A Woman Scorned

Last month, Beyoncé broke the internet after she released her visual album, Lemonade. It has been deemed the ‘most elaborate diss in hip-hop history‘, given that much of the content is given to Jay Z’s alleged cheating with ‘Becky with the good hair’.

I personally love a good ‘woman scorned’ outburst – I don’t subscribe to the dignified silence, I prefer a huge wodge of revenge served with a side salad of cold blood. Even better if you can deliver the requisite revenge like a deadly artistic assassin, making you look so glaringly bright that the guy in question can’t bear to set eyes on you again.

Well done, Bey.

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What always strikes me about these situations is that the women scorned are always burning so much brighter than these guys in the first instance. They’re often more talented (Bey), intelligent (Hillary) and better-looking (everyone) than the guys who’ve cheated on them. I’ve seen women I consider to be magnificent left for someone with nothing more than a homely smile, and I’ve wondered if that’s the motivation. They can’t handle the magnificence, let alone control it, so they find someone infinitely more ‘manageable’.

Time and time again I’ve seen women going through this, and there are always friends exclaiming, ‘But she’s not a patch on you!’ And now I know that this is the whole point of it. The cheating is a way of re-establishing a form of control, and they will always opt for a ‘not-a-patch’ option. It happened to me a few years ago and I understood straight away. Steps had been taken to try and control me and they hadn’t worked. Cue an easier target.

I remember that scene in Sex and the City where Samantha posts leaflets all over the city, telling everyone that her ‘Richard’ is, in fact, a dick. When I enacted a digital version of that, I felt the same bewitching sense of control and freedom, as the ‘leaflets’ were similarly carried away on the wind.

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I’m never going to be someone who sits back and silently suffers – I’m on Team Trierweiler. Valérie Trierweiler wrote a bestselling memoir of her betrayal by François Hollande (Thank You For This Moment), and it is described as:

300-odd pages of deliciously backhanded barbs, sentimental hand-wringing and vicious putdowns, seasoned with large dollops of self-justification.

The same article describes her as ‘magnificently unrepentant.‘ Amen to that, sister.

I don’t know why, but a strange silence descends when a woman pours out her scorn. Men call her a ‘vindictive harpy’, and in hushed tones, women tell her she should be more dignified. What if we don’t? What if we call them out on it like Bey? The world doesn’t end,  does it? It just realises we know what’s going on and we’re not prepared to live with it.

The greatest service to womanhood Bey has done thus far is to make ‘calling a guy out on his shit’ into an art form.

There has never been a greater woman scorned…

 

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This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.

 

 

Fifteen

“That girl knew exactly what she was doing.”

I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing those words. This week they came from so-called journalist Katie Hopkins who has decided to feel all sorry for footballer Adam Johnson, as he is imprisoned for sexual activity with a 15-year-old. Ever the victim-blamer, she describes the girl as “a hormonal teen stalking someone famous for attention, desperate for a chance to have something her friends do not.”

I think back to when I was fifteen and developing major crushes on older, unattainable men wherever I went. I never acted on them, but I think the targets of my devotion must have been only too aware that there was a young girl mooning around after them, hanging on their every word.

I remember being in a pantomime with ‘Brian’, who played Buttons in Snow White. (I know… Buttons appears in Cinderella but this was a low-budget thing in the north-west). Brian must have been in his twenties when he had me waiting to catch his eye at every turn. Even while I was dressed as a dwarf and saying, “Oh you ARE lovely, Snow White!” – my only line in the whole thing (I got paid £10 – my first pay check, spent on tukka boots in Top Shop).

But Brian was kind. He dropped his girlfriend into the conversation now and then, just to make sure I was aware, and continued to be nice and brotherly to me. He didn’t take advantage of me and made me feel comfortable around him. I loved Brian.

This happened a few times during those years. I, like many teenage girls, was testing out my new-found sexuality and powers of attraction. I didn’t quite know what would happen, and I was a little bit scared. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I relied on the adult men I was testing it out on to be responsible and to not take advantage. I remember a guy called Paul taking a kind and brotherly stance with me and how I found it intensely annoying that he didn’t ‘see’ me. But oh boy, he definitely saw me. And he acted like every responsible adult should.

