Monday, 30 July 2012

Smelling of Flowers

In Regent’s Park, London, there are several flower beds planted in the shape of Union Jacks. I’m not sure how long ago they were sown, but the result is ‘painting by flowers’ – in an abundance of red, white and purple/blue pansies. These flags laid out in soil are just one sample of the budding life and colour throughout the park. Each step reveals something else: blues and oranges tumbling by the fountains; or shady corners full of chrysanthemums (and the occasional entwined couple). I’ve felt extremely lucky to pass by these scenes on a daily basis for the past few weeks as I’ve walked to and from my internship at Vogue.

Regent’s Park is serene. Perhaps I feel it more because my home turf is so rural, but I love the green pockets strung throughout the city. Such spots feel hidden from the busy pavements and intensity of moving through London, providing breathing space and thinking time. It offers a separation between ‘work’ and ‘home life’ – with plenty of benches: perfect for the quick gobbling of a chapter or two of a book.

Today as I was wandering back, the smell of geraniums reminded me of an event I’d almost forgotten.  When I was younger there were one or two village ceremonies, such as ‘Well Dressing’ at midsummer.  Once a year, the well in the next hamlet along (more of a stone stump than functional resource) became gaudy with petals and leaves. I was given licence to wander around our garden, grabbing at mum’s harebells and linaria. She was just behind, stopping me from complete decimation. The stalks were snipped and wrapped in tin foil to form a posy. Later I joined the procession of other children to place this small bouquet in a gap between the stones, before we all ran around.  

Writing out that recollection makes it feel almost as though it belongs fifty years in the past. I’m not sure the tradition even exists some ten years later. It shows the rather magical quality of flowers though, particularly in childhood. Whether in creating rose water with crushed petals or making daisy chains on the lawn, flowers are bound up in all sorts of games and activities. I adored Cicely Mary Barker’s ‘Flower Fairies’ books when younger. From the Almond Blossom fairy resplendent in pink, to the Canterbury Bell fairy with a rather fetching hat, these were creations that fed my imagination. I made ‘fairy houses’ in the bushes in the garden: with shells for beds, lined with moss, and wine cork seats. These miniature houses were carpeted in reeds and decorated with Gerberas. They were elaborate – with balconies, hammocks, and even a swimming pool in one. A friend and I had a special club devoted to fairy activities – sending letters about sightings of small footprints in the soil, or posting each other stickers, sequins and anything glittery.

Inevitably – perhaps sadly – such beliefs fade as we grow up. The curiosity and capacity for wonder doesn’t have to though. I’m still taken by David Ellwand’s magnificent photography and designs in the book ‘Fairie-ality’ (despite the spelling suggesting something medieval) and love the idea of Floriography: the language of flowers. And besides, you don’t have to be a fairy to wear something flowery – just look at the popularity of Liberty’s floral prints and Erdem’s delicate designs. And I really must advocate the joys of ‘swimming’ in a field of yellow in a silk dress – much like I did here for a shoot with the ever-gorgeous, ever-talented photographer and friend Flo. These flowers had already faded by the time I left for London, but I’m glad that I’ve had the sights of Regent’s Park to keep me going in the meantime.

The dress was a birthday present from the wonderful woman who I - rather appropriately in this instance - refer to as my fairy godmother. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Mirror, Mirror

(This absolutely stunning sample by Charlotte Taylor - sent to try on for size before I modelled for her lookbook - seemed to epitomise the notion of high glamour. I then found it rather subversive that the deep back allowed for framing of my neck-to-waist scar. I felt that I was inhabiting two roles at once: conventional elegance in the dress and unconventional beauty in the line running down my spine.)

According to a piece in the Guardian, up to 90% of women have experienced “body-image dissatisfaction”. Such a statistic is a sad reflection of the corrosive relationship between physical looks and self-worth. It demonstrates the power of the message – promoted through various channels - that we’re never attractive enough. In the West, we’re a highly visual culture, bombarded with endless images. ‘Bombarded’ suggests an attack, but even if photos, adverts and video clips aren’t reaching out to administer a quick slap, they still damage perceptions of appearance. I think that discontent with the way one looks can sometimes be traced back to more personal explanations and roots, but ideals promoted in the media still exert a powerful influence – whether in an image of a celebrity lauded for losing her post-baby weight or in the stock shots of models gracing features and ad campaigns. 

