Everyday Powerful Women – Appearance

For more than a year, I’ve had this definition of power saved on my phone: ‘Power: the ability to act or produce an effect’. Lately I’ve been thinking more about the word ‘power’, and in particular what it means to be a ‘powerful woman’ in today’s world. In this brilliant article on women in power throughout history, Mary Beard suggested that one of the main problems we still have is that we don’t really know what a powerful woman looks like. Most women we think of as ‘powerful’ are adopting the clothes and style of powerful men, rather than inventing a new way for women to appear powerful.

Where does power come from, and is it different for men and women? Historically men have been physically powerful – in terms of strength – and powerful in terms of intellect. When we read the history books, the politicians and the warriors and the philosophers and the scientists and the decision-makers are overwhelmingly male. There are examples of women, and they are often passed over or forgotten, but even so the men are primarily seen as the ones with this power. Women are powerful in terms of their beauty, and their ability to bear children. The latter is a never-ending political hot potato, as the life of an unborn child is frequently seen to be more important than the life of the woman carrying it. This is the paradoxical power of being able to carry a child: it overwhelms all other purposes or needs a woman may have.

Mary Beard also wrote that women may not want political power or to stand on a soapbox, they just want to be taken seriously. I caught my breath a little at that, because it struck right to the heart of what feminism means for me. I want to be taken seriously. I want people to meet me and listen to my ideas and take them seriously as ideas coming from a person, not a sex object. Unfortunately the week after I read this article I was reminded how little women are still taken seriously, even in the middle of London. I was cat-called by a man on a bicycle while I was on the phone to my mum. I was pointlessly challenged in a pub by some idiot propping up the bar, who thought it would be funny to say ‘no you can’t!’ when I asked if I could have a pint of some beer or other. And I was threatened with bodily violence by a stranger for passing comment on a horse he’d tied in the middle of a pavement (don’t even ask).

Our appearance and our ability to bear children both give us power in myriad ways, but as a primary source of feeling powerful, they often suck. To have your ‘ability to act or produce an effect’ determined by the way you look means that your brain and personality are frequently ignored in favour of being summed up instantly as a) a woman, and b) on a sliding scale of attractiveness. This is endlessly frustrating, and is applicable to all women everywhere. In some parts of the world, it means your own will and wishes are considered to be secondary to those of others. When you are only judged on the outside, you are essentially a doll, and considered to be a second class of citizen. And even in the UK, which is apparently enlightened, and even if you are running a country, some people still won’t take you seriously – and prefer to comment on the shape of your legs rather than your ideas and your actions.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. I see women every day on the train putting on their make-up, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. The thing I hate is the system that makes women believe that they have to spend a lot of time and money on improving their appearance. All of it speaks to a notion that we are not enough as we are. We are not enough unless we spend hours removing hair and shaping brows and going on diets to get a ‘bikini body’. And this is all because the whole system still buys into the idea that women’s power, and worth, comes first and foremost from how they look.

This is made clear from childhood. I hated looking stupid or wrong or ugly from an extremely young age. I didn’t want to pull faces, or get dirty, because then I wouldn’t look pretty. My body was rarely praised or criticised for its abilities, only for the shape it made. I have grown up continuing to evaluate it in the same way. I hated playing sports at school because I didn’t think I could do it properly and I hated looking like a fool – I also hated wearing shorts for P.E. because I thought my legs were too skinny (this was enough of a problem that at age seven I feigned illness to get out of a school Sports Day).  It was all about how I looked doing things, and because I was so concerned with that, I was inevitably bad at things that required full concentration on, say, where the ball was, and whether I could swing a stick in time to hit it. I thought that if I tried to hit it hard, it would go a pathetic distance, so I put no effort in at all so at least it wouldn’t look as if I’d tried and failed. Clearly the only way to be good at any physical activity is to keep trying and failing until you stop failing so often, and begin to succeed, but nobody told me that. Sport seemed to me to be for boys, and I was no good at it. I didn’t take myself seriously, but did that start because nobody took me seriously? I don’t remember ever being really coached at sport, you just did the activity and then stopped. I sucked, and wasn’t told how I could get better. This creates problems throughout life because exercise is key to health and happiness.

When I was growing up, I was not popular with boys – which I shouldn’t have cared about as most of them were idiots. But somehow it seemed to be the most important thing. Getting a boyfriend seemed to be key to happiness (a problem which the media and society do nothing to assuage as you get older) and thus I needed to be more attractive to fulfil this goal. I was lucky that I had very supportive parents and I grew up before social media was really a thing, because I can’t imagine what it’s like without a good support network and with other people constantly pushing idealised images of people in your face. With Photoshop and filters used on every picture in the public eye, people judge themselves against CGI and even forget what they look like when they haven’t edited their own face. People like Kylie Jenner, who apparently had her face, boobs and arse remodelled at age 16, are truly terrifying examples of what can happen to young women who have one goal: to look perfect. When women in the news are judged on how they look every single day, young girls absorb the message from everywhere that how they look is of utmost importance.