Because to my mind, you can say all you like about Adam Johnson’s victim but when all is said and done, he is the adult and she is the child. She may have looked and acted like a sexually experienced young woman, but she was probably in wild ‘testing’ mode and couldn’t believe that the object of her crush was reciprocating. It was up to him to stop the 834 WhatsApp messages or not even start them in the first place. It was up to him not to pick her up in his car. Up to him to stop the sexting. Up. To. Him.

There are some men who can’t believe it when a younger woman or teenager appears to find them attractive. They think they are singled out for their unique animal magnetism, seemingly unaware that young women test out their sexuality like this all the time. We look to see who’s looking, and find these guys staring back. I remember going on weekend day trips with my family as a teenager and without fail, the guys staring back at me in the places we visited were the dads, not the sons I was scanning the room for. It was like that for a very long time until the roles switched, and I found the sons of the guys I was checking out staring back at me. Weird, that.

At fifteen, I mostly had crushes on guys in bands, and I now realise how safe that kind of crushing was, with only a Patches magazine poster to moon over in my bedroom. Coming into contact with real-life men was something that presented more challenges. I shudder to think what trouble I might have got into now, with the convenience of social media and smartphones.

I thank my lucky stars that the guys I encountered at fifteen were so kind to me. Brian, lovely Brian, with your mullet hairdo. I salute you for being a responsible adult with a clear-eyed perception of the situation I put you into.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mothering Heights

I have a distinct memory of my mother picking me up from the school gates one sunny afternoon in the ’70s. She must have had to come in to the school for some reason, because my memory is of her looking exceedingly glamorous as she strode in, and me feeling immensely proud. She was wearing an oversized bouclé coat she’d knitted herself (it had different-coloured trees all over it) and purple suede knee-high boots that had buttons down the side. Even then, at the age of around eight, I was aware that she had a style that marked her out from the other mums and I loved it.

I now realise that if I was eight, she must have been forty-six – two years younger than I am now.

As my forty-ninth birthday approaches I’ve realised that I’ve turned into a mother – my mother – without even making that life decision. Last week, I was talking to a younger friend about my dating prospects as a single woman in her late forties, and, trying to be helpful, he immediately referenced his mother as a comparative scenario. It came as a shock that he saw me that way, as it’s not how I see myself. Until now.

Later the same night I attended a Rudimental gig at the O2, on my own, and sat next to a group of teenagers cradling their Diet Cokes and immediately realised that other people would assume I was their mother. Hell, the kids probably thought I’d escaped from a Mother’s Home and was sent there to keep an eye on them. I did keep an eye on the girl next to me, who was stroking her hair extensions obsessively while her best mate ‘cracked on’ with the boy next to her. I was dying to tell her that in about twenty years, she’d be the hot one and her friend would look like a beanbag…

This is the first time in my life that I’ve really been hit by the reality of ageing. I sailed through turning thirty because at that point, I’d only just starting really living life, having missed out on so much ‘fun’ in my late teens and twenties. At forty, I was going through a renaissance, professionally and personally, so it felt like a rebirth, rather than the beginning of the end.

Now, approaching fifty, something else is happening. For the first time, I’m feeling that shift, as the cloak of invisibility descends. Used to a certain level of attention in public (not all of it welcome), I’m adjusting to life as a normal human being who can walk down the street unnoticed. I’m also adjusting to seeing my mother in the mirror every time I go to the hairdressers. That halo of thick, blow-dried hair I remember seeing every Friday when she returned from her weekly hairdo. There she is again. Staring back at me.

There is a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer, in which Amy joins Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette as they help Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her Last Fuckable Day as an actress (she’s 55). They talk about that moment where the media decides women are no longer believably fuckable and they recast them as mothers. They give Sally Field as the greatest example, one minute playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, the next his mother in Forrest Gump.

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In many ways, life for a woman is like that movie set. I’m shifting over to the other side, but I didn’t ask to be recast. (I’m not even going to get into why mothers can’t be viewed as ‘fuckable’ – as we know they can, judging by the number of searches for ‘milf’, ‘mom’ and ‘stepmom’ on porn sites. It’s just a lust that dare not speak its name, apparently.)

