When I Was Happiest

I worked on a series of interviews for Motherland, asking women in their 20s through to 90s when they were happiest. It was rather enlightening.

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1. Louise, 27, video effects coordinator, talks about topless cycling in France, feminism and her plans for the future. You can read it here.

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2. Lauren, 32, designer, discusses being ‘present’ in her teens, bad social media habits and having supportive parents. Read it here.

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3. Jane, 46, communications manager, talks greying hair, lip gloss and forgetting her age. See here.

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4. Jo, 70, teacher, regales the freedom of growing old and throwing perfection to the wind “With ageing, everyone talks about the bad things – about your tits dropping – but there are things that definitely compensate for getting older…”. Read it here

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5. Lastly, 90-year-old Ellen talks growing up one of 15 children, life as a housekeeper on Harley Street, and summers in Cannes. More here.

Skirts were recently banned at a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent because the head teacher believes they are distracting to male teachers and other pupils when hitched up. This caused an inevitable media furore and the country began debating the issue.

So firstly, what is the issue? Well, one aspect is the suggestion that girls are inherent sexual objects for the male gaze. The idea that dressing in a certain way is ‘provocative’ feeds the outdated notion that men can behave and dress as they like but women must cover up and behave appropriately so as not to titillate men.

And why are male teachers distracted by young girls in short skirts? Perhaps it’s because society tells us that youth and flesh are sexually appealing. Porn plays a part. The film industry plays a part. Ads on billboards, TV and in magazines play a part. A broader choice for what constitutes ‘sexy’ (age, size, colour, dress) would be helpful.

Another issue is the reason the girls want to hitch up their skirts. I questioned this a couple of years ago in this blog post and concluded that women wear mini skirts because they have become the norm; they are welcome at work, weddings – they don’t garner the same response they might have back in the 60s when they first came into fashion.

But what about girls in short skirts? As a 30-year-old woman, I still have vivid memories of my rebellious teenage years, dressing in stupidly short skirts with platform heels. I’d dress like this at school because we didn’t have a uniform and it wasn’t so that male teachers, or male pupils, would find me sexy but because I was simply a teenager pushing the boundaries.  

I get the pros of uniform but it does limit young people who are exploring their identity and who don’t necessarily want to conform and look exactly the same as fellow pupils. My school seems very liberal when I look back: we dyed our hair all the colours of the rainbow, a boy in my year had a leopard print pattern dyed onto his nearly-shaved head, we wore whatever we wanted (ripped tights, fishnet, polkadot).

Teenagers will continue to experiment with fashion – uniform or no uniform – and they should be able to do so without being told they’re putting themselves at risk or luring older men. Instead, older men should check themselves – the real concern is that they are viewing young girls as sex objects.

So what’s the solution? Well how about rather than banning girls from wearing certain clothes, which has a worryingly religious resonance, we address the objectification and sexualisation of girls in schools. Boys (and male teachers, apparently) need to be taught that there is more to a girl than the way she looks.

Equally, girls need to be reminded that there is more to life than the way they look. There was certainly huge pressure to look – rather than to think – a certain way when I was growing up (there still is). A less narrow beauty ideal and greater emphasis on intelligence over appearance would be useful – within the wider context of freedom to express yourself however you choose.

As usual, with any feminist issue, education is key. As a society, we need to change the way we view women and girls – and those formative school years are key in determining our general outlook. A class on sexuality, equality, the freedom to choose, liberating not repressing females and identity would be a lot more useful than, once again, blaming girls for the way they are viewed by men.

 

 

 

 Today is the first of my sister’s two weddings; the ‘unofficial’ (legally official but sentimentally unoffical) one at a London registry office. Being a woman means having to wear a new dress to every wedding and while I already have my dress for the unoffocial official wedding (The Big Party), I realised yesterday I had nothing to wear to the registry office. So Joni and I headed over to Westfield Stratford to pick up a frock.

Firstly, never take a toddler (who can’t quite toddle but is desperate to practise at all times) shopping with you at Westfield. Secondly, never take a toddler shopping with you. Thirdly, never go shopping at Westfield. Don’t test it out, simply learn from my mistake. You see, perusing the latest collection of silk dresses in pastel hues lined up in Reiss may be pleasurable for mum but it is the most boring activity possible for a child. A packet of raisins, a face-sized rice cake, her favourite book – nothing could distract Joni from sheer boredom. 

I was about to abort my mission but decided to do a quick sweep of the women’s clothes shop on the level we were on. And that’s when I realised that every single nice dress currently on the market is WHITE. How has this happened? Surely, the main reason for buying a dress this summer will be because you’re going to a wedding and DURRRR – you can’t wear white to a wedding unless it’s you getting hitched. But the dresses were so nice and I desperately needed something to wear… And that’s when I realised that this is the fashion houses’ cunning ploy: women don’t want to be bridesmaids, they want to be the bride so let’s allow them to play make-believe by offering ONLY WHITE DRESSES this season.

Of course, I play by the rules, and it’s my sister’s Big Day and I had mine four years ago – so I didn’t even try on the bride-dresses-posing-as-bridesmaid-dresses. I instead ran through the crowds pushing the buggy really fast so that Joni might be persuaded that she was actually on a really fun rollercoaster rather than being shoved into a lift in a shopping centre on our way back to the bleak underground car park to find our car, which is always ridiculously difficult.

