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Monthly Archives: November 2014

To those who leave the house – in fact even those who don’t, thanks to the likes of Channel 4 – the following exchange won’t come as the shock that it really should.

The other day, on the bus, I overhead – impossible not to, they were shouting so proudly – a conversation a teenaged lad was having on the phone with his girlfriend, during which he repeated that well-worn loving phrase; “Do you want to get punched up? Six times, no less. Whilst he ejaculated such insults, his cronies – one of them female – cheered him on, giggling hysterically and gesticulating wildly with pleasure, like chimps.

Who’s worse? They boy? The girl who stays with him? Or the society that produced them both?

Such disrespect, such unhealthy relationships, are certainly not something new, but the increasingly aggressive ‘front’ that I see young boys and men displaying proudly today really is concerning to this girl. Unfortunately, I overhear such verbal abuse daily, working as I do in education, and the mindless, go-to phrases – of which ‘do you want to get punched’ up is comparatively friendly – often seem to me like a knee-jerk response to the angry culture that has sprung up in our entertainment industry. It’s like life has become one long rap video, in which we women really are ‘hos’. It’s madness – but, maddeningly, a reality.

Maybe I’m overreacting and this routine verbal assault is just another mode, in a long historical line, of exaggerated teenaged expression; for whom it is all or nothing. The thing is though, it’s not just words that are exuberantly exchanged in our classrooms and on our streets – what gets me are those slogan / graphic t shirts that seem to be a staple of every young man’s wardrobe now. You know the kind I mean. Half (or often, a lot more than half) naked women touching themselves, bending over etc etc. Basically, people are just going about in public with pornography on their chests. The majority of it is especially insulting, considering the woman tend to have their eyes blocked or are wearing sunglasses. It’s just breasts. Great message to send out – thanks. And it’s not even like we’re talking about discerning young men hunting this stuff out in specialist or joke shops either. The following images are taken from products on offer at River Island and Republic, for God’s sake. (Apologies for this onslaught – or you’re welcome, depending on what side of the sexism line you’re on.)

I think I’ve made my point. I mean really – would  you want your son to turn up to college displaying one of those dismissive, patronising messages? Would you want to be served in a shop by someone wearing an aggressive image of sexual objectification? It’s a really quite sinister form of sexism that is being unapologetically shoved in our faces under the apparently harmless guise of fashion.

Of course, at the end of the day this is no different a sexism to subtle inequality, still inherent, exhibited quietly by those more ‘civilised’ members of society dressed in suits and sitting at desks, rather than in their offensive t shirt on the bus.

I can’t decide what’s worse.

As feminism campaigns enjoy a media moment of sorts, and the battle for equality reaches more of us, it seems such a cruel and unnecessary affront that, at the same time, our high streets seem intent on pushing more and more of these angry and downright aggressive sexual messages onto our bodies. Our young men have become walking mouthpieces for outdated sexual stereotypes. Worse still, they are actually shelling out money to be ambassadors for this sexism. Are high street designers fuelling the desire for these messages by producing them ? Or are they sating a demand for them from our young people?

This problem was put into a new context last week when Dr Matt Taylor, of the Rosetta space project, caused a media furore by appearing on a video livestream of the European Space Agency’s mission to land on a comet sporting an inappropriate – and frankly, ugly – shirt. Covered in a bevy of half-naked buxom cartoon blondes, it looked like something from 1980s Blackpool. There was an immediate Twitter backlash, where the scientist was accused of being sexist. I mean, what was he thinking? Typically, Boris Johnson later waded in with an outdated opinion, claiming that ‘if you are an extrovert space scientist, that is the kind of shirt that you are allowed to wear.’ Even more alarmingly, he went on to compare the attacks on Dr Taylor to ‘a scene from Mao’s cultural revolution’, where weeping individuals were forced to confess to their crimes against the people…

The thing is, Boris – and other fellow dinosaurs – you must have had your eyes closed, because there is a revolution happening. People are fed up. And if we are determined to tackle casual sexism, one shirt at a time. Women are always being judged on their looks, what they’re wearing. It’s hilarious to see the  defensive storm that rises after, God forbid, a man is brought to account for his appearance.