Unfortunately, women frequently perpetuate this notion themselves. Women put down other women like pros: many magazines ‘for women’ make an industry out of criticising other women for being too fat/thin on a daily basis. We are so chronically insecure and tired from judging ourselves all the time that the only way to make ourselves feel better is to judge everyone else too. For example, many people have many issues with Lena Dunham, but the fact that people got upset because she started seeing a personal trainer and doing some exercise absolutely astounds me. This reaction proved a few things: a) that Lena is still extremely rare to be a woman in the public eye owning power in her less than “perfect” body; b) that people hate people who go to the gym; and c) that women have such serious insecurity issues that one woman taking some exercise is enough to make them very angry. It’s fairly obvious that Lena going to the gym on its own isn’t enough to annoy anybody, the problem is that she was “fat” and said she was happy being “fat,” so other women who are “fat” can also feel happy the way they are – but now Lena is betraying the tribe. She’s taking exercise because she wants to help herself with serious mental health issues and endometriosis, but she is attacked for apparently wanting to change the way she looks. Everyone thought that if she was happy the way she was, and achieved what she has looking that way, then she could be taken seriously without being thin and conventionally beautiful. And if she could do it, everyone else could stop worrying about how they looked too and think about something else. The ridiculous thing is that of course one woman doing some exercise doesn’t affect anybody else’s self-worth or power, and that there is nothing wrong with doing exercise anyway – even though many people hate it, exercise is always good for you. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with weight loss, although infuriatingly exercise and weight loss are almost always connected for women. I would love to be able to change this. The negativity surrounding exercise for women is toxic.

All these perceptions of women and their power need to be taught differently from childhood. Being a girl should not be about being pretty and looking nice all the time, about never being awkward or doing something stupid or getting into trouble. Girls should do all those things, and be encouraged to move and exercise to enjoy it, as well as be good at it. Hopefully as more girls see female sports players, politicians, writers, scientists, and decision-makers on the television and elsewhere, they will see women showing power and strength through something other than their physical attractiveness. The outcry when the media and people in top positions treat women like dolls must be louder and longer until it’s no longer acceptable. Unfortunately America just voted in someone who speaks about women as if they are not just dolls, but sex dolls, provided for his amusement. But I am hopeful that the next four years will show him just how many powerful women there are around the world who are willing to show him he is wrong and repulsive, and needs to take women seriously. We can all do our own bit by taking ourselves seriously, every day, and taking the other women around us seriously. Only then can we link by link undo the chain that stops us from being judged – by ourselves and everyone else – on our internal worth.

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Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

2016: A few things left to say

Here we are at the end of 2016. From January onwards, there have been an abundance of social media posts about this being the worst year ever. You’ve all seen the gifs and the memes about what a crap year it’s been, and the posts listing the shit that has happened: Bowie, Prince, Brexit, Trump. The last few days it seems to have been another day, another celebrity death.

I don’t have much else to say about Brexit and Trump. They have dominated the news for the entire year. Instead I want to talk about the bits of 2016 that stick out to me as being particularly disappointing, partly because of the way they have been reported in the news and on social media – or rather, the way they haven’t been reported. While the deaths of much loved actors, musicians, and comedians are very sad, and I don’t want to take away from people’s grief, all these people will be remembered. Most of them lived full and interesting lives, and even if some were taken too soon and too suddenly, it is clear that they will live on in their arts and their fans.

None of us have been able to get away from Brexit all year. I am sick and tired of hearing the word and wish to goodness nobody had thought it up. I have largely tuned out of the negotiations or lack thereof, the ridiculous arguments about soft and hard and single markets and other nonsense. The truth is people voted for something they didn’t understand, something that seemed threatening and pointless, and nobody managed to articulate properly why it was something we needed. I’ve read a few articles laying the blame for this at the feet of the UK media, which have been reporting for decades on EU bureaucratic red tape, pointless studies on the shapes of bananas, and other ridiculousness, meaning that for years we have focussed on the negative. This shouldn’t be much of a shock: the media focuses on the negative 9 times out of 10 now. I already disliked following the news much because of that tendency, but this year my belief in our media has failed completely. At the same time as all the endless coverage of Brexit and Trump and the pages and pages of celebrity obituaries, some of the news stories of the year that have shocked me the most have barely caused a blip on the radar.