I model occasionally (and informally), despite my waist and hips being about two inches over the often expected norm. When I was first scouted I was a skinny thirteen year old, and my parents were still plying me with hot chocolate every morning to encourage weight gain. This was before growth spurts, before the twisting spine that re-moulded my torso, pretty much before the completion of puberty. It has only been my subsequent growth in the last year that has led to a realization of quite how narrow the body ideal of the industry actually is. My response used to be that: “I eat huge amounts of cake, sweets and full-fat food and am still slender, so people should stop suggesting that all models are unhealthy.” Although I still stand by the fact that some individuals are just naturally very slim, I’m much more suspicious of the extremes expected on the catwalk and in editorials. I fitted the high-end clothes at fourteen – I was a rapidly growing girl with a fast metabolism – but some of those pieces would now be too small to wriggle into at seventeen. Once I stopped growing upwards, then I began to fill out into my rightfully adult shape. If you’re tall like me, then it’s unusual for this shape to include a natural twenty-three or twenty-four inch waist (or even smaller). I’m confused as to why models my age and older are expected to be quite so slender. What is the purpose? I know that the counter-argument revolves around the reliance on fantasy and escapism, but surely it detracts from the clothes if one is distracted by the sight of a waist or thigh that looks dangerously breakable? This body shape, beyond reach of the majority of women, is almost fetishized – desirable in its unattainability. Even I occasionally feel the insidious whisper: the one suggesting that if I lost an inch here or there then I would somehow be better. It’s a false voice, but a persuasive one.

However, what alternatives currently exist within the industry? There are purportedly ‘plus sized’ models, but their use is always highly signposted; the model often clad in underwear, or nude. Editors claim that this is due to the refusal of some designers to provide anything other than a slip of a sample size. It’s dull and circular – some magazines blame the designers, who blame the model agencies, who blame those very magazines. The torch of responsibility is passed on quickly – hold it too long and it will burn.

Izzy of Misadventures of Me wrote a particularly insightful take on these matters.

A very singular ideal of beauty is subsequently promoted. It is young, slender, and – very sadly - often white. Beauty completely deserves to be celebrated, but in its wealth and diversity, rather than in banal similarity. Beauty can exist just as much in the grace (or disgrace!) of a seventy year old, as in a leggy, fresh-faced teenager. However, the current message is that only one type of beauty ensures approval – and that, as perfection does not exist, we all fall short. Germaine Greer in 'The Whole Woman' characterised it thus: “Every woman knows that, regardless of her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful... There must be bits of her that will not do, her knees, her buttocks, her breasts.”

We are encouraged to make up for these defects by the ‘beauty’ industry – an ironic name considering that it’s impossible to drastically alter your looks without recourse to plastic surgery. Instead it’s a business of ‘enhancement’. I’m writing this with my red lips pursed slightly, my kohl-lined eyes frowning at the screen. I have nothing against make-up – it’s part of the toolbox of dressing up, a paint-box, a further process of adornment. It can be fabulous. And yet, I also like the face that lies beneath those products. I don’t use make-up to hide my appearance, but to accentuate certain aspects. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to make yourself attractive to your peers or the opposite gender, as long as you do not define yourself solely by their responses. If the ‘real’ you must be concealed, moisturized and obscured then that’s not right. And yet the boundary line between something done for personal gratification, and something done due to certain expectations, is often hard to define.

Hair removal is just one example of this hard-to-define line. I only realised recently that my dislike of vests and sleeveless dresses stems from having armpits that resolutely refuse to be shaved properly – always retaining the faintest pin-pricks of stubble. It has taken several years to get the point where I don’t mind or fear some kind of judgement. If I’m honest, shaving of any kind is a tedious, time-consuming process. And yet, I prefer the look of my legs when they are smooth. I just resent the effort devoted to getting them to look that way, even if it’s only sporadic as they’re usually hidden away under tights. Removal of hair should be a personal choice, rather than a societal or peer-pressured expectation.

Perhaps this needs to be the defining question in any area relating to appearance – am I doing this for myself, or because I feel duty-bound? Will it improve my confidence, or do I feel confined? Is it an expectation, or something I enjoy? Of course such questions are much easier asked than answered, but maybe thinking about them is a move in the right direction. 

This is the third in my planned series of posts on feminism - but there will be a little hiatus before the fourth is ready to put up. Thank you so much to all those who have taken the time and energy to comment on these pieces. I'm grateful for the insight and depth of the observations and opinions that people have offered up. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Putting a Face to Male Feminism

One of the pleasures of a flourishing interest in feminism is conversation with other passionate, articulate individuals. One such person is my friend Merlin, who believes that feminism is “a subject that is as vast as it is important”. I found it hugely refreshing to find a similarly ardent feminist, particularly one who was male. They are still all too rare. Caitlin Moran declares that: “a male feminist is one of the most glorious end-products of evolution”, and I have to agree. I was delighted when Merlin agreed to discuss his opinions on a range of topics.

