Thoughts on the Manchester Arena Attack

I live around the corner from Manchester Arena. Last night, as I walked home from work, I smiled to myself at all the adorable teenage girls on their way to some concert or other. They had on their best sparkly tops, those terrible giant hair bows, pink lipstick cadged from their mums’ make up bags. Excitement was palpable as they streamed along the pavement, tugging away from long suffering parents, just kids on the brink of that first taste of independence. Last night, someone walked through that crowd of teenage girls like I did, a homemade explosive strapped to their body, and knew that some of them would never make it home.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the tragedy of what happened in Manchester Arena last night. Even listening to the sirens and helicopters from my bed, I assumed that it was a car chase or a drugs bust. Never, for one moment, did I think that someone would have attacked innocent people on my own doorstep. It is so easy for us to feel immune to these kind of events, to think that our privileged lives in this privileged city protect us from things like terrorism. Self-centred creatures that we are, sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to happen in our own community before it becomes truly real. Where we spoke calmly in my office about the attacks in London earlier this year, this morning my boss’s voice cracked as he talked to us about this attack in our own city. These could have been our children, our friends, even – had I been heading home past the arena after going for a beer, as I so often do – me.

So, what can we do? Firstly, our thoughts or prayers should be with those who have been affected by this terrible tragedy. With those whose loved ones went out last night and never came home. Those who, instead of stories told in voices high-pitched with E-numbers and excitement, of dance routines performed on the living room carpet, ended last night in a silent horror that can never be healed. Our hearts go out to them. If you know anyone that has loved ones missing, they can call the emergency line that has been set up to help on 0161 856 9400. There is also a vigil in Albert Square at 6pm tonight, if you wish to share this moment of grief with the community and show that our city will stand strong in the face of adversity.

Secondly, we can make sure that we have pulled together, both with our community and with our own loved ones. We are not immune. Our good jobs, our nice cars, our beautiful flats, cannot protect us from tragedy. This is not happening to someone else. Make sure you have called your mum. Lay all the hatchets to rest that would seem so utterly worthless in the face of real calamity. Tell all the people you couldn’t bear to lose that you love them. We are so lucky, but it’s so easy to spend our lives hiding from the hard emotions, to think that we have time to put things right. There may not be time: do it now.

I was hesitant to write this, because nothing seems so inadequate as the sound of your own voice when such an overwhelming tragedy has occurred. But if we allow ourselves to be silenced, by fear or by inadequacy, already these horrific tactics are beginning to work – beginning to win. This is a time to stand up and make your voice heard, a time to say we are not afraid and we will not be cowed. Fear and hate cannot win, because we will not let them win.

Advertisements

In Defence of Confession, And Why It’s Not Better to Last Than to Burn

“Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?” – Roland Barthes.

Recently, I’ve been feeling very inferior. Somewhat undereducated and woefully under-read, I’ve been writing more and feeling increasingly less confident in what I’m writing. Confessional to a fault and driven rather by the burning need for catharsis than any intellectual desire to impart anything to the reader, my effluence of prose is rarely anything more than a pack of drama-laden words hunting for a point. I cover the same ground over and over, seeking for a way to make it more viscerally real rather than identifying new viewpoints, new ideas. This has been panicking me; but I am determined to be panicked no more.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is fundamentally flawed to suggest that the confessional, the experiential is, by its nature, not saying anything more than ‘this is what happened, this is how I feel’. The greatest joy of conversation is (or, more accurately, should be) the connection that we make to other people. Performative conversation is a fascinating thing; two people peacocking knowledge is inherently competitive and can be as stimulating for the external viewer as any real-life cock fight. Intellectually, these conversations stimulate me, but they are not the ones I remember with any bursting warmth of feeling. Instead, it’s the conversations I have in the half dark, one bottle of wine in, where secrets are revealed and you feel the reaching out of another’s soul to yours. I feel the same about literature.

Yes, I seek out intellectual stimulation, but it is the books that have kept me up until 3am, awash with tears that I return to again and again. The dismissal of emotive novels as ‘women’s literature’ is often founded on the fact that they are perceived as falling into this latter category. Ultimately, can the outpouring of emotion, so often seen as a feminine trait, ever have the same value as the perceived-masculine intellectual? If my writing is more interested in touching your heart than engaging your head, is it inherently lesser? As I’ve said, recently I’ve been increasingly concerned that it is.