And so, I know what I have to do. I have to be my mother – that woman striding around in purple suede boots and an eye-catching knitted coat, being clever about everything. I have to channel my looky-likey Julianne Moore (55) who just gets better and better with age, as an actress as well as a woman. The number of role models for me abounds: Robin Wright (49); Cate Blanchett (46); Kylie Minogue (47); Gillian Anderson (47). Well hello, ladies. No cloaks of invisibility there.

As ex-Vogue Editor-in-chief Caroline Roitfeld (56) said, “I can not be in competition with a girl of 20, so I have to be the best in my category.”

Showtime.

 

Dating Deal-Breakers

I was going to do another ‘year of blogging’ review of 2015 to mark the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, but then I thought, hell no. What people really want to read about, and what I really want to talk about, is dating.

The main thing I’ve learned this year is that if he appears to be too good to be true, then he usually is…

This is such a cliché it’s almost embarrassing to be writing about it. I’ve had two instances of it this year, both with men in their late thirties.

The first, a man so into me, he wanted to be with me all the time, to have long conversations while gazing at the sky, lying in the park. I knew it was too good to be true but I went for it anyway. He turned out to be a narcissist of the highest order, obsessed with the reflection of himself he saw in me. He kept mentioning babies, knowing that I’m childfree, but his need for a mini version of himself was manifest.

The second was someone I’m still trying to figure out. He played the ‘I’m not like other guys’ card, which of course means he’s exactly like other guys, only about ten times worse. He stunned me temporarily with his good looks and great conversation. He managed to wedge in feminism, tampon tax and abortion rights into the first hour of meeting him. Again ‘too good to be true!’ ran through my head.

And he was.

He didn’t seem to like that I didn’t get in touch after the first date and later the following week he told me off for waiting for him to do the asking. “Is that what feminists do?” he teased. We went on to have the obligatory WhatsApp flurry of messaging but the second date never materialised.

I can’t help thinking that I was targeted for take-down by a guy posing as a feminist. This is apparently a thing – these guys are called macktivists.I actually enjoyed the date I’d spent with him – and I’d deliberately managed my expectation so that I was happy with the one-off experience.

I think my radar was telling me that was how it should end but I allowed myself to be flattered when I eventually heard from him again. Flattered into agreeing to his arrangement to meet up a second time, which of course never materialised. He’d just wanted to be in control, I think.

What a sorry state of affairs.

I abhor game-playing of any kind and men are always surprised when I immediately text back or make a straightforward arrangement that I’m actually committed to. Everything is built behind smoke and mirrors in the dating world and although I’ve trained myself not to expect anything, I’m still taken by surprise by the shitty behaviour.

One of my biggest dating deal-breakers is ghosting. The minute I sense that a guy is deliberately not responding to texts or withholding any sign of interest, I’m off. Narcissist guy was a master of it, and even had the temerity to reappear from the shadows with some epic excuse for his silence which always involved some alleged misconception about our arrangements.

‘I’m not like other guys’ guy switched off his phone for the duration of the day we were supposed to meet for a second date and then blamed it on leaving his phone charger at work and having to buy a new one. I did actually laugh when I finally received an ‘explanatory’ text from him, giving ‘mansplaining’ a whole new meaning. B-bye.

Narcissist guy did something that is another huge dating deal-breaker for me. He turned up drunk to a date. I now think that this is a form of relationship sabotage. He knew I was cooking a meal for him (I never cook!) and he knew I was excited about seeing him. So what better way to put a woman in her place than to a) not mention the leaving do you’re going to after work, b) get totalled at it, and c) bring some godawful wine and lie about the ‘real’ bottle getting stolen while you were asleep on the Tube?

Some men like to be told off for this sort of behaviour so that they can rely on the whole ‘I’m just a bad boy’ schtick later on. I call it Naughty Boy Syndrome. It’s taken me years to realise that they want me to get annoyed with them so that I end, or at least back off from the relationship, meaning they don’t have to.

So I don’t get annoyed.

I just let them go.

Quietly.

And then blog about them. Ha ha…

Still, in autumn 2014 I dated a classic portfolio of deal-breaking that I’ve yet to blog about. I’ve been saving him for a rainy day.

