stylist PMS piece - Annie Ridout

‘It starts with a headache. An unbearable, dull throbbing that affects my vision and makes it hard to speak. My stomach bloats until only leggings fit, my lower back aches and my breasts feel like punch bags that have been pounded repeatedly. I’ll have one big, painful spot on my chin.

This is my experience of the monthly premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that I experience in the lead-up to my periods. And I share the experience with 90 per cent of all menstruating women. So when I read psychologist Robyn Stein DeLuca’s provocative claims that PMS is a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for women when they need a break, I felt somewhat peeved.’

I write a piece for Stylist Magazine about PMS… you can read it here.

A TUC report (produced in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project) was released earlier this week. According to the research, over 50% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

I was asked to talk on BBC Radio 5 Live and the Victoria Derbyshire show about an experience I had while working in an art gallery. It was when I was in my early 20s, and one of the (male) trustees wanted to photograph me for a listings guide. The other (male) trustee said that it could be a “glamour shoot” (a topless photoshoot, rather than a glamorous one).

I was challenged on air (by men – only men) about whether this was actually harassment, or if I should have been lighthearted about it. My response is that while sexual inequality prevails, it’s of paramount importance that women are respected, and not made to feel small, insignificant or scared at work. And everywhere, for that matter. When we’re all equal, perhaps there will be more scope for jokes and ‘banter’.

Interested to hear other people’s thoughts?

 

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 The idea that dressing in a certain way is ‘provocative’ feeds the outdated notion that men can behave and dress as they like but women must cover up and behave appropriately so as not to titillate men.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.

 

 

 

No More Nipples on Page 3

page 3

So, it seems Lucy-Anne Holmes’ ‘No More Page 3′ campaign has at last paid off – following three years of activism and 200,000+ signatures on the petition. The Sun, with its new feminist; women-loving hat on, has stopped printing images of topless babes on page three. They are instead printing a daily image of a woman in her underwear. Hurrah? Not quite.

However, Holmes’ hard work deserves recognition and this – albeit small – step should be celebrated as one that’s at least moving in the right direction. If a little step like this could be taken in other areas of sexual inequality it might look like this:

– The gender pay gap reducing from 19.7% to 10%, so that women earn £90 for every £100 earned by a man, rather than £80.30. For doing EXACTLY THE SAME JOB.

– Adopting the Swedish prostitution laws so that punters, not sex workers, are criminalised. Currently in the UK women can sell their bodies legally; the only illegal aspect is brothels, pimps and soliciting. It wouldn’t make prostitution illegal per se but it would shift society’s attitude from denigrating the prostitute to questioning the john.

– According to Women’s Aid, one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute. So a baby-step forward might mean one report every two minutes. That would mean the suffering had halved – 720 women a day, rather than 1440. Or 262974.383 a year, rather than twice that very big number.

– Currently just over one in five Members of Parliament are women. Let’s work towards making this two in five initially, and eventually it might even go up to 2.5 in five. That would be half. Or, as there are slightly more women in the UK than men, maybe three in five would make it a more equal representation.

Who knows, maybe one day The Sun will stop posting images of scantily-clad women entirely. They may even post stories about women’s intellectual achievements. But it’s unlikely. So instead, let’s work on educating people – young and old – about the benefits and importance of sexual equality. That will lead to people becoming less tolerant of objectification, exploitation and all other forms of repression. And then they might just stop reading The Sun altogether. And that would deserve a ‘hurrah!’.

green party

Growing up, we had ‘Vote Labour’ posters blu-tacked to the sitting room window, so i’ve always known that to be my parents’ political party of choice. When I was of voting age and the general elections came round I decided that I would also vote Labour. Mostly because I thought my views were probably in line with my folks’. I didn’t read up on any policies.

