is not a women’s problem. Because it’s only some of you that get it. Those that don’t get it, the quibblers, who think a #notjustHello is perfectly reasonable, who think “nice tits” is a compliment – they might not actually be out there harassing women themselves but they are certainly allowing it to continue by their tacit reinforcement that this behaviour is ok.

On Friday night, in the space of 7 minutes, I experienced 4 incidents of street harassment. I received 2 #notjustHellos, I was followed silently for several minutes by a man who kept standing slightly too close to me, wherever I moved to. And then three young men walked past and one shouted “You look niiiice.” I didn’t respond, because there were 3 of them, and because no one had come to help me with the previous 3 incidents. I felt extremely vulnerable. But my lack of response angered them.  “Hey. Hey. You. What, no thank you? Nothing? Fine bitch, you look bad. Fat slut. Fuck you bitch”.

For a women experiencing street harassment there’s no safe way to respond. Ignoring them isn’t safe. Retaliating isn’t safe. Saying anything positive or even neutral at all in reply invites further exchange and implies their behaviour is in some way acceptable or ok. Telling them to ‘fuck off’ is just plain dangerous – given the reaction to doing nothing. Some initiatives do exist to try to combat the situation, for example Cards Against Harassment  or catcaller forms, but these  also run the risk of retaliation. I did once, ONCE, have a guy who, when I firmly said “sorry, but I don’t want to talk to you”, just walked away and said nothing else. It was so unusual that it was worthy of note.  So what are we meant to do? We can’t ‘keep ourselves safe’ short of never leaving the house.

We can’t solve this problem by putting pressure on women to modify our behaviour or act in a certain way to prevent it or mitigate it because this isn’t a ‘women’s problem.’ It doesn’t stop by changing the way we dress or walk or act.  This is an issue with MEN, and how some men, #NotAllMen but still #FarTooManyMen, feel entitled to women’s attention, feel entitled to pass comment on women’s bodies in public, feel powerful when they treat women like objects and seem to believe that women should be somehow thankful for all this unwanted attention.

The only thing that will cause a big enough shift in society for those that don’t get  it is for those that DO get it to stand up against it. Listen to women when they tell you about their experiences. Believe them. Don’t let your mates engage in this sort of behaviour. Don’t stand by and let women be subject to this behaviour. Don’t let your silence be taken as approval.

I know this can be scary – after all intervening in a situation where a guy is clearly causing a woman to feel harassed could get you punched in the face. But think on this. Women who have stood up to their OWN harassers get punched in the face. The woman who recorded the New York street harassment video received rape threats for highlighting the problem of street harassment. There is no safe way for a woman to stand up to her own harassers. 

I know lots of wonderful men that would never even consider harassing a woman, and who would put themselves at risk to help a woman being harassed the way I was on Friday night; but there’s not enough guys like that. There’s too many shouters and too many quibblers. If you’re not a shouter, and you’re not a quibbler, then stand up for us, and with us, against gender based street harassment.

Posted in feminism, my opinions let me show you them | Tagged , , | 5 Comments