Memories of Calais

I wrote this in June of this year, before the demolition of the camp in October 2016. With all of the misconceptions surrounding Calais and refugees in recent weeks, I decided to post it, to shed a small light on a profoundly misunderstood subject.

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Like so many people, I have been shocked to watch the daily news reports about the ongoing refugee crisis that is currently occurring across parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. So, in the spring of this year, I decided to research how to go about volunteering in the so-called ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, located near the port of Calais in northern France. The camp has existed in one form or another for some years, but has become increasingly well known during the last 18 months as the population has soared. In March of this year the south side of the camp was demolished, forcing thousands of refugees to migrate to the smaller north side – which has led many people to erroneously believe that the camp no longer exists. It is still very much in existence, only now with a higher concentration of people living in a much smaller area.

Eventually, after much research, I came across Care4Calais, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance by distributing essential items such as clothing, bedding and food, to the more than 5,000 refugees currently living there. After contacting the charity to offer my help, in May of this year, armed with a car load of donations from the ever-generous people of Nottingham (including some Nottingham Forest attire), and with the biggest pile of blankets you have ever seen (purchased with the money I raised via my JustGiving page), I found myself on a one-woman road-trip to Calais.

When you arrive at Care4Calais, the first thing that happens is a morning briefing and a cup of tea (hurrah! Although sadly not Yorkshire Gold…). Then the morning is spent sorting through donations, organising boxes of items, preparing the van to take it to the camp for the afternoon distribution. The afternoon distribution happens at the same time every day, from a large industrial container owned by the charity, situated in the centre of the camp. It is an intense and often exhausting job, and is a harsh reminder of the reality of what the people of the camp are living: standing in line for hours, in the hope of getting a toothbrush, a pair of shoes, or a waterproof jacket to withstand the brutal storms of the north coast of France (it is freezing in Calais!). Seeing men of my father’s age queuing up for every-day items that we simply take for granted was an extremely humbling sight for me.

The camp itself is divided into two sections – a large section for men and unaccompanied boys (minors, the majority of whom have travelled alone from countries as far away as Afghanistan) and a smaller government-controlled section for women and children. The majority of people in the camp are young men between the ages of 18-35. Despite what is often reported in the media, it is not a camp comprised solely of Syrian refugees – there are men and women from a wide range of countries, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Libya. This means that there are a whole host of languages being spoken, although the most widely spoken are Arabic, Pashto and Farsi. It is the ultimate hybrid of peoples. This is part of a journal entry that I made one week into my trip; “Today I was sat outside an Eritrean make-shift church, talking to a Pakistani man, watching a group of Afghan men play cricket for hours non-stop; not far away a group of Sudanese men were playing football. A small Syrian boy was digging in the sand with one of the volunteers. In the distance there was the sound of the call to prayer, as men made their way to the make-shift mosque…”

On my second day of volunteering, I was asked to take a child to hospital (ambulances will not enter the camp). He was a fourteen year old unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan who could not speak a word of either English or French. Unfortunately, his condition meant that he was forced to stay in hospital for two weeks, so one of the other volunteers and I began visiting him each evening, to see how he was doing and also to keep him company. Days are long when you are alone in a hospital bed, with no one to talk to. Eventually we realised that there were other refugees in the hospital, and so we started to do the same for them. Despite the language barrier, I think they were happy to see a familiar face each day, and even happy for the poorly pronounced, “as-salamu alaikum” that greeted them.

The same volunteer and I also set up an arts and crafts afternoon in the main community tent; it became extremely popular during my time there, and was a great way for volunteers to spend time with the refugees doing something that was more than just ‘charity’; something that meant we could all be normal together – or as normal as one can be in such a situation. It was also a good opportunity for us to help the refugees with their English (they were all very eager to practice!) and, for me, to put my one year of Arabic study to the test! I am not ashamed to admit that I did want to give myself a high five whenever I recognised a word or a phrase, but I managed to keep the self-congratulations to myself. My attempts at other languages were less successful – I must confess that one of the Afghan refugees found my attempt to speak Pashto amusing to say the least – he actually laughed in my face!

After a few days of volunteering, the camp begins to feel very familiar and the people living there become friends. Friends who will offer you the little they have to make you feel welcome – inviting volunteers to drink tea or eat with them (FYI Afghan food is truly a supreme cuisine), to talk about what life was like for them back home, or just to chat about the every-day things, like football and Leicester City winning the premier league. I even found myself warming to the idea of cricket – I have never been fussed by it, always found it rather boring and uneventful (yeah, I said it). However, watching an Afghan cricket match on a barren wasteland in the camp felt like watching a football match back home, mainly owing to all of the drama and excitement. But I think the most humbling moment of all for me was when I was forced to stay in hospital myself overnight: I woke up to discover that one of the refugees had walked from the camp to the hospital to visit me, just to check that I was alright – it is a two hour walk each way.

I took so much away from this experience, and I would encourage anyone who would like to support refugees of Calais to check out the Care4Calais website (or any of the other humanitarian organisations working in Calais) for ways you can help. The ‘Jungle’ is just 20 miles from our shores, and yet when you spend time there, you feel like it cannot be that you are just 20 miles from home; surely this is not Europe? But it is. You really can make such a difference, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant the task – each volunteer plays their part to keep the wheels in motion. I found that almost none of the pre-conceptions that I had about the camp (obtained principally from the media) were true – I am so glad that I spent the time seeing what it is really like, and how we can help, in all of our small ways. I look forward to going back again.

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VOTE – FOR WOMEN!

Voting on 7th May will be the most feminist thing you will do this year.

It’s hard to muster up some enthusiasm to vote in an election that sees the race, once again, being fought by three middle-class white men of varyingly privileged backgrounds. In itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, providing we can trust the aforementioned three to represent all of us, including women. Now, I don’t know about anyone else but I am yet to recover from the horror of watching my Prime Minister tell a female Member of Parliament to ‘calm down dear’. That was four years ago, and whilst these days David Cameron may be a smidge more media savvy and perhaps a trifle more aware of the issues relating to gender equality (in that he knows when and how to drop key terms into televised conversation), I think it’s fair to say that, overall, little has changed since then. Today, as I type this, there are currently 148 female MPs in the House of Commons, constituting a dismal percentage of just 22.7% of all MPs. Hang on, let’s just pause on that for a minute:

We are 50% of the population and we constitute less than 25% of our elected representatives.

Half the people, not even one quarter of our representatives.

I don’t know about you, but I call serious bullshit. But then again, when your Prime Minister cannot even treat you as an equal in your place of work, is it any wonder that more women aren’t chewing at the bit to enter that most brutal – and mostly male – world of politics?

To be fair to D-Cam, it’s not much better on the other side of the ideological pendulum. Should you dare to cast a glance across the floor of the chamber you will find one party who thinks it is okay to try and appeal to the female population by touring Britain in a bright pink bus; the other is led by an MP who, a few months ago, hopped aboard a bandwagon when he donned a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt – unfortunately, the seemingly newfound feminism lived and died in a day. Perhaps the slogan came out in the wash. Whatever. Suffice to say that not one of the main three has done a jot to fill me with confidence that maybe, just maybe, they will break with tradition and – dare I say it – put women’s rights at the top of their agenda. Or even on the damn agenda.

