Thursday, 26 September 2019

"You can't go out dressed like that"

Rapy knickers and skirt-rolling: what women and girls wear shouldn't matter, but we still want to protect them.

What women wear is the cause of endless speculation. There are articles written about the clothes worn by members of the Royal family to different events and what they signify. Go into a department store and compare the amount of floor space dedicated to dressing women compared with men.

Rapy knickers?
Photo by Henry Henrietta via Flickr Creative Commons
In 1998 judges at the Supreme Court in Italy ruled that a woman can't have been raped by a man because she was wearing tight jeans which were difficult to remove, so she must have helped, proving the sex was consensual. The ruling was overturned ten years later, but move on another decade to Ireland where a lawyer suggested in 2018 that, because a woman was wearing a thong with a lace front, she was attracted to the defendent and open to a sexual encounter.

An exhibit in Belgium last year replicated the clothing that women wore when they were raped. It wasn't tiny skirts and lacy thongs. It was pyjamas, tracksuits, calf-length dresses, shirts and trousers, and even a work uniform - normal clothes for normal people who just happened to be victims of a horrible crime.

I'd like to think it was now accepted that the only person to blame for rape is a rapist. But there's still a way to go before we stop questioning women for their choices, their behaviour, rather than placing the blame squarely on the aggressors. You can't accidentally rape someone, just as you can't accidentally break into their house and steal all their stuff.

Feminism v protection

So, then, to parenting, where 'she should be able to wear whatever she likes' becomes 'I have to keep her safe' which easily turns into 'you can't go out dressed like that'. As my friend said to me recently, "I'm a feminist, but I'm a mum first." We all are - feminism is political, it's intellectual, it's interesting, it's important. But motherhood is primal.

We fight for the right for all women to wear what they like, but that doesn't mean we're happy to send our children out into the world wearing clothes that highlight a female sexuality before they've developed one.

In the shops this summer you could find loads of shorts for small boys that extended to the knee, while girls' shorts stop at the top of the thigh. Why the difference? We're not talking teenagers are, who know what they want and they will want to wear the clothes they see on YouTube or wherever they hang out, so if tiny shorts is where it's at, that's what the shops need to give them. But it's not teenagers, it's 5, 6, 7, 8 year-olds, whose parents will generally shop for them. Can't our kids stay kids for little longer? Do we have to dress them as young women?

Photo by Eric Parker via Flickr Creative Commons

Teenage girls for generations have been rolling up their school skirts to show a little more thigh and many girls in the 90s went out wearing a tiny satin nightie. I remember with fondness the navy blue PVC skirt that I dearly hope my daughter never gets her hands on (I can't bring myself to throw it out).

Girls are still rolling up their skirts, they're tying up their T-shirts to expose their midriffs, and probably lots of other things that I haven't caught onto yet. We can't stop them - they'll do it as soon as they get on the school bus, and the more we try, the more they'll do it. And rolling up a skirt never caused a women to be sexually assaulted or raped - a bloke did that.

It's normal that girls and young women use clothes to experiment with how they look, with their sexuality, and push the boundaries. And it's normal that their parents want to stop them.

Do I sound like a hypocrite? I'm saying that women and girls should wear what they want, but I'm uncomfortable seeing sexualised young girls, and I don't want my daughter going out like that. One day I know that, even if I don't speak them out loud, the words 'you can't go out dressed like that' will run through my head.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Great Skincare Swindle

How many cosmetic and cleaning products are you using on yourself? Do you know what they all do? We're becoming increasingly aware of what we put into our bodies, but not really thinking about what we put onto them.

The billion-squillion dollar cosmetics and skincare industry is genius. It offers a panacea to youthfulness and beauty and we throw our money at it, slathering our faces and bodies in beautiful smelling chemicals, without a clue what they do. This isn't new - from the Ancient Egyptians onwards we've been slapping on dubious products - lead, arsenic and belladonna have all been used in the pursuit of beauty.

