You’ve Got Something on Your Bum, Love.

Primark of the DamnedLast week I risked the vertiginous, headachy maelstrom of sequin and polyester that is Primark.

Oh, how I loathe that place.

The shop that staunchly eschews tidiness and teaches its staff that rehanging discarded dresses is an exercise in futility. As is disentangling the massive knot of infinity that was once the necklace section.

The tables, vomitous with nylon and elastic; a firey, Hadean explosion of captioned knickers and cutesy animals.

The tills, a scattershot assault of One Direction masks, flavoured Vaseline and E numbers, as if a teenage girl has tipped the contents of her life upside down and thrown them  every which way.

And what of the inexplicable but seemingly infinite stream of people carting suitcases behind them with the speed and emotional encumbrance of a funeral march? I doubt many people enter with the intention of buying a suitcase but, with the astonishment of post-automatism, arrive home to find they have done just that (I think this is what would happen if the kids in The Village of The Damned were hell bent on package holidays rather than the decimation of their hosts).

Now, I should really have prefaced this by stating that I am neither misanthrope, fashion guru or clothing snob, although Primark allows me to swerve grandiosely close to all three. I do have a horrible feeling (garnered largely from the fact I enter Topshop and either peer at price tags, sucking air through my clenched teeth, or hold items of clothing at varying angles in order to work out which way up they go) that I’ve somehow passed into that hinterland beyond fashion.

I’m not on higher ground here. I often buy cheap things from corduroy-scented vintage shops: shirts adorned with mystery pen stains and dresses weeping with the cloy of mothballs. I have learnt to strategically position my arm, or winch my skirt up to just the right side of decency, in order to hide an enigmatic scorch mark, or hastily stitched hole. I also think that, fashion wise, the 80s were a Good Thing.

So of course there is nothing wrong with mass produced fashion ephemera. It’s affordable,  accessible, inclusive. It does it’s job well enough.

I just hate Primark.

And I think Primark reciprocates in kind, to womankind.

You see, I went there for the wincingly non-essential reason that they sell cheap, tight pants. A combination of regularly running in lycra and the spectre-like last vestiges of an eating disorder mean I, with more regularity than I would like, experience the Phantom Wobble. No gossamer-like delicacies will adorn my rear whilst I cart around the dead weight of re-imagined corporeality.

And Primark seems to cater so beautifully for every conceivable bodily neurosis. There is a whole section dedicated to flattening out and squeezing in the flesh: pants, tights, leggings, tops, whole body suits. It’s the cultural equivalent to a barbed wire corset; an exercise in self-flagellation, diminishment and conformity.

Now it’s appalling enough that women of any size feel the need to truss up parts of their flesh whilst forcing out others but the fact you can buy hold in pants and leggings in size 6 is unfathomable. To conceive of a world in which we are telling women, some with the body weight of a child, that they need to bandage up their (presumably imagined) excesses is to conceive of a world in which women’s bodies are still coerced and controlled. It’s pretty far from an iron girdle, granted, but nonetheless serves to increase an oppressive cultural roar that seeks to shame women into hating their own flesh.

Think on it; hold-in high waisted pants in size 6. What exactly are we holding in here? The intestines after a zombie attack or particularly nasty hunting accident? (And for the record, I don’t wear hold in pants. Just tight pants. There’s a subtle yet probably indeterminable difference, so I’m not at all complicit or culpable in any of this, OK?).

It’s entirely possible Primark hates men whilst hating women too. From what I’ve seen most of the items on offer would make even the most erudite feminist ally look like either; a brain dead tosser or a card-carrying, t-shirt wearing misogynist. Hey guys! You can wear a torso sized espousal of the objectification of women! Why merely buy magazines that reduce women’s achievements and relevance to their breasts or blow job giving abilities? You can now, quite literally, walk around endorsing this view all day long! I also once saw a young man wearing a Primark sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Witness the Fitness’. This was surely only designed to make the wearer seem like an arrogant, assonance-loving fool. All I wanted to witness was someone de-robe him of this monstrosity with a pair of garden shears.

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I realise that poking fun at Primark, it’s underwear section and dubious interpretations of acceptable daywear is like breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Yet something more serious lies within the scathing, something that perhaps in its relative newness, in it’s relative novelty, makes me recoil. I have never wanted to commit an act of destruction in a public place since I was a teenage anorexic, wandering around Woolworths in my quiet madness, wanting to smash up all the Easter eggs I wouldn’t let myself have.

Seeing Primark’s ‘Bootylicious pants’ nearly changed all that.

The Bootylicious pants, for the enviably uninitiated, are pants padded with silicone, to give a woman that much-needed bum enhancement she was not previously aware she needed. It is seemingly not enough that we have poked and prodded and shaved and moulded ourselves, sometimes almost out of existence. We can now, along with detachable breasts, have detachable bums, like human dolls, which is of course the only logical response to the wildly vacillating perception of feminine beauty and acceptability.

I’m not sure what distinguishes a bum-enhancing kind of day from any other but there it is. Maybe on a Wednesday, during that mid-week spell of inertia, slipping on a pair of Bootylicious pants gives you the literal and psychological boost required to scrape your way through to Friday. Perhaps it’s just eroticised power dressing, the 21st century version of the shoulder pad. Or maybe, after you’ve starved your posterior into non-existence there’s a retractibility of sorts. A redemption. There’s a padded piece of nylon for the days you miss not feeling an excoriating pain as your coccyx grinds unforgivingly into any solid surface you sit on. See? You CAN have it both ways; you can diminish and enlarge at whim.