My deal-breaker antennae were already twitching when he was clearly excited about getting notifications from Candy Crush on his phone. This was a man in his forties who’d made small talk into a way of life. Against my better judgment, I decided to press on.

Then came the comments on how, in his local train station, ‘Pakistanis’ were ‘good at squashing into trains’. I asked him how he knew they were Pakistani? Funnily enough, it had just been a wild guess on his part.

It goes on…

He met a lesbian friend of mine, and later asked me what a man had done to her to make her that way? And oh, he had a problem with feminists…

By this time my antennae had almost short-circuited, yet I still pressed on, determined to think I could look past his racism and homophobia.

 

And then came the denouement. He had a snoring problem which he’d attempted to fix with an operation but it hadn’t really worked. One night (the eleventh date!) I was desperate for some sleep so I moved silently into the lounge and blew up my inflatable bed.

When I woke up the next morning he was standing there, fully dressed and ready to go. Apparently I’d crossed a line by my actions.

I’d left him alone in bed and he hated waking up alone. Poor lambkin.

Funnily enough, I absolutely love it.

 

 

 

A Weight of One’s Own

I’ve already written a lot about body image, about embracing my own shape, eschewing dieting, and women’s relationships with food. Before a female-only dinner I went to recently, I joked on Twitter that there should be a Bechdel test for women’s dinners where at least two women talk about something else other than food while eating. It never happened. Someone turned up and promptly announced how many calories they’d burnt off at the gym and it was all over.

This policing of food intake, both by ourselves and by the media, drives me mad. It’s taken me forty-eight years to realise I don’t have to be thin to live a happy life, that I haven’t fallen into oblivion by stopping dieting. I have gained around 20lbs since my decade of dieting in my 30s, and have gone back up to the size I was before the dieting kicked in.

I honestly went into a panic as the scales showed a significant increase earlier this year. And yet every time I looked in the mirror, naked, I saw a body I liked. How can this be? I panicked myself into another low-carb diet. It didn’t work. The panic subsided and the body I liked was still there. Rounder around the tummy, thighs and upper arms, but it actually looked like the shape it was meant to be. Some clothes didn’t fit, some clothes fitted better. I filled out the bits that were meant to be filled out. This made me laugh with joy a few times, getting ready to go out.

I think my body is lovely. Am I allowed to say that? Damn right. For years I thought it was bloody disgusting and thank god that’s over. There are men (and women) who’ve only known me as post-dieting Lisa and they say such nice things about my body. I’ve had them call me things like ‘full-on woman’. They’ve commented on my shape, and called it ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’ and ‘lovely’. I bask in it, because my Inner Voice is saying, ‘Really? At this size?’ and then just when I’m about to say it out loud, I tell IV to shut the hell up and say nothing.

I must have my ‘fat radar’ set to high frequency because I was rewatching Love Actually the other day as part of my annual Christmas TV viewing and suddenly realised how fat-shamey it was.

From the start, Bill Nighy constantly refers to his ‘fat manager’, Nathalie gets called ‘plumpy’ by her parents, Emma Thompson bemoans her ‘Pavarotti’ clothing, Aurelia chides Jamie for getting ‘chubby’ and her ‘Miss Dunkin’ Donuts’ sister calls her a ‘skinny moron’. The movie even ends with Hugh Grant saying ‘God, you weigh a lot’ to his new girlfriend, the aforementioned ‘Plumpy’.

Someone making this film had some issues, I’d say.

Why is flesh so fearsome? Why do the Overweight Haters think it’s ok to distribute Fat Cards to women on the London Underground? Why is the worst insult a rejected man on Tinder can throw at a woman is ‘ur fat and ugly anyway’? They know it strikes at the fear in the very centre of our being. Even now, if someone shouted ‘fat’ at me, even though I know I’m not, I’d carry around the curse of that for days, weeks after. I know I would.

And then… And then that bloody women’s health report. Even though it rightly acknowledges that obesity is a nationwide, non-gendered problem, and has a significant effect on women’s health, the media has grabbed the chance to say “Women: You Are Responsible For a National Crisis By Eating Too Much.” Here’s what the Department of Health’s Sally Davies actually says in her summary of the report:

Tackling obesity in the population as a whole has to be a national priority, in order to reduce the impact of related, non-communicable diseases on healthy life expectancy and health services.