I looked at the products I use on a normal day, and I recalled what I used 10 years ago, when I was 30 years old, and 10 years before that. It doesn't look like I use that many things, until you think about the fact that I'm putting all those things on my skin every day. And this is without the moisturisers, foot scrubs, face masks, hair dye and foundations I might want to use occasionally, when I actually make an effort...

A typical day in the life of my bathroom cabinet when I was 20 (basically just kept clean), 30, and then 40.
I think I'm reasonably low maintenance, but I've gone from using four products a day to 16. At this rate of increase (doubling every 10 years) I will be using 64 different products every day when I'm 60!

What do we want from skincare and cosmetics?

Women are complex always-changing creatures, so I can only speak for me, now. At 40, I want to look pretty, smell nice and preserve my attractiveness for as long as possible. I also want to do these things within my means and without damaging myself or the planet.

What do these things actually do? I still remember the time I went into the Body Shop and a sales woman started telling me about the special particles in something or other - sales patter masquerading as science.

We know that make-up works, because we can see the results immediately. Applied correctly, it makes us more attractive. We know that soap, shampoo and deodorant make us less smelly. Conditioner makes hair softer and easier to brush. What about the other things? I have no idea if the moisturiser I put on my face is actually protecting it, or what it's supposed to be protecting it from - damage and dust from the outside world, or the effort of holding up my face for 40 years?

Nine steps to loveliness

I looked up what the beauty gurus recommend I should be doing to my face every day, now that I'm 40. I found The Ultimate Skincare Routine for your 40s (written by two people who make a living from selling and writing about beauty products). It's pretty typical - there's a lot of stuff like this out there. You're supposed to do all these steps twice a day, with variations for morning and evening. I've paraphrased them for you:
  1. Cleanse - wash your face with chemicals
  2. Cleanse again - with some different chemicals (in case you missed a bit)
  3. Tone (rub some kind of alcohol on your face)
  4. Exfoliate (scrub in case the cleansing wasn't good enough)
  5. Antioxodise with serum - very concentrated moisturising stuff that no one seems able to explain
  6. Retinol - helps regenerate old skin cells or something
  7. Eye cream - because you're probably feeling a bit sore now
  8. Moisturise - put back the grease that you just took out
  9. Face oil (apparently different to moisturiser) - gives you something to cleanse off tomorrow
Do normal people really do all this every day? I do just three of these and it feels like a lot. When are you supposed to find time to do anything else? And it must cost a bomb!

There is so much written about skincare products, it's almost impossible to find any proper answers about what these things are - when you try, you are just deluged with articles claiming they are the best things ever without really having any explanation of what they do. Where 'research' has been done, it seems to involve giving a bunch of women a cream and asking them if they like it. I haven't yet found anything to say whether or not any of this stuff actually works.

Destroying the planet

Perhaps my biggest concern about all this consumerism is the toll it takes on the planet. There's the packaging for starters - a lot of plastic. Of course I recycle, but it would be a lot better if I didn't buy these things in the first place. If I want small bottles to carry around, then I buy large bottles and decant them into smaller reusable ones. I have switched to shampoo bars which cuts out plastic bottles and I use soap not shower gel, which is much more economical on packaging. But there's still a lot of plastic.

Then there's the products themselves. The ones with the exfoliating beads wash into our water supply and damage plants and animals (avoid them). Then there's animal testing. I Google cosmetics that don't test on animals before I buy, but invariably these brands aren't available on my small-town high street. I want to buy this stuff in a shop, not online, because that way I can try it on and see what I'm getting, and also save the ridiculous amount of packaging it's apparently necessary to post this stuff.

It's hard to find soap that doesn't contain palm oil. This stuff is an environmental disaster that has led to epic deforestation with species like chimpanzees losing their homes and therefore their lives. I don't want to kill chimps so I'm trying to find products without palm oil. It's almost impossible and made even more difficult because palm oil masquerades as other things on packaging (palm kernel, palmitate, palmate...)