The name of the pants, equally, bothered me. ‘Bootylicious’ is of course more than a tacit nod to Beyonce, which is a nod to a form of female bodily empowerment, which is often re-communicated through the medium of the hypersexualised caricature of the Black woman. This eroticising of the ‘exotic’ and the Othering of certain women’s bodies, often under the guise of empowerment, is troubling.

Of course we could, if we ignored all other peripheral information, see the mainstream appropriation and projection of a stereotypical characteristic as a positive. And anyway, the Anglo Saxon arse of Pippa Middleton is being credited with the surge in desire for strap-on bottoms. Primark just presented it with a sledgehammer is all. So that’s OK, then?

Well, not really, no. It still bothers me, and is indicative of the compartmentalisation of women’s bodies; the representation of the female form as a constellation of sexual signifiers. It was once and always the breasts but I’m wondering if the bottom has become the most objectified, the most relevant signifier of sexuality and femininity.

A reliably crass article in The Sun once road tested these padded pants. They were deemed as good for hailing cabs but not so good for keeping your presumably sexually rabid colleagues focussed on their work. I’ve never hailed a cab with my arse but I have helpfully complied a short list of other uses for the Bootylicious pants:

  1. Sitting at cold bus stops for protracted periods of time.
  2. Reassuring your grandmother that you will never, ever get piles.
  3. Protecting your posterior from the pincer-like attentions of inebriated morons.
  4. Baseball.
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Running On Empty (and Down the Rabbit Hole)

rabbit-hole1I have, fleetingly or doggedly, been many things. Smoker. Student. Gymnast. Covered in piercings. Depressive. Till bunny. Bedroom wall consuming Take That fan. Unremittingly unlucky. Most of these would gradually chip away, varnish-like, remaining only in the remember-when. Formative years are marked by these shifting tendencies, these in-hindsight-wincing proclivities, that ultimately serve no purpose but to remind you that youth is a funny thing, and isn’t it so much better now you have your head screwed on the right way round? Yet one seems to stick. Not the thing itself, probably not even its associated identity, but those connotations and signifiers that naturally attach themselves, generating unqualified heat and adding an unasked-for dimension to the choices I make.

I am referring to the fact I suffered, protractedly, with anorexia. For a while, I suppose, this filled enough of my waking thoughts and straddled a sufficient span of years to be considered the thing I was. Or was it the thing I had? I suppose in some ways anorexia collapses the distinction between sufferer and illness: you are so very definitely, so very visibly, that which you suffer. I always struggle with the phraseology, the verb choice, around eating disorders: one grammatical decision over another can cause connotations, or give that otherworldly, mythologising impression I want to very much veer away from. So I’ll put it succinctly. I’ll truncate it so it only sounds as it was. I starved myself and caused myself a lot of pain and damage. I made everyone angry and worried and lost a hell of a lot more than weight in the process. And now, now that I am OK and better and in a state of post eating disorder autonomy, that which I was still colours perception.

A few months back I had one of those mid-week, middle of the night pangs. The kind of pangs you, irritatingly, only have at 3AM when it would be impolite to wake anyone but you know you need to do that thing right now, set it all in motion and tell someone about it so that it becomes solid and real. This was, in reality, nothing more earth-shattering than a rock-bottom feeling that I needed to be kinder to myself; to take some exercise (we’re talking a nine year hiatus here); to stop tipsily dragging on swiftly-regretted cigarettes; to stop being so hard on myself. I have a limpet-like resolve, something I’m certain aided my ability to sustain an existence of starvation for so long. But it can be useful in more progressive ways too and it was just a few days before I was out puffing and wincing and trying to ‘get back into’ running. And it worked. I’m running ten, twelve miles at a go and am ineluctably – incredibly – changed for it. It feels vital and inspiring and I am just on the right side of smugly positive about it. All of this means I feel more than a little miffed when people who were there then try and snuff out my happy little flame with their expressions of concern. I can of course see the correlation. Running, training, pushing your body into places of hurt and endurance skirts dangerously close to the edges of a previous mindset. Exercise can be addictive, compulsive; as can starvation. And that’s before we even get onto the calorie burning.

I am constantly being asked if I’m sure I’m OK. Or, am I being careful? (which sounds wincingly close to tacit disapproval of a teenage relationship) and not to take it too far. I’m aware that for most recovered people beginning any kind of exercise regime brings with it the consideration that perhaps you are sticking your head into the bears mouth. The inevitable changes it brings might be hard to cope with, or resist. I know all of this and knowing is part of the reason I was able to leave it all behind in the first place. It’s perfectly understandable of course and is, in the minds of others, perhaps akin to a recovering alcoholic announcing she’s just going press her face up against the window of a pub for several hours five times a week. Because it’s OK, she’s not going in, so it’s not the same thing. I understand why this reaction occurs, as much as I understand the intended-to-be-subtle glances that are sometimes exchanged when I say that, honestly, I’m just not hungry. It’s logical. It makes sense. It comes from a good place.

