Shrinking Violets

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‘The idea of shrinking is hereditary’ – Rupi Kaur.

For me it’s exactly that. Shrinking myself is a behaviour I learned from my mother. From growing up watching her front room workouts, and I’ll-start-on-Monday diets. It’s a behaviour I learned from the magazines left lying around the house, that I’d cut up to collage and instead admire the stick thin limbs of catwalk models. It’s a language I learned from the soaps I was brought up on. The adults I was brought up by. The books I read too young. Somehow, calorie counting was a rite of passage. It meant I was a grown up.

So Kaur’s poem hit me hard. Hit me because I, like countless other young women, wasted so many of my teenage years trying to shrink myself. Trying to avoid taking up space because I didn’t think I had a right to it. Trying to, ultimately, disappear. I tried to become invisible by starving myself, by standing up on a bus even when there were seats left to take. By staying silent in lessons, and truanting from school.

Asking whether the patriarchy was at the root of my teenage anxieties, or whether my anxiety simply manifested itself in a gendered way is like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. It was an ecosystem of self-hatred and I was the feast; utterly consumed.

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There are a thousand articles that start with the same story. It’s curious that even now we know just how damaging the desire to be thinner is, the message still pervades. We are still told day after day, advert after advert that we need to shrink ourselves. That we need to be less.

To keep all the money and all the power in one male-dominated place, the patriarchy needs us small and silent. So it sells us images of bone thin girls and it sells us the idea that if we try this one thing, buy this one product, we’ll be that much closer to good enough. And we fall for it. Of course we do. They throw millions at this shit. It’s even leaked into the medical profession. Not-thin has become tantamount to being sick. Doctors tell us we’re overweight, even though we exercise our arses off and are toned to high heaven. A nurse sneers at my size 8 sister and tells her to cut back. How can we argue with this? How many women would have gone home from either of these appointments and cried? I know I would have. My confidence knocked with one fell swoop.

Let’s face it, it’s genius. What a way to keep the status quo. What a way to weaken the opposition. Because, how can we fight back if we’re running on empty? How can we function in the workplace if we’re seeing stars from lack of food. How can we speak out about what’s right and wrong, if secretly we hate every last ounce of flesh we’re standing in? How can we unite and fight if we’re racked with jealousy and secretly we’re tearing ourselves apart?

My weakness lately is when I hear other people talking about their diets. It’s all very well throwing out the scales, and ordering in the pizza but when I hear other people saying how much they’ve lost this week, I miss that thrill. I feel guilty for being bone idle and even more, I feel out of the loop. That world used to be mine. But of course, I’m mentally healthier on the outside looking in.

It’s a hard one, and I’m no more enlightened than the rest of us. I’ve relearned a language. Forged a new lens to look at my body through. I don’t weigh myself anymore because it becomes an obsession. I don’t diet any more because it becomes a competition. But I still look at my body from time to time and wish it was better. It’s hard to break the habit of a lifetime. One thing is different though, even if I do slip, I know now I have a right to unapologetically take up space. I know I have a right to put my opinions out in the world, and not feel guilty about it. And I know I need to do more of it; we all do.

We need to stop shrinking, unfurl our wings and broaden our horizons. Outspread the manspreaders. Get on your soap box. Be like my sister who only calorie counts to see what new levels of greed she can achieve in one day. Be loud, be big, be bold, and don’t be afraid to inhabit your space. It belongs to you. Your presence isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a blessing. Own it.

The poem in the photograph is from Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. 

A Brave New World?

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Sunrise with Sea Monsters, J.M.W.Turner

New year, new you – or so the saying goes anyway.

I’ve never really been a massive fan of New Year, and I rarely make resolutions. I’m an absolute Christmas fanatic, but as far as I’m concerned NYE is just any other day. No better, no worse. For me, September has always seemed more of a fresh start. A time for new pens and pencils, the clean white pages of brand new exercise books and promises to work harder than ever. It marked the start of a new school year, my transition to College, then University and later a Masters that I quickly dropped out of. Instead I took a job in a school so September still holds all the significance it did when I was just a child myself.

