Month: November 2013

Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…

It was this article that got me started: reporting on research conducted by Girlguiding UK which concludes that sexism in the UK is widespread enough to impact “most aspects” of girls’ lives.

“Girls identified sexism as a priority issue for their generation”, with three-quarters saying sexism affected “most areas of their lives”, says the report.

Of the 11- to 21-year-olds questioned, some 87% thought women were judged more on their appearance than their ability.

More than a third (36%) of all those surveyed had felt “patronised or made to feel stupid” because their gender, rising to 60% of the 16- to 21-year-olds.

It got me thinking, because I started to consider my own life between those ages: I started thinking about the environment I was in, about the influences around me. These are more random thoughts than any kind of conclusion, and I wasn’t entirely sure whether to post it – but in there somewhere might be something I thought was worth saying, so.

I went to a school which was – admittedly – small and – also admittedly – private. But in that school, all three of my science teachers were women. My English teacher – also a woman – was precisely the kind of take-no-shit teacher you need to sit in front of a class of rugby-playing fifteen year old boys who have no desire to be studying poetry thankyouverymuch. We had two PE teachers: one male, one female. It goes without saying that the our female PE teacher was far more hardcore than our male teacher. Oh, and she also taught both junior Maths and Classics.

My mother never really wore make-up, and I remember being utterly stunned when, at some point in her mid-50s, I discovered she’d recently bought an eyebrow pencil. When I was little, she had a jewellery box I liked to poke around in and play with. I seem to remember finding a lipstick in there once (this would have been sometime around 1987…) that had clearly been in there since around 1970. It still had a (pre-decimal) price sticker on it, and had been used at best two or three times. It wasn’t some right-on feminist statement about make-up that she was making. It was just, y’know, that for her, she had better things to be doing with her time. I guess I inherited the attitude.

One of my uncle’s many girlfriends when I was growing up took it upon herself to buy me a make-up kit one Christmas. I think, rather like my mother’s lipstick, it got used about twice. Girlfriend Number 4 called me on it at some point the following year, asking why I wasn’t wearing any make-up. I shrugged and made the kind of sound I usually made when I was a teenager. She responded by telling me that it was “a woman’s duty to wear make-up”.

The one person who ever commented on the way I looked at school was a girl.

I’ve been in two fights. Both times, I was called a bitch. Both times… by women. (Well. I say “women”. One of them was at school. There’s a backstory, which is long and tedious and involves her getting her big brother to come into school and threaten to beat me up. She called me a bitch, I threw a chair at her. It would never have occurred to me to insult her based on her gender or her appearance. Her attitude, on the other hand, or her carefree willingness to pick a fight and then hide behind her nineteen year old brother? Yeah, totally guilty.)

My university lecturers were, certainly for my BA, mostly women. The vast majority of them held doctorates. Several of them were, at the time, either in senior lecturer or head of department posts. They terrified my male classmates – particularly when the most senior and serious of all of them took the seminar on women’s bodies in medieval religious literature…

I was born in a period with both – for better or worse – a female Prime Minister, and a Queen.

When I started university as a completely green undergrad, my department arranged for a novelist to come and give a commencement address in one of our lecture theatres. As it happens, since then that particular novelist has become the first woman to be awarded the Booker Prize twice, and continues to be one of my heroes… as she has been since that day, when she took the time to stand in a university common room and talk to said completely green undergrad about what it means to be a writer.

I used to work in a very corporate environment, for a very big company. My boss had many faults – and I can still list most of them, many years later, because that’s how crazy she drove me – but she was also capable of walking into a room full of senior investment bankers and getting them to shut the hell up every single time she spoke. And she did. The Chief Executive of that same company was also a woman. Her office was just across the floor from where I sat, and every day I saw her take meetings with – again, admittedly – mostly men. It wasn’t her hairdo that got her into that position. It was the fact that she was smart and she worked hard.

All my life, I have been surrounded by strong and capable women. Talented women. I continue to be surrounded by them, both personally and professionally. I continue to be surrounded by men, too, who both value and recognise women’s ability.

It comes back to this:

Of the 11- to 21-year-olds questioned, some 87% thought women were judged more on their appearance than their ability.

More than a third (36%) of all those surveyed had felt “patronised or made to feel stupid” because their gender, rising to 60% of the 16- to 21-year-olds.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Others may not have had the same luck, but I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. I grew up not just believing but knowing that I could be and do whatever I wanted to be, because everywhere I looked there were women who were doing and being just that, and reinforcing the idea that a woman’s place was wherever the hell she wanted. It would never have occurred to me that the world was otherwise.