No wonder there aren’t enough women in science – it’s hardly surprising with such a culture of casual sexism – reading, as I did researching this post, about what Dr Taylor said when talking about the mission during his presentation, never mind the offensive shirt, is toe-curlingly cringey and blood-boilingly frustrating; “the sexiest mission there’s ever been. She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.

Ugh. Who’s at fault? Those who make these things, or those who choose to wear them? I can’t decide but, I implore you – give our young men a chance. Don’t buy them one of these t shirts as a festive gift. Their message could have an impact for life, not just for Christmas.

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We all have embarrassing habits, don’t we? Googling yourself regularly. Slathering on antibacterial hand gel every time you touch someone for fear of their likely germs. Secretly listening to One Direction every morning (the latter not one of mine).

Is there anything worse than admitting an embarrassing habit? Yes – not noticing said habit in the first place, and carrying on doing it obliviously. Which is what I’ve been doing, subconsciously, for years. Forever. Only last week did I finally notice this particular habit – my saving grace being that at least it wasn’t pointed out to me by my boss, my mother, a member of One Direction.

I mimic people. I just can’t seem to help it. Not in a comic way – I’m no actress and, anyone will tell you, I can’t do an accent to save my life. No, it’s more of a social reflex. Something we all probably do to some extent – to demonstrate our apparent attentiveness, to make other people feel special, comfortable (or uncomfortable) – reflecting others back to themselves during conversation. Mimicking their body language, intonations of voice and facial expressions in our own body, voice and face. I know this isn’t exactly some kind of breakthrough observation; most of us are capable of doing this when we want to, or when social convention dictates we have to. But the somewhat embarrassing difference with me is that I can’t seem to control mine. I wish I could switch it off! But no, I’m mimicking in every conversation I have. If the girl at the supermarket counter happens to be from Yorkshire, my response will slip out in a Yorkshire accent without me even realising I’m doing it. The worst is crying – people are always setting me off.

I’ve talked before about my attachment to women’s magazines. Perhaps being under their influence for so long has affected me. All those articles you read about how your body language betrays your innermost feelings – about men, mainly. Mimicking a potential mate by stroking your face when he strokes his reveals that you fancy him. Cringe! It’s as if I’ve not read these articles properly and have extended this behaviour to all of society…what an indiscriminate hussy I am.

Even now that I’m aware of it, and riddled with embarrassment by it, my face-matching continues. In fact, if anything it’s stepped up it’s game. I’m watching people even more closely now, as though I’ve got my own social interaction survey going on – only no-one knows they’re being surveyed. Ethics of this survey aside, it is revealing. Because the thing is, when other people do the mimicking thing I’m noticing that they are usually incredibly insincere with it. You can see their face working in a calculated effort to get what they want out of people. Whether that’s getting them onside, extracting information, testing out difficult waters. It is embarrassing to watch. Painful, even. I really hope I am not such a ham actor.

I’m considering another little experiment, actually. Using my mimicry as a superpower for social good by tackling the everyday rudeness we all endure from total strangers in our lives, and throwing it back in their faces. A gentle Batman for polite society, if you will.

Not giving an inch on the pavement when a stubborn individual enters my path, demonstrating just what chaos will ensue should one of us not budge.

Storming, literally, through the bus queue and sending all and sundry flying like bowling balls in my wake.

Hmmm…another embarrassing habit seems to have revealed its ugly head. Getting too angry at things…

Blog post – Walking in Heels

I’ve never been able to walk in high heels. Rarely does the powerful click clack of sex and glamour resonate in my wake. I can’t even cope with a kitten.