This year is different though. 2016 has been quite the annus horribilis for all concerned. Frankly, I’m looking forward to seeing the back of it. From Brexit, to Trump, Aleppo, the refugee crisis, Jo Cox and the litany of celebrity deaths, 2016 has been, on the whole, pretty naff. Don’t get me wrong there have been some wonderful, wonderful moments that have made me glow with happiness but if I’m honest, at times, it’s broken my heart. This coming from the woman who wears rose-tinted glasses 24/7.

But 2017 is a new start. We have a chance to make things right. Anything can happen and we can do anything we want, as long as we work hard enough, together. Grab this opportunity with both hands and make the most of our chance to reflect on what wasn’t working out for us this year, and how we can resolve that for the next. How we can be kinder, better, more socially conscious humans for the year ahead, both in our personal lives and on a wider scale.

In response to the doom and gloom of 2016 my resolution is to be a kinder person. I’m not expecting to make a massive difference, but if just enough people show kindness to those around them it’s enough to make a dent in the whole insular, self-serving thing it seems like the world’s got going on right now. It’s the little things that matter. Even if you just make one person smile, it’s something. Buy flowers, cook a nice meal, donate to charity, speak up for black rights, help old ladies struggling with their shopping, object to casual homophobia, let people know you’re there if they need you.

Fighting hate with hate never works. Instead we have to be good. It seems so cheesy and naive but when a small majority is dead set on pitting itself against everyone, love is powerful. Smiles are powerful. Saying hello to strangers on the street is powerful. Being the bigger person. As Dumbledore said:

            ‘‘We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord                Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing bonds of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Can we just make J.K.Rowling queen of the world? Please?)

Have a fantastic new year and remember, be brave, be kind and most importantly, be happy.

Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunrise_with_Sea_Monsters

Feminazis and Nasty Women

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There are lots of bad words. Words that have always been bad, words that have turned bad over time and bad words that are part of our everyday vernacular. And then there are the words used solely against women. Words like ‘Feminazi’.

I can’t even begin to imagine what went through the mind of the man who coined that term, or the minds of the people who throw the word around like it’s nothing. 

I think we can all agree that the holocaust was the single, worst thing that has ever happened. During that period six million Jews were killed by the Nazis simply because they had been brought up with a different belief system. Intersectional feminism, on the other hand, aims to embrace all cultures, religions and races and put an end to discrimination. Feminists believe in an equal society. They strive for a world where men and women, whether gay, straight, black, white or any other variation of other, have the same opportunities. The two words are the epitome of oxymoronic, yet somehow they’ve been married together in yet another attempt to denigrate women.

People might argue that a ‘Feminazi’ only defines a certain kind of feminist. One who believes only in the progress of women, regardless of the impact on men, and in effect has gone full-circle and ended up in misandry. That’s not how the word is used though. It’s bandied about left right and centre and thrown haphazardly toward any woman who dare so much as demand respect. A quick google image search would have you believe the difference is simply that a feminist is someone who is still on a man’s sexual radar. ‘Feminazis’ by comparison are depicted as too old to be sexy, too masculine or else too stereotypically lesbian.

This week, a white, male Facebook friend posted a status complaining about the ‘Feminazis’ making Trump’s election all about women. Forgive us for being concerned that the next President of the United States is an alleged sex offender. Excuse us for wondering what his win will mean for millions of women across America in terms of Planned Parenthood. I’m so sorry that I’m angry about the fact that a man who boasts that he can ‘grab them [unconsenting women] by the pussy’ is now the US president-elect.

I’m sure any woman who posted a status along these lines is well aware of the impacts Trump’s presidency will have on LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and (ahem) straight white males too, but didn’t feel they had to mention every single thought process in their internet rantings. I’m doubly sure that they didn’t think their Facebook posts would be considered tantamount to mass genocide.

Words like ‘Feminazi’ are used to undermine women. A simple way of silencing us. Making us feel like nags, harridans, bitter, twisted, unreasonable man-haters. Nasty women, to quote Donald himself. But seriously, there’s nothing unreasonable about asking for respect. Nothing bitter about speaking out about an issue. Nothing nasty about being a strong woman, especially one who cares for the welfare of other strong women. And in case you were wondering, one hundred percent nothing comparable to the unspeakable actions of the Nazis.

