The Tools To Rescue Myself

daisies

My hair is falling out. Of course, the rogue hair on my chest is still there. Of course it is. But the hair on my head is falling out.

I find myself busy considering the potential impact of the hair loss on my identity. This is a sign that I am ok. I feel like I have an identity. The hair loss feels viscerally bad on many levels: the physical sensation of it dislodging from my scalp with such ease, with no fight, the political assault on my body as my form is altered in a way that is out of my control, because of pills prescribed to me when I was barely conscious. – Maybe it’s ironic, considering my passionate belief that women should be allowed to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies, my belief in its significance.

These are the thoughts that travel through my mind and out of my follicles.

It’s a sign that I am ok because a few months ago, when I wasn’t ok, I was trapped inside the badness of this feeling. There was no space for social analysis, or any sort of healthy interaction with the world. I would just sit, tugging my hair out of my head repeatedly, waiting for it to stop coming out, or I would fantasize compulsively about shaving it off and starting again. I would make up stories about all the bad things I had done to deserve this punishment.

I had lost my sense of self, the peace that comes with knowing who you are. I relied on external cues from friends, lovers, and doctors to navigate the world and I became them. I became my feelings, my moods. I became pleasure and pain. I lost all touch with my agency, even if from the outside it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted. I believed my thoughts were facts.

People became a stand-in for my core. Their love sustained me and I engulfed them. It’s hard to come to terms with even now, but what was happening to me was too big for us to handle or survive, let alone fix. I needed people who didn’t love me too, and the systems they have built.

With regard to hair loss, I was unable to step back and come to terms with it as a side effect of medication that may or may not have helped me to survive falling into a catatonic depression 16 months earlier, after which – following a series of manic and psychotic episodes – I was diagnosed with what they call bipolar disorder. It just hurt, like everything else.

It has taken a long time to relearn how to deal with emotions, to interact, to empathise, to reason, to consolidate the shit show inside my head with the jungle outside of it. The process is not over. I feel how I imagine it would feel to come out of a coma, or how Bradley Cooper with the long hair felt when he took that pill in Limitless: clumsy, overwhelmed, full of promise.

limitless

That has been one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a period of insanity. The punishing slowness of it. At one point showering was all I could hope for in a day. Indeed it was a triumph. I crawled to the bathroom once. (I have a degree you know).

But somehow, it was the speed itself that played a big part in the recovery. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t move faster than I was ready to. When I accepted that, it was actually almost relieving. I moved onto a shower, a meal, a walk – on a good day, maybe a session of texting and one Guardian article!

It took me a long time to accept the slowness because I was not used to moving at a pace dictated to me. I had to realise that I was dictating the pace.

Once I was able to listen to my body, it was incredibly comforting because its rhythm belonged to me, it was coming from within me, separate from the desperate push and pull of the rest of my life. The slowness wasn’t something to fight against, it was the fight.

There is no doubt that it was society that saved my life when it felt as though there was nothing inside me, when I was hollow, when my perception of reality was undoubtedly warped. Well, more warped than the average anyway, A mix of medication, mindfulness, therapy, technology and unconditional love got me to this point. But it was this feeling, this slow, steady pulse, from the inside out, that signalled the move from survival to recovery.

I say “recovery” as if I’ve “recovered”. As if I’m certain my bathroom-crawling days are over. But I don’t know that recovery is quite the right word. It’s too neat for something so very messy. What I mean by “recovery” is really the process that began when I stopped waiting to recover. When I realised it’s possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave.

Waiting for an imagined future is no more healthy than mourning an imagined past. I had to work in the present, from the inside out. I had to stop the cycle of frantically grabbing for branches that couldn’t support my weight, feeling the assault every time one snapped, feeling the pain of that encounter reverberate through me, shattering my core even more; becoming that pain. I learned to sit still and listen.

That’s not as zen as it sounds, by the way. The process isn’t zen and neither is the desired outcome. When you sit still, everything that’s been troubling you is still there. Pain starts peeking from behind the curtains, an anger problem or two stuffed in the bedside table. But the fact you’ve turned around to face it means you’ve already won.

Just like today, when I got frustrated while I was writing this article, and threw my notebook across the room and cried. That was me winning. I promise. How awesome, to be crying for a normal reason, like stress and frustration. How great to know exactly what the problem is, and live it fully but not in fear that it will take over.

I find it hard to use the language of ‘transformation’ to describe the way I am learning to live with depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis… or the way I am learning not to have to live with them. My moment of transformation was when realised I was me all along. Does that make sense?

There have been a lot of ‘realisations’ in this article. Almost all of them can be traced back to the whispered words of someone who loves me, or a conversation I’ve had in a white-walled NHS building.

Humans cause the biggest transformations within each other, and within society. My recovery has been built, block-by-block, upon the support of people who love me, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

It was a person who held my hand in A&E as my life fell apart. It was a person who woke me up, made me packed lunches and escorted me to work, who gave me mouth to mouth until they couldn’t breathe anymore. It is a person who has given birth to me so many times.

Their role in my transformation is still too big for me to comprehend.