So before I sound too self-pitying I will move on to the true source of my ire: the other reaction. The reaction that shouldn’t be and isn’t logical but, depressingly, makes some kind of cultural sense. The reaction from those who weren’t there then and base their reaction on what they think – or are culturally and socially, conditioned to think – is the right reaction. I perceptibly cringe and don’t know where to put my eyes – or my frustration –  when it comes. ‘But you don’t need to loose weight / you’re lucky you’re naturally thin / but you’re obviously naturally athletic anyway’. The latter a paradox; usually delivered in a way that suggests the negation of any necessity to do the thing you supposedly look so naturally able to do. The former are statements indicative of the primary function of exercise in many women’s lives: weightloss. The idea that there is no need to exercise if you don’t need to lose weight is a frustrating one, as is the attachment of exercise to a regime of restriction: enslavement almost. I actually like exercise. It makes me feel a bit more comfortable in my head; makes a bit more room up there. When you and your body have lived in a virtually constant state of mutual antagonism, doing something good for it, something that feels pure and right and as far removed from smoking and starving as you can at this point conceive, feels benedictory. It is not at all about weight and diet, words which to me are and always will be synonymous with a death rattle. We get too caught up with the weight and the aesthetics and the corporeal expectations that we are told matter; that should preoccupy us and validate us and reconcile the space we (don’t want to) take up. This shouldn’t be the normal and natural way we view ourselves and each other. And ‘body consciousness’? Please. I detest that term, created by the putrid stable of glossy magazines as another way to excoriate women, diminish their self-perception and bulldoze their self esteem. Of course we are conscious of our bodies. We carry them around every fucking day, don’t we? What they mean is conscious of the fact our bodies somehow aren’t good enough: we should be striving to train and mould them into what we have been culturally indoctrinated to see as achievable and desirable. We should be conscious of the fact that not being good enough is reversible, escapable. We can change things if we just get a little bit more masochistic with ourselves. Then it will all be OK.  Reading these magazines is the intellectual equivalent of grabbing soft mounds of your own flesh and repeatedly slapping them. Of course I don’t heap all blame at the door of womens’ magazines. Probably just halfway up their path. There’s culpability there, certainly. Magazines for women propound the idea of consistently striving for more, for better – that sense of never-enoughness – in all spheres of life and it is so draining and defeating. They make women feel itchy and uncomfortable and left longing for an impossible conformity. We exercise to sculpt our abs or tighten our bingo wings; we diet to look a little less bulgy in organ-rearrangingly tight dresses. Somehow we never seem to be coaxed into doing these things out of a sheer want to be kinder to ourselves, to feel better and to live better.

And of course the Olympics were supposed to ride in on a white charger. They were going to shift our perception of what it healthy and attainable. Oh! let the (bathroom) scales fall from our eyes and enable us to see sport and exercise through the prism of fulfilment and admiration rather than self-scrutiny and diminishment. I think the whole thing succeeded only in fetishising Jessica Ennis’ abs and paying thin, pursed lip service to a bit of women’s football. For about a week.

The common misconceptions are that eating disorders are a phase; something teenage girls dabble with in a desperate bid for attention or an obsequious pursuit of vanity. At 15-20%, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and women over 50 make up 78% of anorexia-related deaths. Only 30-40% of sufferers ever fully recover and that ‘pursuit of vanity’ is the thing that finally strips you of all vanity. I don’t think anyone who has seen a severely eating disordered woman would think that it was ever any more about the way she looks. By the time your teeth are visible thorough your cheeks you’ve kind of stopped pouting in the mirror. And this is why I draw back from suggesting magazines and media influences cause eating disorders. It oversimplifies the problem. But then again maybe I eschew models of thought that suggest eating disorders develop as a response to a bombardment of images of impossibly thin women women because a tiny portion of me clings to a self-aggrandizing notion. A notion that eating disorders are somehow above this. Oh yep, sure, it’s of far greater import and holds far more gravitas than that empty, aesthetic want of thinness as a route to identikit beauty. I don’t think a cultural obsession with absence (be it flesh, wrinkles or clothes) helps and with anorexia I do think that something has to be there within your brain already, some kind of psycho-social tendency to excess, to take things far, far further than is practicable or comfortable. Or some form of deeply-rooted pain, or fear, or suppressed history. But these factors can conspire to make one woman tilt and bend under a bombardment of cultural or social influences whilst the other shrugs and carries on unhindered. It’s the drip, drip effect; the pernicious effect of reading that starvation is an accepted form of dieting (cf the 5:2 diet) and that Cheryl Cole has skinny little cylinders for legs but also has plates and plates of Walker’s crisps delivered to her dressing room. If you feel like shit already and are damaged, stressed, traumatised or abused in some way these messages are like loaded rifles. Indeed some of the crazy diets I have seen recently almost fetishise the idea of starvation; giving credence to the lie that it is both achievable and a logical response to a dissatisfaction with yourself or your current dress size. But then my response to any form of diet that advocates almost complete abstinence of food twice a week (5:2, there you are again) will be the response of a former anorexic, the response of a mind that still bears the tracks and rivets of a disordered, masochistic relationship with intake, flesh and corporeality. A couple of days of starvation a week would see me careering headlong into weird, obsessional behaviour again. So maybe I’m not the best judge of the potential effects of diet fads but I can say that for those who are struggling, or teetering on the edge of something awful, normalising hunger and starvation is disastrous.