So far, I haven’t seen a single 2016 round-up article, meme, or social media update that mentions Orlando. This was the worst shooting in US history, and the worst crime against the LGBTQ+ community since the Holocaust. At the time I was bewildered by how little impact it made on my social media, and now I am twice as confused about why it is never mentioned, never alluded to in stories and speeches and thought pieces. Even at the time, the UK media coverage left a lot to be desired: the Daily Mail has been overt in its homophobia this year, and didn’t even put the story on the front page. Most UK newspapers focussed on the gunman’s connection to ISIS, even though it was clear from the start that the affiliation was tenuous at most. Owen Jones walked off a breakfast programme after the hosts refused to acknowledge that this was a homophobic crime. Unfortunately, happening as it did in the run-up to the Brexit vote, this tragedy got swept up and forgotten. I too am sad about the deaths of various famous people this year, and I am deeply disappointed in the outcomes of the referendum and election. But I hate the fact that these people, who died in the worst circumstances of terror and hatred, have been completely forgotten by so many.

Shortly after Orlando, Jo Cox was killed. I still don’t quite understand why her death knocked me so hard, but it did, and it still does. Perhaps because it seemed such a remarkably unlikely thing to happen in the UK: an MP be gunned down in the middle of the street, in broad daylight. It seemed completely unthinkable. Again, the newspapers glossed over the motivations for the crime, focussing instead on the idea that the gunman was mentally ill. I was completely confused, again. Why weren’t more people talking about his affiliation to far right groups? If he’d been connected to ISIS that would have been all anyone had to say. Why, when it was a white man who was committed to xenophobia and racism, was that fact not really talked about? Again, the news story got pushed out of the papers by the result of the EU referendum. Farage had the nerve to say that they had won ‘without a single shot being fired’. When her killer was sentenced, more newspapers covered the motivations behind the attack. Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time, when – potentially – it could have made a difference? Maybe I’m overestimating the effect better coverage of a woman’s violent death could have had. But I do think the media covered it poorly. Of course the Daily Mail was not to be outdone on this story either, as the sentencing of her murderer was moved to page 30. They even painted him as a sympathetic figure who just wanted Jo Cox’s help protecting his house from some sort of swarm of immigrants. What a repulsive rag.

Other devastating news stories from around the world appear to be getting more coverage as the year draws to a close. The pictures and stories coming out of Syria have been horrendous for some time, and there seems to be more being reported at the moment, as Aleppo is bombed out of existence. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to me that we in the UK have been complaining so much about a referendum which, yes, is ludicrous, a marker of social disharmony and is likely to bring about a great deal of change – quite likely negative for many of us, especially if you are a minority – but we are hardly being bombed out of our homes. I don’t want to minimise people’s fears, but it is good to gain some perspective and think of other people who have it worse and need our help.

Similarly, the situation in the Philippines has brought me up short recently. Their President, Rodrigo Duterte, is a complete psychopath. You may remember him being elected earlier in the year, saying he was going to crackdown on drug usage by sentencing users and dealers to death. Well it’s not turned out to be quite as official as that. It’s getting reported more now, but I didn’t hear a whisper about what was happening (and neither had my mum, who reads The Times every day and listens to BBC Radio constantly) until I read this New York Times article a month or so ago. They sent a photojournalist there who documented the deaths of 57 people in 35 days. Reports estimate that 6,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office. And this is not trial and law and order and sitting on death row. People who turned themselves in as drug users are being slaughtered in their own homes. Police turn up, shoot them (sometimes in front of their family and children) and then leave them. Later someone comes to collect the body. Police drive past on motorcycles and gun people down in the street. If you do look at the NYT article, take great care. We may think we’re immunised to pictures of violence these days but these photographs still haunt me.

I realise this is not a cheerful post. Basically I’m just giving some more reasons why 2016 was a bag of crap that aren’t talked about quite so often. Despite the death and the stupidity and the hatred, many good things have happened this year. We don’t hear about them because good news doesn’t sell. Several animals have been taken off the endangered list, which I’d never thought about as being a thing: somewhat pessimistically, I assumed that once an animal went on the endangered list, they were headed the way of the dodo. But giant pandas, humpback whales, and green sea turtles are no longer endangered. The number of tigers in the wild rose for the first time in 100 years. We have an Ebola vaccine. The survival rate of people with pancreatic cancers has risen by 9%. Leonardo di Caprio finally got an Oscar. While in many ways this has been a poor year in terms of progress for LGBTQ+ people, Taiwan is on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

