No 50. Being a woman remains, essentially, embarrassing (and other controversies)

This week at work, I grabbed a small bag of err… “lady items” from under my desk and strode past my team, exuding line-managery team-leadery confidence. I turned the corner to the loos, bumped into my director and then noticed him kicking one of my tampons across the hallway. He breezed past. Time froze as I realised I had been sashaying past my team shedding Lilets like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail.

This kind of nonsense is so common for me I didn’t even blush, but instead just retraced my steps and gathered them up from the floor/the team-members who had picked them up for me.

Part of the issue for me is increasingly awful eyesight, but I still think the majority of my humiliation incidents are just fall-out from being a woman and a mother. Boob still accidentally hanging out after feeding: check. Skirt caught in pants after weeing: check. Half-shaved armpit/eczema cream in hair/mismatched earrings: check. Child unwrapping and partially eating your used lil…

OK, let’s draw a veil over that one. It’s too vile even for me to share. But you get the picture.

Perhaps the femaleness of someone’s body is essentially funnier, lesser, more embarrassing than the maleness of someone’s body. Boobs and vajazzles and cellulite and hair extensions: silly and impractical and vaguely humiliating?

And that idea took me to the thought that I rarely allow myself to have — that men, as a class, despise women, as a class. Or as another writer once put it “men, in essence, see themselves as 100% and women as 70%”. Whether it’s chuckles about women drivers or abuse within relationships, there is a shared root of superiority.

Now, I know (and hope) that most men of my acquaintance will balk at this, but I don’t think the men in my circle of liberal friends are necessarily representative, and a more global perspective is needed.

Violence by men causes more death and disability worldwide amongst women aged 15-44 than war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents. At least 1 in 3 women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused, with the abuser usually known to her. In Rwanda up to half a million women were raped in 1994. In developing countries women produce 80% of the food but are more likely to be hungry than men. And even close to home: last year 1,070 men were convicted of rape in England and Wales despite the fact that approximately 78,000 people were raped – of which the vast majority were women and girl-children.

I often make a joke of the physical and social fall-out of being a woman, a lone-parent, a feminist. But perhaps, in the words of Morrissey “that joke isn’t funny any more”.

This post is dedicated to all the wonderful egalitarian men in my life.

Sources: World Bank Study World Development Report: Investing in Health, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993: General Assembly. In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary General, 2006. A/61/122/Add.1. 6 July 2006. Food and Agriculture Organization, The feminisation of hunger what do the surveys tell us? 2001, and The state of food insecurity in the world 2005, Rome: 2005, p17: Uk rape: MOJ, Home office, ONS

No 49. “don’t smell the jaycloth!” and other pearls

As I lurch ever closer to my final countdown Top 50 things I’ve learnt since becoming a single parent, I thought I would give you a few of the pearls of wisdom that didn’t justify their own post:

1) Whatever you do, don’t smell the jaycloth. There is no way of knowing if that stain on the sofa is chocolate or poo. Grab a jaycloth, wipe it off, but whatever you do, don’t let curiosity get the better of you and bring that mutha anywhere near your nose

2) Speaking of smells, get used to a weird, unidentifiable odour that you will chase round the house going “where IS that coming from? Can’t you smell it? Really? Are you just being polite? Is it coming from the bin? No…”. Who knows if this is milk in the cushions or wee in the carpet – it’s there for life

3) It really is the best of times and the worst of times. Yesterday was my birthday. I was lying in bed with Mini while she stuck hairclips in the gaps between my fingers. She suddenly looked delighted and shouted “birthday cake!” as she realised the clips looked a little like candles. She “blew them out” and tried to sing me happy birthday. Cuteness!!
It was 5am. Not so much cuteness.

4) Weetabix can solve the London housing crisis. Sustainable building at your fingertips – once something is bonded with milky Weetabix it will never come apart again. I’d happily live in a block of flats made of nothing but breakfast cereal. It will last longer than the prefabs being thrown up at the moment.

5) I now know why gin is called “mother’s ruin”

6) Reading mumsnet is like having the superpower of telepathy. Never have so many other female minds been opened up to me. There is no attempt to keep up an image, nobody selling product, no artistic veil. Want to know what’s happening in real people’s relationships? Go on mumsnet. Want to get information on anything from making chocolate cake in a cup to how many women like weird things in bed. Mumsnet.