All the mainstream brands of soap that I have found contain palm oil. I ventured into Lush (for the first time) to buy a bar of palm oil free soap. It cost me £6.70. That is ridiculous. I just want to wash my body without orphaning any chimps. Does that really involve paying nearly £7 for a bar of soap? What did we do before they invented palm oil?

Destroying my body

So I'm tripping along smearing moisturiser into my face and then I see something on Facebook about cosmetic products linking to cancer. Because what are these things made of? Chemicals. So we're smearing chemicals all over our faces and bodies. And thinking this is a good idea. Far from giving us the appearance of eternal youth, they may actually be hastening death.

If we follow the nine steps above that so many skincare gurus are telling us then we are smearing no fewer than none types of unknown chemical into our faces every day, probably more if we use different products in the morning and evening. On top of that there's the washing products - shower gel, shampoo, deodorant, and of course the make-up, made of more chemicals.

What the great skincare swindle means for all of us

To summarise, if you are a woman then you are probably spending a lot of your time and money smothering your face and body with chemicals that could not only damage you, but are very definitely damaging the world around you. I want to be beautiful. You want to be beautiful. But maybe we need to be more sensible about our pursuit of beauty. And apply a healthy squirt of scepticism to the skincare and cosmetics industry, before we hand over all our hard-earned money.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

How Trump’s America is taking back women's bodies

The United States of America considers itself one of the most progressive countries in the world. It's the Land of the Free with the Great American Dream. What they don't say it it's The Land of the Free Men, where any opportunity is open to anyone, just as long as you're a man.

In the country that has never yet had a woman in charge, Alabama this week passed a bill stopping women having abortions.

Whether the child is severely disabled, the result of incest or the product of rape makes no difference. Once a woman has seen the blue line on the pregnancy test she's responsible for it for the next 18 years. A doctor performing an abortion can be sentenced to 99 years in prison.

The Pro Choice argument

It should be enough to say women should have the right to abortion because no one should be forced to have a baby if they don't want to. But it's obviously not, so I'm going to spell it out anyway.

We know from history what banning abortion means, and it's not more happy smiling children in idyllic family settings. It means bringing yet more unwanted children into the world who will be at risk of physical and mental suffering, who may have to suffer the distress at being removed from the parents who didn't want them in the first place. It means children of women who have been raped growing up hating a part of themselves knowing their existence is only down to abuse. It means desperate women seeking out dangerous underground solutions to terminate their pregnancies which put themselves at risk. It means women having to give up the lives they wanted to care for children they shouldn't have had.

The anti-abortion argument

What shocks me most is that there doesn't seem to be much of a counter argument. It goes something like this: "I think that this supreme being that I believe in probably doesn't want women to terminate their pregnancies, so therefore it should be stopped." It doesn't seem to take into account all the people who don't believe in that particular supreme being, or in this assumption about their god's beliefs. Or indeed the lives and bodies of women.

Men taking over women's bodies

There were 25 people who voted to approve the new law. Six who voted against it. Of these 31 senators, four were women. Can you guess which group the women were in? Yes, they were the small minority that voted to continue allowing women in Alabama to have abortions. So only two men voted that women should be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies.

The new ruling is opening the floodgates to 16 other states which are considering cracking down on women's rights over their own bodies.

I hope that in a few years time those 25 (white) senators will be prepared to open their homes to foster some of the many children who will be born into difficult circumstances as a direct result of this legislation.

Photo by Victoria Pickering via Flickr Creative Commons
Abortion may not be for everyone, and if you don't agree with it, then don't ever have one, but pregnancy, childbirth and bringing a child into the world should be a choice, both for the women and the children involved.

When a society stops allowing women to make their own decisions about our bodies, then we are instantly made more vulnerable and less important than men, who do not have these restrictions. If men really want women to stop having abortions then maybe they should stop having sex with them.


Today it's Alabama, but anti-abortion bills have been introduced across the US and other states could follow suit. I know I'm writing this purely for the people who already think as I do. But if I can provide just a few more words in support of those women in Alabama who are fighting for their freedom, then it's worth it.