I do, clearly, take eating disorders very seriously and am simultaneously protective and vituperative towards them. Yet I view some of the terminology – the anorexic lexicon, as it were – that has grown up around popular evocations of the illness as limiting and damaging. The illusions to the anorexic ‘voice’ as separate from the sufferer for one. The excruciating truncation of anorexia to ‘ana’ (the friendly psychiatric illness) for another. And probably the worst offender of all: the anorexic body as mouthing the words it’s sufferer cannot speak, articulating the pain she is culturally conditioned to suppress. The emaciated body as emblematic of the female struggle is an idea I find both horribly outdated and hugely misrepresentative. Of course I am not suggesting anorexia cannot be a manifestation of suppressed abuse, a turning inward of a situation too horrific to bear. It can be and often is. I am talking about the view of the anorexic body as speaking for a woman by virtue of the fact that she is a woman and so cannot speak for herself. Anorexia is not a conscious statement. It is a mental illness.

I have always been perfectly capable of articulating my anger and pain in a way my body could never do. My words are rarely open to interpretation. My body probably is. For you may once have been able to play xylophone on my ribcage but my body doesn’t speak.

And what of all those extended metaphors suggestive of anorexia as a grandiose, artistic endeavour that elevates the sufferer above the mortal? I’m looking particularly at you, Marya Hornbacher, with your baffling Alice in Wonderland tropes and exquisitely written musings that make it all seem very alluring or, as you say, very sturm und drang (It’s entirely possible you have never heard of Hornbacher, unless you suffered from an eating disorder in the late ’90s, in which case it will have been the most well-thumbed thing you owned. She’s an exceptional writer. It’s just hard to separate this fact from the incredibly triggering way she writes about her problems). Of course I’m a sucker for beautiful writing. I absolutely am. In fact I’m far less of a polemicist than I am a linguist. I just find the deification of the anorexic ‘struggle’ hard to swallow because, when it comes down to it, anorexia is boring, suffocating and hugely limiting.

I always remember the group sessions I went to, probably my third or fourth round of half-attended treatments; the group sessions I eventually elected to leave because my weight was just high enough for me to be able to do that. Getting better wasn’t at that point mandatory. These sessions were just as boring and uninventive as being shut in the house all day listening to my stomach eat itself. They seemed to have us pegged completely wrong, as if all we needed was a good dose of sense and we’d see ourselves right. They tried the scare tactics. They listed all of the professions we would struggle to be employed in with the spectre of a psychiatric illness blotting our copy books. Considering most of us could barely see a future for ourselves, or at least one beyond the next nominal morsel of food, the whole exercise seemed futile. They tried the coaxing, the ‘don’t be afraid of your body it’s actually a completely benign entity’ tack. A well-meaning psychiatrist drew a wildly off-scale diagram to illustrate how much of the human body is made up of lovely, asinine, non-damaging or neurosis-fueling water. Not fat, no not fat. You’re all aqua not lard, see? You got it wrong girls! None of it worked, or meant anything to any of us and anyway the chain smoking nurse who kept me in Marlborough Lights for the duration told me I looked nice and naturally really skinny anyway so it was probably all OK.

I can’t honestly say why I chose to get better – and it was a choice – apart from the fact it somehow ceased to matter and I wanted a better life for myself. And probably in part because I learned to filter out the cultural noise and the, real or imagined, pressure to be less. It wasn’t because I stopped reading Glamour magazine or wistfully caressing the size four jeans in Topshop. It wasn’t because a therapist helped me with a surface to air transition of all the gnarled and knotted forgotten things. It wasn’t because of – or in spite of – a man, or because of culture or books (although of those there were many). As unexciting as it sounds it became singularly boring and I was tired of feeling choked and in pain all of the time.

Eating disorders are reaching epidemic proportions. Women will soon be photoshopped out of existence. Diets are ubiquitous. Visible signifiers of age are somehow a sign of weakness. There comes an acceptance that I will probably spend most of the rest of my life in the counterculture, drowning out the noise.

Learning the Hard Way

PornPCIt is a truth universally acknowledged that people like to google Holly Willoughby. It is a truth more esoteric that, alongside any other adjectives chosen to yield the perfect result, people like their Holly Willoughby to be smiling. (Or ‘smileing’, as it is with alarming regularity misspelt).

It’s not often you are afforded a peep through the grubby window and into the vast, sprawling world of other people’s google search terms. WordPress Stats has gifted me this, and it really is a perpetual yet immutable beast. I can, for worse, see the exact terms that directed someone towards my page. You see, I once wrote a blog about our dear old tabloid press and their endearing, cosy and innocuous as a granny in a warm jumper, obsession with the objectification and denigration of women. I talked about Holly Willoughby, the Sun and the Sunday Sport so was contextually obligated to talk about nakedness, about fetishised and isolated body parts. So now, with rote-like frequency, are the same terms, or variants thereof: adjuncts to Holly Willoughby’s name. Once, twice, five or six times daily: ‘naked’; ‘naked and smiling’; ‘nude and smiling’; ‘upskirt shots’; ‘fake upskirt shots’ (verisimilitude doesn’t matter, sayeth the googler, I can close my eyes and imagine you actually violated her decency and right to privacy, instead of just pretending you did). My favourite expressions of disembodiment and objectification are reassuringly featured too: ‘head on naked body’; ‘legs and bum shot’; ‘breasts smiling’. The latter begging the obvious question: are they looking for a smiling pair of breasts? The answer unfortunately is yes, probably. For I think this is the ultimate aim and a natural consequence. These are the insidious effects of a bombardment of imagery that gives prominence to the most obvious visual signifiers of sex; the reductive tactic of drowning out the other things that actually make a woman who she wonderfully is with a cacophonous roar of thongs, bum shots and boobs.  A smiling pair of breasts. The circle complete.