Then I went to university and became very interested in feminism. This made me look at the parties from a female stance – but I wasn’t yet affected by unequal pay, or fewer women in boardrooms (well, so I thought). I cared about women in crisis – victims of domestic violence, rape survivors, those seeking abortions – and Labour seemed to be looking out for these women. This became particularly apparent when the coalition government was elected and funding that the Labour party had allocated to these services was cut so brutally. See here and here.

Just prior to the 2010 General Election, I went up to Cardiff to canvas with a friend’s mum who was running for MP. I think we successfully turned a few voters back to Labour, who’d been influenced by the Sun switching its allegiance from red to blue. We also went to her fundraising dinner and sat with Ed Miliband, who I liked a lot. I felt comfortable with Labour.

And then I had a conversation with my sister who’s a supporter of the Green Party and keen to recruit new members. She asked why I vote Labour and I told her it was because women’s rights and sexual equality were my biggest concerns and that I feel Labour tackles these issues in the right way. She told me she votes Green because she’s worried about the future of the planet and feels this is best dealt with by the Green Party. We concluded that i’m more concerned about the present and she’s more concerned about the future. But I also explained that sexual equality would improve the economy and reduce poverty, as well as meaning greater access to education – and this would all work towards a more environmentally-savvy society.

Anyway. After our conversation I started looking in to Green Party policies on women and was pleased with what I read here. I like their stance on access to abortion, funding for rape crisis centres and domestic violence centres and equal pay.

I also know how important it is to protect our planet and lead more environmentally-friendly lives but I wonder if, like me, too many people are put off by the name? ‘Green Party’ says to me: we care about the environment above all. It’s an issue that needs to continue to be addressed but – for me – it’s not the most pressing issue. I wonder if families living in poverty will see this as the biggest, most immediate priority? Although living a greener life is, in some respects, the cheaper way to live: reduce energy consumption in the home, travel by foot or bike, eat organic vegetables instead of meat, shop locally – when you can’t afford food, clothes or to heat your house, being kind to the planet might not be of paramount importance.

Another problem is that the green debate is often inaccessible and intellectual, so lots of people are left out. This leaves them unaware of what’s happening to the planet and where we’re headed if we don’t take better care of it. I know that schools teach children about caring for the planet, recycling, where our food comes from, healthy eating – and that’s great – but they aren’t voting. Yet. And so it’s the adults who need to be taught.

Articles like this one, which asks Russell Brand to reconsider his suggestion that we should all abstain from voting, as his ‘revolutionary’ ideas are actually encompassed in Green Party policies, do a lot of good for the greens. It highlights a load of the issues that you don’t otherwise hear much about (I don’t, anyway). So this could sway some voters – and it’s once they’ve been won over that they can start learning about the environmental side of things. That should come second. Because, in my opinion, the present needs to be improved before we can start working on a greener future.

shera

I was sat in a ‘Women in Literature’ seminar during my third year at Sussex University when I first considered the term ‘feminism’. Amber Jacobs, my wonderful tutor, explained it like this: “Feminism,” she said, “is believing that women should be equal to men.”

Hmmm, I thought. I suppose I must be a feminist then. I’d never ascribed meaning to this term (though I was certainly beyond thinking they were shaved-headed lesbians in duffle coats and dungarees) because I’d never given much consideration to the gaping inequalities between men and women. If you don’t feel affected by sexism, you don’t need to fight it, I thought. But that’s not quite true.

We spent the next ten weeks looking at mythology, fairytales and the role of women and girls in literature. We discussed the fact that not only are female authors under-represented and under-read but that female characters are often hysterical, or locked away – and are almost always the muse. That a sexual appetite is a repugnant quality (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) and that all women and girls are sex objects – like Nabokov’s Lolita or spoilt and fussy, as in Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

When you pick apart 20th century – and earlier – literature written by both men and women, you begin to see patterns. Women are not strong, powerful characters – they are weak, needy and feeble. Men are capable, powerful and secure. Women need rescuing – men are the rescuers.