Since the dawn of the Lib-Con era back in 2010, things haven’t exactly been great for women and there have been countless analyses that have pointed to the gendered inequality of the so called ‘austerity measures’* (*euphemism of the decade!). As early as 2012 the Fawcett Society published a report entitled The Impact of Austerity on Women where they highlighted that women in Britain were in fact facing a ‘triple jeopardy’; i.e. were ‘being hit in three key ways a result of the deficit reduction measures’:

            Women are being hit hardest by cuts to public sector jobs, wages and pensions
            Women are being hit hardest as the services and benefits they use more are cut
            Women will be left ‘filling the gaps’ as state services are withdrawn        

Do a quick Google search using the words “women” and “austerity” and you’ll see that general opinion is that little has changed since the Fawcett report of three years ago. But, austerity aside, if you still aren’t convinced that an inherent and entrenched gender inequality exists in this country, just look at statistics:

1. In the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the UK fell out of the top 20 most gender-equal countries in the world for the first time after average wages for women in the workplace fell by £2,700 in a year. Between 2006 – 2014, the UK went from 9th to 26th place in world rankings. Furthermore, in that same period, the UK went backwards in each the four key categories used by the WEF to assess gender equality:

              Economic participation: from 37th to 46th
              Educational attainment: from 1st to 32nd
              Health and survival: from 63rd to 94th
              Political empowerment: from 12th to 33rd

2. The UK is experiencing a domestic violence crisis. One in four women is abused during their lifetime; one in nine is severely physically abused each year; two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. The numbers speak for themselves. You can sign a petition here to ask the government to step up and do something about it.

3. A 2013 bulletin published by Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Home Office, recorded that approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. 1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) have experienced sexual violence since the age of 16. That is 20% of women aged 16 – 59. Next time you’re in a tube carriage with at least 20 women, you can go ahead and assume that four of those women have experienced sexual violence.

4. In 2013, despite the fact that women constituted 42% of the workforce and 55% of university graduates, women were still less likely than men to be associated with leadership positions in the UK: accounting for 22% of MPs and peers, 20% of university professors, 6.1% of FTSE 100 executive positions, and 3% of board chairpersons. So, despite the fact that women are being encouraged to lean in (see Sheryl Sandberg’s awesome book), that silly old glass ceiling just keeps on getting in the damn way.

5. A 2013 report by Girlguiding found that three quarters of the young women surveyed (aged between 11 – 21) said that sexism affected ‘most areas of their lives’. Depressingly, 87% said that women were judged more on their appearance than their ability. These are the women of tomorrow, they deserve better than this.

So, women, can we change this? Of course we can! How?

1. Register to vote and encourage others to do the same. Now. You can do that here.

2. Research. I don’t mean that you have to trawl through the manifestos of every listed party – realistically, most people do not have time to do this and, let’s face it, by the time you have filtered out the jargon and hyperbole, there is very little of substance for those of us who are numb to politic-speak. What you can do in a relatively short space of time is look for the candidates who are putting women on the map; be it through proposed changes to education, employment, the gender pay gap (keystat alert – it’s at 16%), the legal system (keyword alert – rape, sexual harassment & the law), reproductive rights, the rights of rape/sexual abuse/harassment victims, the rights of ethnic minority women, refugee women, LGBT women – whatever the cause, find it, educate yourself about it and support those who are trying to make a change. If you can’t vote for someone because they are not seeking election in your constituency, make sure that those who can vote for them know that they can. Share the hell out of information on social media, make sure everyone in your social media circle is aware of the people (women and men) out there who are trying to make a difference for women. THESE are the people who need your vote. THESE are the people who will shape the future of women – either by their presence, or by their absence, in our next parliament. Don’t know where to start? Contact your nearest women’s centre.

3. Make it your mission to encourage at least one other woman to vote. AT LEAST ONE.

4. Stay informed. When the election is over, women will still have a long way to go in this country, but the more aware we are, the more empowered we are. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.

5. Encourage others to get informed, including men. Men need to know this shit too.

Apathy is easy, but it is dangerous. Apathy leads to half arsed elections where people we don’t know take seats in constituencies we can’t even pinpoint on a map. It leads to a chamber of 650 people making decisions on your behalf – and the kicker is you didn’t even get a say in deciding who gets to speak for you. Put it this way, would you buy a house without looking around first? Hire a defence lawyer that you’d never even met? Consent to a medical procedure that you didn’t understand? No? Tell me again why you are happy to let everyone else decide the future of the country you live in, because they voted and you didn’t. One vote might not change the world, but 9.1 million will – and that is how many women who, despite being eligible to vote in the 2010 General Election chose not to go to the ballot box that day. 9.1 million can change an election and can change a country – imagine how different things might have been if those 9.1 million had voted five years ago. Now imagine how different things could be if those 9.1 million took the time to put an ‘x’ in a box on 7th May.

Seriously, it is time we put an end to our perception of politics as the Great Male Game. Ladies, this is our House too – we own half of it, we pay for it with our taxes, we pay for it with the millions of unpaid hours that we work raising children and keeping homes. THIS IS OUR HOUSE TOO. MAKE IT A HOUSE THAT WORKS FOR WOMEN.

One final thing, to celebrate women in politics (both the voters and the candidates) consider wearing an awesome Suffragette sash when you go to cast your vote on 7th May. Just for the hell of it – why the heck not?!

VOTE – FOR WOMEN!

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In which a sceptic takes up Yoga

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When it comes to yoga, I have never really been convinced. If I’m entirely honest, I had always thought it was nothing more than some fancy stretching done by those lucky enough to have the surplus time and money to do fancy stretching. Here in the Western hemisphere, perceptions of the practice are often skewed by the kind of nauseating marketing that paints a picture of yoga as some kind of plinky-plonky, wind-chimes & scented candles affair; a hippy-ish pretentious fitness-fad masquerading as a mystical and exotic philosophy from far off lands – a distorted version of the original. From my uninformed (and, admittedly, blinkered) perspective, it was all a bit too cliché, with far too much emphasis on ‘being at one with yourself’ – preferably whilst sitting/standing/posing next to a large body of water. The fact that countless celebrities have, for some time, taken to spouting on about how yoga has worked wonders for their body/mind/life in general, has made me even more reluctant to try it.