You know what, I’ll happily be a nasty woman or that angry feminist girl, but please quit it with the ‘Feminazi’ thing. It really is one step too far.

Young + Beautiful

We all hate our bodies. We all want to be longer, thinner, bonier, better.The media ruined us and we’re all on a diet. That’s what we’re told anyhow.

I’ve decided to search out all the young women in my life and quiz them on how they really feel about their bodies. Here is the first interview in a series of what will, hopefully, be many. 

Hollie. Blogger, Baker, Art-maker. 20.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

H: Normally my naked body before I go to bed pretending not to not be cold while I try to look sexy.

What do you think or say to yourself when you look in the mirror? Or do you say nothing?

H: I’m not really a deep person…

What is your favourite part of your body and why? 

H: My hands or eyes. Because I’d  be lost without them. Because I can’t make art without them. Because I can’t paint without my hands because I’m not skilled enough and I like to see things, I like to see the world. And you know [having no hands] would make wanking incredibly difficult.

How is your body different to what the media wants from you?

I feel a lot of the time like the media want me to hate my body, and I guess that’s what makes it different, because I don’t. I’m not saying I don’t wish I had a flatter stomach or a bigger bum sometimes, but I don’t hate how I look. I don’t have a strong desire to change. I love the little flaws, the wrinkles on my belly button, the scars from eczema and accidents.

When you’re getting ready to go out, what is your goal?

I want to look good, don’t we all? Maybe I’ll pick a skirt that’s a bit shorter and tighter than I’d normally wear, or a top with a bit more cleavage. Alcohol makes me feel braver, so I’ll wear something brave.

How would you rate your confidence out of 10?

Seven. I’m not unconfident with my body, but I don’t by any means see it as perfect. I don’t walk around flashing it off but I don’t feel I have to hide it, cover it.

Do you feel happy with yourself?

Some days.

Describe your relationship with your body…

When I first started using my body within my art, I began to get confident with my body. I became familiar with the shapes, the curve of my hip and the size of my boobs. I know and understand my body.

Do you think how we look is important?

I feel like as a feminist I should say it doesn’t matter. But here I am with beauty products coming out of my ears, doing sit ups every night before I shower. I don’t think it should matter to other people how we look, but if you care about your appearance, no one should undermine that.

How do you think young people feel about their bodies? Do you believe that the media has fucked us up and distorted our vision?

Of course the media has fucked us up. We all wish we were thinner or curvier or had bigger muscles or a smaller bum. We want our skin to be as flawless as they tell us everyone else’s is. We shouldn’t let the media tell us how they  we should feel about our bodies.

I feel like we should all be happy about our bodies, because they’re ours. It doesn’t matter whether you have wrinkly skin, scars, fat, hair you don’t like, whatever it is. Because you’re beautiful and you should be happy about that.

Reappropriating Reappropriation

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Reclaiming words is officially a thing. From queer, to slut and even n*gga marginalised groups are taking back the words so often used against them and wearing them with pride.

To an extent it seems like a radical move. Reappropriation allows people to own their identities and stick two fingers up at haters in the process. When I first discovered Queer Theory was a thing I enjoyed its stubborn and subversive nature. The first ever SlutWalk in 2011 felt so brilliantly revolutionary and brought women together in a way I’d personally never seen before. It felt like a beginning and got the ball rolling for the mainstream revival of feminism that we’ve enjoyed in recent years. In the same vein calling myself a slut feels liberating; I feel lucky that I live in a society that allows me my sexual freedom.

But there’s another part of me that feels uneasy about using these words. Should we not just put them to bed and banish them completely? It’s safer than leaving them out in the open where they can still be used against us. As someone who loves words, and the wonderful rolling wave-esque way that language continually evolves I’m not entirely keen on this idea of some words being of limits. Words (and a desire to shock) are my thing and some of my favourite words are those that a lot of people tend to avoid. At the end of the day though, it makes sense to call a ceasefire on a culture where there are rules over who can say what and when. It blurs the lines between what’s okay and what’s not and makes the divide between them and us even more intense. Makes us even more apart, separate and opposite. I can call my friend a whore, but if you say it you’ll be on the receiving end of hell. This is not my kind equality; this is a some people are more equal than others kind of equality and it’s bound to end in tears.