And herein I, by describing this, have ramped up the not-what-you-were-expecting; the oops I’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in some spitty, spiky, feminist cul-de-sac. For I am sure there is nothing more annoying when you are hungrily click-clicking through the pages of google, bug-eyed and ravenous for a bit of airbrushed flesh, than than to think you have hit the motherload and instead realise you have hit the equivalent of your mother wagging her finger at you in disgust. But all of this has made me think more about what people google, and more specifically what young people, google. And that need for ‘smil(e)ing’ keeps gnawing at me too.

What children get up to on the internet has been, well, a moderately warm (but still annoyingly solid in the middle) political potato of late. The government has said no to default internet filters and yes to ‘active choice’. This means parents will be asked to tailor their filter settings appropriate to the children in the household. Personally, I don’t think this will achieve a great deal as many children are tech-savvy enough to circumvent these, and can get all the imagery they want from their phones, their friends phones, older siblings. Maybe it’s intended to prevent accidental exposure in the very young, although I’m not sure what very young children would be searching for to stumble upon it, but I concede it can happen. Perhaps the point should be that imagery doesn’t have to be labelled as ‘pornographic’ to have damaging effects. Consistent displays of’ Up the skirt shots’ can achieve the effect of sexually diminishing women just as well. No, no, I don’t mean the Sunday Sport is the same as hardcore pornography. I mean the totemic nature of constant imagery amounting to the violation of women’s private spaces (I mean private because they are covered, and clothed, and therefore have a right to be left as such) could lead to a negative view of women, and of womanhood.

However, Helen Goodman MP’s recent discussion with teenage girls about their representation in the media swiftly took a sideways step towards pornography. These girls discussed how access to porn has glamourised sexual violence and made sexually demeaning comments and behaviour towards them acceptable. I have spoken before  about the visible, albeit winding, path between the availability of sexual imagery, the treatment of women in our popular press, street harassment and the statistic that 1 in 3 young people have suffered violence in a relationship. The repugnant force of ‘lad’ culture, riding bareback on the gnarly three-headed behemoth FHM-Zoo-Nuts, stands along this path. It serves to shepherd the uncertain, those who think maybe there is something off about rape jokes; about promoting the myth of ‘grey areas’ in rape cases; about reducing women to the size of their breasts or about featuring a columnist who advocates disfiguring a woman’s face in a revenge attack (hats of to you, Mr Dyer). Because it’s just banter, you see. Even if you say it with such frequency that it becomes acceptable, permissible, normalised. It’s still banter, innit.

I am not saying that watching pornography or being regularly exposed to the sexualisation and fetishisation of women’s body parts causes sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault. Violence is always caused by one person choosing to control, manipluate, hurt and violate another. And I have always firmly believed that. To suggest otherwise is to fan the searchlight around looking for someone else to blame. Three guesses as to who that burden naturally falls upon. What I am saying is that easily available pornographic imagery can make violent and sexually coercive behaviour more accepted, more palatable, more mainstream almost. It blurs the lines and shades around the distinctions. And for teenage boys, still formulating their opinions and figuring out how everything fits into place, this surely has the potential to be very damaging. It also serves to separate the world, to divide femininity into two separate, never-meeting spheres: the women you can do all manner of disgusting and degrading things to and those you’d let your mother meet. It isn’t for nothing that Rebecca Mott, a former sex worker turned visceral blogger, continually uses the phrase ‘copying porn onto our bodies’: to do all the nasty, degrading, dehumanising things that you wouldn’t do to your wife or girlfriend, all that twisted and violent behaviour that you see those porn actresses smiling through, smiling and simulating pleasure through the vomit and the blood. Because they have to look like they’re enjoying it. There it is again. Smiling.

For these very reasons, Kate Wills’ proclamation that Deep Throat was one of the ’50 Moments of Sexual Liberation’ stuck so resolutely in my craw. Erm, unless I’m mistaken, Linda Lovelace subsequently maintained she was violently coerced into making the film (literally, gun to head) and said the whole business made her feel ‘disgusting…like garbage’. It seemed a strange choice. Whilst we’re on this subject, Kate, lap-dancing clubs? Liberating? I get so tired of this narrative. The commercialisation and commodification of women’s bodies is liberating? I have no problem with women doing this if they want to – I’m certainly no moral guardian – but to hold it up as a great signifier of liberation? I’m not quite sure about that one. I love my partner for many reasons, largely because he is sometimes a better feminist than me, and comes out with things like this: “Misogyny’s greatest achievement: get women to strip for men, and then get them to believe that they are somehow empowered by it.”. Such ownership and decorative use of girls’ bodies, this breaking down into requisite sexual functions and signs, was a strong feature of the NSPPC’s recent report into ‘Sexting’ in schools (and thus I am saved from segueing into another diatribe completely, or from turning into Andrea Dworkin).

The NSPCC report discovered that “the way sexual attacks manifest in social networks, instant messaging, and mobile phones are interconnected and can influence the risk of physical attacks at school.” The report discovered how normalised sexism and sexual coercion was in schools: how girls were regularly wrestled to the ground whilst several boys thrust crotches into their faces; how demeaning sexual epithets were rife and the pressure to show and share breast shots saturated communication between teenage groups. Taken for granted ownership of girls’ bodies was another alarming feature of the report. Girls frequently uploaded and shared photos of themselves with a boy’s name written across a certain body part (usually the breasts, and often at the behest of the boyfriend): the starkest physical manifestation of teenage boys’ sense of entitlement to girls’ bodies. Boy as proprietor of teenage girl. In a world where rape is not rape if she once said yes before, or agreed to sleep in your bed. In a world where a woman has her breasts out, quite willingly (and for free if you pick up one of the many abandoned copies that litter park benches and tube seats) everyday in the Sun; where you can obtain and share pornography for free on your mobile phone; where nobody bats an eyelid or utters a word when an overbearing man grabs a woman’s buttocks as she attempts to deftly squeeze past him in a ticket queue. It’s hardly the greatest leap of imagination to suggest where this distortion of a mutually respectful relationship into one of property rights has its antecedents. And of how women become, universally, the done to.