But guess what? The Daily Fail lays all the responsibility of a national crisis, just before Xmas, on women’s eating. Not the Cumbrian floods, not the terrorist threat – women’s eating:

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And rather effectively, it’s sandwiched (no pun intended) between an advert for ‘lady petrol’ and two feminine ideals (one of whom has been told to lose weight in the past). It’s a classic, ‘enjoy this, but don’t actually imbibe it if you want to look like this’ schematic.

I’ve returned again and again to the great feminist work Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, first published in 1978, and been amazed at how relevant it still is today:

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As Orbach goes on to say, “selling body insecurity to women (and increasingly to men too) is a vicious phenomenon. It relies on the social practices that shape a girl’s growing up to make her receptive … they are discouraged from using their body strength to explore the world.”

I have made it a life principle to take up space in the world, to increase my body strength, and to explore as far and wide as I can. On my own. I know that my anti-diet approach to life comes from a response to being body-policed from a young age, and from hearing female friends and relatives comment on their weight and others’ all my life.

I am happy to know a number of younger women who’ve taken a similar ‘This Girl Can’ attitude to life. But I know a hell of a lot more who’ll be monitoring their food intake and not have the strength to climb a wall or run a 10k. But it’s ok, because they’re skinny.

I will say again and again, and if I had a daughter I’d say it every day, that it’s our right (I see it as a duty) to be in the world, to take up space, to be sexual, to get into all its corners. Shrinking ourselves, Alice-like, is not the way to do it.

If only I’d realised this thirty years ago.

Happy Christmas, ladies – eat, drink and be merry.

You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

Go With The Flow

I’m going to talk about periods. If you’re rolling your eyes right now then maybe click or look away before I go any further.

*gives it a few seconds*

Periods are big news at the moment – firstly we had the woman who posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which you could clearly see a patch of blood. Instagram took the picture down and she reposted it. They took it down again, but later apologised for their ‘mistake’ and reinstated it. As Jessica Valenti pointed out, Instagram are only too happy to showcase bikini selfies but have banned breastfeeding shots. Similarly, women can be nearly naked, but if they dare to have body hair, they have to go.

Then just last week we had Donald Trump criticising Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying on CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … Blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s not new to have a man accuse a confident, vocal woman of being subject to ‘that time of the month’, especially if she’s questioning his motives, but it’s not something you usually hear from a man running for the US presidency. That comment probably lost him the race.

And yesterday we had the news that Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon in April while she had her period, but decided to run tampon-free in support of women in countries who have no access to sanitary protection. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t reported by anyone there at the time – maybe they thought she’d simply had a ‘mishap’.

And oh, the fear of that mishap. The leak. I remember the very real fear that it would happen at school. I started my periods while still at primary school and in the beginning, had to wear things (we called them ‘things’ in our house because the words ‘sanitary towels’ were just to awful to say out loud) that resembled single-sized duvets between my legs all day.

I remember my mother describing the onset of my periods as ‘something that happens to all women, even the Virgin Mary’. It wasn’t exactly a biology lesson but I was only nine and I was in a Catholic school. I remember my sister reaching her arm out of her bed to shake my hand: “Welcome to the club,” she said.

From being dropped off at school in the morning to going home at night I worried about leaking. If I sat down too long during lessons the worry would mean I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how I could subtly spin my skirt around when I finally stood up just to check the back. At secondary school, my friends and I had a silent agreement that we’d check each other during those times. “Am I ok at the back?” I’d whisper through unmoving lips. They’d nod. I never leaked there, but I did in ballet class once, whilst wearing a light-blue leotard. I nearly died of shame when I realised later.

Managing this situation takes up a lot of time in women’s lives. If you’re a man, you won’t notice it because we are so practised at hiding it. If we think we might be in ‘danger’, we engineer a trip to the toilet; we stuff tampons up our sleeves or even down our boots if we have to, because the very worst thing we could do is let someone know that we have our period, even other women.

We manage the pain with timely painkillers and work out if we can manage an exercise class without worry. Don’t get me started on PE lessons at school and the showers. The opportunities for shame there are legion.