It is absolutely essential that we, as women, insist that we are the ones qualified to make decisions about our own bodies. Men should not be doing this for us.

If ever there were an argument for women to be involved in the political process, then this is it. Because if the Alabama senate had been reflective of gender balance, with 17 female senators instead of just four, this bill would never have got through and women in Alabama would still have been able to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Turning 40

I turned 40. I’m still getting over it. I expect that by the time I have got over it I will be well past it. Possibly closer to the next big milestone.

The year I turned 40, life hit me in the face. I had two miscarriages, a collapsing roof to deal with, and then I very nearly lost my Dad. Oh and my daughter started school. I don’t lump that in with the other things, but it was a major life event and having a child in school is another being a proper grown up milestone. No matter that, at 40, I am one of (if not the) older mothers in the tiddler section of the school. It was the year that I had to face life and think about death

So a couple of months ago I finally became middle aged. And I can’t get my head around it. It’s only a number, but it’s a big number, it marks a new life stage and, even if I live to 100, I’ve now used a large chunk of my time.

My friend invited me to her husband’s 40th birthday party, shortly before I reached the milestone. I puzzled over the invite. “But I’m sure we already did this, a couple of years ago.” Slowly, it dawned. That was 10 years ago you idiot - that was his 30th. So there goes a decade. It’s true you know – time really does speed up as you get older. Except for Monday mornings. 

Chocolate and mortality in Bruges

Turning 40 came as a bit of a shock. I’d just about come to terms with being in my thirties. I was comfortable with that. I felt like I got good at it. I accomplished a few things as well. When I turned 30 I was married with no children. Since then I have gained a PhD, a divorce (surprisingly not related to the PhD) a good job, a five-year-old child and a new partner. I have also moved house four times (maybe not an achievement, since one of the times was moving back with my parents) and grown out my fringe (we’d been together a long time). I have still failed to publish a novel, but I have a blog which was going pretty well until my annus horribilis kicked in (more on that shortly). Put like that, maybe I don’t sound so bad. I mean, at least I’m doing stuff with my time.

Turning 40 was the bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for me. Two miscarriages, a collapsing roof (very expensive and stressful to sort out), redundancies at work and my Dad spent 12 weeks in hospital dicing with death (he got better).  

My 40th birthday was spent wandering happily around beautiful Bruges hand in hand with my beloved, drinking beer that is stronger than I can possibly handle. It was idyllic. The icing on the cake (metaphorical at the time, although I got one a few weeks later) was my mum’s heartfelt message that my Dad had suddenly taken a huge turn for the better.

My new favourite place in the world: Bruges. Photo by Jacob Surland via Flickr Creative Commons

Fear begins at 40

I moved into my 40th year on this planet feeling bruised from a relentless few months. Trying to spend and treasure every possible moment with my loved ones. And feeling terrified about the future, because when the past 12 months can do that to you, then you can’t help wondering what the next 12 will bring. My dad came face to face with his own mortality this year, and we faced it too. There were many times when my family and I were certain we were losing him. Once, my daughter, who always starts difficult conversations from the back of the car, asked me: “Will I ever see Grandad again?” And I had to keep driving and say brightly “of course you will, sweetheart” hoping that it was true, not least because I knew he, the one who was waiting outside the door when she was born, was missing her even more than she was missing him.

And I look back on my year of horror and realise that so much of that is what being 40 is. I’m grown up now, so while my little girl is allowed to fall apart, I am not. Disasters, like collapsing roofs, will happen and I will just have to deal with them, not necessarily alone. Miscarriages – if you’re going to try and have a baby at this time of life, then they’re more common too. And whilst once I needed my parents' support (and still often do), now sometimes they need mine.

I've noticed I type my date of birth now self-consciously – it seems such a long time ago. I don’t want to admit to my younger colleagues that I remember the eighties, that I grew up in a world without memes and mobile phones.

Many of my friends got to 40 ahead of me, and they seem to be coping OK with it. Is it just me? 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

What not to say to someone who's had a miscarriage

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who has just had a miscarriage. It's a difficult time and it's not your fault if you don't know what it's like. So I'm making it a bit easier for you. Here's what not to say.