Of course literature can mirror real life, so in the 1800s when the Brontës were writing about women wot lunch and men wot do much more interesting things, this might have been because this is what they were witnessing. But life can also mirror the arts – and the more we read (and watch films) about strong men and weak women, the more we believe it to be true.

I work in film, as a copywriter, scribing short pieces about new release films (mostly) and I feel saddened by how few female leads there are in the films I’m writing about. When a film’s directed by a woman, which is rare – Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found that only 9% of Hollywood directors in 2008 were women, the same figure she had recorded in 1998 – I jump on it and make sure this is commented on.

But it needs to come from the source. We need to have more women and men creating art work with female characters who aren’t just pretty little sex objects. Because there are LOTS of women out there who aren’t just mums, wives and GFs. There are women in parliament, women running corporations and women successfully juggling motherhood with full time jobs.

So I think it’s important to instill the notion that girls can be active and strong in our children as early as possible. Traditional fairytales cast young women as passive and in need of rescuing (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella) and old women as hags, evil stepmothers and past it. The young men ride horses, save their beaus and generally play the macho man.

When my child is old enough for me to tell her/him stories, I’m going to switch the gender roles so that Cinder-Ellis is saved from his Ugly Step-brothers and Evil Stepfather by a gallant princess on horseback. Sleeping Beauty will be a man who’s poisoned by his evil fairy godfather and guess who will kiss him back to life? Yes, a strapping young woman. And so oral story-telling will be my contribution.

Growing up I had She-ra (see picture above) to look up to but there weren’t many other women who weren’t pretty, pink, glittery and scared of getting dirty. So I wanted to be pretty, pink, glittery and kept away from mud. Even though Barbies were banned by my mum, and she put me in gender-neutral dungarees and barely any pink, all I wanted was frilly, pink frocks and plastic high-heeled princess shoes because that’s what the girls at school wore. And they were getting their inspiration from the girls on TV.

As as adult I’m still inspired by fashion and lifestyle ideas I see in magazines, on TV, in films etc. So imagine how much books, films and other art forms must inform impressionable children about what girls look like and what they can achieve? They’re told to be pink and passive.

It’s time to challenge the status quo. So thanks, Amber, for all your inspiration. And here’s to a new generation of gender neutral children.

mouths-fixed

To end 2013, Joanna Biggs decided to dismiss the year’s new wave of feminists – and their achievements – by proclaiming that the so-called fourth wave lacks an intellectual voice (read the article here).

Here are what I consider to be the best-documented campaigns, projects and voices of the past year:

– Lucy-Anne Holmes tirelessly campaigning for No More Page 3 – working to persuade the Sun to remove topless models from their newspaper.

– The Everyday Sexism Project inviting women and girls to share their experiences of sexism – some explicit and vulgar, some less overt – via Twitter.

Object challenging a culture in which the objectification of women is deemed the norm by targeting strip clubs, media portrayal of women and sexist adverts – and telling everyone why these things are wrong.

The Vagenda publishing anonymous articles written by women and men the world over who have something to say about the bad treatment of women. But in a witty, funny way.

– Comedian Bridget Christie winning the 2013 Edinburgh comedy award for Best Show, touring her hilarious ‘A Bic for Her’ stand-up show and writing feminist pieces for the Guardian (like this quiz).

– Caroline Criado-Perez campaigning to have women’s faces on banknotes. It worked, they listened.

And then there’s Hadley Freeman, Caitlin Moran, Barbara Ellen and various other journos giving women, and feminism, a voice. As well as authors, filmmakers and artists who are creating work with strong female leads. So when Joanna Biggs asks: ‘Where is the fourth wave’s intellectual?’ I feel a bit confused.

Her suggestion is that all these voices should unite and allow for an intellectual (like Simone de Beauvoir, heavily referenced in the article) to rise and speak for them all. Thing is, Biggs, we’ve all got different voices and want to be heard in different ways. Some like to find a comedy angle, some write about horrific incidents like the gang rape and murder of a young woman in India (see Jane Martinson’s recent Guardian blog post) and others take to the streets to shout loudly.