Today, however, I’ve taken a bit of time to actually think about it, without any outside influence, and I’m a lot less convinced. The argument that the intellectual is more worthwhile than the experiential doesn’t hold any sway with me. There is plenty of literature, mostly written by dead white men, to be discussed in pubs by boys who only smoke Marlboroughs, only wear black, and self-confess to being ‘dead inside’. These are not the people I write for, they have enough literature for their disappointing experience. They have the privilege of smugly transcending the experiential – our whole society is geared towards their experience of the world.

Instead, I write for me. I write for the girl that is huddled under her covers, setting the duvet on fire with the bedside lamp, and crying with relief that someone else has experienced what she’s going through. I write for the girl checking out books she isn’t allowed to read from the library and covering them in a different dustjacket. I write for the first heartbreak, and for the strength that is in the softness to let it keep happening. I write for the determination to think what you like, and the enormous triumph that is when you don’t have the privilege of encouraged freedom of thought. I write for the woman that girl will become. I write for the intellectual awakening that occurs through the experiential awakening. For myself and, if it touches you, for you.

Certainly, my writing has something of the teenage obsession with strength of emotion, but I’m not convinced that this in itself is a weakness. I don’t write as a performance, to make people wonder at my enormous intellect, at my ground-breakingly spurious mental somersaults. I write so that just one person can say: that helps, that touches my soul. After all, as one eminent dead white man said – why is it better to last than to burn?

International Women’s Day, And Why We’re Still Having This Conversation

Happy International Women’s Day! So far this week I have fielded my mum’s concerns that a picture of me wearing fishnets on Instagram ‘gave the wrong impression’, as well as her accusatory questioning as to whether ‘all my friends are feminists now’. I have argued with a man about what defines the ‘shared female experience’, and had him disagree with me when I said it wasn’t giving birth. I have acted professionally towards a male colleague who suggested that a picture celebrating IWD on the work social media account shouldn’t just be of the women who work there ‘because men support women too’. I have felt guilty about eating pizza for tea, because as a six foot, size 10/12 woman I feel constant pressure to lose some weight. I have been called a misandrist. It is currently Wednesday.

I was brought up in an environment where women were seen as helpmeets to men, who are the head of the household. The pressure to marry so that you were spoken for, so you belonged to a man and could be neatly identified as his problem, was an overwhelming part of daily life. When I announced that I was going to university, I was quietly warned that it would make me unappealing, that no man wants a woman that is cleverer than him. Someone genuinely once said the words ‘if you act like a slut, you get treated like a slut’ to me. Women from the Bible were used as examples of how not to behave. Delilah the seductress, who cut off Samson’s hair as he slept in her lap, thus sapping his God-given strength, was the worst of femininity. No mention of the fact that he went along with her rather willingly. Dinah, who went into the city and was raped repeatedly by the King’s son – her own fault because she was friends with the local women. These were the women that were paraded before me as examples of why I wasn’t good enough, as a fifteen year old girl literally and figuratively tearing herself to shreds. I would like to say that it was a very different world but, realistically, it wasn’t.

Strangely, now I am newly empowered and happier than I ever thought possible, I find myself fielding new, different concerns that people have about me. I am called outspoken, wild, intimidating, aggressive – new words designed to police my behaviour. Men especially, but other women too, use words like this to suggest we should be smaller, quieter, we should not disrupt the status quo. Look at Donald Trump, calling articulate, powerful, knowledgeable Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’. With those words he reduced her power to nothing, she was a caricature, a Disney cartoon witch holding out a poison apple to the people of America. People do it all the time, because words are important; words are power. I have heard male friends describe girls as ‘fundamentally unfuckable’ – and with that assertion she suddenly is nothing. Her brains, her success, her kindness, are impotent in the face of her lack of desirability. And yet these same men roll their eyes when we talk about the need for feminism. They say ‘not all men’, and ‘I’m just playing devil’s advocate here’, and ‘you’ll be burning your bras next’, because these phrases are reductive, they steal our power, make us laughable – make us nothing.

