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12 forms of everyday sexism I hope my little sister never experiences

The past few days haven’t been particularly mood-bolstering if you’re a champion of gender equality. Shortly after a bunch of people lost their shit because the very talented and highly respected Jodie Whittaker was announced as the next Doctor Who, the BBC released its stars’ salaries, and we discovered two thirds of the corporation’s highest earning talent is male.

So yes, like I said – not all that inspiring for anyone who believes men and women should be treated equally. And that’s only scratching the showbizzy surface of sexism.

Like every other woman, I’ve been subject to sexism, prejudice and misogyny my whole life, but I only became properly conscious of it and started to challenge it when I was 18, shortly after I started university.

I’m now 23, and after five years of being tuned in to sexist bullshit, and calling it out wherever I can, I can clearly see things aren’t moving in the direction of gender equality as quickly as they should be. In fact, during those five years a man who defiantly uttered that infamous and vomit-inducing phrase ‘grab them by the pussy’ was elected President of the United States. So I’d say things have got worse, if anything.

I’m the eldest of four siblings; my youngest sister is 14. When I get mad about the everyday sexism that plagues this world, my mind often turns to her, and how I wish she didn’t have to put up with this crap.

I really hope that by the time my sister is 23, she has never experienced any of the following:

 1. Being catcalled consistently from the age of about 15 (especially when she’s dressed in gym gear – because lycra and an oversized Fruit of the Loom T shirt is the height of sexiness, apparently.)

2. Being told by a leering man who’s definitely old enough to be her father that he could ‘show her a thing or two, darling’ in an extremely seedy manner.

3. Paying £45 for a Hollywood wax because she thinks it will make the boy she’s dating like her more.

4. Having a passing stranger reach his hand up her skirt as he walks by her in Leicester Square one Saturday night, shouting ‘Fuck you, that’s not ok!’ then realising no one around batted an eyelid.

5. Living off Fruit ‘n Fibre for a whole summer because she’s been conditioned to believe her body shape determines her worth as a woman.

6. Being called bossy for taking control of a situation.

7. Being called a bitch for not smiling.

8. Feeling judged by her appearance above anything else, and wishing she could be thinner and prettier. (I know I’m too late on this one, but it’s in the list anyway because it breaks my heart that a primary school age girl can experience this, and I so want that to not be the case.)

9. Feeling like shit because a man walking past her in the street caught her eye and said: ‘Your mate’s fit, you’re not.’

10. Feeling the need to hold her door key in her fist when she walks home from work in the dark winter months.

11. Being given a rape alarm by an older female relative who means well, but is sending completely the wrong message.

12. Wearing high heels she can barely walk in that make her feet bleed before she’s even left the house, because that’s just what women have to do, right?

***

I do, hope, however, that by the time my little sister is my current age she has experienced these things:

1. The realisation that being deemed ‘bossy’ ‘a bitch’ ‘a nasty woman’ etc is a badge of honour that should be worn with pride.

2. Briefly becoming best friends with someone in the ladies’ toilets on a night out, exchanging compliments, hugging, then parting ways.

3. Finding the power in clothes and makeup and using them for self-expression rather than as a means of making herself appealing to men.

4. Reading words by authors like Maya Angelou and Angela Carter and Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham and understanding it’s ok to be a woman who speaks her mind and calls out inequality when she sees or experiences it.

5. Calling out inequality when she sees or experiences it.

6. Finding peace with wearing flat, comfortable shoes on a night out.

7. The understanding that loving herself and the skin she’s in is vitally important – and really, truly doing that.

8. Not even realising she’s just watched a film that passes the Bechdel test, because all of them do nowadays.

9. Knowing society values her because she’s whip-smart and belly laugh-funny and incredibly kind, not because of what she looks like.

10. Feeling positive for the future of the world because women are paid fairly and aren’t abused for doing whatever damn job they please, and the president’s a woman now, and things are finally where they should have been all along.

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Going through grief for the first time – and what it’s taught me about love

It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one… It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.’
-Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

I came across this quote for the first time when I was a child and it terrified me.

At that time, loss and grief were unfamiliar to me. The adults in my immediate family showed no signs of going anywhere and I took comfort in that, but Lemony’s words rattled around the back of my mind. I knew that one day I would really feel them; that my foot would eventually fall down through air with nothing beneath it and it would be worse than anything I’d ever known.