1. At least you already have a child.

Maybe this makes it easier in the long run, but in the immediate aftermath of a miscarriage it's not helpful, because it's not about having a child, it's about having this child, the one that's been lost.

2. Next time you'll have a healthy pregnancy.

A doctor said this to me, but I don't care how medically qualified you are - it's bullshit. Maybe I won't be able to get pregnant again. And if I do the chance of that one miscarrying are exactly the same as they were for this one. So maybe I'll have a healthy pregnancy, or maybe I won't. Either way, it's not a dead cert so don't treat me like an idiot and promise what you can't deliver (pun alert).

3. It was very early.

Obviously I know that, and maybe it makes it easier, maybe it doesn't, but you saying it is not helpful. Because from the second I became pregnant my body and my brain was preparing to have that baby, and now it's not going to happen, so I have to adjust to that. Just because it was early doesn't stop it being a big deal.

4. At least you can get pregnant. 

There's not a lot of point in getting pregnant if you don't end up with a baby. You get all the hassle - putting on weight, nausea, avoidance of lovely food and wine - without the lovely outcome.

5. It wasn't meant to be. 

If you'd spent hours cooking me a lovely dinner, and I came round to your house and we had a nice chat and a glass of wine and were both getting really hungry and you went to dish up the feast you'd been labouring at all day, only to find that the cat had just eaten the lot, and then I said to you 'It wasn't meant to be', what would you do? Obviously my maybe-baby wasn't viable - but you're not saying that because that sounds a bit clinical and insensitive (correct). Just don't assume I share your crackpot notions of fate.

6. You will have a healthy baby, I know you will. 

No you bloody don't. Shut up and see #2.

7. Are you going to try again? 

None of your business. I haven't got over this yet, so why are you asking me? Trying again means opening myself up to the possibility of another loss, so don't make me think about that right now.

Empty Swings by Viola Ng via Flickr Creative Commons

If you don't know what to say, that's OK. And it's OK to not really understand. I couldn't really understand, until it happened to me. And I didn't know what to say. "Sorry" is good. It doesn't need any more than that.

Saying nothing

Everyone's different, but to me, saying nothing is worse than saying the wrong thing. Saying nothing suggests that you don't care, while saying the wrong thing is annoying, but at least I know you mean well. 

So next time you hear someone has had a miscarriage, say you're sorry that their baby died, sorry they had to go through it, just sorry. Ask them if they're OK (but don't expect that they will be), ask them if there's anything you can do, and if you've had one yourself and want to share your experience, then do.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Taking the mystery out of miscarriage

Last year I became one of many women who has experienced a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. It was quite horrible. Then I did it all over again, just to be sure. 

The physical discomfort was nothing on the feeling of devastation that this wonderful thing that I had thought was growing inside me, that would have a name, and a mother and a father and a big sister, was ebbing away to nothing.

Around one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage (Miscarriage Association). Based on a very unscientific poll of my friends, around half of my friends with children have had a miscarriage at some point. It’s very common. If you’re a woman in your 30s or 40s you will definitely know several people who have been through it. But you might not know they have, because we don't like to talk about it.

Early pregnancy

The second I found out I was pregnant I began to make plans about how we would fit a new little person into our lives. We mapped out the rest of our year with thoughts of pregnancy and infancy, preparing to be a four not a three. And I worried constantly about how I would cope with a second child.

I try to be pragmatic about it. My pregnancies miscarried because they weren't viable. The embryo or whatever it was, could never have been a person, and in that sense it wasn’t a loss. 

That’s a lot of crap really. It’s true, and maybe it helps. But the moment you become pregnant your body and brain starts preparing to have a baby. It may not even be a foetus yet, just a microscopic collection of cells, but your body starts to make room for it. I was eating and exercising more or less as I had been before, but I was getting bigger. Maybe I could still fit into most of my normal clothes, but they weren’t comfortable anymore. 