Of course I tried that kind of femininity on for size for a period in my youth, as most of us do. There’s that right of passage, the first time we sneak into our mother’s wardrobe and trial our little feet in those giant, cartoonish courts. We realise right then how uncomfortable they are, but for some reason we persevere. I gave heels another go in my late teens – I’d managed to conquer a pair of sky-high bright white trainer-wedges, a la The Spice Girls, the previous year. So, I had high hopes. But of course, we all know wedges don’t count as a true heel, and my trainers were certainly not a true test of my walking ability. After wearing a pair of not-even-that-high sandals from Select for my 18th birthday jaunt to Pizza Hut, the next morning I vowed never to wear heels again.

I just can’t seem to physically master them. I read a hilarious piece in The Telegraph about a journalist – struck with the same affliction – who was sent to some terrifying woman’s class on how to walk in heels. I mean, there’s a class in everything isn’t there. This woman apparently wore high (high) heels all the time. Everywhere. Well, obviously she’s insane. And no doubt now riddled with back problems. Anyway, it made me wonder if a class of that ilk would have any impact on me. But I fear it would be futile.

In theory I should have the genetic equipment to walk in heels quite competently. My sister owns more than 200 pair of shoes. Yes, 200. They consumed our verandah in a slow painful suffocation, before spreading their chaos throughout the rest of the house. She used to go to work in them. The library. The dentist. She’d never consider going on a night out in a pair of flats. Heels are just in her psyche. And she didn’t need any pricey training sessions to show her how to walk. Here’s a flesh and blood relative who can function normally – glamorously – in a pair of stilettos. Surely I can follow in her footsteps?

But whenever I try I just look like Tina Turner gone wrong. And nothing works – plasters, gel cushions, only walking on carpets, being drunk – I’ve tried them all. Unfortunately I can’t afford to pay someone to walk around with a carpet in front of me all the time. So I have to ask myself, is it that I can’t walk in high heels? Or that I won’t?

I was reminded of this little failure of mine the other week, when I started reading a book said sister lent me: How to be Parisian. There was a line in it that touched a nerve, “What you won’t find in the Parisienne’s closet – three-inch heels. Why live life halfway?”

Well – what’s wrong with being comfortable? And not just in shoes – in your own skin?

It pains me to admit that I’m actually bothered that I can’t strut to the shops – how ridiculous, it’s just a pair of shoes after all. But that’s the thing, it’s not about the actual shoes – a heel represents much more. Sex! Power! Glamour! That’s what a pair of heels screams. Then there’s me, plodding along in my Clarkes boots and coming up short (literally). All in all it makes me feel rather inadequate, like I’m missing a major string in my bow. Killer heels are weaponry in a girl’s arsenal. -whether that’s power in attracting a mate (because that’s what heels are designed to do when it comes down to it – display your childbearing hips). Or whether it’s power in securing a high-flying job (assuming most high-flying jobs are male dominated and you’ve got to try and attract one with your childbearing hips…)

And then of course there are the rest of us, apparently not in high-flying jobs or a bearer of children, jealous spinsters unable to master the skill of walking. And we think, well actually it’s all very well looking especially lengthy-of-leg and being tall enough to look boardroom suits in the eye, but – aren’t you a bit of a slave to that shoe? That’s a friendly torture device you’re strapped into there. And you’re endorsing it. Suffering. You are in actual pain.

Of course, I’m being way too serious here (that’s flat heel wearers for you). I agree, I could accurately be accused of taking the fun right out of shoes. Because I can see that they are a bit of fun for a lot of people. They make us look good. They give us confidence, even if that confidence is based around men and hurts us in the process.

I’d much rather be comfortable. As long as I’m not getting too comfortable… Maybe I’ll sneak into my sister’s wardrobe the next time I see her, try walking in her shoes for a moment or two.

Despite myself, I seem to be crying more than one should – at the television. I’m not much of a crier away from the screen. Yet there I am, wailing at the sight of an abandoned dog in one of those harrowing fundraising adverts. Sobbing during a local news item about an elderly war veteran robbed by thugs.

