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. 

Chick Lit #1

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t read enough feminist classics to be a proper feminist. I’ve dipped in and out of The Second Sex, and had a go at The Female Eunuch. They’re interesting enough and thought-provoking, but they’re not exactly light reading. I fall in love with a book much quicker if it’s kind to me. If I can read it in one sitting, or read it with my heart racing wanting to find out more, devastated when I finally have to put it down. I love a book with characters I can relate to and language that’s a dream.

I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite books, which also happen to be full of wonderful women. Books that make me feel like a good feminist, without having a side-order of brain-ache. There’ll hopefully be a mix of poetry, prose, old and new; a bit of something for every last one of you literary ladies, gentlemen and those who identify as non-binary, too. Snuggling up with a brew, a blanket and one of these books is the perfect way to spend a Wintery evening.

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         1.  We should All be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After watching Adichie’s wonderful TEDTalk of the same name, I was eager to read this essay. I was over the moon to receive it as a Christmas present last year and devoured it in one sitting. The second I had finished, I turned straight back to the first page and read it again; this time more slowly, making notes as I went along. In the essay Adichie defines feminism and sums up why the movement is still as relevant and necessary as ever in the same engaging, and accessible voice she uses in her fiction. ‘The problem with gender’ she says, ‘is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are.’ Wonderful women like Adichie are everything that is right with this world.

2. Milk and Honey – Rupi Kaur

  Milk and Honey is not simply poetry. Described on her website as a ‘recipe book for healing’, it’s exactly that. I took so much away from it and go back to it for advice and wisdom all the time. It just feels so honest and so relevant. Reading Kaur’s wise words on abuse, relationships and recovery you can tell she is just a young women like any other, trying to make her way in the world. I’ve only had my copy for a couple of months and it’s already dog-eared with post-it notes sticking out of all my favourite pages. It’s a collection to live your life by.

3. Good Bones – Margaret Atwood

Atwood is one of my absolute favourite writers and this collection of short stories and essays showcases just how much she can do with a pen. In ‘Gertrude Talks Back’ Hamlet’s mother is given a witty and humorous voice, and adds a sinister twist to the play we all know. In ‘Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women’ she thanks all the stereotypes of women that litter the history of literature and in her fantastic essay ‘The Female Body’ she tackles very real issues in her typically surreal and satirical fashion. This is one of those books that I insist on lending out to people constantly because it’s just so brilliant. 

 

4. Everyday Sexism – Laura Bates

This book is a hard one to swallow. Like Bates’ hugely popular website of the same name, this book details the cold, harsh realities of being a woman in a world that still has a long way to go. I cried my way through parts of it, particularly the chapter ‘Young Women Learning’. Condensed, it is quite overwhelming just how many experiences of Everyday Sexism are packed into this book, so it’s important that you remember whilst reading, that amongst all of this rubbish we have to deal with there is ten times as much good stuff going on in the world. But… this book is a very important one to read. Divided up into chapters such as ‘Women in Politics’ and ‘Motherhood’ Bates details how gender inequality affects us all and reminds us just how much work we have to do.  

5. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

This book tugs on your heartstrings like nothing before. I’ve read it twice, several years apart, and both times I’ve actually sobbed. Not just a couple of stray tears, but actually heaving sobs. The novel focuses on Mariam and Laila, two Afghan women from different generations who find themselves living under the same roof. Spanning from the Soviet-Afghan war right through to Taliban rule A Thousand Splendid Suns touches upon so many themes. Along the way we encounter illegitimate children, forced marriages, domestic violence, motherhood, female friendship and above all the pure strength of women. 

 

Next week I’ll be writing about five more of my favourite books. If you have any recommendations, comment below!