Years went by and while bereavement touched my life, the people closest to me remained. I felt increasingly lucky but at the same time my fear of going through true, heartbreaking grief kept growing.

When I reached my 20s that fear became real. My grandad Gordon, who I’ve always completely adored, developed a form of Alzheimer’s and his health began to deteriorate.

Before the illness really got hold of him, my grandad was the funniest, most mischievous, kind and caring person I knew. He would sneak sweets into my hand when my mum and grandma weren’t looking and tell me what my Christmas presents were weeks early, only if I promised to keep it our secret. He was always there to give me a lift when I needed one, Tom Jones playing from the stereo, and nothing was too much trouble for him.

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His decline spanned a few years. What started as forgotten words here and there ended with my grandad being unable to speak, walk, clothe himself or do any of the things that had always made him my favourite person.

When things were very bad and I knew the moment I had been dreading would come soon, it played on my mind constantly. The thought of losing him ricocheted around my brain, leaving me crying at the supermarket, in the shower and walking home from work.

On a balmy night in June my grandad passed away. Hundreds of miles away, I sat on my bed, holding my favourite photograph of us together and crying hot, stinging tears. As the days rolled on, pangs of grief continued to remind me what had happened and what I’d lost. The night before his funeral I listened to Tom Jones and sobbed until I fell asleep.

Saying goodbye to him at the funeral gave me a sense of closure and pushed me out of the grief-stricken limbo I’d been in. With my mind a little clearer, I started thinking not just about loss, but love.

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My grandad and grandma loved each other for 60 years and I loved him wholeheartedly all my life. Feeling the absence of a love that great, and seeing my grandma missing it so deeply, has shifted something in my mind.

Growing up, I felt that love – especially the romantic kind – is something of an easy option; that it’s a comfort to go through the world with someone holding your hand but somehow braver to face it alone.

Now, I understand how wrong I was.

There’s so much onus on having a life full of love and we’re taught that it makes everything better, but no one ever talks about the day it will be pulled away from you like a blanket on a cold night. Love, which many of us work so hard to find and nurture, will always have a time limit because none of us can be here forever – that’s a cruel fact.

My grandma spent 60 years with the man she loved, only for him to go, slowly and all at once, leaving her feeling lost. She’s struggling to remember she only needs to make one cup of tea now, not two. I can’t imagine going through the loss she has, of a life partner, but that unknown can’t stop me, or any of us, from the brave act of loving and being loved.

What I know now is that love isn’t an easy option. To love someone with everything you have, even though one day the way you feel will have to become a memory, is the opposite of easy. I’ll always remember my grandad and how unwaveringly he loved, right until the end of his life, and I’ll never let myself forget how courageous we are for opening our hearts to each other. Grief is a terrible thing but after years of fearing it, it has given me one good thing – a new perspective on just how brave love is.

What we must do now we’ve said ‘me too’

On my lunch break today I overheard a snippet of a conversation between two middle aged, suited up men. It went like this…

Man a: “You know… pretty girl? From up north?”

Man b: “Oh! Is she blonde?”

Man a: “Blondie, yeah.”

That was it. That was all I heard. But it was enough to make me mad – well, madder.

Walking back to my office, I wondered if the men have been appalled discovering how women in the entertainment industry have suffered because of Harvey Weinstein? I wondered if they have been watching the news and scrolling through social media and despairing at how clearly rife sexual harassment and assault is across all facets of society? I wondered if they know that in casually reducing a woman to her prettiness and her hair colour, they are bolstering the sexist, misogynistic culture that enables men to harass, to assault and to rape?

I’ve written before on this blog about the harassment I’ve been subjected to. I’ve recalled the hands grabbing up my skirt and the crude words breathed unwanted into my ear and the shouts across the street that were followed by “BITCH” when I didn’t respond. I’ve experienced worse, but I keep such memories boxed away in the back of my brain and that’s where they’re staying for now.

I know my experience isn’t unique – we women can all say ‘me too.’

For a long time I didn’t know I could challenge sexism and misogyny and harassment, but in my mid-teens I began to feel a hot rage burning inside me that was too strong to keep quiet about. By the time I was studying at university, I had gained a reputation as the girl who would take offence to things other people accepted as the norm. My peers would roll their eyes when I protested a sexist ‘joke’ or tell me I was overreacting when I called out boys in the student union who felt it was acceptable to touch me or my friends without our consent. How could I not, given casual sexist remarks and unsolicited gropes  are the foundation of the rape culture that rots society?