Why is it that I am so ready to open the floodgates in front of strangers I neither know nor care about on the television, but run a mile at the thought of exhibiting an uncomfortable emotion, admitting a vulnerability, to the actual people in my life? Well of course, I’m certainly not unique in this unhealthy behaviour, the roots of which aren’t exactly rocket science. It’s dramatically less hassle unleashing your inner emotions via some (seemingly) unrelated incident involving a small child and a rare disease on the news, rather than admitting your fears directly to a loved one. This is why counselling is so effective. Well, that and counsellors are trained professionals… your tv isn’t exactly going to pipe up with some coping techniques to offer you.

At home, the tv is always on. Critiquing what we’re watching takes on a real importance and, as the years go on, I find I’m over-relating with tv in general. It’s like I actually know the characters in The Big Bang Theory, that they really exist. I’ll have full-blown conversations about them – sometimes, when I visit my parents, we will speak more about what’s happened on the tv than we do about events in our own lives. And with real seriousness.

I consider myself a member of a generation for whom it is still considered a little anti-social, embarrassing – downright ridiculous – to talk so much about something as trivial as the television. It’s an admission that you don’t have enough to say for yourself, about yourself. Times have obviously changed – look at the Gogglebox phenomenon. And while I maintain that too much tv is prone to make us lazy and insular I would also argue that, contrarily, tv does have a valid role to play in today’s society – encouraging connections in its own, very modern, way.

When an episode of The Apprentice finishes, and we all rush to Twitter to de-brief, we’re brought together as part of a (weird) virtual community. And when we say nothing to our partner/parent/sibling in a whole evening other than ‘what did you think of Eastenders?’, well – it might seem to sad to the older generation (and to me, a bit), but at least it is keeping some lines of communication open!

So really, tv is a way of building bridges that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise be crossed, virtual ones and actual ones. Just as it’s easier to cry about something you see on the telly when it reminds you of something you hold quietly inside you, it’s easier for some people to talk to others in those displaced terms too – an easy, ready-made medium to communicate through, in which we can all contribute. Something we can all use to relate to each other with because, come on, who doesn’t watch the tv? (Well, I do know two people who don’t have one…) I can’t see the situation changing either – judging by the constant chatter of the young people that come into my workplace, it’s apparent that tv – well, YouTube actually – is the focus of their days.

I Googled before writing this post and – surprise, surprise – too much television is resoundedly considered bad.

It can shorten your life.

It can change the structure of a child’s brain (?!)

It means DEATH!

Apparently sitting sedentary in front of a screen for more than two hours a day doubles (yes, doubles) your chance of a premature death. a) I feel genuinely anxious about this alarming statistic. Should i alert my GP? I think I’d need to join a queue, and b) if this is in fact the case, work is definitely killing me.

Of course, there’s distinctions to be made between the kind of tv where you sit glass eyed unquestionably watching pointless drivel for three hours straight, the content of which is seemingly made up of repeating what’s just happened because, presumably, it assumes its viewers have been rendered stupid by merely watching it. (Perhaps death is preferable here…) But it seems unfair with so many screens in our lives now to blame the biggest, oldest one. Surely some idiot glued to their mobile phone screen whilst driving is much more deadly.

We edit ourselves as we go about life, don’t we? Not in the wholly condemnable Photoshop way employed by magazines etc, but we do present ourselves differently depending on the situation. Sometimes we choose to. Other times, we have to.

Now with this in mind, I am about to tiptoe into semi-dangerous territory as I essentially attempt to dole out advice on what people – well, women – should and should not wear. To work. Yes, I am mad.

We (most of us) do, of course, have the right to dress in whatever bloody way we like. Feminism is about the right to choose, after all. But for God’s sake ladies – pull it together when you are at work.

Just as we can’t be as gobby as we perhaps are in our personal lives, we can’t really be as loud with the clothes we wear in the workplace also. There is a time and a place, as they say. Being greeted by a crop top and leather leggings makes me uncomfortable at, say, the doctor’s surgery reception. Everywhere else – fine.

I am aware I am coming across as a ragingly conservative anti-feminist, but hear me out. Like it or not, you cannot get away from the fact that how you dress does project an image, a message to others. And at work, the only thing you want to show off is your professionalism.