I first tried yoga a couple of years ago, in the comfort of my own home, using a highly-recommended DVD. Whilst the workout was very good (and tough – certainly made me sweat), I must admit that I never really got to the point where I was feeling totally relaxed – mainly because the whole thing moved very quickly (poses were done in a sequence, the purpose being that you do a ‘circuit’ of poses in quick succession) and didn’t really leave much time for relaxation. I have since learned that I was, in fact, doing what the yogis call Ashtanga Yoga and, as it turns out, Ashtanga Yoga is not for me. Saying that, matters were hardly helped by the overall DVD experience: a yoga pro + unnamed celeb getting their stretch on surrounded by a truly tacky and cringe-worthy set: utopian Himalayan hideaway, strewn with lots of bamboo and greenery – because, you know, it’s all about being at one with life, nature, the earth, and everything. Or something like that. The plinky-plonky music that played throughout served no other purpose but to piss me off – I was trying so hard to get my relax on, but all I could hear were the whistles of the windpipes. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good windpipe, and I love a bit of Enya when I’m feeling particularly Bronte-esque, but I have my limits. And when I am desperately trying to clear my mind of the toxicities that make up modern life, the last thing I want is to listen to what can only be described as Now That’s What I Call Windpipes – on repeat. To sum up, I found the whole thing a trifle irritating and a smidge up its own arse. So I decided then and there that yoga really wasn’t for me after all.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I did the Insanity programme for the first time (if you haven’t done it, do it, I maintain that it is one of the best purchases of my life); I was surprised to find that the programme incorporates quite a few yoga poses, especially in the warm up/warm down sections. There is even an entire week of yoga/stretching sessions midway through the programme. If you’ve been lucky enough to try out Insanity, or any of Shaun T’s workout programmes, you will know that Shaun T is a fitness machine. Seriously, if I was rich and famous enough, I would hire him as my personal trainer, he is that good. So the fact that he seemed to be wholeheartedly flying the flag for yogis everywhere did make me a bit curious, and I began to wonder if I had judged Yogadom a bit too harshly. Perhaps it wasn’t all headstands by a waterfall after all?

The final push that saw me take the yoga plunge was, in fact, a bad back. I have had back problems, on and off, since I was a teenager. This past year or so my back problems have been most definitely ON. Each morning, upon waking, I am unable to just get out of bed in the normal way (ie. sit up and get up). Instead, to avoid painful jabbing sensations, I am forced to do a very bizarre kind of tuck-and-roll movement to propel me out of the bed. As you can imagine, it’s totally elegant and dignified. This is invariably followed by the gentle hobble down the stairs as my back slowly wakes up, one vertebra at a time; all the while I am tentatively taking the softest of steps so as not to suddenly jar my spine. It’s just not a good look for me. Crucially, the whole thing prevents me from being able to get my Beyoncé swag on when I walk down the street, strutting to ***Flawless.

 So to get to the point, I eventually sign up for a yoga class here in Nottingham and find myself sitting on a mat of a cold Wednesday evening in March, doing all kinds of wonderful things to lengthen my spine – and that was just for starters. There were standing poses, crouching poses, lying-on-the-floor poses, all kinds of poses! It was fantastic! And, whilst I have limited (read zero-to-none) flexibility at the moment, there were modified versions of each of the poses for those of us who were just starting out and/or carrying an injury. It helped a great deal that the instructor, Emma, is amazing. She has an incredibly visual way of describing what each pose entails, taking time to correct the smallest things, so that every person in the room can get the maximum benefit from their one and half hour slot. She encourages you work to your own level and within your comfort zone; there is no goal but your own, and that in itself is a big relief. Emma’s teaching style means that we have the time to really observe what is happening to our body with each pose, to be in tune with our body in a way that does not require windpipes or mountain scenery or a lake. It’s about finding the calm in your own body, in your own time, and that is pretty cool.

The class ended with five minutes of pure relaxation and I’m not in the least bit ashamed to confess that I was close to nodding off, I was just so fricking relaxed. I walked home feeling wonderful, feeling positive and feeling just really quite alive. I’d go so far as to say that I felt lifted – in an awesome, Lighthouse Family kind of way. My back had a looseness to it that I have not felt for months and, as a result, I felt relaxed all over, and could even walk a little taller. When I got home I fired up Denzel (my laptop, not THE Denzel) and started reading up on Iyengar yoga (the type of yoga that Emma teaches) and even started sifting through some books so that I might get into my yoga zone at home from time to time. I was hooked – after 90 mins! The best bit? When I woke up the next day, there was no tuck-and-roll sequence, no tip-toeing down the stairs; I bounced out of bed with a spring in my step and felt not one iota of pain, for the first time in well over a year – and I cannot even begin to explain how happy that made me! 🙂

Conclusion: to do yoga you do not need windpipes or bamboo, you don’t need to be perched on a mountain or meditating by a river. It’s not about that, it’s about you and your body and your time. You just need to find the right type of yoga for you, and the right instructor – what are you waiting for?

Becoming Mrs Someone Else: What’s in a name?

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A piece I wrote for Vagenda Magazine in August 2014
(‘name n. A word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others….’)

In recent years, as I have watched more and more of my peers shuffle off into marriage, one thing that never fails to fascinate me is that age old question relating to what happens to the bride’s surname after the big ‘I do’. I am not ashamed to admit that there have been many times when I have been scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed only to become slightly baffled upon stumbling across a post by someone I don’t know. This is then always followed up with a slight twang of – dare I say it – disappointment, when I realise that, actually, I do know them. They just got married. So, as a perpetual fan of the question mark, I think it’s time we started to really question why it is that we choose (and it is a choice) to hold on to a tradition that dates back to a time when women were – figuratively and literally – the property of men. So, is it really a harmless tradition, or an outdated nod to the patriarchy?

My surname follows the Hispanic naming tradition whereby the child takes both the father’s and the mother’s surname. Everyone has two surnames that last from birth until death, women do not change their names when they get married, and neither do men. When a couple decides to have a child, it is accepted that each parent will pass on one of their surnames (traditionally the first surname which, in Spanish speaking countries, is the paternal line) – so that their child will also have two surnames. For example, Should John Smith marry Mary Jones, their child would become Baby Smith Jones. No hyphen, no changes, no merger names (Smones/Jonith etc) – just two names.

I like this tradition for two reasons: firstly, at no point is anyone required to change their name. Secondly, children bear the name of both parents – no parent is overlooked. Should I one day decide to have a child, hell will experience an ice age of truly epic proportions before I allow said child to pass through her/his existence without my surname (although quite how I will choose which of my surnames to pass on, I have no idea, perhaps I’ll put them in a hat).  I recognise, however, that this system is not perfect – tradition dictates that it is the male/paternal lines that are passed down through generations (interestingly, the Portuguese/Brazilian system does the opposite in that it is the maternal lines that are passed down). In an attempt to redress the imbalance of the Spanish system, I always told myself that, if I were to ever become a writer, my pen-name would be a tribute to my grandmothers’ surnames. It’s a workaround at best.

For reasons that go above and beyond my feminism, I have always struggled with the concept that, just because you decide to legally and/or spiritually align yourself with someone for the rest of your life, you are suddenly given a new identity. This is not just an issue for me as a woman, it is an issue for me as an individual. I recognise that such an attachment to one’s name is not universal, and I recognise that it is, perhaps, owing to cultural influences on my father’s side, that I attribute so much to it. But, cultural traditions aside (I see no value in tradition for tradition’s sake), I absolutely and categorically reject the idea that, should I ever decide to get married, it follows that I will change my surname.

