Saturday, 5 August 2017

Sugar and spice and all things nice

My daughter is big on weaponry. She was given her first skipping rope this week - she used it to tie me up. It made me think about gender differences and how my offspring negotiates them. 

My case study of one, whom I cannot regard objectively, is three-and-a-half years old and very vocal.

She's not the princessy type. While some girls rush to dress up as fairies, she's more likely to go down the pirate, Batman or crocodile route. She likes climbing, riding her bike and weapons - particularly guns and swords. But sometimes she plays mothering games and watches My Little Pony.

Long Walk for a Fairy by Charamelody via Flickr Creative Commons
My bundle of joy's favourite colour is blue. She dislikes tights, but loves pretty dresses. Let her loose in a shoe shop and she'll choose something sparkly, or a (blue) boys trainer. Or both (she hedges her bets). Apparently at nursery she plays with boys and girls equally, but she's never mentioned another girl by name. I find that slightly strange.


I don't like to describe my daughter as a 'tomboy'. I don't like the term (and who's Tom anyway?). It suggests a girl who behaves like a boy, which in turn suggests predefined different ways that girls and boys 'should' behave. When I say she's not very 'princessy' but likes dinosaurs people suggest she is a tomboy, but she isn't - her interests aren't restricted to stereotypical male pursuits.

My daughter isn't a tomboy, she's just herself. She's interested in the things that interest her. Currently principle topics include death, weapons, dinosaurs and poo, and particularly combining these. Her theory of dinosaur extinction has the dinosaurs being killed off by a giant poo falling from space.

I think that the things she does and the choices my littlun makes are largely unrelated to any social conditioning about what girls should and shouldn't do. She's not interested in something because she thinks she should be, or because liking fairies will make her more of a girl - at three-and-a-half she's not sophisticated enough for that. She simply likes what she likes, and what a remarkably pure thing that is. How often do we try to convince ourselves and others that we enjoyed something, because we think we should have enjoyed it, that it was in some way improving, or that saying we liked it makes us look cleverer?

The three-year-old sees stuff in the world around her, and some things spark her interest and curiosity. But the things she says are very different. Toddlers have the luxury of guilt-free hypocrisy. They can speak at length about the philosophy of sharing, completely fail to act on their own advice, but see no problem with the disjunct between their actions and words. My daughter acts on instinct, but her words are much more carefully considered (though often nonsensical).

Girls can't do that

We play a game of Octonauts and swap around who plays which character. I've been told repeatedly that I can't be Captain Barnacles because "girls can't be captains". It's in vain that I explain that my grandmother was a captain in the army. It's just met with denial, because "girls can't be captains
It seems that, somehow, after just three years on the planet, my beloved child already has clear ideas of what girls and boys can and cannot do. I think I've finally succeeded in persuading her that boys can be ballet dancers, but she took some convincing. Still no joy on the captain front.

I patiently explain that girls are as good as boys and boys are as good as girls and they can do whatever they choose to do. She patiently listens and seems to agree with me. But girls still can't be captains.

No matter how hard I try to suggest women and girls can do whatever they want to in life, that we're equal to boys and men, somehow my daughter's experience is telling her differently. You can be whatever you want to be - you just can't be in charge.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Great Weight Debate

So they say size doesn't matter...

I like food. Eating is one of my favourite things to do. But I really hate what happens to me when I have too much of it. It's a problem. I am very much not alone.

Women are so very concerned about how heavy we are. Who hasn't wanted to punch someone when they heard the hateful adage 'A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips'? But then put the cake down all the same.

It's a cruel twist of fate that as women get older they find it harder to keep off the pounds. Having children doesn't help - both the biological changes, but also the exhaustion of chasing and placating energetic little people, which makes us comfort eat, or polish off the remainder of their fish fingers on top of our own.

Tired, angry and hungry

I basically want the body of Britney Spears, circa 2000. She was 19. She's had no children. She could spend her days training to look fabulous while I spend mine at a computer. It's insane. But look how lovely she is. Who wouldn't want abs like that?