The worry lessens as we get older as we get more adept at managing periods and knowing what our bodies will do, or can handle, especially as our monthly cycles tend to become more regular. But those early days are fraught with unexpected or phantom start days, sudden rushes of ‘flow’ and not being near any facilities or painkillers for hours.

We even get up during the night to change our protection as eight hours is way too long to wait. We regularly ruin underwear if we don’t, which is why we have special ‘period pants’ that we don’t mind losing.

And then there are holidays. The all-important timing issue. Periods can be so erratic that you can change your holiday dates and still have to contend with the discomfort and inconvenience while you’re away. To a certain extent you can be that girl on a yacht in a Bodyform advert, but the reality is, her smile belies her ‘When will we reach a proper toilet so I can check my situation? Will this tampon last for a whole round-island trip? Did I make a mistake wearing white shorts?’ questions.

And finally, sex. There is nothing more frustrating than being ‘out of action’. Yes, there are some men who don’t mind, but there are even fewer women who think the same way (although maybe I’m wrong). Yes, there are other things you can do for entertainment, but it does rather take the shine off.

It is rather astonishing that something that affects all biological women is so gloriously taboo. The lengths we all go to avoid saying the actual word or admit that it’s happening are incredible. I’m still embarrassed buying tampons in Boots for god’s sake.

So I’m pleased that periods are finally in the news. It’s about time. At least this is blood spilt without harming anyone.

Much.

——————

Great piece on the Trump moment: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/10/menstruation-revolution-donald-trump-periods-stigma

Things I’d Tell My Daughter

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m childfree-by-choice, but as my life fills with young female friends, I find myself thinking about what I want to pass on to them – in a wise-woman way. I so enjoy their company and I love talking to them about how they navigate the world of work, relationships and, well, just being a young woman.

If I’d had a daughter when I was thirty, she would be eighteen now. So these are the things I’d like to say to her, and weirdly, lots of them are things my mother said to me, but I didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Be yourself

It sounds like a hackneyed phrase that all (good) mothers say to daughters as they walk into the world, but I mean just that. Be your own self. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by being a partner, a mother, or even having a stellar career. Just know that you have a choice in all of this. Define yourself by the life you choose to live, and by the people you choose to experience it with.

If in doubt, don’t

My mum used to say this all the time. But oh how true. If you have any doubts about a relationship you’re in, any at all, leave it. Don’t wait for ‘the day’ to come. It won’t and you’ll have lost valuable time. Never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or compromise your own sense of what is right to please a partner. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong – listen to it and take action.

Love your body

People started commenting on your body from a young age and it will be monitored by those around you (male and female) as you grow older. Look in the mirror and look into your own, makeup-free eyes before you monitor your own body. Make an agreement with yourself to see someone beautiful, strong and taking up space in the world. Never starve your body – eating properly makes you all of these things.

Look out for toxic people

Some of the people you choose to surround yourself with will make you feel good about yourself, others will do their damnedest to try and bring you down. These people are usually insecure and jealous of beautiful, strong, young women who are confident in the world. Surround yourself with the good ones, ditch the toxics. Don’t try and hold on to foul friendships – they will just bring you down. It’s ok to let friends – and family – go.

Be in the space

Take up space in the world. If you’re out walking, running or doing yoga in the park – take up the space. If you’re in the office in a meeting, let your voice take up the space. If you’re online and you feel strongly about something, let your words take up the space. Never flinch if people question why you are there, and they will – make your presence felt and your voice heard.

Be confident in your sexuality

Whatever your sexuality is, people will try and make you feel as though you have to hide it, that it is shameful, that you should not seek sexual pleasure just for its own sake. Do everything you want to do, safely and confidently. Do it and never wake up with regrets. The only regret you’ll have is that you never did it.

Compliment other women

Tell other women that they’re good at things. Things that don’t involve hair, makeup, losing weight or wearing a fab outfit. It will change their lives.

Don’t dread getting older

Don’t. Good things happen and they are unexpected. Your body and brain will have a way of coping with the transition that means you will discover each milestone isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Older women are smart, beautiful and supportive of younger women. Don’t believe the myth that they’re not any of those things – it’s a lie constructed by society because older women are immensely powerful people.