Well, I’m tired of feeling like I’m nothing. I will not sit down; I will not calm down, dear; I will not ‘oh shut up’. I refuse to be scared to speak up. Female oppression might not seem as visible to you as it once was. Yes, we have got the vote, we can drink in pubs, we can be the token one or two – alongside ten men – sitting in the boardroom. But the micro-aggressions of daily life are still going strong, as is the very real gender pay gap, the disproportionate number of women in low paid jobs, the unequal unpaid labour. I could go on. There are women across the world that have it much worse, for sure. I know this, so put your pint down and stop interrupting me. But here, in the United Kingdom, female inequality is still very present, very real. I, for one, plan to keep on speaking out against it, to keep on fighting it. I hope you do too. We are fifty percent of the human race, and it’s about time it felt like it. If this conversation is boring you, ask yourself this – why are we still having it?

The Fuckboy Phenomenon, And Why Boys Fear the Blogpost

Ah Fuckboys, the ubiquitous defining man of our generation; talented, good looking, charming and repulsive in equal measures. The phrase is used in various ways by different communities, but for my social groups it is always used like that. Maybe he is stylish, has a good haircut, drives a fancy car, but he always has one defining feature: women. Not just in his bed, the term is not one of sexual behaviour shaming, but rather a shaming of emotional behaviour. Alana Massey said in this article that ‘Fuckboy is not a dating style, so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort…Fuckboys become emotional vampires to women who aren’t even their girlfriends.” And that, that nails it exactly.

I watch my friends fall for these men, I date them – inasmuch as it can be called dating; they are all around us, our friends, our brothers, our entitled boss. These are the men that approach me and tell me how my blogpost on emotional labour touched them, made them uncomfortable, because they saw the women that they string along in that post. It is descriptive of their behaviour, where not just physical connection, but emotional support is a glass of water they drain without ever filling up. What these men say to me is that they fear being the subject of that blogpost, or one like it. Not that they think they should change their behaviour, that they’ve recognised the emotional damage they are doing to women that they should be delighted to go out with and they’re going to stop. Rather, they fear being revealed for what they are. The Fuckboy relies on illusion, on the ability to convince a girl that she’s special, she’s different, for his success. Both myself and several of my friends have had boys tell them, “But you’re the only one emotionally”, as though them deigning to feel anything other than a physical attraction to us is some trophy to be polished and put on the mantle piece. He’s sleeping with half of the city, but he likes us. He’d speak to us when we’re dressed! Aren’t we lucky?

But, as Anne Lamott once said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” So, Fuckboys, this one’s for you. It is not good enough. You are not good enough. Wipe that pained expression off your face, stop trying to change the subject, because I won’t stand for it anymore. You will be held accountable. There are a thousand men out there that would love to be seen with me, that would love to be seen with my beautiful, clever, successful friends. There are men that text us when they’re drunk to tell us we’re the loves of their life and they can’t believe they let us get away. Stop telling me to ‘take it slow’, because boy, you’re on probation. I haven’t decided if you’re good enough for me yet, so stop acting like you are the ultimate hunting prize and I might win you if I creep up more quietly and more slowly than all the other lionesses. Talking to me every day and cooking me dinner isn’t a grand gesture, it’s the basics in decent human behaviour. Take me on a fucking date. Because I don’t know if I like you yet, and if you want to impress me it’s going to take a lot more effort than I’ve seen so far. If this blogpost is making you squirm, good. It’ll prepare you for the next one where I eviscerate your character, not because you hurt me, but because you didn’t measure up. I am not waiting, I am not pining. I am not impressed. Boot up and suit up, baby, because I’m a battle that none of us think you can win.

Shrunken Jumpers, Smelly Dogs, And Why It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

“How are you?”

“Yeah, I’m okay”

How many times have you said it? How many times have you meant it? Okay is the polite position. It is what we all want to be, and even when we’re not, it’s what we all say we are. It’s a whispered pacifier, a half spoken prayer, a hoping: it’s going to be okay. We use it as a euphemism for sanity (“She’s not, you know, okay”), a marker stone for whether or not action needs to be taken (“Well, as long as you’re okay”). But what happens when we’re not okay?