Now, after days of reading ‘me too’, that rage I mentioned is white hot and I feel I need to do more to challenge sexism and misogyny and harassment on a daily basis.

Don’t get me wrong – the responsibility for the pain and suffering caused by harassment and assault belongs solely to the people who commit the offences, but the events of the past few days suggest there are lots of men who don’t get the difference between what’s acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. I think if we all become a little braver in calling their wrongdoings out when we see them, we stand a better chance of rooting out this problem.

If you see a woman being harassed in the street, don’t let that happen – do something to help. If you hear a man in the pub or on the train speaking about a woman as if she’s an object, remind him she’s a human being who must be treated with more respect than that. If you have a male colleague or family member who you know behaves inappropriately towards women, be vigilant to that and make sure he knows you’re watching him.

Call out the throwaway comments and the barely noticeable touches now and maybe our future daughters and granddaughters will be free from their own ‘me too’ stories.

As for me… if I ever see those two men again, I’ll tell them ‘blondie’ has a name and they’d better start using it.

In defence of not always being busy

When did being busy become a status symbol? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now, and one that’s explored in this week’s Stylist, in an article that describes many as ‘slavish devotees to the cult of busy.’ The piece reveals 40% of the magazine’s readers secretly think women who don’t have a busy lifestyle are ‘lazy or not very motivated.’ I’m not surprised by that statistic. It’s something I’ve suspected ever since I moved to London 18 months ago.

I grew up in a small, quiet Yorkshire town, and from what I remember of being raised there, free time was heavily valued. When I was young, the adults I knew got home from work, did what they needed to do around the house then put their feet up and spent time with their families. Was this laziness? I’d argue not; rather a protectiveness of work/ life balance. Looking back now, I don’t think I knew many people who were burnt out.

Maybe back then things were just as hectic in big, bustling cities as they are now, but I had little idea that sort of life existed.

Now though, in London, I’m surrounded by people who never stop working; studying; exercising; socialising; blogging; campaigning; volunteering. You name it – they’re doing it – day in, day out.

And of course, all of that stuff is great, but I can’t help feeling that some people keep themselves ultra-busy as a means of self-validation. Does it truly make them happier? I’m not so sure. UK millennials have the second worst mental wellbeing rate in the world, according to the Telegraph, after all.

I have a full-time (often rather hectic) 9 – 5 job as a journalist and commute for around an hour and a half each day. I sometimes attend out of hours work commitments; I exercise a few times a week; I hang out with my boyfriend and catch up with friends. Some weeks are more busy than others, but in general I keep my evenings and weekends pretty clear.

It might seem like I’ve got a decent amount of stuff going on, right? But in comparison to many people I know, who Uber from one weeknight activity to another and have their weekends fully booked up months in advance, I’m positively slow-paced.

For a while now I’ve worried that my enjoyment of free time is somehow wrong. I feel a twinge of embarrassment every time a colleague asks what I did last night (cleaned flat, washed hair, read.) My free time can make me feel uneasy, like it’s a void I should be filling just because everyone else is.

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In my younger years. See? So chill.

But time and again, I have to reassure myself that there’s nothing wrong with having a few hours in the evening to realign and relax. I remind myself of the time, shortly after my move to London, when I had my first and only panic attack due to being suckered in to living at an impossible-to-maintain pace. I remember that taking the time to hoover my bedroom and stick on a face mask makes me feel centred; that running slowly and doggedly around the park clears my head and that bingeing on Netflix shows I’m obsessed with gives me a bit of joy at the end of a busy work day.

I go to sleep each night largely without worries, because I’ve had spare hours beforehand to process and work through anything that’s bothering me. I wake up feeling ready to take on the day because I’ve had enough sleep. I feel a strong sense of self-worth, even when I’m sat home alone watching old episodes of Kimmy Schmidt and eating cereal from the box.

I’m not saying that busyness and wellbeing are mutually exclusive. But for me, too much of the former can certainly affect the latter. I know it’s important for me to balance busy days with downtime in order to be my best self at work and in my relationships.

I might not have a side-hustle or a jam-packed social calendar, but I’m making choices that ensure I’m achieving my career goals, keeping relationships in check and feeling well both physically and mentally. If that’s what society deems ‘lazy’ then I think we need to collectively take a look at ourselves and what we view as most important in life.

So here’s to my fellow not always busy-people. We’re doing just fine, thanks very much.

(Main image credit: Max Pixel)