For me, I would consider it to be disrespectful to my parents, my grandparents and, crucially, myself, if I chose to erase or alter something that is so fundamentally a part of who I am – my name. Sure, part of me likes the fact that my bizarre name reflects my cultural cocktail of a background, and yes I like that it’s unique (Facebook has confirmed that there is no one else with my name out there), but mainly I like it because it is mine and because it connects me to the people I love. It has been the most constant and unchanging thing in my life – it never changes, never alters, I knew my name before I knew anything else. And it’s just not something I am willing to part with.

Of course, I am fortunate in that I have a family that I love wholeheartedly, so that I would never want to be disassociated from them, and I can understand (particularly in cases of estrangement, abuse etc.) when people decide to change their names for reasons that are unrelated to marriage. Or even when someone just chooses to take on a completely different name: I know of someone who changed his surname to that of his favourite author and I applaud his choice because it was a choice that he made about his name and his identity. It wasn’t a name that was assigned to him, it was an autonomous decision.

The concept of adopting your husband’s surname is an issue particularly for women of the English speaking world, wherein the tradition is to take your husband’s name upon marriage. At school, I remember girls writing their first names alongside the surname of their boyfriend/crush/favourite pop star – their own surname sent to dust – to test whether or not the names ‘matched’. Of course, you can argue that this is all harmless fun, and to an extent that may be true. However, when innocent childhood fantasies about becoming Mrs Justin Timberlake translate into adult decisions about becoming Mrs [insert husband’s name here], it becomes less harmless and more deserving of scrutiny. It is odd to me that we accept so easily the concept of becoming Mrs Someone Else, without ever questioning why.

In Greece, the tradition of changing one’s surname at the point of marriage was made illegal in 1983 and the surname of any children is made as a collective decision between the parents; it can be that of the mother, father or both. That was 31 years ago, and yet I am writing this article as a British woman, knowing that my view is a minority one in my country. Ours is a tradition that baffles many outsiders looking in, including an Iranian friend of mine (in Iran women are legally not permitted to change their surname when they marry): ‘In my country you can’t leave the country without your husband’s permission, but you have your name. We haven’t got freedom but you keep your identity. Women here [in the UK] have so much freedom…. but they change their names?’

There are flaws in every system, and Greece and Iran are no exceptions. I, for one, am not proposing that we legislate against women changing their names upon marrying – history shows us that the legislation of identity treads dangerous waters – but I am suggesting that the tone of discussion start to change, so that instead of asking, ‘why shouldn’t I change my name?’ we ask ourselves, ‘why should I change my name?’ What do we stand to gain? What do we stand to lose?

When it comes to issues relating to gender equality, I try to apply my own personal feminist litmus test, consisting of two key questions:

Would we accept the same rule if it were applied to men? For example, when I am asked if, as a lifelong follower of football, I understand the offside rule (cue eye-roll). My response is always, without exception, ‘would you ask me this question if I were a man?’

Would we accept the same rule if it were applied to any other social, economic or political (non-gender specific) group? For example, when people choose to dismiss sexist and misogynistic jokes/comments/actions as ‘banter’; would we be so quick to dismiss racist, homophobic or xenophobic behaviour, in the name of ‘banter’?

If the answer to one or both of these questions is ‘no’, there is a high chance that we are looking at behaviours and/or assumptions reserved exclusively for women, because they are women. If we apply the same questions to the issue of surnames, the conclusion I reach is that this is a custom that applies to women, because they are women and, therefore, warrants careful critical analysis.

I know that many women choose to adopt their husband’s name for the sake of their future children, in order to maintain some kind of familial unity by name. This (societal) assumption that my children will have someone else’s name, but not my own, is simply not something I can accept. Why should my (or any) child’s surname automatically default to being that of their father? Is his name somehow more important than mine? (If your answer here is ‘yes’, are you suggesting that he is somehow more important than me?) Given that his contribution to the child’s gene-pool will be no greater than mine; given that I would elect to play quite a substantial role in the upbringing of said child; and given that the child would be legally assigned to me (either via a nine month camp-out en utero, or via adoption), I am somewhat reluctant to let my contribution to this hypothetical human go unnoticed.

As for it being a way in which to unite a family – will a name ensure that a family stays together? Will it guarantee a happy and fulfilling family life and home? No. Divorce rates tell us otherwise. I venture that love and commitment would be a better, and more reliable, method. Can we not be united together as human beings, without becoming one another? In the words of a friend, “why would I want to be Mrs Him?”

I would encourage all women to think carefully before shedding their own name. My own view, however, does not extend to criticising or thinking less of women who do choose to adopt their husband’s name. I may not understand their choice, but I wholeheartedly respect that it is their choice. And that is what counts – the choice – be you a feminist or not. There is no right or wrong answer, and yes you can be a feminist and take your husband’s name. As feminists, we have long fought against society’s patriarchal expectations of us as women, against a gender-hierarchy that forces women to accept decisions made, not by us, but on our behalf, so let us not start telling one another what to do. The choice is yours to make, and yours alone.

As for me, I was born with a double-barrelled name, and – notwithstanding some bizarre circumstance where I end up in a witness protection programme – I intend to die with that same double-barrelled name. Unhyphenated, unaltered, unchanged. What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

– See more at: http://vagendamagazine.com/2014/08/becoming-mrs-someone-else-whats-in-a-name/#sthash.jVoArGag.dpuf

70 Years: Auschwitz and Holocaust Remembrance Day

Several years ago, my friend and I visited Auschwitz. I did not upload any photos at the time, I felt that the entire experience was too personal, too harrowing, for social media. Today, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, it seems appropriate to share something.

I would not be the first person to say that, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, is a day that a person cannot easily forget. There aren’t words to describe how you feel standing there, in the eye of a history that we think we understand. My friend and I had actually met during university, when both of us signed up to a module about war crimes & crimes against humanity. There were three of us in total – friends who had met because of our common interest in the horrors of history. You think you know so much about it – until you are standing there and realise you know nothing at all.

So I am sharing some photos from that day. I have decided against sharing any photos of personal artefacts such as spectacles, shoes, shaving brushes, etc.; for some reason it wouldn’t seem right. It would also feel wrong for me to share the images of suitcases, suitcases with the names of so many written in white, painted on the upper side – their owners had believed that they would one day be returned to them. It is all there, there to be seen, right there in a small town in Poland. And if you are ever presented with an opportunity to visit this place, I would recommend that you consider it, if just so you know that it is so much more than you think. It is not a photo, a poem or a film. It is history. And history is now.

Today, on the 27th January 2015, I think it only fitting that we should all make an effort to educate ourselves about Auschwitz. And not just today, but every single day. And not just this Auschwitz, but every Auschwitz. Every horror. It is important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this has been consigned to history. It hasn’t. There are massacres of human beings occurring right now, as you read this. So read the newspaper and get educated. Use social media to know more about this planet and its inhabitants. Read a book, read 50, then 50 more. Notice the parallels with the world that we live in and remember that an acorn of contempt is soon an epic structure of hate.