This week my friend’s dog died, and she wasn’t okay. She’s always the person that is in control, that doesn’t cry, that can cope, and this week, for the first time in a long time, she wasn’t. Her blog post got me thinking about the notion of being okay, and how obsessed we all are with it. I know I certainly am.

I put a huge load of washing in on Monday and when it had finished, I realised that it had shrunk my favourite wool sweater to a size that would only fit the smallest of toddlers. Absolutely devastated, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried, as I awkwardly hugged a damp and strangely sheepy-smelling sweater. Sat there, I whispered to myself “It’s fine, it’s okay.” Now, this seemed like an enormous overreaction to the shrinking of even a treasured sweater and it made me think that maybe I wan’t okay.

Now, the sweater was important. Being a stupid nineteen year old who thought life was going to be an endless party now I had finally attained my freedom, I took hardly any pictures during my year abroad and so I don’t have many keepsakes of that time. The top I bought in Paris to make me look like a chic french girl long ago wore into holes and the disposable camera turned out to have lots of fuzzy shots of the inside of a car on it. What I did have, though, was my Norwegian sweater, reliably cosy, utterly comfortable, and a delightful reminder of a time when my biggest worry was the condition of the snow.

In a world when I feel increasingly adrift without an anchor, after eighteen months of enormous change that have altered the course of my life forever, crying my eyes out about the sweater wasn’t quite as crazy as it seemed. The washing machine just ate my past, and at a moment when I’m trying to hold on to it as much as possible, being upset feels like a valid response. Just like, for my friend, having to take the time out to mourn the death of your family dog is a valid response.

We need to admit that it’s okay not to be okay. Men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives, a statistic that is often cited in arguments against feminism. The reason that men are more likely to commit suicide is because they are less likely than women to seek help. Basically, it is less socially acceptable for men to admit that they’re not okay. Not only does this show that unequal social expectations harm us all, but it also shows how damaging it is when we stop ourselves from admitting that we aren’t okay.

Often, if you do seek help about the fact that you’re not okay, you are prescribed medication to numb that feeling. Rather than addressing the problem, we medicate ourselves. We are so obsessed with being okay that we will sacrifice our emotions, our creativity, the ups as well as the downs, to be able to reply to that dreaded question about how we are.

Well, do you know what? I’m not okay.

I’m lonely. I’m worried about my future. The giant hairy wotsit in charge of America scares me. I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve anything more impressive than being able to eat an entire large pizza by myself. I think I might drink too much. Sometimes I cry for no reason and then worry that I’m going mad. I dream about my ex leaving me over and over again. I’ve put on too much weight to wear most of my clothes. I think I might be bad at my job. Some days I feel an overwhelming, bottomless sadness that I can’t shift. I still worry about stupid things I said more than a year ago. I think my cat might hate me.

Some of those things are more important than others, and it is always the important things that are harder to say. If you’re not okay, don’t tell yourself you should be. Reach out to someone, either someone you trust, or a professional person that can help you. Call the Samaritans on 116 123. Stop saying you’re okay if you’re not. Remember: that’s okay.

Female Friendships, and the Only Resolution I’m Making in 2017

In 2017 I will be drinking alcohol and eating cheese. If I exercise more it’ll be because I’m walking my friends’ dogs, dancing on the tables, and searching for cool bars. I don’t care about having a six pack, and if my eyebrows are better, you can guarantee it’s because my friend gave me a tutorial. 2017 is the year that I’m going to celebrate my female friendships.

Through the years, they’ve always been there for me. The ones that told me that the boy was punching, over a fancy gin cocktail, when I got dumped. The ones that don’t just hold my hair back when I’m sick, they plunger the sick out of the sink, tell me they still love me, and bring me lucozade and crisps the next morning. Girl friends should never be taken for granted, because through the boy troubles, the family troubles, and the work troubles, they’re always the ones who have got your back.

Women are encouraged to always be in competition with one another. Is she prettier? Smarter? She’s always more successful, and have you seen her Instagram? To die for. More and more though, I’m realising that women have something special, and that is our friendships with each other. I’ve never had such a large group of amazing female friends. Spread across the globe, I’ve got a girl for every occasion. They’re clever and funny; whether I’m waxing lyrical about feminism or discussing the latest highlighter, debating American politics or crying about how hard being an adult is, they always join in. I’ve never felt so lucky to know so many amazing women.