There is good news out there. What this year has shown me more than any other is how much we all live in a bubble. So many people on my social media were out preaching to the choir before the Brexit and Trump votes. Both results were a huge shock to me because I live in a comfy liberal circle of people. We have been fed on bad news for the whole year, and we have kept the circles going, feeding it back to each other in an endless cycle of ‘2016 IS THE WORST’. Some months ago I started feeling like ‘2016’ had become a separate thing, some kind of personality with its own agency that was out to cut us all down. Obviously, this is nonsense, and 2016 is far from the worst year in history. Have half our families been wiped out with the plague? Have all the men we know been sent off to war? Have we lived through a famine? Occasionally I understand why people must get so annoyed with the liberal people wanting the world to march forward on what we see as its inevitable journey towards freedom, democracy and love for all: as someone puts it in The West Wing, we are incredibly smug. I’m not saying we necessarily should change. I don’t really know how, and despite all the calls to action over the last few months, I’m not convinced anybody else does either. But I am frightened of the power that the media and social media have now, and that they are being used for deeply negative ends. From trolling, to negative feedback loops on everyone’s facebook pages, to fake news stories spread by bots and believed by half the people that see them. Perhaps we all need to think a little more about how we are using our influence, and spread a little more happiness. Even if it doesn’t change the world, bring the UK back into the EU and oust Trump (preferably before he even gets into the White House) at least it will make people smile instead of making them think, ugh, yes. This year was the absolute worst.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Going home

Recently, I had a worried conversation with my Canadian, reliant-on-a-work-visa partner. He works in academia, already intensely competitive, and possibly soon to be chronically under-resourced. Getting a job here if you’re from outside the EU has already become more difficult in recent years, and with the recent hateful headlines from our home secretary and PM, the situation looks like it could get significantly worse in the near future. If this government go ahead with their plans, his name will be on the list of ‘foreign workers’ his university will have to hand in. If he wanted to move on from his current position, would anybody take the risk and hassle of employing him without British citizenship? I told him I was frightened, that if things get worse, he would want to go home.

Go home. As I said the words I felt a jolt. Were we not already at home? Where would home be, if we moved to Canada? We would both likely know nobody, and have only each other. Would it be home for him again? Could it ever be home for me?

I’ve been musing on what home means for almost a year. I use the term to refer both to the flat I currently live in, and my parents’ house where I lived permanently from the ages of 4 to 18, and where I’ve stayed at various intervals since. In the last ten years I have moved house ten times. Looking back, were all those places home?

Do any of you ever have that experience of thinking, “I want to go home!” when, technically, you’re already there? Home isn’t just a place, but a feeling. I lived in a flat for three years and it never truly felt like home to me. I never settled properly there, rarely had that warm, comfy, I’m at home feeling about it. I consider this feeling to be similar to the suddenly trendy Danish idea of hygge – that warm, comfortable, safe, and entirely without stress feeling. I suppose the time I lived in that flat was full of stressors, not least a deeply unsatisfying and, In the end, mentally damaging work environment. Would anywhere have felt like home, under such circumstances?

I left there and moved home to my parents for six months. Going back to my family home is such a complicated feeling for me, in part because I’ve never fully left. This is true in a physical sense – my old bedroom is so full of stuff it looks like it is still occupied day to day, with clothes in the drawers and wardrobe, four bookcases full of books, and a dresser covered in jewellery. I go back and feel the pull of all those belongings that I still, aged 28, cannot have with me as I can’t afford somewhere with enough space. I am wondering, like many people my age, if there will ever come a time when I’m not storing some possessions with my parents.

Mentally, too, I am still deeply connected to this home. I get on very well with my parents and deeply enjoy their company, and they mine, so trips home always feel too short – even when they also feel constrictive, being back under their rules, and feeling the pain of things they do and think that I cannot change. This is one of the pains of growing up: some people find it fairly easy to start a life on their own terms, in their own space, with their own chosen people, and don’t feel much guilt at having flown the nest. For me, it is more difficult. I have never had a Christmas away from this home, and with all the emotional ties of Christmas traditions, this is one holiday when I feel I should be at home. I feel guilty for not visiting more often, and for not staying longer when I am there. Whenever I leave, it is painful on the one hand, and like getting out of an effortlessly warm and comfortable bed on the other. It is still, and always will be in some ways, my home, even though it is not without difficulties. For most people, the family home has some elements of push and pull, as all families are rarely entirely without tensions.

Recently I moved out of London after ten years, settling in Canterbury and commuting back to the city every day. Canterbury, the town, does not yet feel like home. I am too transient, spending most of my waking hours still in London, and still feel like a weekend guest here. I have joined the library, the cinema, the gym, but only know small bits of the town and have barely begun to join them together. The flat I’m in is starting to feel like home – but for the first time in a few years there is no space here that is mostly mine. My partner has the “spare room”, which really is his office as he works so much at home. I only go in there to hang laundry. It contains none of my possessions and the futon we have for guests, but also for me to sit on, is both very uncomfortable and currently facing a wall. My space to sit in is the living room, but it is a communal space, no corner to hide in, and no part of it to which I can withdraw. It feels sometimes like trying to make a nest in a corridor. It is too open and there is too much traffic to make a properly cosy, individual space.