Pornography is, apparently, for the virgins. The gauche, the uninitiated, search out the real thing to learn from, to copy. And it comes as no surprise that the girls complained heartily about the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships. I have heard many times of young boys stating they get their sex education from pornography and, if true, this worries me. How much from pornography do we learn about healthy relationships, about equality and about consent? Sex education should not be about the mechanics but about safety and trust, consent and respect, self-esteem and equality. It should be about the emotional relationships that often (but granted, not always) come along with the physical bit. I think the government is too caught up in the moral panic of our astronomic teenage pregnancy rates to consider measures to mitigate and prevent the normalisation of sexual violence but at least they’ve started talking about it. No sex education should flaunt a lack of protection, normalise the absence of pubic hair or the gratification of the male above all else. I’ll say it again: boys should not be getting their sex education from pornography. I’m not saying there should be any shame in sex, and exploring sex and sexuality is a healthy part of growing up. I merely think that the continual white noise of sexual imagery, pornography and culturally accepted attitudes towards the denigration of women needs to be, at least, counterbalanced. Hopefully by speaking about healthy relationships between girls and boys, and men and women, the world will not be seen through a prism of accepted, normalised inequality. And women won’t be expected to smile through their tears and pretend they like it. And yes, I have seen pornography. And no, I am not a prude (I get so tired of pulling up the creaking reins on that defence). I did not enjoy it because I think I am hardwired to look for outward manifestations of coercion, lack of consent, pain, even when they are absent (and yes, this probably says more about me than anything else). I’ve watched it in a ponderous way and wondered if anybody at all is really enjoying what they are doing. I don’t know the answer to that question as not many people bother to stop and ask. I simply feel that unlimited, unfettered, unmitigated access to such imagery has the potential to be damaging to both girls and boys. If your parents don’t like to talk about sex, and your school only mentions it when it quietly, pink-cheekedly, reminds you to, please, not get pregnant, where else are you going to share your fears? Who are you going to talk to about what it is OK to do, and to not do? When teachers are too frightened to even allude to the existence of sexual relationships for fear of a stream of disgruntled parents beating a path to their door it feels as if teenagers are pretty much on their own. So who is left? Danny Dyer? Diedre’s photo casebook? They’ll tell you the best state for a woman is undress and physical sexualised retribution understandable, if not laudable.

Pornography and our media’s obsession with eroticising and sexualising women and girls is obviously not to blame for all that is wrong with the state of gender equality, particularly for young people, today and it is lazy and misguided to suggest that if we just protect ourselves from it we’ll all get along a hell of a lot better. So I don’t think Harriet Harman’s juxtaposing of the nice, sterile, homely Downton Abbey with the big bad wolf of pornography helpful to the debate. In a similar way I don’t think Durham Council’s bus-stop size perpetuation of the ‘rapist as big bad wolf’ myth is helpful either. We need to stop looking at societal problems, and at problems facing women today, as one dark, evil mass. If we ignore it, protect ourselves from it or cover our children’s eyes from it we’ll all be fine. Attitudes don’t emerge in a vacuum and we shouldn’t be afforded the responsibility for filtering them out. We should be talking about contributory factors, not dark matter. These are tangible things, not metaphorical scaremongerings, and should be viewed the same way as any other complex issue. Pick them apart, deconstruct them and look for ways to inform, re-educate.

It was only 15 years ago that I was at school. In that time it feels as if things have altered irreparably. Maybe I glided, invisibly, through all of the sexual coercion and property rights, the groping and the shaming. I was short-haired and angular, no breasts and too many brains. I, maybe, with my lack of outward sexual signifiers and librarian mother down the hallway was rendered beneath the sexual contempt of teenage boys. Easier targets and all that. I think I would have struggled to know who to turn to, and would have gone along with it all and smiled because the dissenting voice of an awkward, doubt-riddled teenage girl is never, ever going to be very loud.

Where For Art Thou, Geoffrey? Or, the Perils of Safe Seat Complacency

There was once a fairly sizeable list of phrases I imagined would remain forever unutterable. Forever unarticulated. “I do” for one“Oh yes darling, we simply MUST fly with Easyjet again” for another. And if I flipped through a few pages, down to the section marked ‘too preposterous a scenario to even contemplate’, I’m sure I would have discovered this:

 “Geoffrey Robinson is ignoring me” 

But that was back then. Then: before I made my first electronic, and admittedly largely formulaic, overture to my MP. Then: before I wrote a more lengthy, personalised and impassioned entreaty. Then: before I followed the object of my unrequited attention to Wesminster – in pinching shoes – and stood about for longer than I should have wondering if he would eventually emerge, satyr-like, from within the corridors of power.