7) You find out who your friends are. And they are, truly, amazing.

8) When you’re trapped at home, Facebook is addictive. I purged 50% of my facebook friends when I became a single parent – fearing I might splurge all my personal bile to current work colleagues, church-acquaintances from the 1990s and people I am still mildly trying to impress. I’m glad I did. With only half the number of posters, I am able to occasionally rip myself away from it to do useful things like feed my child.

9) There is nothing funnier than your own child letting out enormous, man-sized farts and saying “ooh, pardon me” as though they’re 50 years old.

10) Not following the expected route can be the most rewarding experience of your life.

This post is dedicated to everyone who has read this far. Here’s to the Final Fifty!

No 48. I’m living like a girl

The Like a Girl advert has been all over social media this week: another example of thought-provoking gender-aware marketing (even if it IS by Proctor and Gamble). It mirrors the recent Dove, Pantene and No.7 adverts, but with the crucial difference that Always aren’t pretending that women’s empowerment is based entirely on looking good. It’s also reminiscent of the Ban Bossy campaign; challenging the many acceptable ways of talking about women negatively.

I’ve always been a feminist, but my beliefs and feelings have clarified since I had a daughter: and my feelings are pretty much disbelief and anger. There are so many disturbing, seemingly unstoppable trends – whether it’s insidious cultural noise or more serious complicity with abuse.

Last month I found out that my niece (aged 9) now refuses to wear shorts and dresses… she has stopped doing sport where she needs to show her legs, because apparently they are “too hairy”. She has already got the message that it’s more important for her to look a certain way than to run fast, to be free. Unless she can get over this, is there any chance at all now that she’ll be a runner, or a swimmer or just a lover of jumping around in the sun? What else is going to be squeezed out of her enjoyment in life over the next 7 years?

And then… The combination of that grim-sounding Magaluf sex video, Rolf Harris’ conviction, the fact that so many women are abused by their exes by the publication of sexually explicit images online…

…And that this latter action is not currently illegal.

How is this possible? How is it possible for someone to take a private photo or video of me and put it up for men to laugh at or wank over, and this isn’t a violation of my human rights and protected by law? Our laws are not keeping up with the tidalwave of bullying and woman-hating in new media. We need a speedier solution than years of dragging bills through parliament.

It may be the hair-dye talking, but I feel that the time for a revolution has arrived. Having skirted round the edge of direct action for a number of years, it seems that words no longer make change happen: it’s all about the action. And if you can film that action and not get prosecuted, so much the better.

As a teenager I wished I was a man. It seemed to be the only way to have a fulfilled, free life and to be the person I wanted to be. But I think differently now. I want to be a woman – but a woman in a society that behaves radically differently from how ours does. And I for one am ready to be part of that revolution.

This post is dedicated to Gloria Steinem – “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself”

No 47. My dating stock is at an all-time low

Imagine, if you will, the small-ad: “Wanted: reasonably able-bodied man.  Must enjoy being woken at 5am and eating shepherd’s pie every day.  Does not need own hair or teeth but does need power-tools and a high tolerance for poo on the soft-furnishings.”

(And I’d even be prepared to remove the line about him needing power-tools: I’d just really like to get my flooring fixed before all the furniture slides to one side of the room).

I have never been wholly sure of my USP. Height? Humour?  The ability to turn my tongue upside down? Those things are all still true, but my dating credentials have taken a severe battering since the Mini came along.

1)    I no longer know how to talk to adult males.  My standard chat-ups have always been music, films, books and “yes, I like the same as you, therefore I like you”. All I really like now is getting as much sleep as possible, eating Soreen and watching Mini singing “Incy Wincy Spider”.

2)    I have biceps that are visible through my sleeves.  They’re so prominent I may even take to calling them “the guns” (a la Ron Burgundy) and kissing them when I see them being goggled-at.  I think I may have had a pre-disposition for mighty-arms but having never done any sport, it was never tested.  Carrying a beefy child around every day has brought out my natural ‘assets’. Do men like dating women who can lift them with one hand?

3)    Unlike the biceps, the rest of my body now sags and lurches at every step.  It’s not that I’m that much heavier than before, it’s just that whereas before my wobbly bits were more of a firm fruit, they are now very much a bag of glue – seeping out of clothes in unexpected directions.

4)    I cannot be spontaneous:

“Fancy a drink after work? Want to pop out for a coffee one weekend?”

