Sunday, 12 November 2017

You've Got To Be You

Around this time last year I was at a charity quiz when another woman at the table scoffed at me for knowing the answer to a question about a reality television star. Scoffed, in fact, I feel is an understatement. She humiliated me in front of the entire team by making a huge deal about how I should be embarrassed to know the answer to that, that I should be spending my time on more worthwhile things so that I don't know the answer to such empty questions. She made me feel stupid and pointless, and that feeling stayed with me.

As it happens I don't know how I knew the answer to that question. I've never actually watched the show that she's from. Some things are just absorbed from life, I think. I always remember my tiny cousin picking up her pretend phone once and saying "no I just want to cancel my direct debit before it comes out on Tuesday." Perfect context. Perfect sense. From a three year old. Absorbed from life.

Similarly earlier in the year I had family over for a barbecue and we had a music channel on. At some point in the evening the music stopped and a show started. My dad asked what it was and three of us replied "Keeping Up with the Kardashians."

"Never seen it." He replied.

"Me neither," the three of us who had known what it was said. But somehow we all knew who each member of the family was and what was going on in their personal lives.

Anyway, the humiliating dressing down I got from that woman has stayed with me all year. How can I help what I know? If I don't know something that I definitely should then perhaps I need to start reading more or popping the news on every night. But how can I help what I do know?

I, like most people I imagine, am trying my best. I'm trying my best to be kind, intelligent and involved. To be the best I can be at being a friend and a sister, a daughter and a wife, at my job and- most recently- at being a mum. At spending my time wisely.

Then, of course, there are the wider issues. As I get older I have to be concerned not only about my world- about being good to the people I listed above, but I also have to worry about my effect on the environment, my stance and actions in making a difference toward those less privileged than I am, and about how my stance and actions as a woman affect the future of women.

And I'm trying my best.

 But in this big outburst about my knowledge of someone from TOWIE I suddenly felt that I wasn't doing well enough. Not at being intelligent, not at spending my time wisely, and most significantly- not at being the kind of woman that I am meant to be.

I'm the kind of person who always wants to do the right thing, who truly hates to be thought of as stupid, boring, or thoughtless and- again, like most people, I think- worries far too much about what others think. So I want to stand up for women. I want to fight for our rights. I want to be confident enough to take action when I know I'm being treated unfairly because I'm a woman. I want to be fully aware of how much easier I have it as a woman because of my background, and I want to be able to say and do the right things to action change for those it might not be as easy for.

Which I think is why I battle with any suggestion that I'm stupid. How am I supposed to do all of those things if I am?

I don't yet have the confidence to provide a quick and cutting reply to anyone who makes me feel stupid, but thanks to my friend Simba I made a fantastic discovery this year that means that I'm much further along the road in being able to.

A few months ago Simba introduced me to The Guilty Feminist. The Guilty Feminist is a podcast that- in their own words- explores our noble goals as twenty-first century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities which undermine them. In my words, they're incredible women discussing a wide range of topics whilst acknowledging the fact that real life every day feminists are not what they are often made out to be. Every podcast starts with 'I'm a feminist but...', which involves the presenters explaining the guilty non-feminist things they did/said/thought that week. Mine is usually something along the lines of 'I'm a feminist but...I listen to a podcast about feminism whilst I clean the house and my husband sits on his computer.'

And it's amazing. It turns out women all over the globe feel exactly the same as I do. They really do want to be incredible women who have the ability to change the world around them and beyond through their attitudes and actions, but sometimes it's not as straightforward as some media may have you believe. Sometimes, for example, who you are can hold you back from fulfilling the traditional picture of a feminist.

I've always been led to believe- by the kind of women who put other women down for being able to recognise a celebrity- that to be a feminist you have to look and act a particular way. I have always felt that I wasn't quite welcome in that club because I've always wanted to get married and have a baby. I spend money on make up and care how I look. I like pumpkin spice lattes and know every single episode of Friends off by heart and no matter how much I enjoy thrillers I would always rather be watching Bridget Jones. I love Disney and still know most of the Steps dance routines and have been known to tear up just thinking about an advert.

That girl can't be a feminist, right?

Then I started listening to this podcast. One week they started discussing the fact that anything traditionally liked by 14 year old girls is mocked, seen as a bit pathetic. One woman said she actually quite likes Justin Bieber, and that fact doesn't mean that she hasn't read To Kill a Mockingbird. Why shouldn't the same person be able to enjoy and partake in completely different things? Why should anything aimed at a teenage girl be a 'guilty pleasure'? Why can't it just be enjoyed? Why should I be ashamed of answering a charity quiz night question correctly? Does that undo any questions I answered correctly about politics? Of course it doesn't. But for some reason it took these impressive women discussing it for that to click into place for me.

A few weeks later they were discussing the idea of being 'fabulous' as a feminist. They discussed the fact that there can sometimes be a feeling in feminism that you have to be dowdy in appearance rather than feminine. They were saying that it's one thing to dress and make yourself up in a way that's forced because it's how somebody else looks or how you think you should look, but it's another to take an interest in clothes and make up and in a way that enables you to genuinely express yourself. That's all well and good, I thought, if you are a flamboyant person who expresses themselves with bright lipstick and a feather boa. Then it's clear you're expressing yourself. But what if your genuine, deep down, personal style is relatively boring like mine? 

And that's when a voice chimed in: 'Some people's self expression is expressed in a stereotypical feminine way, and that shouldn't be derided.' And another light bulb went on in my head. My appearance is self expression because I wouldn't feel like myself if I were to dress any other way. I've noticed recently that there are lots of girls in Chelmsford with messy high blonde pony tails and big thick rimmed glasses and that they all look gorgeous. But I wouldn't try and conform to that because I wouldn't feel like myself.

They went on to discuss the fact that it is still okay for little girls to choose to dress up at princesses, despite the general feeling at the moment that the mum whose daughter is a superhero has 'won feminism.' My memory of being little and my experience with children tells me that they dress up as something different every day- sometimes throughout the day. As an adult working with children I've been known to dress as a princess, a zombie, a dinosaur, a a girl in a superhero outfit may well- probably will, in fact- be a princess tomorrow and a dinosaur the next. Everyone's a winner. And that's my guilt at quite liking princesses banished.

What I have finally realised is the fact that I know what's comfortable for me and always style myself that way is my way of expressing myself. The fact that I know that I love American sitcoms and syrupy coffee and am excited to be a mum but also want to be a writer and see the world change for minorities and read about Irish history absolutely do not need to be contradictory.

I excitedly expressed all of this to a friend who replied "the whole POINT of feminism is that it is inclusive and nobody is lesser or more 'equal', whatever the hell that might mean. It's so much more feminist to like and love what you do and who you are than to live in judgement of others."

I've always felt this way- that I'm not quite in the feminist club because of my relatively feminine, and often predictable, nature, but what I have finally accepted is that that is inherently who I am- a feminine feminist, and no amount of judgement from others should change that. I also think that surely the most important thing of all for women to be in with a chance is for us to boost one another up, respect one another and shout about how wonderful the women around us are. Telling each other that we're not allowed in the Boosting Women Club because we dress or eat or spend our time a certain way is, of course, ridiculous.

I'm just delighted that I had this sudden epiphany exactly one week before I went into labour with my daughter- who will now be brought up as a guilt-free guilty feminist. By day. And whichever superhero she wants by night. Even if it's Cinderella. Or a dinosaur.

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