A bit of background will probably help. On October 24th UK Feminista orgainsed a mass lobby of parliament in an attempt to increase the political will and engagement necessary to tackle gender inequality and discrimination. Hundreds of constituents met with their MPs inside the Houses of Parliament, calling on them to take urgent action on a range of issues affecting women and girls. I had decided to take part as a logical extension of my burgeoning activism and of my long term interest in issues surrounding gendered violence and the exploitation and objectification of women. I had wanted to focus on the evidence submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by Object and Turn Your Back on Page 3 (jointly),  Equality Now, Eaves and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. These submissions powerfully highlight the routine discrimination and objectification of women in the press and the way violence against women is trivialised, minimised and even sexualised. Seeing page after page of examples, printed in bare black font is haunting (Give them a read and then echo the words: How they hell do they get away with this? How on earth can this seem normal?) I had wanted to ask my MP if he would support any proposals that would ensure regulations are put in place to end the routinely harmful representation of women. And, indeed, if Levenson omits any proposals, to request further action. I had also wanted to discuss the increasing violence, sexual bullying and harassment suffered by young women and the increasing levels of acceptance of such violence in teenage relationships. I would have asked him to take an interest in raising awareness of such issues in local schools, and of working with some of Coventry’s wonderfully committed charities in order to achieve this.

I wrote to my MP twice detailing my concerns and requested a meeting. I heard nothing in response.

So, when I travelled to London on an excruciatingly early train, those two ignored emails and a watery cappuccino clinging – stinging – inside me, something else travelled with me. This was, unfortunately, the gnawing feeling that my efforts would be in vain. Actually, it was less of a gnawing and more of a knowing. So this is where we turn to Geoffrey the man, and the perennial issue of whether the greatest battles are the hardest fought or the ones that create the biggest show. You see, my MP is not already a committed feminist with a substantial knowledge of the issues at hand, ready and able to forcefully articulate these to the House. My MP is not fresh, new, sound-bitingly youthful and endearingly eager to please. My MP is a 76 year old male with a somewhat checkered history and, so legend goes, a predilection for sweeping up all concerns and questions into nice, comfy empty sentiments. If I could get him to attend to my concerns, he who routinely speaks of transport, of industry, of finance, then surely this would send a more powerful message than someone with a more ‘expected’ adherence to gender equality. I don’t think, for example, that many MPs would fall, open mouthed, off those uber-polished House of Commons benches at the sight of Harriet Harman decrying the shocking underfunding of rape crisis centres. What a coup it would be to have Geoffrey Robinson MP listen to my concerns on the safety of young girls, and to work with me on setting this right. According to www.theyworkforyou.com Mr Robinson – bizarrely – uses a high content of alliterative three word phrases in his speeches. Hey, Geoffrey, why don’t you try ‘stop sexualisation in schools’ or ‘prostitution, pornography, power’ for size?

As it turned out, my initial assumption was accurate. I queued in the central lobby of parliament and filled out a green card, requesting the presence of my MP. I then waited. And waited. Admittedly I did not wait vacantly. I nattered away to some stunningly bright women, some just about young enough to be my daughters, many certainly old enough to be my grandparents. I listened in on meetings taking place in corridors with other activists and MPs and, shamelessly, indulged in some political celeb spotting (I stared too long at Simon Hughes. Long enough for him to look mildly perturbed). They tried to get Geoffrey’s office for me but there was no answer. I was told, as per procedure, that he would write to me upon receiving the green card.

As I write this, it is over two months since I wrote my first email, and three weeks since I left my green card. I am bereft of a response. I would have thought politeness and sense of obligation would dictate some form of acknowledgement for my troubles. A simple and polite ‘I can’t help you but I appreciate the issues’ although disappointing would have been accepted – and expected – by me. To be completely ignored speaks volumes about his regard for his female constituents. Perhaps if I sexed up a pothole story and threw in something about a factory – maybe massive potholes outside a factory – I’d have more success at turning his head.

Yet I will not turn to bitterness, or defend my principles by attacking his. I will only give the vaguest reference to the flat in Mayfair, the villa in Tuscany (holiday home of preference for Tony Blair), the drink driving incident, the loan to Mandelson and the alleged dalliance with Robert Maxwell. In fact none of this would matter if I were able to at least say that he listens to his constituents; that he, in the least hackneyed sense possible, cares. The salient point is this: Geoffrey Robinson has represented Coventry North West for thirty six years. Despite comparatively dwindling support for Labour, he still retained his seat with a 42.6% share of the vote. People in Coventry vote Labour. A forklift truck couldn’t move our dear old incumbent and therein lies the problem. He could probably do nothing, literally nothing but fester away in his plush apartment over 90 miles from Coventry, and still get re-elected. Because people in Coventry vote Labour. Labour MPs retain large majorities. But, if you have that sense of inevitability, that cosy knowledge that your seat is safe, where is your motivation to reach ALL sectors of your electorate, to really work to win new votes, and to tackle new issues?

At the time of his comparatively smidgeon-like loan to Peter Mandelson, Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson was worth around £30 million. Thirty. Million. I am not saying substantial wealth precludes you from having left leaning principles. Indeed, if this were the case my-mates-the-Milibands would be, as per the Newsnight fiasco(s) adjective du jour, toast. What I am saying is that all of this makes him feel that bit more unreachable. I do not think Geoffrey Robinson represents me, or the vast majority of his constituents. I think he represents the perils of safe seat complacency.

Maybe he doesn’t check his emails. Or pick up his green cards. Or open his letters. Maybe he is so overwhelmingly busy doing stuff and moaning about how shitty Coventry looks these days that he hasn’t got round to it. I will nobble him the next time he deigns to attend a constituency meeting and call him out on this. Because, Geoffrey, I am not an hysterical, hyperbolic harpy. I am not trying to find weight and substance in the trivial. I am a smart young woman with something to say.