Hatred is a descendant of intolerance; and intolerance is itself a product of distrust. Distrust is the child of  suspicion, and suspicion the offspring of fear. It is the fear of difference. So ignore the difference, it is nothing. If you are looking into the eyes of a human being, ignore the difference. Remember that they are a human being, first and foremost. First and last.

Defending Beyoncé’s Feminism

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A piece I wrote for Vagenda Magazine in October 2014

There are some things that I will defend to the death: my family, my friends, my cat, my right to voice an opinion, my right to drink tea and watch EastEnders – you know, the universal stuff. Then there’s feminism. And Beyoncé.

In an article published this week Annie Lennox took it upon herself to question Beyoncé’s feminist credentials, dismissing B-Kno’s own particular brand as ‘feminism lite’. Clearly I was living in a cave the day that they made Annie Lennox the all knowing Supreme Leader of Feminism, deciding what and who fits the definition of feminism proper (or, to use her analogy, er, Full Fat Feminism…?)

As a Beyoncé fan, I’m about to get ***Flawless on this shit, but as a feminist I am just shaking my head in disappointment. Because this is just another example of one self-proclaimed feminist “calling out” another self-proclaimed feminist, telling her that she’s not quite up to the job of being a Proper Bona Fide Feminist. Then, last week in the Guardian, Roxane Gay also had a pop at “celebrity feminists.” I am just so sick of this.

One of the things that makes me proud to be a feminist is feminism’s commitment to the protection of identities, particularly the identities of minority and marginalised groups. We – quite rightly – defend the right of anyone to define their own sex, their own gender, and their own sexuality. We wouldn’t dream (or at least I hope we wouldn’t) of telling someone that they were ‘woman lite’, or ‘female lite’, or ‘lesbian lite’. That would be outrageous for many reasons, not least because, the beauty of identity is that it is defined by the owner first, and last. I don’t care if you are the brainchild of Germaine Greer, Emmeline Pankhurst and (my own hero) Jessica Valenti, but you have lost your mind if you think that I am about to sit here and let you tell me – or anyone else – that I am ‘less of  a feminist’ simply because I don’t fit your own specification criteria.

It pisses me off when people, especially women, start questioning how much of a feminist other women are. Doesn’t feminism have enough of a mountain to climb without the internal hating and face stabbing? Can’t we start propping each other up, instead of pulling each other down? Discussion and debate are crucial, of course – vive la difference! – but can we steer clear of this endless patronising condescension of others? And, let’s be clear about this: questioning the credentials of another woman’s feminism does not make you any more of a feminist. Beyoncé is a feminist for many reasons, but the most important of these is this: she is a feminist because she has told you that she is a feminist. Accept that.

So what is it that Lennox is alleged to have said? Apparently, her words were thus: ‘I would call [Beyonce’s feminism] ‘feminism lite’, L.I.T.E. I’m sorry. It’s tokenistic to me…’, before going on to say,I have issues with it. Of course I do…. I think what they do with it is cheap and … yeah. What can I tell you? Sex always sells.’

Is this the sound of a woman calling out another woman for what she is wearing? In 2014? Is this shit for real? You’re going to look at the most successful female artist in the world, who only one month ago beamed the word FEMINIST into the homes of millions of people around the world during her MTV VMA performance, and you’re going to start hating on her feminism, because she’s doing it in a leotard? Does that mean I am also less of a feminist when I am wearing a bikini on the beach? Am I only a feminist when I am fully clothed? Fuck this shit! Beyoncé may not be writing manifestos for the sisterhood or penning contributions to feminist academia, but let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that what she is doing – what she stands for – is any less significant. Academic snobbery needs to sod right off: if you really want to spread a feminist message to the masses, you need to look beyond learned professors and academics, because the truth of the matter is that most people do not read them. What most people do is listen to music, watch TV, and read magazines. And tell me, who has never had an idol? Beyoncé has been mine since circa 1997, and one of the BIG reasons this is the case is because she has always stood for women.

I remember how, at 14 years old, I was completely bowled over by the confidence of this girl who looks into the camera during No No No and sings, “What’s the problem, baby? Never had a girl like I?” At 16, I was listening to Hey Ladies in delighted disbelief (Sample lyric: “Hey ladies…. why is it that we never seem to just have the strength to leave?”) Then, there was Independent Women – this was the anthem of my late teens. Here was a girl, only a couple of years older than me, writing a song encouraging women to become – and stay – economically independent (“I pay my own fun … and I pay my own bills”). Encouraging women to rely on themselves alone (“depend on no one else to give you what you want”); to strive for equality in love (“always 50/50 in relationships”); and even to be their own sexual being (“when it’s all over, please get up and leave”). I could go on. Beyoncé was, in some way or another, there for most of my life – the teenage angst, the first relationship, the break up, the crises of confidence, bereavement, depression, the whole schubang.

So la Lennox doesn’t think B-Kno quite fits the feminist bill? Okay, let’s take this back to basics. Feminism is a belief in the ‘social, political and economic equality of the sexes’*, right? (*NB. It is worth noting that, thanks to an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk ‘We should all be feminists’, that appears on Beyoncé’s 2013 eponymous album, millions of album-purchasing consumers around the world are now familiar with this very definition…) Well then, let me count the ways.

Social equality of the sexes, you say?   

When I was at university, I lived with my aunt, uncle and my two little cousins – who just happen to be Two of My Favourite People In The World. I love them like they’re my sisters and I couldn’t be prouder of the women they have become: they are awesome. When they were little, we would often find ourselves dancing in the kitchen, shaking our butts and waving our arms to all of my favourite artists; Shakira (from the early days, pre-English language transition), Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake – and, of course, Destiny’s Child and Ms Beyoncé Knowles. That’s right, a 19 year old me and two little girls of just 5 and 8 having the time of our lives strutting our stuff to Independent Women whilst doing the dishes. A few years later, when I watch them practising their routines for their Hip Hop dance class, there is more than a little bit of Beyoncé in their attitude, in their personas, in their confidence. They love her, they look up to her, I’d even go so far as to say that they take on their very own Ms Sasha Fierce when they are on that stage.

When the younger of the two once said to me – before she was even a teenager – that she thought that her thighs were too big, how do you suppose I tried to reassure her? By giving a speech about how we, as girls and women, should strive to break free from the shackles of the patriarchy and its bullshit standards of beauty? No. Look at Beyoncé, I tell her. She has legs like you – they are not stick thin, they have muscles and curves and are all kinds of fabulous and strong! And isn’t that just so beautiful? A few months ago, her sister (by then a 19 year old student) told me that she had been sick with nerves because she had to give a presentation in front of her peers. Do you know how she changed her mindset? By asking herself what Beyoncé would do (answer: strut onto that stage like a goddess and make sure that every last person in that room was listening!) I shit you not. Needless to say, she did the presentation. These are small examples of how Beyoncé has impacted the lives of two little women that I love – they may not be academic examples, and they may not contain statistics demonstrating the feminisation of the masses, but to give two people that I love the kind of confidence that we would hope for all women, is a smidge more than feminism ‘lite’ to me.