“Err…. Let me check for three weeks’ time whether I can get a babysitter or to see when Mini might be with her dad and… hello? Hello…?”

5)    I have a child standing on my lap 6 days out of 7.  Although I personally think that Mini is the Greatest Human Who Ever Lived™ I’m aware that not every man wants to have a tiny creature sticking her fingers up his nose, bossing him around and getting in the way of late nights/late mornings/holidays/fun times/drinking/sleeping/travelling… (add to the list at will)

6)    I am 37. Much as I complained about being single in my teens, my twenties and my early 30s, the long slow drag towards the menopause now seems to be a gallop.  The last three guys I know who got attached all plumped for someone ten years their junior.  So, mathematically, I’m looking for someone approaching 50 who doesn’t mind having a toddler in their lives.  I feel my fishing pool may have just dried up entirely.

After 18 months in Purdah I was considering re-entering the dating-fray but I think I may withdraw for another 18 years.

Or at least until my biceps can be contained within my clothes.

 

This post is dedicated to anyone who can find me a man with power tools and a penchant for fruit loaf.  (My feminist heart sinks at this, but while my ability to read maps and do quadratic equations is excellent, I cannot use an electric drill without putting lives at risk. I’m sorry to let you down sisters).

No 46. The holy family has been re-invented

While trapped under a whirly hairdryer for two hours trying to persuade my fringe to stay pink, I began eyeing up the magazines they’d plonked in front of me.

I’m not at home in a beauty salon.  I’m so clearly a hairy hippy at heart, I worry they think I should be chopping off my hair at home with a potato peeler rather than exposing my ignorance to the gay and the good of the salon. And so, in an attempt to blend in, I picked up ‘Ok’.

As I flicked through I was increasingly creeped out. I had guessed there would be scores of eerily smooth ladies in see-through dresses.  But I didn’t expect the pregnancy porn.  Page after page of fecundity.  And each photo was composed in the same weirdly religious way.  The heavily made-up Madonna was grasping the top and bottom of her stomach (I assume to show that she was pregnant rather than, HORROR, fat).  In a very few of the pictures the mother was ‘bravely’ alone, holding her round stomach as though it were a life-belt.  But in most a man stood next to her, always in the same part-protective, part-oppressive pose – with one arm over her shoulder and the other shoved under her bump so far it looked like an assault.

With little experience of women’s magazines, I’d always thought the lie they sold was women being forever young, forever thin. But the truth is they’re selling something even more noxious: the lie that the point of your life is to be well-groomed, conformed and owned. You are the sum of a tight dress, a man and a baby (preferably inside you).  This is the pinnacle of female achievement.

I guess this has always been the case – from Woman and Home to Hello we’re sold a particular package of the future. But it was especially annoying this morning because I’d just finished reading Richard Littlejohn reiterating his views that most of what is wrong with the world is 1) single mums and 2) women who work. On the one hand there was a man telling me I’m a societal problem, and on the other hand a bunch of women telling me I should aspire to be a decorative womb under someone’s arm.

Thankfully I was rescued from these rather angry thoughts by a nice woman washing my hair and then telling me I looked “quirky” with the newly dyed fringe.

Quirky works for me.

 

(This post is dedicated to the pensioner in the chair next to me at the salon. She had just won £60 on the result of the Brazil match and was planning to bet on every match, win, and spend the money at Bestival. I think she had moved from ‘quirky’ to ‘totally peculiar and eccentric’. A most excellent path I plan to tread myself.)

No 45. “It is only because of their stupidity that they are able to be so sure of themselves”

It turns out that Franz Kafka based “The Trial” largely on his experiences of the British tax credit system.

Sixteen months ago I applied for tax credits.  For those who haven’t had the joy of these, they are bits of money the government gives you if you’re working but on a lowish income/are paying extortionate childcare costs.  At the time I was on maternity leave, earning nothing and flapping about how I was going to pay the mortgage and feed Mini.

I called the ominously titled “Islington Income Maximisation Team” and was boldly informed I would qualify and to apply right away.  I got the form.  It was 30 pages long.  The heart of it was that they were going to base my entitlement on what I had earned in the tax year two years previously.  At that time I was earning loads.  If they based it on that I’d never qualify.