If I feel unsettled sometimes at the lack of a specific room I can go to to be at home and shut the door on the world, how must people feel who are home-less? The number of people unable to afford a roof over their heads is on the rise, as renting rules get more and more out of hand, combined with a still struggling economy. Many families find themselves in temporary spaces and individuals find themselves on the streets. I cannot understand how having a home isn’t a basic human right. It is the bottom of the pyramid, the base on which all wellbeing is built.

And if homeless people here are feeling desperate, imagine being one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe. The people trying to scrape a life in the camps in Calais, and those waiting to hear the verdict on whether they’ll be allowed to claim refuge. The newly settled refugees in Germany, who I’m sure are hard pressed to feel like they can build a home there, knowing how much anti-refugee sentiment is present. Even the people hoping for better in Canada, where so many have offered to take refugees in, trying to find jobs and their own ways forward.

Recently I read the news that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees will be sent back to their country, in a deal between Europe and Afghanistan. They lie and say that it is safe for them to return, even though the Taliban are now controlling more territory than they have since 2001. One of the largest cities, Kunduz, has been without electricity and water for days at a time. They are not being sent home. There is nothing akin to hygge on offer there. And what of the Syrians, whose home is being bombed out of existence? If they ever get back, what will there be? It will not be the place they remember, perhaps ever again.

Even here, in England, in this affluent and apparently civilised society, I am struggling lately to feel that this country is my home. The words and actions of this past year, from citizens and especially from politicians, have made me very afraid. I would be afraid even if I hadn’t had the audacity to fall in love with someone who wasn’t born here, but the fear of being separated or forced to make a huge decision about our futures is pressing on me. Theresa May said there is no such thing as a global citizen, that if you are a global citizen then you belong nowhere. She is telling the people who live here and have done so for years, and paid for the privilege, and contributed to this society on so many levels, that still they do not belong. This is not their home.

I don’t understand. Why is it so wrong and bad to have not been born here, and to want to live here? Why do these people want to stifle our differences, and force us all to be the same? Rudd talked of the injustice for poor English people of having no job “because of immigration”. I would like her to show her working. I do not believe this can be the case for the majority. More likely that the jobs market has shrunk as investment in infrastructure and public services has been cut.

I am frightened that this country will continue to change and no longer feel like home. I am frightened that one day in the not too dim or distant future, my partner’s work visa will be one of those ‘clamped down on’. That we will have to decide whether to keep together through money and a piece of paper, supposed to be held due to love alone, or to run across the sea together, me leaving behind everywhere and everyone that have felt like home to me.

Home is a place, and a feeling, and a sense, and sometimes a person, or a set of people. If you are very lucky, you will meet someone who immediately feels like home to you. But even then, it takes effort and love and time and peace to build a home that will last. For people without all those things, and even perhaps for some of us who are not quite settled where we are, we will still know that emotional rush and ache of wanting to go home.

What is so difficult about seeing women as people?

Why is it so difficult, even for “intelligent” people, just to see women as human beings?

I’m not sure how many more articles I can bear to read about the sexual assault of women by university students, who are then given slap on the wrist, token sentences because they are ‘promising’ or they ‘showed some repentance’. How many more articles where the reporting is skewed from the very beginning against the victim. Brock Turner is the most famous case recently but there have been two more in the last two days. A man repeatedly sexually assaulted a woman at Oxford University, leaving her psychologically scarred. The Telegraph headline? ‘Highly intellligent’ Oxford University student accused of sexual assault. Note: the backlash has been so strong that they have now changed the headline to just ‘Oxford University student’ – but the tone of the article itself is horrible. It references another case from a few years ago where the male student was cleared of all charges, and quotes people saying that there was no way of knowing if people were using sexual assault allegations ‘to settle scores’. Nice and impartial at this early stage of investigation, then. A collection of students at a university in Tokyo have been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman, but given suspended sentences because they showed some signs of remorse. These men founded a group with the specific aim of getting women drunk and assaulting them. They purposefully got a woman intoxicated, forcibly undressed her, poured boiling noodles on her body, groped her, beat her, and applied a hairdryer to her genitals. One of the students justified his actions saying that female students were ‘intellectually inferior.’

But he’s been given a two-year sentence. Suspended for four years. Because maybe he said he was sorry. Do you think he apologised before or after suggesting that women are a lesser form of human being? His actions say that he believes that women are not only intellectually inferior, but so completely beneath his own level of evolution that they deserve to be treated like… like what? I would treat no animal or being on earth the way he treated that woman, and neither would most right-minded people. Why is this being swept under the carpet, again and again and again and again?