Having been on the receiving end of sexism, homophobia and classism myself I can tell you it’s not pretty. The kind of people who hate on minorities definitely don’t need any more fuel for their vitriolic fires. Let’s not give them a get out clause, or be accused of hypocrisy for preventing them from using words we ourselves bandy around like there’s no tomorrow.

On top of this, there’s the fact that the only words feminists have reclaimed are those that continue to define women by their sexualities. Surely this just perpetuates the patriarchal idea that women are purely here for enjoyment of men. That, as an entire gender, we are split up into virgins and whores. There’s a whole litany of other words used against women that have never been reclaimed; words that are part of an unequal his and her pair. Spinster for example, is not something I’ve ever heard anyone call themselves with pride.

 

For myself, and most of the other young feminists I know, calling yourself a slut is no hard feat. It’s a joke, a term of endearment and for some of us a home truth we revel in. The word slips off my tongue on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. And perhaps the reason why I find it so easy to use this word is because it’s not one hundred percent a compliment.

The words that don’t come as easily for me are those that praise myself. While I’ll never have the confidence to call myself intelligent or even kind, and I’ll physically squirm if anyone tells me I look okay I’m totally up for recounting how rubbish I am with directions. How I still struggle with left and right. How one time I couldn’t remember whether the past tense of split was ‘splat’ or ‘splitted’. Pulling yourself down is just easier, funnier and doesn’t run the risk of being perceived as arrogant. And this isn’t just a personal problem. In recent years girl’s self-esteem has been dramatically lower than boy’s. The Girl Guides’ 2015 Girls Attitudes Survey found that 37% of the girls and young women surveyed said that they had personally needed help with their mental health.

The media and the misogynists have long since been blamed for this pandemic of low self-esteem and the mental health problems that come with it. For the fact that women don’t respect themselves and their bodies. For making us feel unworthy, unattractive and immoral. In the same survey mentioned above, 52% of young girls and women had felt uncomfortable about images that sexualised women in newspapers and magazines in the past week alone. It was also the media who first coined the term ‘suffragette’ and used it as an insult against the women fighting for their right to vote. Should we take inspiration from the suffragettes and own ‘cankles’ and ‘cellulite’? Should we draw red circles around our own flaws and wear them as a fashion accessory? Does this take back power or does it just play right into their hands?

I grew up with girls who starved themselves, harmed themselves and tore themselves down in the blink of an eye. I don’t think we need any more words that the world can use against us when we’re already our own worst enemies. We need words that make us feel good about ourselves. Words that everyone can use without causing offence. In a world that continually divides and attacks and pits one group against another, only bringing people together is truly subversive.

I have some fabulous friends who are so brilliant at complimenting themselves and I love them for it. They can literally look themselves up and down in a shop window or a bedroom mirror and say out loud, ‘yeah I look hot.’ They can read an essay or a poem they wrote and celebrate how clever they are. They make me want every woman in the world to be able to do the same.

Maybe these words are the words that we should be reclaiming. The words that make us love ourselves. Those are the words that make us feel powerful.

Still Proud

A sign at Rotherham's Diversity Festival

A sign at Rotherham’s Diversity Festival

We all remember the girl in Mean Girls who says ‘I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school… I wish that I could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and we’d all eat and be happy.’

When I was a kid I used to laugh at her, not understanding how she was so naïve. But as I started writing this, unsure of what I wanted to achieve, it was all I could come up with. I just want us to all get along. I just want us to smile at each other and be happy.

Even though I’ve lived in the same house all my life, the town I grew up in was nothing like the town I find myself living in now. Back then people had never heard of Rotherham and I was still living in a Golden Age where racism and sexism didn’t exist. Unfortunately, these days Rotherham is famous for all of the wrong reasons.