Britney Spears at the NFL Kickoff Live 2003 Concert.
Photo by Chief Warrant Officer Seth Rossman for US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes me shudder now to think of the tiny amounts I allowed myself to eat, at one stage of my life. People offered me biscuits and cake and I self-righteously refused even the smallest slice. I did get thin. But I also often felt exhausted, angry and hungry. And I doubt I'm unusual. I would bet that the majority of women, by the time they reach 40, have been through something like this at some point in their lives, had these feelings. How many of us have 'fat clothes' and 'thin clothes'?

My personal obsession with weight has ebbed and flowed for well over a decade now. When people say 'you look well' I translate that as a little bit chubbier (and I should take steps). When I lose weight people tell me. And I love it. I show a couple of extra pounds very easily, so people notice the difference, and comment on it, very quickly. I love it a little bit too much, and I know it fuels the problem, but I don't want it to stop.

Health warning: if this has never happened to you, I totally accept that you think I'm a few chocolates short of the full box. I would have thought that once too. But it's pretty normal (except the bit about Britney Spears, I think that's just me).

My friend at work and I have a weird calorie pact - if someone brings something tasty in for us all to share then either she or I will try it and determine whether it's nice enough to be worth the calories. She recently mentioned the weight loss benefits of getting a sickness bug. Obviously I looked at her like she was a lunatic, but I secretly thought she had a point. I mean, you wouldn't choose to be struck down by a horrible disease, but there's no harm in enjoying the benefits, is there?

Time waisting

The thing that annoys me most about my personal weight obsession is the time I have wasted worrying about how I wish I to be smaller and feeling sad or angry that the numbers on the scales are higher than I want them to be. And the time thinking about eating things I'd decided I 'shouldn't eat'. I wish I could think about something else, but I do really like cake. And cheese. And other food. Particularly cheesecake. I like cooking it and I like eating it. And I like it when other people cook it so that I can eat it.
Photo by Alan Cleaver, via Flickr Creative Commons

If you're not overweight, and you turn down a piece of cake, someone will look at you and say 'you don't need to worry' about all that. And you have to hold your tongue, or explain patiently that you do need to worry about all that. Because if you hadn't spent the past decade worrying about all that - going to the gym and running away from biscuits, you would be at least twice the size you are now. Fact.

Men, too can be concerned about their weight. But not in the epidemic proportions that women are. And I suspect (based on nothing whatsoever) that their worries about the issue are often less deep-routed than ours are.

Apparently, it's easier for men to lose weight than women. So if a man and a woman both start to diet, the weight will fall off him, while it will trickle, or dribble off her. I'm sure there are exceptions to this, on both sides. But our bodies are designed with an additional layer of fat to men's and it clings on to us, resisting attempts to remove it or convert it to muscle.

And of course we all know that women are judged on their appearance so much more than men - female politicians are singled out for comments on their clothes, shoes and general attractiveness, while for men it is an afterthought, usually only mentioned if a significant man is especially handsome or hideous.

Don't be greedy

I'm not advocating chucking out the quinoa and getting down to Mackie Dees. We shouldn't eat too much, or all the wrong things. We should eat well and exercise well. But we should be happy. We should love our bodies for what they are and not aspire to be something else (Britney). Yadda yadda yadda. We all know this.

Feminist, columnist and celeb-arse-licker Caitlin Moran (who annoys me as much as I admire her) was once upon a time much larger than she is now. She wrote something very sensible about the great weight debate: really all you need to do is be 'person-shaped'. We all know what that means, and if you're not too thin or too fat then you're OK and leave it at that. And think about something else.

I'm going to think about something else now.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fear and feminism

I haven't been writing. Have you noticed?

My proverbial pen has been paralysed by fear. And feminism seemed about as much of a defence against it as it does against the spider in the bathroom. I'm a strong independent woman, but you're still massive and hairy and moving very fast in my direction and I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do about that.