I challenge you to message them all, tonight, and tell them how much they mean to you. I guarantee that you’ll get back a tirade of love and affection. Every woman that has helped you through something difficult, that has lifted you up when you felt that you couldn’t go on, that has told you that you have green in your teeth when no one else would. And you have done something for that woman in return that shows how generous and loving you are. If I wonder what kind of woman I am, I look to my friends. Would they be friends with someone that I couldn’t be proud of? Of course they wouldn’t, they would only ever be friends with someone that I could be proud of. Those strong, special, generous, loving women that I call my own would never let me be less than one of them. And that is a precious gift.

So, to all of you, to the girls whose lipstick I steal in the toilets, to the ones who bring me wine and sympathy when I can’t stop crying, to the ones that tell me I’m a sassy, beautiful queen when I feel anything but: I love you. I love you more than I’ve loved any boy. I love you when you are slaying in your best clothes, I love you when you’re crying in some dickhead’s old jumper. You are special, you are everything I dreamed of, you are strong and courageous. I’m proud to know you. I’m proud to call you my own.

Bare Faced Prejudice, And Why It’s Not Brave To Go Without Makeup.

I can think of a lot of times in the last few months when I was brave to show my face. I was brave to show my face at work the day after my breakup. It was red and blotchy, not merely snotty but pouring with snot, and prone to crumple at the slightest setback. I was brave to show my face at work again, weeks later, when my medication had reacted badly with alcohol and I had spent two days puking after going out for drinks on the company account. It was shamefaced and pale, no matter that it wasn’t my fault, it knew it had done wrong. But I can also tell you when I wasn’t brave to show my face: every single day that I chose not to wear makeup.

In spite of the fact that, in a world where women are risking their lives for their right to be educated, for their right to freedom, for their right to have their voices heard, I would never dare to call myself brave, other women have been calling me just that.

“I love that you don’t wear makeup! It’s so brave!”

“I wish I was brave enough to go barefaced!”

When did we allow leaving the house in our natural state to become an act of absolute courage? It’s not just my friends that compliment me on the audacity to go without makeup, but also strangers, women I have never met come up to me in the supermarket and compliment me. Two drinks in on a Friday night, women sidle up to me at the bar: “You’re so brave! I love that!”

I’m hardly the first person to discover this phenomenon, in 2014 £8 million was raised for cancer research in just six days by women daring to put ‘No Makeup Selfies’ on the internet for all to see. The idea of letting your friends and loved ones see you without makeup was so stunning, so extreme, so brave, that people actually donated money to charity, so inspired were they by our acts of politicised facial nudity.

Makeup was once considered an expression of female emancipation. In the 1920s, women wore heavy eye makeup and lipstick to identify themselves as women liberated from the control of society. Painting our faces was a war cry against patriarchal oppression, women rejected the image of the angel of the hearth, embracing identities as her enemy: the seductress, the fallen woman, the whore. And yet, here we are, full circle, fully made up and living in a world where daring to show your natural face isn’t even ‘bad’ — it’s brave. 

My wonder at this bizarre attitude to going au naturel was heightened even further when two women I work with, both around my age, were discussing how unprofessional it looks to go to a meeting without makeup. Even in a business suit, with styled hair, they deemed that you couldn’t possibly expect anyone to take you seriously unless you were wearing a full face of makeup. As someone who rarely wears more than mascara during the week, and never applies a full face of makeup except for the most important of nights out, this means that I have look unprofessional at all times since the start of my graduate career. Every meeting I’ve ever had, every outstanding piece of content I have ever written, every time I’ve stood my ground over demanding to be paid the same as my male colleagues, I’ve appeared completely unprofessional without even knowing it. We ask why there aren’t more tenured female professors, more women in parliament, more women on boards, more women in charge of companies, and then we turn around and hold these women to ridiculous fabricated beauty standards as they try to do their jobs. Something needs to change.

It should be brave to stand up for the injustice that you see.

It should be brave to speak up for another woman who does not have a voice.

It should be brave to push forward for that promotion, to apply for that job, to chair that meeting, to start that company.

But it should not, it should never be, brave to go out without makeup.