And then there’s her band. Beyoncé has, for some years, toured with an all female band. The reason for this? Because she wants young women to see examples of other women playing – and owning (see Bibi McGill) – their own instruments. How many times have we seen a female artist flanked and propped up by an all-male (or nearly all-male) band? To see an-all female band, supporting a female artist is a very powerful message – this is literally sisters doing it for themselves. This is women in control of their own creativity, this is an all-woman cast selling out all-women shows around the world. This is a message to the hundreds of thousands of girls that go to any one of these shows: you too can own this stage. This is a socio-political message wrapped up in pop culture, and the message is loud and clear: a woman’s place is out in front, a woman’s place is at the top of the game, a woman’s place is taking control of her own career, her own work, a woman’s place is challenging the accepted status quo of male-dominated industries. A woman’s place is being the first solo female artist in over 20 years to headline one of the biggest music festivals in the world, whilst being 3 months pregnant and in the face of scepticism about her appearance at the altar of Glastonbury (get over yourselves, haters!) Women, go out, and own your shit.

What’s that? Political equality of the sexes?

Beyoncé is one of the founders (along with actress Salma Hayek Pinault and Frida Giannini) of the Chime For Change campaign: a global campaign that strives to fund projects working towards equality for girls and women in the areas of health, justice and education. A 2013 concert at Twickenham in London was beamed around the world, and was supported by politicians, activists and celebrities alike. Performances from some of the biggest artists on the planet were interspersed with video clips that sought to educate and increase awareness of the plight that women face at home and around the world. One video clip that will stay with me was that of a young woman who talked about being sexually assaulted on her way to work. Standing on a crowded tube, a man had masturbated himself up against her; it was only when she got to work that she realised that she had semen on the back of her legs. Twickenham stadium fell silent. When Beyoncé herself appeared for the closing performance, she used her backdrop screen as an opportunity to beam images of well known women (Hilary Clinton, Maya Angelou, among others) to the thousands of us in the stadium, and the millions watching at home. The message was clear (and written above the stage in big bold letters); none of us can move forward, if half of us are held back.

In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, Beyoncé, alongside her husband, Jay Z, went on the campaign trail for then-Senator Barack Obama, encouraging people to vote, encouraging people to make themselves heard. She walked the lines of people waiting to go inside to vote, she thanked them and reassured them that what they were doing was too important to forgo. So here you have one of the most famous people in the world encouraging her compatriots to be politically active, encouraging all people (women included) to take part in their country’s election, to make their votes count. Four years later she would again voice her support for President Obama and, once again, encouraged Americans to vote via a number of posts to her website and Instagram page. In July 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of murdering the black teenager Trayvon Martin, she publicly backed demands for a civil rights case and joined hundreds of people protesting in New York City, as part of a broader 100-city demonstration across the US. In March 2013, she endorsed the campaign for Marriage Equality, altering the lyrics to Single Ladies in the process (“If you like it, you should be able to put a ring on it!”).

She has publicly celebrated the activist Malala Yousafzai by sharing the young Pakistani schoolgirl’s story on her webpage, highlighting the reality of the many women living in the shadow of the Taliban. She helped the First Lady, Michelle Obama, launch her Let’s Move campaign by reworking one of her own songs, encouraging kids to get active. She was one of a group of celebrities and activists who launched the Demand a Plan to End Gun Violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings of 2012. She backed Sheryl Sandberg’s BanBossy campaign, a social media campaign encouraging women and girls to lead (“I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”). She may not be running for office, she may not be drafting legislation for the Senate, but Beyoncé has what most politicians do not have: she has credibility with the young. She has credibility with women (nb. I am not speaking on behalf of all women here – that would be foolish). The very act of being politically active, of being socially aware, of giving a damn about what’s happening in the world, sends a very strong message to the millions who look up to her. Politics is not just for the politicians, it’s not just for the male, white and middle-aged. You too can stand up and be counted.

And, here it is, the big one:

The Economic Equality of the Sexes

At this point, I am tempted to be lazy and refer you back to my previous paragraph about Independent Women. As it is, I’m feeling a bit more generous than that. First things first, Beyoncé is fricking loaded. She has, in her own words, got ‘so sick and filthy with Benjis [she] can’t spend.’ Estimates put her wealth at around the $500 million mark. She is one of the best selling artists of all time: the trusted Wiki tells me that her solo sales are hovering around 130 million worldwide, with an additional 60 million sold by Destiny’s Child. In 2011, sceptics were shocked when she parted ways with her manager – and father – Mathew Knowles, wondering if, by managing herself, B-Kno had taken on too much. Her response? She was living her own message: ladies, it’s time to get independent. She owns her own company, Parkwood Entertainment; co-owns her own fashion label, House of Dereon, alongside her mother, Tina Knowles; she has sponsorship deals aplenty. To paraphrase and update Sir Mix-a-Lot, baby got bank!

I don’t know about anyone else, but seeing one of the most famous women in the world sitting on a self-created wealth of truly eye-watering proportions, is pretty fricking inspirational. It is thought that her own personal fortune matches that of her husband, Jay Z: economic equality of the sexes? They are a poster couple for it. Of course, the wealth of one woman doesn’t mean that the task is done, we have a long way to go to reach universal economic equality, something that she herself acknowledges: in 2013 she penned an essay condemning gender equality as a myth, before going on to say that it was time to stop this shit: “Equality will be achieved when men and women are granted equal pay and equal respect.”

I have tried to outline a few examples of how Beyoncé is a fricking awesome feminist. I have no doubt that there will be people who will disagree with much, if not all of what I’ve said – that is the nature of the internet. But hopefully there will also be people who will give Beyoncé the credit she deserves; she has been a champion of women since before it was cool to be a champion of women. Hopefully some will understand what I am, above all, trying to say: that a person’s identity is theirs alone, and it is not for anyone else to contradict something that is so fundamentally a part of who we are as human beings. Whether you love or loathe Beyoncé, please do not presume to tell her that her feminism is not good enough; she’s doing her feminism, her way, on her terms – and isn’t that, in itself, feminist?

– See more at: http://vagendamagazine.com/2014/10/defending-beyonces-feminism/#sthash.VsXVe6n1.dpuf

NO MORE PAGE 3 – The Time is NOW!

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Oh those clever little men at that clever little newspaper, The Sun. Oh how they led the women on, tricking us into believing that two and half years of campaigning had paid off. They fooled us all, had us almost convinced that they had finally decided to come on in to the 21st Century with us – or at least, approach it. Except they didn’t. It was all a clever little ruse – passed off as an exclusive by its sister paper The Times. It was over before it had begun. I don’t know about you, but I call bullshit.