So I decided to call them.  After 20 minutes on hold (at 10p a minute I hasten to add: just what everyone applying for tax credits needs) I was told that I would need to have “an in-year calculation”. I asked if they could do this over the phone or send me the form I would need.

Oh no.

I had to fill in the original form, knowing it would be rejected.  I then had to send it in and they would process it and write back to me and tell me I had been rejected.  I then had to call them and tell them my income for the last year.  I told the operator that this would also mean i was rejected — could i not skip this stage?

Oh no.

After completing this initial rejection phase I would have to give them my last year’s income, send it in (or call it through on the “on hold listening to the daleks and haemorrhaging cash” phoneline) and they would then write to me to tell me I’d been rejected again.  I could THEN ask for an in-year calculation.

I cannot describe the gnashing of teeth.  I was so disturbed by this waste of time and public resources I delusionally tried to persuade the operator he could change the whole system just by dealing with my claim as if i was a unique human being rather than a National Insurance number.  He didn’t hear a word I said and resorted to reading from a script in a loud voice until I stopped speaking.

After deciding to submit to the system I waited with bated breath.  Until they rejected my claim and I got nothing.

But now, 16 months later, to add confusion to irritation, i have just had £50 dropped into my bank account for no apparent reason.  I was well aware that if they’d done this by mistake I would just have to repay any payments, probably with lots of painful letters, additional bureaucracy and phonecalls so I decided to call them up again.

To cut a long story short I should have got back in touch with them six months ago to have them recalculate my claim.  Nobody had told me this.  If I DO qualify for credits now, they can’t back-date them at all, so I will have lost six months of payments.  Nobody had told me this.

I can’t really complain — there’s a chance I might qualify for Money For Nothing. But the whole experience has been faintly reducing: the bureaucracy, the lack of individuality and the strange way in which a faceless operator is now so intimately aware of my life, my finances and the best ways to get me to shut up and comply.

“he realized at once that he shouldn’t have spoken aloud, and that by doing so he had, in a sense, acknowledged the stranger’s right to oversee his actions”

 

(This post is dedicated to my grandma. Farewell dear battle-axe. I will channel your spirit next time I’m on the phone to the Vogons!)

No 44. Needing help and wanting help aren’t the same thing

Today, as I got to the top of the tube-stairs after doing my usual wonky wobble carrying Mini in the buggy, I heard a voice behind me.

“I was going to offer to help you, but…” it said.

I turned around to see an enormous man in a rugby shirt, with two sons of about eight and ten.  He carried on, “I was going to offer to help you, but I thought you’d be offended”.

I just about managed to pant “I wouldn’t have been offended” before we parted ways.

I used to hear tales (mainly from my father) of how some men are afraid to hold doors open for women “in case they are offended” but I have never heard of anyone refusing to offer help to someone struggling with heavy baggage for the same reasons.

Personally, I do find it faintly patronising and obsequious to be shooed through a door before an awkwardly squashed-to-the-wall gaggle of men, but I recognise that this is just an attempt at politeness.  If I’m going through a door with others, I always hold the door and usher them through myself, so I realise I’m committing the same ‘crime’.

But this particular comment felt like passive-aggressive point-scoring: as though he had to make the point that feminism has gone SO crazy that you can’t offer help to a woman who is struggling with a heavy load.  I don’t know what lesson he was hoping to teach his sons: don’t help a woman in case she is offended? Don’t carry things for people as they may shout at you when you offer? ‘Some women’ don’t want to be helped.

Or perhaps he was just embarrassed that he had shown them his true laziness by allowing me to sway slowly up two flights in front of them all.

As often happens at the weekend, I do look like someone who has been given day-release from Camden market – DMs, leggings, t-shirt, weird earrings.  Buskers and Big Issue sellers always smile at me.  But perhaps my outfit (rightly?) gives the impression of such independence that I don’t need any help.

But where does this thinking end – you don’t need help carrying a buggy, you don’t need help if you fall down, you don’t need help if you’re attacked — you are showing by your outfit or your very aloneness that you don’t need any help?

And this is where I have to admit to a certain double-mindedness.  I don’t need help 90% of the time. I really don’t.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want it. I love those kindly offers to lift the buggy up and down steps, to hold my bag, to carry my coffee. Sometimes I say yes and sometimes I say no but I’m always incredibly grateful to the person who offers, and fall slightly in love with them for their show of shared humanity.

 

This post is dedicated to Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”