Emma Watson spoke out at the UN yesterday about the epidemic of sexual assault on university campuses. I am so grateful to her for talking about it so publicly, at a time when these cases are being reported more widely, but the sentencing is still an insult to every woman on the planet. Reporting is rare and will get rarer when those who do speak out are then not only subjected to an interrogation on their drinking and sexual habits, but also have the humiliation of seeing their attackers given token sentences, joke sentences, often because they are white, or because they can swim, or throw together an essay, or made some half-arsed apology – when they are convicted at all.

My blood boils at the injustice of all of this. People talk about the difficulties of consent and the blurred lines of intoxication but it boils down to the fact that these people do not see women as people. They are not on the same level, they are merely things. Their brains are inferior, their ideas are worthless and their bodies are there for the taking. We see the first two ideas every day in the concept now known as ‘mansplaining’. I’m sure there will be raised eyebrows at me linking sexual assault and mansplaining in the same piece, but the truth is that men mansplain to – or perhaps at – women because they fundamentally do not believe they are worth listening to. They are not worth engaging in conversation like they would with a man, because there is no way that a woman would have an idea they hadn’t already had themselves. They are inferior. Even if she’s an expert on the topic, and has quite literally written the book on it. You can feel it when you’re talking to men, that they’re not listening, they’re just nodding you along, impatiently waiting for you to stop so that they can tell you how it really is, even when they’re repeating what you’ve said, and telling you what you already know, but they don’t notice because they think their words have so much more impact than yours ever could. It’s so prevalent in business meetings that the women at the White House now have a specific policy of backing each other up in meetings: if one of them makes a point, another woman will back her up and repeat it before a man has a chance to disregard it or say it in his own words and claim the credit.

Obviously these are two very different problems. But they are both massive problems facing women, in all walks of life, every day. At universities specifically, the sexual assault statistics are terrifying (1 in 3 women in the UK are sexually assaulted at university) and of course lectures are prime spots for men taking the microphone and shouting their thoughts and oh-so-interesting and original ideas over those of their classmates. Studies have shown that women are far less likely to speak up in these situations, because they are used to being silenced and having their ideas treated as nothing. You may think that universities are hallowed places of study and intellectual debate but this is the reality for many women, that every day they are treated as something less. They have to cope with being ignored and talked over and having their needs brushed away, over and over, and perhaps if they are unlucky (but, sadly, not so very rare) their autonomy over their own body will be taken from them.

I am so glad that Emma Watson is speaking out. After the success of her #HeforShe speech at the UN two years ago, it is to be hoped that more concrete positive action will be taken not just on the campuses to try and curb sexual assault, but in the sentencing of these people to make it clear that having ‘promise’ as a student or a sportsperson will not be enough to get you out of jail. I am, however, upset that Google results for her speech are at present mostly on websites which seem to be specifically targeted at women, if the topics on the website banner are anything to go by: ‘Fashion’ and ‘Beauty’ etc. Ed Byrne also mentioned the subject on Mock the Week last week, in the section on ‘if this is the answer what is the question.’ Where the answer was ‘one year’, he said: ‘the sentence Charles Manson would have got if he’d been a promising swimmer.’ The remark drew some laughs and a lot of ‘oooohs’ from the audience – whether because they thought it was accurate or because they thought it was too much, I wasn’t sure. I am grateful to Ed Byrne too for not letting the topic of Brock Turner drop, for continuing to say, this was wrong, and we need to change it. But it’s just a comedy show, and I wish it was being shouted about in places by people who are going to do something about it.

I don’t know how we can get the people who commit these acts to start believing that women are not a highly developed breed of dog, but human beings who are the intellectual and emotional equivalent of men. I don’t know how we can convince them that we are not mere sexual beings who can be commented on, and touched, and silenced, at their leisure. I am so tired and desperate about it all today. I read stories about people doing wonderful things for each other, I read excellent books showing how brilliantly people can write about and imagine totally equal genders, and then I read an article on the Yazidi women who are being captured by Isis. Killed if they are ‘undesirable’, and sold as sex slaves if they are ‘desirable’. I read articles about smart men being accused of sexual assault, with ‘Highly intelligent’ the opening to the headline. I read about men treating women like meat, and being let off, because ‘rehabilitation was a possibility’ – I am all for a rehabilitative prison service, but there has to be a punishment too for acts like this. I see a man running for presidency of one of the most powerful countries in the world, who is also accused of sexual assault of a minor and whose comments on women make me physically sick.

I hope I can write a different kind of article about it all in a year, or a decade. I want to start reading different kinds of stories.