I won’t lie, Tuesday morning was probably one my favourite mornings of the past few months, when I woke up to the news that Page 3 was apparently on its way out. I walked with a spring in my step and felt proud to be a woman in 21st Century Britain. Whilst I didn’t purchase a copy of the paper myself, word on the street was that, in lieu of the traditional topless model, The Sun had opted for partially covered women instead. So, whilst the fight was not over, we had at least managed to get nips out of the news. Even the trolling on my Twitter from grumpy Page 3 lovers (#eyeroll) could not dampen my spirits. Hurrah for people power!

But, alas, not so. Come Thursday morning, the nips are back, flanked by some wonderful punning and revelling in its own prankery, courtesy of the nation’s favourite rag. On the Twittersphere, The Sun’s resident PR editor, Dylan Sharpe, chose to indulge in some spectacular gloating about the cleverness of his little paper, taking the time to remind us that the end of Page 3 had never actually been confirmed by The Sun at all (which is a fair point, but a moot one – in the words of Joey Tribbiani, “it’s a cow’s opinion!”). Not content with gloating in the publication’s apparent win, for some reason, Sharpe thought it would be a fantastic idea to tweet well known Page 3 critics with pictures of that day’s Page 3 model (winking at the camera, #natch) – nips and all. Who said The Sun sees women as nothing more than sexual playthings?

What this week has taught me is that, above all, The Sun really does see women as a joke. Especially those women who dare to have an opinion and – worse still – those women who have the temerity to actually challenge the way things are done around here. This was The Sun laughing at women – literally, if you read Sharpe’s tweets. I say, enough is enough. I say that NOW is the time that women really need to tell The Sun newspaper where to go. We need to seize this momentum and say that this time, the ‘People’s Paper’ has gone too far. It has taken the piss out of women for far too long. By all means, put women in your paper, applaud them, praise them: but please do so in the same way, and with the same respect, that you reserve for men. Above all, when Jessica Ennis brings the entire country to its knees with pride by winning a gold medal at the Olympics, you damn well had better make hers the biggest picture in the paper that day.

It’s perhaps not surprising that, when people ask me why I think that Page 3 should go, I’m always a little bemused. I mean, isn’t it kind of obvious? Do we really think that Page 3 does women any favours? For that matter, do we really think it does the image of men – leering over topless twenty-somethings during their daily commute – any favours? No and no. So, before you ask us why we think it should go, ask yourself why it shouldn’t. And perhaps ponder these two points:

1. The whole ‘Page 3 Stunna’ concept is a trope sent to please. It sets women up as sexual playthings; existing purely for objectification, and to fulfil the fantasy of the mighty heterosexual (and, incidentally, white) male gaze. This is but one perception of women, as defined by a very specific and powerful group of individuals. It’s safe to assume that it is in the interests of this all powerful group to maintain the status quo, to keep the trope as is, defined by others. Now then, imagine that one day, a national newspaper decides to dedicate an entire page of their publication every single day to an equally two-dimensional and harmful trope, representing some other social, economic or political group. Say, for example, the Muslim-as-terrorist or the Colombian-as-drug-dealer trope. Would we be okay with that? Hopefully not. So why do we accept the same kind of two-dimensionality when it is applied to women?

2. The Sun is – allegedly – a newspaper. A paper of news. Which means that, ideally, it should be a summation of news stories currently trending throughout the country, if not the world. Does it not strike you as somewhat odd (and, er, random) that, upon turning the first page, we should be faced with a pair of boobs? Now, I have nothing against boobs. I have two of my own, and I’m okay with that, they occasionally hinder my sprint for the bus but otherwise I’m happy with them. But remind me, why do I need to see a pair of boobs when all I am trying to do is get a quick overview of what’s going on in the world? I wonder, do boobs somehow enable my understanding of current affairs in a way that I have not yet managed to decipher? I doubt it. Now imagine this, you’re watching the 6 o’clock news of an evening, you’re wondering what the situation is looking like in Gaza. All of a sudden, we are introduced to Ms So-and-So from Townville, and she’s here to give us the news in ‘briefs’ (get it?). The only thing is, she’s got her boobs out. She’s just straight up reading the news with her boobs on full display. Does that make sense to you? No? And Page 3 makes sense because…..?

Over the past few days I’ve had so many questions, and heard so many misconceptions about the NMP3 campaign, that I have found myself having to explain what No More Page 3 is NOT far more frequently than I have had to explain what it IS. So I decided to summarise a couple of things.

What No More Page 3 is NOT:

It is not seeking a ban via legislation. So, for all of those crying, ‘but, freedom of speech!’ and ‘JeSuisPage3!*’ (*an insult, and a joke), feel free to sit the hell back down. The NMP3 campaign is not seeking to ban anything, it is asking The Sun to remove Page 3 voluntarily – i.e. of its own accord, presumably upon realising that it is an example of what one might call, ‘an undiluted sexist mess of trash’.

It is not seeking to put Page 3 models out of work. Our beef is not with the models, they are free to do whatever the frick they want with their own boobs; whatever, it’s their body and good luck to them. Our request is that their boobs do not become the only (or principle) thing that women are known for in The Sun, or any other national newspaper, for that matter.

It is not an attack on sex or sexuality. I don’t know about my other NMP3 compatriots, but I for one couldn’t give a horse’s arse about anyone else’s sex life. Do what you want, when you want, with whomsoever you want (within the law, obvs), but please leave your pleasure materials for the appropriate time and place – i.e. not in a national newspaper, duh! Put it this way, would you talk about your sex life on the bus? At work? Perhaps when you’re in a meeting with your bank manager? Time, place and context, people.

It is not for “comfy shoe wearing, no bra wearing, man haters” (I think that’s how she put it?). Laughable, sexist, nonsense. I have to say, I am a big fan of the men in my life, they rock. Which is why I think that men deserve better than to be portrayed as boob-obsessed morons. FYI: Re. the comfy shoes – maybe we wouldn’t need to wear such comfy shoes, if it weren’t for the fact that we need to march through the streets in the freezing cold protesting this shit.

Get it?

Okay. So this is what No More Page 3 IS:

It is simply asking for women to be viewed as the true equals of men by a national newspaper. It is asking to be granted the same respect as men, valued for our achievements as much as anything else. It is really that simple. If we are to achieve this, Page 3 has to go.

This week has been one in which The Sun, and its people, have attempted to make a mockery of a women’s movement that seeks nothing more than equality before the media. If you did not believe in the campaign before, remember that, if you are a woman, The Sun is laughing at you too. And Page 3 is just the tip of this almighty berg. Please sign and share this petition with all of the women and men in your life!

http://nomorepage3.org/

NO MORE PAGE 3 – The Time is NOW!

A Resolution of Thinness: I am Woman, I Diet.