Don’t lead a tick box life

Question everything. Never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Feel the peer pressure and question it anyway. You can construct your own set of tick boxes that are different to other people’s. Don’t believe what others tell you about people, places or other cultures – find out for yourself.

Do things on your own

Even when you’re young, it’s important to commune with yourself, not just your friends. Do things on your own, such as going to the cinema, walking, going for coffee, even on holiday. You’ll never regret it.

Look out for controlling partners

Beware of signs that your partner is trying to control you. It can be oh so subtle, and before you know it, your life is completely in the control of another. If they make negative comments about your weight, what you’re wearing, or stop you seeing certain friends, the red flag is waving. Get out.

There are wonderful people out there

You’ll know the signs. They will be kind to you, your friends, their friends and their family. They will celebrate your successes and be there when things go wrong, without a sly smile on their faces. They will offer to connect you to people they know to help you in your career, and notably, women will help other women.

Say sorry

There will be times when you regret your behaviour, or saying something that has hurt someone else. Tell them you’re sorry and they will forgive you. If you don’t, the guilty feelings will just build inside of you and make you more likely to hurt someone again. We’re all flawed – think of apologising as a flaw release valve.

Have fun when you’re young

Don’t hide away from fun times. Work hard, play hard – get into all the corners that life is offering you. Make mistakes. If not, you will spend the rest of your life trying to make up for missed opportunities.

Ignore all of this and find out for yourself

Because I did when my mum told me.

Because I Cannes

All the furore over the Cannes Film Festival this week about red-carpet heel-wearing reminded me that I was lucky enough to attend once.

A party I went to, in 2007 courtesy of New Line Cinema, was at the Villa Rothschild and all the ladies received a note saying we should avoid wearing heels because the party would take place in the gardens. (The VIPs were in the Villa itself, so they were probably made to wear heels…). I went for a low kitten-heeled sandal which seemed to do the trick.

Anyway, what was important about that night wasn’t the height of the heel I was wearing. It was my watershed moment. My game-changer. My world turned on its axis that night and it wasn’t the same ever again.

I’d turned forty a couple of months before and was in the midst of a boom-time for me, career-wise. I was married, but spending most of my time at work or in the pub afterwards, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it out of my system before I went home. Looking back, I was cruising for a divorce right then (it would take three years to happen).

I knew then that I’d only ever get one invitation to Cannes so I went for it. I’d bought a beautiful mediterranean-blue maxi dress and took time to get ready. I have two pictures of that night – both taken pre-smartphone so they’re just of me standing awkwardly in my hotel room. I look back and see someone preparing to take on the world, with a serious face. I’d dieted too much so you can see my bones, I’d applied too much fake tan so I didn’t really look like me. But I was where I needed to be to get out there and shake things up.

I attended the party with my then boss, and we ended up with a group of guys who we’d been working with on a related film project. She left early, which then left me to party on with the boys, feeling like Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven.

And boy, was I ready to party.

The DJ that night was Mark Ronson, who was then very new to the scene. He swaggered to the open-air stage and nonchalantly played ‘Valerie’ with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I danced energetically and happily with a guy we shall call ‘Nick’ for most of the night. He was from my part of the country and we got on well. It felt so good to be with a guy I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and there was an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool. (Good job, because I can’t actually swim.) The others drifted back to their rooms and I drifted back to Nick’s, to continue the evening. I was still high on the experience and couldn’t face going to bed.

You’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’ at this point. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. Nick lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

I now know what Nick did for me. Nick told me everything I’d needed to hear from my husband, who didn’t enjoy complimenting me ‘in case my head got too big’. Nick told me I appeared to him as someone who was between girlhood and womanhood (despite being forty) – I think he picked up on the fact that I was on the verge of emerging from my life chrysalis. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. It still is, to me, one of the best nights of my life, if not THE best. As I went to pull away, Nick moved his hand from the small of my back and began to draw his fingers softly up my shoulder blade. It was the tenderest, most erotic touch I’d ever felt. A brief kiss followed and I left.

Nothing more than that kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so. I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

So thank you, Cannes, and thank you, Nick. You are both very important to my story. And as hackneyed as it may sound, my life really did begin at forty.