But what forms an underlying allegiance between all these women (and some men) is that they all want equality for women. That means safety for women on the streets of India (and everywhere else), as well as equal pay. It means women not being harassed in the workplace because of their sex, being offered the same opportunities as men and not suffering exploitation and objectification.

The most effective way to fight these battles is by employing as many people and as many methods as possible. Because not everyone pays attention to a march, or magazine articles, or stand-up shows, or academic journals, or changes to legislation. But most people will be open to some of these forms of protest.

In my opinion feminists, internationally, need to continue doing what they’re doing: putting up a fight and getting heard. It’s great to support other projects but when we’re all setting out with exactly the same aim – equality – it’s about just ploughing on, using our individual strengths to propel us further forward.

When the Suffragettes were fighting for the vote, it wasn’t just the women who were chained up and on hunger strikes doing all the work – there’s always a backstage and people campaigning quietly behind closed doors, educating people about the importance of women having an equal role. Similarly, de Beauvoir was a wonderful voice for women in mid-20th century France but she rallied alongside loads of other women who campaigned in their own, individual ways. Some voices are quieter than others, but by no means less important.

Suggesting we need a strong, intellectual voice to speak for all feminists not only belittles the work of the women currently campaigning but also suggests that feminism is elitist and should be reserved for the highly educated. Not everyone would get along with de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – and they shouldn’t have to be able to read and understand highly academic publications to understand the importance of equality.

Instead, we need lots of different voices, in lots of different places, so that everyone will eventually hear one that resonates with them and encourages them to jump on the feminism bandwagon. If every human began to seek – and offer – equal rights for men and women, the world would be a better place. So instead of denouncing, let’s celebrate the hard work of all those campaigning and invite more to join – in whatever capacity they can.

Women with something to say

TED

Last Friday some of the world’s most powerful women took to the stage to give motivational speeches as part of TED Women 2013. There were 200 events held around the world and I went to TEDx Whitehall Women at BAFTA.

Fancy canapes were served in a carpeted room with floor to ceiling windows looking out over Piccadilly and, whilst eating and drinking tea, we were encouraged to ‘network’. Not only is this a little unnatural – being told to sell yourself to people and let them sell themselves to you – but there was a fair bit of food flying around the room as hungry women gobbled down deep fried prawns whilst animatedly discussing their careers.

Fortunately, the room was chockablock with inspiring, motivated, powerful, successful women – so it was a pleasure asking them about their careers and sharing stories about my – comparatively *modest* – career in return. And they were positive and encouraging about the importance of copywriters. It was a supportive environment with everyone welcoming others into discussions so I came away with a load of new contacts and some good ideas.

I met a woman who worked for the Ministry of Defence, a solicitor, a handful of entrepreneurs, two women from the Home Office – one working in immigration, one arranging social events. The Guardian’s Women in Leadership had sent a journo along. There were directors of massive corporate companies, women running their own internet businesses and ladies who were looking to recruit more women for their male-dominated companies.

The umbrella organisation for this series of events was TED but each TEDx talk is organised independently – this one by Simone Roche of Women 1st. The idea is that people speak for up to 18 minutes (never longer, this is the beauty of it), on whichever subject they choose as long as there’s no religious or political agenda and it will inspire change in the audience, and therefore the world. Only 100 people can attend an event.

As soon as the talks started (a handful from the US – watched on a screen, followed by 15 live speakers at BAFTA, chaired by the brilliant Hilary Carty), I was frantically scribbling down notes and tweeting away. Every sentence was so well considered and meaningful, I wanted to absorb all of it.