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At this time of year, as January trudges on and I am almost used to the fact that EastEnders has resumed the normal service of just three episodes per week (sob!), nothing gets my back up quite like the Diet Industry’s hijacking of the post-Christmas season. For many women up and down the land – having spent the weeks leading up to Christmas getting themselves ready for that Christmas party dress; having spent months organising the day itself; having spent the day itself cooking and sweating over sprouts – New Year brings with it a new battle: Woman vs Food. Or rather, perhaps more accurately, Woman vs Diet Industry. Come the dawn of the new year, with its symbolic new beginnings, millions of women will reset their food clock, and embark on a soul-destroying, food-hating eating plan, in a bid to shed the seasonal excess, lose weight and get bikini ready for summer. I’d wager that there is a large number of women on this island who spend half of the year dieting for Christmas, and the other half dieting for summer. No wonder so many women hate themselves. How about, rather than signing ourselves up to months of abstention and misery, we just tell the Diet Industry where to go? How about we focus on something we can do to make ourselves healthier and happier, rather than what we can do to make ourselves thinner? You know, just for kicks.

The Diet Industry is an enemy of women. For decades, it has successfully managed to fool women into believing that they are in some kind of life-long battle with food, a long drawn out Lord of the Rings type odyssey between good and evil, between thin and fat, between socially acceptable and socially frowned upon. Food is the Devil, and now the only thing that stands between you and failure, between you and loneliness, between you and ugly, is the Holy Diet. Against the Holy Diet, only the strongest will prevail, only the best will survive and reach the goal of thinness: the weak, on the other hand, will fall and die, boiled to death in a lonely tank of liquid fudge. Master of disguises, the Diet Industry is truly the sneakiest of snakes. It entices you in with the promise of Thindom and ever-lasting happiness, fools you into believing that you can be the best version of yourself, if you would just take the time to lose enough weight to fit into jeans of a socially acceptable size. Until then – until you become this thinner, better, you – you are nothing. To sum up, thin = everything, not-thin = nothing.

The Diet Industry is also a bully, a bully with power, and a bully with money. Serious money. We are talking billions of your finest British pounds poured into this most subtle of scams, a scam to make you miserable. We are talking enough money to cancel national debts, eye-watering quantities of money, dedicated to the task of making women (and it is women who are the prime target) believe some nonsensical hokum that’s been cooked up in a marketing department: the Holy Diet. Complete with its pseudo-scientific claims based on ‘research’ and its laughably contradictory advice (don’t eat fat, it makes you fat – instead, eat this highly processed, artificial tasting piece of cardboard. Zero calories, zero fat, zero salt, zero flavour and zero goodness – but at least it won’t make you fat, and that’s what counts). You see its campaigns everywhere: just take a glance at the magazine racks next time you pop to the corner shop for a pint of milk. Better still, go to the ‘women’s’ magazines in WH Smith – the Diet Industry is there for all of us to see, in the mouth-watering and glossy magazine covers, strewn with the airbrushed perfection of the modern age: rows and rows of so-called perfect women, looking mighty fine in their never-been-worn-or-even-seen-a-treadmill gym gear.

Notice, if you will, that these women rarely look like they’ve ever broken into a single sweat, whereas the equivalent men’s magazines are nothing if not an ode to muscles, blood, sweat and tears. Where men are encouraged to get into shape, to push their body into being the best that it can be, we women are told to get thin. Not only that, but are told to get thin quietly, with minimal fuss and with puritanical deprivation. Imagine if someone said to you that you can be thin, but at the expense of one of your five senses – would you do it? No? Well, millions of us are already doing just that. We deprive ourselves of the joy of eating, the joy of food, of flavour, of taste. It is deprivation, pure and simple. We are also depriving our bodies of what it needs to survive. When you go on a calorie controlled diet that severely limits your calorie intake to the point of physical starvation, you are not helping your body; you are abusing it.

The only thing that angers me more than the Diet Industry’s poor attitude to food, is its even poorer attitude to exercise. You see, next time you’re flicking through a diet magazine, pondering your own failure as a human being because you – call the police! – may have had one too many mince pies over the festive season, you will notice that exercise is often the footnote in the small print of this sonnet to sadistic starvation. Note also how the exercise recommended to us is always ‘gentle’ exercise, and it’s always exercise to make us look thinner, never to make us feel better or – heaven forbid – feel stronger. You see, we women must work out, but with the sole purpose of getting thin, to reduce the space that we occupy. Muscles, therefore, are a no-no. This is the kind of mess that has women doing ‘half push ups’ in an exercise class, instead of the full thing. Someone needs to pass me a hashtag, is this an actual joke? Women’s bodies have the ability create and carry a human being for nine months, and that’s before it embarks on that most brutal of endurance tests – NATURAL LABOUR – and you’re going to tell us we can’t do a push up? In the words of Bruno Mars in one the funkiest tracks of 2014, “Don’t believe me? Just watch!”

The whole ‘logic’ of the Diet Industry is messed up – its focus is deprivation and denial, its goal some idealistic waif-like physique that has nothing to do with health, and everything to do with aesthetic acceptance. Where are the magazines telling women to enjoy food and focus instead on getting a healthy body? Where are the magazines encouraging women to enjoy exercise, rather than seeing it as some odious chore on the road to Thindom? Exercise does not have to be about suffering – it can be about taking the dog for a walk and enjoying the view on a winter’s day. It can be about putting on the Now 89! CD that you got for Christmas and having yourself a little boogie in the living room when no one’s watching. At its very simplest, it’s about moving your body. If you are doing that, you are doing your body a million more favours than you are when you buy the cardboard non-food that has been manufactured in labs across the land by the Diet Industry. Fat-free does not mean healthy. As far as I know, coal doesn’t have a single gram of fat in it, but I’m not about to start chomping down on the contents of my coal bucket any time soon…. When you eat the latest in high-tech, fat-free, sugar-free snacks, know that you might as well be eating coal. And coal probably tastes better to boot.

Food is not your enemy. Chocolate is not your enemy (by the same token, chocolate is not going to give you an orgasm either, despite what the makers of Galaxy would have us believe…). Chocolate is a compound of sugar, cocoa, milk, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s a list of ingredients wrapped up in a big shiny wrapper – a wrapper that has, incidentally, been designed with you in mind by those clever marketing geniuses on Madison Avenue. It’s just stuff. It is neither friend nor foe. Have it or don’t have it, the world will keep turning and you will still be the same person you were before you took a bite out of its chocolate-y goodness. Remember, it’s just stuff. The only real enemy is an industry that tells you that your worth as a human being is defined by whether or not you choose to pick up that chocolate bar. Ignore it.

I don’t know how else to put this but, ladies, the Diet Industry is not your friend. The Diet Industry hates women. It hates us so much that it wants to control the food that we put in our mouths. It so badly wants us to believe that if we dare to stray from the Holy Grail of the Holy Diet that we have failed. Well, stick a big fat scarlet letter on my forehead and call me a food-whore, I had some cake! AND I LOVED IT! And, rather than feel bad and hate myself, I think I’ll just go for a walk, with some music in my ears and a skip in my strut.

Happy New Year 2015 – may it be healthy and guilt free!