Pregnancy is hard. Some days I felt totally fine. But at other times it felt that the thing that was trying to grow inside me was taking every piece of my energy, and I could hardly pick my feet up. There had only been very few weeks of this. But afterwards it still hurt that it was all for nothing.

Photo by via Flickr Creative Commons

Sharing the news

There’s a lot of secrecy around the early days and weeks of pregnancy. There are reasons not to tell too many people too soon. You don’t want people congratulating you too quickly, when it can so easily go wrong. Maybe you don’t even believe it’s real until you get a bit bigger, see it wriggling around on a scan, hear a heartbeat. Or perhaps if you inform everyone of your good news, you don’t want to have to re-inform them that it’s gone wrong, so soon.

A positive pregnancy test is just a coloured line - it's a long way from a baby and I wouldn't advocate shouting far and wide as soon as you see the second line. It's nice to keep it between the two of you for a while. But being a bit more open about early pregnancy and the possibilities for it to go wrong might not take the sting out of miscarriage, might help take away some of the mystery. And if we knew how often it happened, maybe we'd be a little better prepared when it happens to us.

I told quite a few people I was pregnant. After it went wrong, I was glad I'd told them. My family could step in and help me in practical ways when it went wrong, without the need for much explanation. My friends talked to me, and told me about how it happened to them, and helped me feel less alone and despondent about it. Others just gave me a hug, which told me all I needed to know.

The end of a pregnancy

Miscarriage was just a word before this. I knew it meant a pregnancy that went wrong, but that was about it.

I learnt that, for me at least, miscarriage is a process not an event. I’d expected it to be over within hours at the most, but the first took 11 days in the end. That’s 11 days from hope and happiness to a horrible cycle of fear, anxiety, distress, pain, sadness. My second miscarriage took longer, and included surgery. 

I had no idea what to expect. Was I going to have contractions, like in childbirth? Would I be bent double in pain? Would I see the remains of a baby? Would I wake up in the night in a pool of blood?
I asked the doctors what to expect, and how long it would take, but they said they couldn’t really tell me. And when you're scared, distressed and confused it's hard to know what questions to ask. I found some graphic descriptions of miscarriages on the internet, but didn’t know what would apply to me.

Considering so many of us experience miscarriage, you’d think there would be quite a lot of information about it. The people close to me, who had been through it before, helped me the most. So I’m glad I felt I could tell them.

Rude Nasty Girl's miscarriage tips

I hope this doesn't happen to you, but if it does, here are my four top tips:

  • Don’t drink too much! If you think you're having a miscarriage you'll probably get an ultrasound scan. You’re told to go with a full bladder, but you’ll probably be kept waiting and it can be quite painful. Also, as what they’re looking for may be much smaller than a usual scan they may press very hard, which is extremely painful on a full bladder, so don’t overdo it.
  • Take a pen and notepad: You might not be very with it and take in what’s going on, so write down things like your next appointment, or anything important they tell you that you want to remember. You might find it’s all a blur afterwards.
  • Take drugs. You can’t stop the emotional pain but you can tackle the physical pain. Keep painkillers by you, make sure you’re stocked up and knock them back whenever it starts to hurt. You don’t need two types of pain in your life.
  • Take time: I didn’t do this. I didn’t give myself enough time. I wish the doctors had told me not to go to work, but they didn’t. And when you’re full of pregnancy hormones and grief, you’re not necessarily in the best place to know how best to deal with it. I was desperate for it to stop hurting and it seemed like the fastest way to get there was to carry on as normal. Wrong.

More about miscarriage

When I was going through this I couldn't really find the kind of information I wanted to. There's no shortage of information pregnancy and babies but it's a different story with miscarriage, which is shocking given that one in four pregnancies ends this way. These are some of the few useful places to go:

Tommy's, the baby charity funds research into miscarriage, which includes my local clinic, and encouraging women to share their experiences 

The Miscarriage Association provides help and information on miscarriage

Clear and comprehensive information about miscarriage from the Royal Women's Hospital, Victoria that could help women everywhere.