I started by asking him whether he was conscious of the way that being male has shaped his views on feminism, to which he replied that it “affects my ability to have a truly informed understanding of certain aspects”, whilst also observing that “I will never experience what living in a patriarchal society as a woman is like. I will never know what it feels like to be objectified in the manner that women are, and I will never know what it feels like to live in the knowledge that I may not only be abused or sexually assaulted but be blamed for it, and forced to admit that my actions were the cause”. This is a hugely sad, but very pertinent point – we still have a blame culture where victims may be deemed partly responsible. Although awareness of personal safety and responsibility is imperative, no one consciously invites or deserves abuse. A lower level of intimidation is demonstrated in the unpleasant catcalls and whistles aimed at any girl walking unaccompanied down the average British high street on a Saturday night. Car beeps and lewd comments are regular daytime occurrences too. Many men have little awareness of the implications of such low level sexism, due to – in Merlin’s opinion - it being “easy as a man, in a culture where the perceived ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t allow for weakness within their group, to simply go along with the attitudes of their peers.” Peer pressure is a phrase often associated with teenagers, but the extended version could be named ‘Peer Acceptability’ – an action being justified if everyone does it. Men like Merlin, who are instead willing to challenge the norm of it being “incredibly common for feminism to be laughed off… when the subject is brought up”, are admirable. It’s hard enough as a female feminist to field incredulous questions about supporting women’s rights and snide comments about things being too radical, so his observation of the “stigma” surrounding male feminism is unfortunately understandable. He concluded by questioning why it should be “so inherently un-manly to support feminism?” Certain assumptions about gender roles and responsibilities still exist – and it shows how misunderstood the word ‘feminism’ has become if many think it’s only applicable to women.

On the subject of current problems that feminism could consider tackling, Merlin referred to the “shamelessly misogynistic humour” promoted on websites such as UniLad. Their photos and posts appear on Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds regularly – ‘liked’ and ‘re-tweeted’ by both male and female. It was interesting that Merlin pinpointed the ‘lad’ culture as being “one of the more disturbing sides of sexism on the internet and in day-to-day culture”, as it’s an issue often by-passed or dismissed with the weak justification that it’s tongue-in-cheek. However, the attitudes promoted by such sites, he noted, are available to “thousands of impressionable young people” who see the crude, derogatory humour as worthy of celebration. It’s often shrugged off as being harmless ‘banter’, but Merlin argued that “it [glorifies] those… who actually treat women badly - it’s embarrassing, as much as anything else, but also terrifying seeing just how many men - and women, for that matter - are comfortable with the archaic and oppressive opinions they espouse”. He added that it is this subtle reinforcing of “women [as] a form of entertainment” that renders jokes about violence and domesticity so worrying. The ‘make me a sandwich’ line is as tired as a commuter on a 6am train, and the defensive response that it isn’t inherently sexist – but that boys fix things and girls cook – misses the point. It is not about the actual action, but the implication that one gender should be servile to another – and that it’s acceptable to make fun of this. Nastier still are rape jokes, which are socially acceptable to the point that ‘frape’ (‘Facebook rape‘ – also known as hacking a friend’s Facebook account) is a widely used term.

At the other end of the spectrum, Merlin pointed out the prevalence of ‘Nice Guy Syndrome’. This, he suggested, stems from “the entitlement complex” of certain men who assume that if they are lovely or supportive to a girl then this deserves ‘compensation’ in return. Merlin’s response was that: “if you’re a nice guy because you’re expecting a woman to reward you by sleeping with you, then you aren’t a nice guy. That’s not to say people aren’t led on from time to time, but to build up a friendship to the end of getting laid and then being furious when it doesn’t deliver is infantile.” This is a harder type of sexism to identify, perhaps because it is wrapped up in cotton wool layers of nice-ness. For example, the declaration that ‘women shouldn’t wear make-up because natural is beautiful’ may appear caring, but beneath such a statement there lies, in Merlin’s words, “endless implications that women’s appearance is one long effort to please their guy” - which “isn’t fair, and isn’t equality”. Eva Wiseman wrote a great piece about it here.

A more divisive topic is porn – particularly the impact that such readily accessible material has had on teenagers’ views of their bodies and sex. Merlin acknowledged that “porn accentuates the desire for the ‘ideal’ woman’s body”. That ideal appears to be hairless, well endowed and submissive. Such ideals aren’t exclusive to porn though. Merlin suggested that unattainable fantasies are held up by “pretty much every single form of popular media we are surrounded by”. This barrage of visual stimuli, whether in adverts, films or websites, suggests that women (and men) aren’t enough as they are – particularly when it comes to appearance. He also observed that other factors have contributed to a warping of perception: “[TV series] Skins actually holds several good examples - season one, episode one, for instance,” where a character says, “’Sid’s got to lose his virginity before his sixteenth birthday or he can’t be my friend any more, obviously’. At least with porn it’s adults doing adult things… in a setting that is usually completely unbelievable.” By contrast, the purported reality of Skins suggests to adolescents that sex (alongside excessive hedonism and drug taking) is something to aspire to, whatever the cost or consequence.

Feminism is a huge subject. It’s a multi-layered, multi-purpose concept that sprawls in all directions. This can perhaps be confusing or overwhelming for someone new to feminism and the ideas behind it – particularly if it is not something passed down by family or close friends. However, I can definitely agree with Merlin in his final sentiment: “The definition of the word has got to, one way or another, be a conclusion that each individual reaches through their own research and self-analysis - by figuring out exactly what about feminism speaks to you… whichever sex you are.”

Thanks to Merlin for such thoughtful answers. He’s also a great music journalist whose work can be read here, and you can find him on twitter at @merlinthegrey.