Last year a CSE scandal was exposed. It was reported that 1400 young girls had been exploited between 1997 and 2014. The crimes were extensive and one of the women accused had previously founded and run a children’s charity, but, for some reason, the media decided to focus solely on the fact that some of the perpetrators happened to be Asian. Since then the EDL and Britain First have descended on our town with their hate-fuelled vitriol no less than fourteen times. They have exploited the young victims further in order to raise their own racist profiles and condemned an entire religion rather than the few men who committed the crimes. For a while it seemed like every Saturday they stole our streets from us, and we’d warn each other, ‘don’t go into town this week, EDL are back.’ We all stopped feeling safe and many local businesses crumbled under the pressure.

But now, despite everything,  I’m proud.

People expected us to do nothing, to just let the EDL carry on stamping through the heart of our town. Maybe they even thought we’d join in. Instead the people of Rotherham, and their kindness and their creativity, have fought back against all the odds.

Last September I saw the birth of Love Comes First, an initiative that opposes intolerance and hatred by celebrating the good things in Rotherham. I’ve been to the diversity festival and had my hands hennaed and wrote positive messages to Rotherham on everything from bunting to bedsheets whilst surrounded by people from all over the world and handmade signs asking only for peace. And on Saturday the 5th of September I attended a Unite against Fascism demonstration that objected to Britain First (and a few stray EDL members) yet again marching through our town.

We were a diverse group of people with children standing next to pensioners, Muslims next to Christians and Vicars next to non-believers. We were peaceful. We held banners and signs saying, ‘peace off’, ‘gi’yor’, ‘Rotherham says relax’ and ‘be kind’. People spoke passionately. We remembered the victims of child sexual exploitation with the respect they deserve and held a minute of silence for Mushin Ahmed, the 81 year old Yemeni Muslim who sadly died after being attacked whilst on his way to morning prayers.

Towards the end a few of us bumped into a small group of children who had attended our workshops in the past. They were all around ten and eleven and so amazingly brazen. They were ready for whatever Britain First threw at them, and told us that when they are older they’re going to join the police. It was amazing seeing them so young and so engaged with the politics of their community but my heart sank when one of them asked, ‘do they hate us too?’. The children are all Roma, and moved here from Slovakia. How do you answer that question? How do we live in a society where children are a target of hatred just because of the colour of their skin?

Britain First are angry people who get their points heard by preventing other people from speaking. I, and so many other people have been blocked from commenting peacefully on Britain First’s Facebook page and our opinions have been removed. But I’ve trawled through the comments, and none of ours are angry, or disrespectful or threatening. They talked about peace and justice and humanity. They listened to both sides of the argument and made careful and considerate answers. But from members of Britain First I’ve seen genuine hatred. The following are all quoted word for word from comments on their Facebook page: ‘scum thay should all be shot’ (sic), ‘Muslim = dirty scum peodos’ (sic), ‘should of just petrol bombed the lot of them’ (sic) and the most sickening of all: ‘throw em a 9 year old virgin. That will calm em down. Peedo’s’. (sic) Personally, I’ve been called a ‘paedophile sympathiser’ for being opposed to racism and bizarrely one woman tried to undermine my argument by calling me educated. Worryingly when these comments were reported to Facebook I received a generic response saying that they didn’t violate their community standards.

So far there has been little mention of the positive events in the news; only the negative is interesting enough to be covered. But this needs to be heard. We shouldn’t be ashamed to come from Rotherham and I don’t want to live in a community where people feel unsafe in the towns that they, their parents and often even their grandparents call their home simply because they’re muslim. It can’t go on.

We need to stop hiding our stories, and silencing our voices because we are the real people of England and the real people of Rotherham. Not the racists.

I am so proud to have stood side by side with the people who took off their shoes and prayed in the middle of a protest. The people who got up on the steps that stood in for a stage and talked about how we are one Rotherham and that no one can divide us. The person who kind of joked but was also kind of serious that it would be great if we could swap the members of Britain First for a few thousand refugees who need just need a safe place to stay. And those children, who waved their signs in the air and were ready to take on the world. I’m proud, and I’ll carry on been proud for as long as I share my town with these people.