To write a biog about each of the incredible speakers might get dull, anyway it’s more about what they say than what they do – so, instead, here are some of the tweets I wrote on the day, quoting speakers:

Sheryl Sandberg, on whether or not to do something, “ask yourself: what would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”

“Stereotypes are holding women back from leadership roles all over the world” Sheryl Sandberg

“Women should speak when spoken to; help others… Girls are bossy when they lead, little boys are good leaders” Sheryl Sandberg

“Everywhere in the world women need more confidence. Men are never asked: ‘how do you do it all?’” Sheryl Sandberg

“Get rid of the word bossy, bring back feminist” says Sheryl Sandberg

“Violence is not natural, it’s learned and if it’s learned it can be unlearned” Esta Soler

Esta Soler wanted men to talk about domestic violence, her male friend said: “you want men to talk about domestic violence? Men don’t talk” (she found another way to get them involved)

“There are more male MPs today than there have ever been women in parliament” says Stella Creasy

‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women’ – Liz Bingham quotes Madeleine Albright

The brilliant Kirsty Walker: “50% of women harbour self doubt and are reticent about seeking promotion, compared to 30% of men”

“Follow your own path, look for opportunities – don’t follow the crowd and don’t be put off by failure” says Sue Langley

Andy Woodfield: Don’t tell someone you’re going to give them feedback, instead explore their strengths and explain how they can be even better

Carla Buzasi quotes John Steinbeck in her brilliant talk: ‘now that you don’t have to be perfect you can be good’

I came away from the talk standing tall; feeling confident and empowered. And I’ve since applied the advice that almost all those women offered: don’t be afraid to ask. Because you won’t get anything if you don’t. So I asked, and I got. YES!

For a full list of TEDx Whitehall Women 2013 speakers, see here.

Why feminists are angry

feminist

I’ve been told off by friends and family for being an angry feminist. They say that if I was less angry, people would hear what i’m saying. My response is: if I wasn’t angry hearing that old, white, ugly British men think that young Thai women like being paid to have sex with them – we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

And so I think it’s about time I explained why feminists are (often) angry.

Feminists are angry because:

Women are less likely to be employed than men, and when they are given a job – they’re paid less than a man doing the same work (see here)

Millions of women and children around the world are being bought, sold, trafficked and raped by men – who pay their pimps – right now (statistics here)

Girls are having clitoridectomies because although female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in the UK, in other countries it’s legal – and a cultural norm. It is practised illegally here too

Two women a week (in this country) are killed by abusive male partners, two million people in England and Wales suffered sexual assault, violence, threats or abuse at the hands of a partner or family member last year (see here and here)

Rape is a weapon of war (read more here)

Many young women are more concerned about the way they look than they are about their talent, skills, workplace potential and creativity. Susie Orbach’s website AnyBody has loads of interesting, enlightening, fact-filled articles about this

The prime minister thinks it’s acceptable to patronise a female MP by telling her to “calm down, dear” in the House of Commons

Feminists’ anger can:

Change laws so that women are allowed to vote. You think the suffragettes sat quietly, with their legs crossed, around a dining room table making polite pamphlets? No – they got their voices heard by protesting; demonstrating their ANGER

Start a backlash against sexist social media trolls (more here)

Provide support, a voice and a platform for women who feel they’re discriminated against (Everyday Sexism Project)

Question the Sun’s page 3, and why we’re still objectifying and sexualising women in a national paper – teaching young girls that getting your tits out is the key to success (No More Page 3)

Help to open rape crisis centres and women’s refuges for domestic violence victims

Encourage the government to educate headteachers and teachers about forced child marriage, FGM and ‘honour’-based violence so that they can recognise potential signs (see here)

Question why there’s such a narrow beauty ideal for women: thin; flawed, hairless skin; long legs; big boobs

Tell David Cameron that he should treat women with respect, rather than silently accepting his sexist remarks

Empower women to fight against workplace discrimination

But most of all, feminists’ anger gets them heard above the sexist commotion of our every day lives. Anger doesn’t have to mean violence and shouting – in this instance it means the emotion that ignites a fire inside, and a burning passion to change all that’s wrong in the world.