So now it’s Saturday and the official unofficial wedding is looming and I have nothing to wear, except the dress my mum bought me from Topshop for my birthday, the one we agreed would be great for all the parties i’m going to this summer forgetting that they are all weddings, the WHITE fucking dress hanging on the door of my wardrobe. My sister is pretty chilled about today’s wedding and said I can wear whatever I want (hotpants included) but if I put on this white dress and arrive at the registry office, it’s quite possible that i’ll be mistakenly addressed as the bride. And that’s not on. So i’ll put that white dress to the back of my wardrobe, pull out something respectable and guest-rather-than-bride-like and berate myself for being a total sucker and buying a white dress that will now be redundant until I renew my vows.

Bare Reality

 Great book, great woman – Laura Dodsworth’s book Bare Reality, featuring 100 topless women and their stories, is out today. I interviewed her for Motherland (read it here). What i’ve loved most is having this book out in my sitting-room, as it recieves an array of reactions, from laddish “yeah, tits!” to a woman saying she’d always wanted to look at loads of pictures of women’s breasts. But it’s the stories accompanying the photos that make it so wonderful: honest, tender, funny, enlightening.  

Visit the website here

See the photographs exhibited at The Canvas, 42 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JL from 5-11 June

But first: read this interview.

A Mindful Morning

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Waking up on a Saturday feels different to the other six mornings. Monday feels slightly daunting – even if you’re not working, as it’s the start of something new. By Tuesday you’re settling into it but there’s a long way to go until the weekend. Wednesday is a solid day: slap bang in the middle. Thursday is creeping, daringly and delightfully, into the weekend. Friday is the weekend (but not quite) and Saturday is: YES. It’s sunshine, reggae, BBQs, brunch and dunch: mid morning meal, then mid afternoon meal – and a late night. (Sunday, if I imagine it visually, is black. Personified, it’s feeble and drooping at the shoulders; as a sound it’s white noise.)

So today I woke up feeling good. Rich is working so it’s just me and Joni this morning. I fed her a big bowl of porridge with berries and banana then we set off on our morning run (me running, her kicking back in the buggy: cushioned by sheep’s wool, wrapped in blankets, drinking milk). We stopped off at the poshest Spar in the world in Walthamstow village and picked up two loaves of freshly-baked sourdough. The smell reminded me of mornings in the south of France with my family, popping into the boulangerie for croissants and strawberry tarts and hot chocolate and a stick of French bread. I also treated myself to some organic body wash made with orange and cinnamon. It’s more expensive than your average shower gel but smells so delicious and helps me to be mindful in the shower.

We bought a newspaper from the friendly newsagent across the road and I tried to pay with an odd foreign coin that looked curiously similar to a 20p but was of a lesser value: 2 (something). Friendly he may be – stupid he is not, so he didn’t accept it. I rummaged in my bag for more change, while the man behind me patiently waited. I was grateful for his patience; so often people grow fidgety and start tutting if you’re slow. I left the shop and ran about five metres with a now quite heavy buggy across the newly-paved part-pedestrianised strip of Orford Road then swung down a side road, narrowly missing a builder and his scaffolding pole. It was about 8am so the only people on the streets were me, builders, old people with dogs and men (not being sexist – they were all men) changing bin bags in the park.
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On another residential road, a house was decorated in the most beautiful climbing wisteria. I ran past it and then stopped and walked back. I decided to enjoy it for longer than a passing moment. I decided that today I should be mindful. I stood there for a few moments, took a photo then ran on. I saw some bluebells on the next street and contemplated the seasons. Spring is full of hope, blossom petals swirling through the streets; like confetti, bluebells blooming everywhere, the sun becoming warmer – teasing us; beckoning us into summer. I wondered if perhaps it’s easier to be mindful in the spring and summer, with so many flowers in bloom and bare skin being warmed by the sun and painted toe nails and sweet fruits to eat. But winter can be lovely when your cheeks are bitten by the cold air and then toasted by a roaring fire and you can drink hot chocolate and toast marshmallows. And autumn leaves are enough to make autumn exceptional.

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We carried on roaming the streets, flying past irises and tulips, and stopped to peer into a sweet ‘free books’ box that lots of people around London are putting on their front garden walls. You can take a book to read but you’re asked to return it or replace it, if you can. I just took a photo:

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We got home and I realised how cold our fingers were from the early morning chill, so we rubbed them together to warm up then sat on the rug in the sitting room and I put on some music for Joni. She loves to bop her head when there’s a good beat so i’m compiling a Spotify playlist for her. Bedouin Soundclash ‘When the night feels my song’ is a firm favourite, as are ‘Roxanne’ by The Police and ‘Bamboleo’ by the Gypsy Kings. I slipped in Blackstreet’s No Diggidy as an experiment but she’s not sure about R&B yet. No worry, she’ll grow into it.

After some deep breathing and pilates (with Joni using me as a climbing frame and trying to put her very small socks onto my comparatively very large feet), I put Joni down for a nap, showered (using my lovely new shower gel) and drank a decaf coffee with almond milk, ate a slice of the delicious fresh sourdough bread, toasted, with almond and vanilla butter and sliced banana, and begin writing this. Now Joni is cooing for me to collect her from her cot. The end of my mindful morning alone with my daughter, as soon we’ll be off to meet a friend for lunch. So good to enjoy the simple things sometimes: flowers in bloom, upbeat music, smells, spring time, fresh bread – and to just enjoy being alive.