Struggles of a Feminist: how to observe women’s bodies

I went to see a French Canadian circus the other week called Barbu. There were six acrobats, four men and two women. The men all had impressive beards, which played their part in one of the first acts as they roller-skated in a circle all holding onto each other’s beards. They started the show fully dressed, in hipster steampunk style clothing of fawn shirts and trousers, with cloth wrapped around their waists in an interesting imitation of half an old-fashioned corset. One of the women was also part of a roller-skating act at the beginning, dressed in a top and a little skirt. As she spun horizontally, only attached to a man on roller skates by a strap around her neck (wow) her skirt inevitably flew up showing modest black underwear. When she was back on her feet, the man made a show of pulling her skirt back into position for her with a flick. The second woman was dressed in stockings and suspenders, and a vest in an approximation of a corset – but not a corset, as that wouldn’t have given her the flexibility to do the extraordinary things she did, weaving her body in and out of a large ring suspended six feet above the floor.

The differences in the male and female outfits gave me the familiar feminist rage of wishing that women didn’t always have to showcase their bodies even while doing something that required such elaborate skill and training. These differences can also be seen now at the Olympics, with men and women competing in the same sport given quite different outfits to wear. I’m sure that many of the decisions behind these outfits come from the women themselves, wearing things that make them feel able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. But I still wonder why most women playing tennis continue to wear little skirts when shorts would have the benefit of not flying up all the time. Or why female track athletes are often exposing their midriffs when their male counterparts aren’t. And, most famously, why female beach volleyball players are more or less in bikinis when the men are in shorts and t-shirts. Apparently the women are no longer required to wear these bikinis, but the fact that they were once is ridiculous, and unfortunately has led to a view for some of female beach volleyball being more soft porn than it is sport. I myself struggle to get past this idea, and to sit and watch them play without imagining the guffawing objectifying language I’ve heard thrown at the players in the past. ***Update: I watched the men’s Olympic diving last night, so I now feel I need to add a bit about their outfits. Were they always that tiny? On some men they literally barely covered the tops of their buttocks. I’m sure it’s for streamlining but I actually found it very disconcerting. It doesn’t affect my point in this blog, but I did want to acknowledge that the men are also sometimes in teeny tiny outfits!***

This circus and now the Olympics is making me ask a lot of questions of the way I view female bodies. I was good and ready in my irritation at this circus for having only the women semi-dressed – but then the men came out in only their underwear. What was I supposed to think now?! I could no longer be righteously feminist-ly annoyed, I had to acknowledge that there appeared to be equality here. I did still notice differences in the way the men and the women were presented, and how they held themselves. The women, who were also now in plain black crop tops and shorts underwear, acted quite differently; one woman was confident but quietly so, while the other was aggressively sexual, strutting and staring out at the crowd and, for me, feeling quite confrontational. It felt like she was looking at all the straight men in the audience, daring them to want her, and at the same time looking at all the straight women (particularly those there with a straight man) and saying well your bloke is looking at me and wanting me right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The men, by contrast, were quite playful in their nudity. There were some homoerotic jokes, and a man came on to do his act wearing a large disco ball round his body, covering from the tops of his thighs to just below his arms. On a woman I think it would have been titillating, just covering her breasts and arse and suggesting there was nothing underneath, but on the man it was mostly comical.

Watching them all and noticing my reactions, I began to feel quite uncomfortable. Some of it was plain old-fashioned jealousy, not wanting my partner to be sitting next to me and lusting after women on a stage. But then, you may ask, didn’t I find the men attractive? Wasn’t I lusting after them a little? Honestly: not really. They were fine male specimens, but they were just male bodies. I was detached from them and sitting in a crowded public space, sitting next to someone I loved: I felt no particular need or urge to find them attractive or to think about it much one way or the other. I wondered to myself if that’s the way my partner felt as well, and I struggled to believe it could be so. And I realised that I couldn’t see the women in the same way: their bodies for me were bound up with too many other thoughts and other ideas, and I couldn’t see them as non-sexual beings. Not in the sense that I wanted to sleep with them myself – this blog isn’t me not so subtly coming out as a lesbian – but because I kept seeing them as direct competition to myself. And I realised that this is a huge problem.

I have found something very similar with the Olympics. While I can watch the men play and appreciate their form and see that yes, they are attractive, it gives me no pause for thought at all. I am far more interested in what they can do and how skilled they are at whatever sport they are participating in. But with the women, I struggle. I judge. I compare. I frequently feel wanting. I feel the urge to make comments on their prettiness, how much make-up they are wearing; I assess the size of different parts of their bodies and how well-balanced they are. I am very envious of their power and strength, but at the same time I feel slightly relieved if I don’t see them as being objectively sexually attractive. I hate myself for this because I know it is entirely irrelevant, and something that these women themselves are probably worried about people thinking and I don’t want to be somebody else adding to that. Most of them are very attractive, in their looks and their bodies and their abilities, and then I hate myself again for feeling worn down and a little sad after watching some Olympic events. I’ll sit next to my partner and fret about whether he is judging me against what he’s seeing on the screen. I find myself seeking reassurance and getting needy and being a bit of a pain in the ass.