(Of course, the negative here – which also needs saying – is that the times I’ve felt someone has been judging me by my appearance or based on the fact I’m a girl, it’s been other women. There’s a thing there, but it’s complicated and needs someone a lot smarter than me to articulate it without tying him or herself in knots.)

But overall, yes. I’ve been fortunate.

It would be nice to think that the generation who follow could have at least the chance to be just as lucky, wouldn’t it…?

(And yes, that blog title is me – without a hint of irony – riffing on one of Gaston’s songs from Beauty & the Beast. Well. Maybe a *bit* of irony…)


The Hidden Mother

I stumbled across this piece on the BBC News site earlier, and… look, I get the idea. It’s about keeping the focus on the child as the subject, isn’t it? But blimey, if you don’t end up with some hella creepy photos as a result…

In Pictures: The Hidden Mother

Take a look and see what you reckon. And then try to forget what you saw. Brrr.

The Black Month

Breton tradition calls November “the Black Month”. It’s the month of the dead, set aside for remembering them. For appeasing them. It’s an old tradition which isn’t much kept these days – not now there’s light and heat and even the fiercest winds can be shut out. But still. The Black Month it remains.

It was this time of year that I heard Frankie (not his real name) had died. A few years ago now – and more since I’d seen him. I’ve talked about him before, I think – and probably with a different name each time. I don’t have a problem with that: every year at this time, I find myself thinking about him, and there’s a part of me that desperately wants to mark the passing of time. To remember him.

Frankie lived in my street. We grew up together: he was a couple of years younger than me, but we hung out. His parents were some of my parents’ closest friends, and for a while we were in and out of each others’ houses all the time. I liked him. I did not, as a point of fact, like his best friend  (who was entirely dickish, and whose real name I both remember all too well and am not afraid to use, so don’t push me…) but Frankie was one of the good ones.

And then something inside Frankie broke.

It was a kind of sickness I know only too well. Something inside him broke – his heart or his mind – and he sank into the kind of depression there’s no hope of pulling out of by yourself. He spiralled down and down, and the further you go the harder it is to pull up. His family rescued him – or thought they had, at least… right until they buried him a couple of weeks later.

His death frightened me. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, and the last time I had it had been a strange conversation across his kitchen table; his house empty and quiet. The man sitting across the table from me hadn’t been the boy I’d known, and it was more than just time. It was like something was eroding him; chipping away. I’d asked him for a favour and given him my mobile number – more as a pretext to give him my number than because I wanted anything. He shrugged and nodded and he never called.

His death frightened me – that conversation frightened me – because it wasn’t a surprise. I’ve tangled with depression enough to spot a fellow traveller, and I know the path well enough to know where it leads. The woods are dark and full of voices, and few of them are friendly.

I was lucky. Frankie was not.

That’s all it was: luck. It wasn’t about strength or determination or about someone telling either of us to hang on in there. I got treatment that worked: I had a sympathetic GP who slapped me with a prescription for Citalopram, and told me we would Deal With This. And we did. And when it came back, I had another sympathetic GP who listened and nodded and told me I was an idiot for not wanting to go back onto medication and good god, no, of course they weren’t going to section me what was I thinking and did he need to add paranoia to the already sizeable list of symptoms I was presenting? And when I needed to come off the drugs he pulled every string and moved heaven and earth and got me in front of a therapist – a guy barely a year older than me who was just finishing off his training and whose management of my own particular brand of crazy will surely stand him in good stead for many, many years to come.

And all the while I was being put back together, Frankie was falling apart. Not long after I finished my treatment, I got the phone call telling me he had taken his own life.

Luck. That’s all it was.

Luck in that I had the support of a marvellous doctor – several marvellous doctors. Luck in that there was a therapist there when I needed one. Luck in that I had – and continue to have – the most astonishingly patient and supportive friends who raise an eyebrow at my antics and file it under “Lou’s Special Crazy” and look right through it. They’re the most understanding people in the world, I think, even if they don’t know it.

So every year, as we head into November, I always find myself thinking the same things. I think about Frankie, and I remember him. I think about the way things could have gone – for either of us. I think about the reason my story is so different from his… and I remember not just the dead but so many of the living.

Because without them, I wouldn’t be here.