In the meantime, I think he looks a little something like this:

So, If you see him before I do, please tell him that I’ve been looking for him.

The Hunger Artist

***Disclaimer: This post is short on statistics and features virtually no referencing. If you would like citations or to be pointed in the direction of studies I will be happy to oblige***

When you’re in deep, so deeply entrenched in the recesses of an eating disorder that you believe the lie, you cannot conceive of the notion that what you’re doing isn’t somehow special, somehow different. You cannot address the reality: the reality that you share your affliction with an estimated 1.6 million others. The reality that one day you will wince at this mindset the way you now wince at the contact of bone on acrylic during aborted attempts to sit comfortably in the bath. And worst of all the reality that you will, ultimately, somehow feel less of a woman for the experience. I could drone on for hours about my experience of living with an eating disorder, of losing my formative years and a large helping of my twenties to what ultimately amounted to a waste of time as much as a wasting of flesh. But I don’t think the world needs another confessional. I will leave the poetically articulated misery memoirs, the eruditions on the netherworld, to the experts. Elizabeth Wurtzel and Marya Hornbacher have probably, between them, covered all that it meant to be miserable and starving in the ’90s.

Yet I do have something to say. Certain ideas have continued to preoccupy me long after the awkward and brutal manifestations of disordered thinking and eating became quieter. One of these ideas was brought sharply and acutely into focus at the recent UK Feminista lobby of parliament. There is nothing like sitting in a room full of inspiring and creative feminists, all clapping and whooping at the usurpation of emaciated models by those healthy, positive female forms generated by the Olympics, to make you feel small. And by this I mean small on principles, as if being in some ways a casualty of the representations of women I so vehemently oppose precludes me from helping to shut them down. I was fooled, I believed the lie. Ergo, being a skinny feminist is a problem.

Of course I know that this is nonsense and that my hang ups about how I am perceived as a former anorexic are one facet of what I find problematic about the way eating disorders are perceived in general. I, of course, worry deeply about how young girls today are exposed to pornification; to hyper-sexualised and unrealistic images of women. I am hugely concerned about the fact that the liberal, almost commonplace, use of airbrushing and photoshopping has created an impossible ideal. The message is painfully and destructively clear: to do more and to be more women have to be, physically, less. Yet to focus exclusively on this as the ’cause’ of eating disorders is a massive oversimplification. It is, I feel, a possible impediment to help-seeking and recovery, and limiting to our understanding of where eating disorders might fit into a broader spectrum analysis of femininity, gender and sexism.

For example, recent press coverage of the alarming statistic that referrals to eating disorder clinics have risen by 16% in the last year has in the main focussed on issues of visual representation. The twin evils of the media and the fashion industry have had blame heaped at their door. Of course I would never say that they are not culpable. Their, respectively, intense scrutiny of the female form and haunting ideal of sickness and bones are as repugnant as they are discriminatory. Yet I can’t help but feel that the dishonesty, or at least disingenuousness, or various celebrities fuels these problems. I am not an avid follower of showbiz gossip so forgive the less than contemporary references but I always remember Victoria Beckham chomping on about how she has a chocolate bar a day, and (the later to be revealed as severely eating disordered and clinically depressed) Gail Porter espousing her filling but healthy daily diet. They were both, clearly, full of shit. Yet Natasha Hamilton from Atomic Kitten (I know) was vilified when she replied candidly to the question of how she stayed so slim with a steely ‘I don’t eat much’. Such honesty, whilst low in the role model stakes, should be applauded for debunking the myth that you can eat what you like and stay skinny, and that if you can’t there is something wrong with you.

The studies are also there: girls felt their self esteem plummet after looking at pictures of fashion models and celebrities; the majority of young women said they’d prefer to be thin than have a career; younger and younger women are having tummy tucks, breast enlargements and liposuction. The latter no doubt influenced by the fact that the triad of supreme sexual objectification, Nuts, Zoo and The Sun, propound a cartoonish ideal that filters it’s way into the minds of young men, in turn dripping poisonously onto feminine self perception.

All of this is part of the problem. But only part. What of psychology, of the fall out from rape, from violence, abuse or exploitation? Or from an inability to determine our position in a society that still largely deems women as secondary?  Here, if you look, there are the studies: the prevalence of eating disorders in women and children who have experienced domestic violence; of women de-sexualising their body after abuse or harassment; of girls expressing a fear of making the wrong choices, of not living up to the career-mother-happiness ideal and so instead turning to something they can control. And this is to say nothing of the rise of middle-aged women suffering. The International Journal of Eating Disorders has revealed that 13% of women aged 50 and older struggle with disordered eating — some for the first time in their lives. I would suggest most of these women would be insulted at the suggestion that they are starving themselves to the risk of heart failure, osteoporosis and stroke because they looked at a picture of Cheryl Cole.

There is something going wrong for women.

What I have discussed here has touched upon the perpetuation of destructive myths and misconceptions; the issue of disempowerment and the compensatory, redirected control of the body; of the long term effects of rape and violence and of the uncertain place of women and girls in society. All of these sound incredibly familiar to me and feed into a wider debate on the issues affecting – and disaffecting – women today. To stereotype sufferers of eating disorders as vainly chasing a body like this months’ hottest celebrity will do nothing to bring the statistics back down.