I also realised when I was watching the circus that I will downplay the women’s abilities, just as so many people do to women, often without even realising it. The woman was spinning in the air hanging on a hoop with her ankle casually by her ear and I found myself thinking, well that’s not that difficult. OF COURSE IT FUCKING IS. But I felt angry and threatened by her because she was wearing stocking and suspenders and I couldn’t disconnect my admiration of her performance from thinking that men would be watching her and wanting her. It is toxic, this feeling of needing to be admired and approved of to the extent that if another woman at that moment is being looked at with awe and, perhaps, some desire, that that automatically lessens our own attractiveness and our own worth. This is particularly true of situations when your partner might be the one looking at someone else, but I can remember instances of it being true even when the men weren’t even people I would want to sleep with. There was a boy at school when I was about 17 who was a friend of a friend of mine. He was a bit strange and he frequently made me uncomfortable with various remarks. I had absolutely no desire to be with him at all. But he had a habit of putting his hands up our jumpers at the back to warm them when it was cold, and I would feel jealous if he always did it to my friends and not to me. Even though I simultaneously hated him doing it to me because his hands were fucking cold and he freaked me out more than a little bit. What the hell was that? Why did I feel that competition even with someone I wasn’t interested in?

Happily I think it’s something I’ve grown out of to some extent. But I still see it in this need to be always found attractive, and not just attractive but the MOST attractive. Which is understandable to some extent but it’s also pretty ridiculous. It’s impossible to go through life only finding one person attractive all the time, and it doesn’t have to be threatening if your partner looks at someone on a stage or on a screen and thinks they’re beautiful. It doesn’t even have to be threatening if they’re someone who they know personally. Obviously there are lines here and if your partner finds other people so attractive that they can’t help themselves sleeping with them, then that’s a whole different story. But all I’m talking about is looking at a person and thinking they are nice to look at. We all do it and I hate that I feel this competitive, insecure, poisonous feeling when I judge myself against someone and feel less attractive and crap as a result.

So I am trying to work on seeing women’s bodies as just that, bodies, there to do a job and achieve some incredible things and not just something for people to have sex with. Of course, I’ve had a lot of help seeing women’s bodies this way, from all advertising and many films and music videos, and everywhere else that women are presented as props, sexual props, without personalities and voices and abilities beyond being sexual. I just didn’t realise how much I had internalised it myself, with other women. And that makes me really wonder about how I look at myself. I know that I am not always happy with my figure because it doesn’t balance out the way that the women’s bodies do on the posters – if I want a proper hourglass, I need a padded bra (and SO WHAT) – but I never thought so baldly about how that was connected to me thinking of myself as just a sexual being. Just a thing for people to have sex with. Which is crazy, when you think about it, because the majority of my time is and always will be spent not having sex. So why should I have to be judging myself on that all the time? On being attractive and being found attractive and on looking as close to the women in advertising and on the screen as possible?

So I am fighting it. I wrote recently about getting more into sport. God damn it’s hard to keep up when you work full-time, commute two hours a day and often sleep poorly but I started again this morning after a week or so off, and I will push harder to continue it as it makes such a difference to my mood. Feeling the strength in your body is so much fun. I’ve had a recurrent dream since I was young about being powerless – physically powerless; I’ll try to punch someone who has made me angry or who is threatening me in the dream and there will be no strength in my arm. I try but I make no impact. I feel like that can carry over into my day sometimes, and exercising and feeling the power running through my muscles makes me feel more powerful in other areas too. Power: the ability to act or produce an effect. It’s what is often denied to women in all kinds of public spaces; they are without agency and without power, unable to produce an effect except to make men want to possess their bodies. I am going to try very hard to uncouple my automatic thoughts of viewing women in this way, as competition, and to see them as more, to see them as what they are: powerful and strong and not trying to be a threat to me. They’re just human bodies, just women, not a yardstick I need to measure myself against.

I would like to thank the Guilty Feminist podcast and my fellow Guilty Feminists on the facebook page for helping me to think through these things, to see them for what they are and also to write this blog explaining how much this affects me, when as a feminist I shouldn’t be thinking these things (although I will try not to beat myself up about it if I do, because society has taught me to think this way). If you haven’t yet listened to the Guilty Feminist, you absolutely should. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking and marvellous. And the facebook page is one of the best things on the internet.