I feel (relatively) passionate about this subject. On my commute to work I see a lot of other people on their way to work. A lot of young women. And there are times when when I involuntarily tut out loud as I watch one of them topple into an office in Spice Girls-eqsue trainer wedges. Cringe as a I catch a glimpse of the pants of another under a too-short skirt. Too much denim. Sports wear (literally, like they are going to the gym). A lot of skimpy, downright uncomfortable looking outfits that just seem plain incongruous with the workplace.

Maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by decades of fashion magazines – you know what I mean, those hilarious work wear sections that I’m sure most of us just flick through, yawning. Forever  dispensing the same advice, the same rules. It’s all pencils, body-con, shirts, cardigans – basically stuff that makes you look like a sensible grown up in the day, but will let it’s hair down with you as you ‘transition’ into a raucous evening. Stuff that says you’re ‘serious’, ‘strong’ but still ‘feminine’. The language is silly but it does ring true. This style of dressing gives us the flexibility, that armour we need.

And far as I’m concerned, flashing the flesh hasn’t really got much to do with empowerment, other than that you have freely chosen to flash it. But, more importantly, what you have almost certainly chosen is to mark your card as someone who can mis-read a situation.

Look, I’m not deranged – I can see how in some workplaces a relaxed dress code, a controversial one even, is accepted. Welcomed, even. Hairdressers spring to mind (the kind where people have beards and piercings, tattoos a-plenty… not Nicky Clarke). Bars, too. Trendy shops. Some PR companies maybe? I don’t know.

But take my place of work, for example – a creative small business founded by an artist who went around for three years in her twenties wearing the same boiler suit everyday. So you can imagine the atmosphere is a little loose – we can pretty much wear whatever we like. However, we are also a training provider, working with vulnerable school children. So, whilst we are not exactly your typical school, we do have a duty to be good role models for the kids. We also have a responsible image to project to our partners in the schools. Plus, there are times we have to look even more grown up for the local authority.

We are also, coincidentally, an all-female team. Each one of us has to re-edit ourselves a bit, depending on who we’ve got coming in – we constantly have to meet other people’s expectations. And, as a tiny company competing with the ‘big boys’, we have to push even harder to be taken seriously. How we dress plays a part in this. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. It’s obviously especially true for women, but men do have the same standards and expectations to meet also – a man coming into a meeting in a vest and shorts wouldn’t be tolerated in most workplaces.

It would be nice to think we could all just go about life true to our own code, the whole time. But this is not a reality for anyone (well, maybe Kate Moss). Perhaps this is a good thing, anyhow – I imagine we would turn out to be a pretty selfish race if we all did exactly what we wanted to, all of the time.

This mini-rant is brought on by something that happened this week, at work. One of our female students came in wearing a sheer lace corset dress and stiletto heels.

Now, we have a policy where our students are treated as fellow staff members. They are ambassadors for the company. Plus, this girl is just 14 years old. It was genuinely frightening that she had thought it was acceptable to come in dressed in the way she was – that she even owns such clothes. After a frank talking-to about self-worth and choice (my boss actually likened the get-up to that of a prostitute’s…not the most pc of strategies but I could see where she was coming from…) we had to send her home.

It can be difficult enough being taken seriously at work as it is. At the end of the day, inappropriate clothes make you look out of place. Not in a ‘I’m asserting my individuality’ way. But in an ‘I’ve judged it wrong’ way. And this does nothing for selling your skills.

I feel quite uncomfortable writing this post. I know it will rankle people. I would probably find myself a little rankled if I wasn’t the writer. But I do maintain that you can stay true to yourself as you present different versions of this self to the world. It’s not about conforming, or changing yourself. It’s about making considered decisions.

I genuinely hope that, sooner rather than later, we get to the point where men and women are finally considered as equal in the workplace, and in society in general. In such a society I imagine men will be able to choose to come into work in a skirt and feel no shame or recrimination. Women could choose to come in wearing an embellished bin liner.

But I still wouldn’t get my hair cut there.

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