So there didn't seem much point in writing about feminism. When people are dying, and running for their lives, and being maimed, and losing everything they have. Why talk about feminism? Why talk about anything, really, except how to save ourselves and stop it happening quite so much.

A year of tragedies

Lately I've felt weighed down by all the bad things that are happening around us,

A year ago today a hardworking MP, Jo Cox, was stabbed and left bleeding to death on the street. She left behind a husband and young children.

There are terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. People target concerts that eight-year-old girls go to see. My girl will be doing that in a few years. And I am scared. People I know have been just metres from bombs going off in European cities. I am worrying about my loved ones.

Feminism, and what it stands for, is one of the many mixed up things that our current crop of terrorists are upset about. Women being free to wander about freely with their faces uncovered and arms on show having jobs and driving and generally having their own business to go about. Democracy. Liberalism. The possibility of actually being happy. All bad things, apparently.

I sent my boyfriend across the world on a business trip with warnings to be careful, but it soon became clear that we were the ones who had to be careful. Our country is becoming one of those places that foreign governments and news outlets label as 'too dangerous' to visit. People are not sure they should come.

I grew up in London in the 1980s. Terrorist attacks were a fact of life, but no less terrifying. And now they're here again. This time with no warnings, and with everyday vehicles turned into dangerous weapons.

Then this week another tragedy, nothing to do with terrorism. Awful stories. It seems so disjointed that amid all these terrorism attacks another unrelated tragedy should occur. We were expecting people to try and blow us up, drive into us, not for something to just catch fire. I'm turning off the radio and looking away from the television news, but painfully tragic stories seep through in social media. I'm haunted by the small boy who lost hold of his mum's hand escaping from the tower block. She lived and he died and what parent doesn't feel for that poor woman who will never stop wondering what she should have done differently. It could have been any of us.

A sinking ship

And it's not just the tragedies. There's politics too.

A year ago we voted to leave Europe, pull up the drawbridge and fortify our little island against foreigners. We'll no longer be European citizens, but little Englanders. And we'll probably sink as a result. We're already too dangerous for people to visit. Will we become poor too?

With our legacy of the British Empire, the island that ruled the rest of the world, we forget that we are really very small now - just a little speck of dust in Donald Trump's eye. We may have an indomitable British spirit, but we are eminently squashable.

Working together with our neighbours, we can bring businesses and skills to the table. But out on our own we really are just a bunch of insurance salesmen and drug pushers (our biggest exports).

We had an election which seemed it would be a foregone conclusion to the Tories, who are steadily dismantling the National Health Service. A week is a long time in politics. In a week there was a sea-change. The left pulled their finger out and hey presto, a hung parliament. But the delight was short-lived, to get a majority the Tories teamed up with some ultra right wingers, anti-abortionists etc. Can this end well?

Exploiting a tragedy

I resent that the media and social media seems to want to use the Grenfell Tower tragedy as a chance to have a pop at our Prime Minister, Teresa May. I'm no fan of May, I'd quite like her gone. But not because she's rubbish at hugging people.

Jeremy Corbyn met the victims and the Queen did, but May didn't. Corbyn is brilliant at empathising with people. He throws his big, cuddly arms around them, he listens to what they say and knows what to say back. And the Queen is our figurehead. It's her job to visit her subjects when they're in trouble.

May's job is different. She's clearly no good at this public compassion stuff. But I don't care that May's not cuddly. I'd far rather my Prime Minister locked herself in a room with some clever people and worked out what to do about this disaster and how to prevent it from happening again, It comes on the heels of a lot of other things, but it leaves a nasty taste to use the tragedy in this manner.

And now

We're in the midst of a lot of sadness, and there's no knowing if or when it will end. This is not new. Things like these happened every day, all over the world, but it's close now.

Stay safe, tell your loved ones you love them, hug your children and enjoy the flowers.