There is a unique sort of hope in the kindness of a stranger. Somehow, despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I remember feeling that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. That’s not to say my experience with the NHS was plain sailing. Most of the time it felt like we were on a ship in a raging storm, pulling ropes and seeing what would happen, sliding across the deck on our arses. But there was a ship, and there was a crew, and we were trying.

In moments where I felt I couldn’t live in a world as utterly fucked up as ours is, it was the humanity that I found in the kindness of strangers that was able to penetrate that fog that everybody else had become a part of, and keep that glimmer of self-awareness alive, that slowly became my identity again.

Suddenly my previous activism against this Government’s brutal agenda of cuts to services like the ones that delivered these strangers to me made even more sense. Since December 2012, when I was diagnosed in hospital, to now, the NHS has been a constant and unconditional support and somewhere between the system, the strangers and the loves of my life, I started ticking again. And this time I have the tools to rescue myself. I hope I’m a stranger to someone someday.

 

This was written for a series on The Politics of Mental Health being run by the brilliant Transformation section of Open Democracy.

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Beyonce & Black Feminism

When Beyonce released her secret album, I didn’t sleep for a week. This is one of the things I did, published by Black Feminists, who I admire so much.

Beyonce Tshirt

So, it looks like Beyoncé has made feminism a dirty word, in the BEST. WAY. IMAGINABLE. From the bump, grind and swallow of ‘Partition’ to the feminist monologue on ‘***Flawless’, her new album is a challenge. It challenges her, it challenges us, and that’s why everybody has lost their shit over it. In January I wrote a defence of Beyoncé, because I was bitterly bored of other women deciding that she is not good enough for feminism. The release of her album has sparked the same debate, but with an important difference. This time, there seems to be a lot less white women denigrating Beyoncé, and a lot more constructive debate led by women of colour (WoC). I’m not interested in defending Beyoncé anymore because it’s pretty clear that she has got it under control. I’m interested in this difference, this progress.

I’m interested in the wider context that this good feminist/bad feminist dichotomy is situated within. The one where Bjork is an artist but Beyoncé isn’t. “Misogynoir” coined by Moya Bailey this year, became a go-to term on the blogosphere to describe the double bind felt by WoC by virtue of our gender and race. At the start of this year I didn’t fully understand the significance of Beyoncé’s race in the criticisms against her – I was just speaking from my gut. I didn’t fully understand the weeping rift that exists in feminism due to the historic dismissal of black feminists, a rift that is perpetuated when black women aren’t included on reading lists, or conferences put issues relating to WoC in the lunch break, or, or, Femen. Merry Christmas.

In August, Mikki Kendall called time on double standards when she started the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It exploded, inviting WoC globally a chance to grab the microphone. Using social media as a tool for unity, change and liberation, women tweeted vignettes of what it means to be a black woman and a feminist, and why that’s an important distinction to make.

solidaritytweets

These tangible truths were still ringing in my ears in November, when Lily Allen made a mess of her comeback by accidentally coming back as a racist. But there was triumph in the powerful black feminist voices that made it clear that it was not good enough. That platform didn’t come on a plate – The Guardian commissioned pieces by two white women and man – but they were heard nonetheless. I felt sorry for Lily Allen. I wondered if en masse shaming was really necessary, if we couldn’t give more balanced feedback? No. Racism, like sexism, runs really, really, really deep, and to get the message across we cannot keep compromising.

Women are struggling to come to terms with the fact that inequality exists among them. In my experience, the issue is often met with the same defensiveness or exasperation that men have met my feminism. Perversely, it seems it is those less privileged, or with minority experiences, who often have to act as the emotional gatekeepers of friends and comrades. Self-censoring so not to betray the privilege of others and cause them reason to feel guilt becomes instinct. Enough already. Understand that minority voices have to shout to be heard. Sometimes they’re traumatised by the time they are, but they are creating a better world – a world in which men are learning the difference between a compliment and a cat-call and women are taking pride in seeing race among their feminist sisters and in the world. A world in which everyone has a critical eye. Black feminists can’t allow anything less, or they’ll get nothing more.

This has been a good year. Women of colour have held their space within feminism, as many hold physical space in protest crowds. In that space we can explore the nuances of black feminism further (#notyourasiansidekick) and we can dance to Beyoncé’s new album. An album that uses the word feminism throughout and has broken sales records. Now, I can give or take feminist as a term, but I’ve had the luxury of coming to that conclusion myself. Most girls won’t come into contact with it. A hell of a lot more girls will now. That is out and out a good thing. It’s not perfect, e.g. she’s blonde. That’s a shame. And “daddy” during sex? No thank you. But you know what, it’s complicated. Life is complicated. I’ve had a year so complicated I’ve almost denounced feminism entirely on multiple occasions. This album gives me hope and energy, and makes me want to look after myself and other people, and work hard to be the best black feminist I can be. What? I woke up like this.

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Body Hair as Direct Action

I have been obsessed with body hair as a symbol of oppression and an act of resistance for a long time. To me it is not a tired stereotype, it is real, and my body reminds me of that every day. This is the first time I tried to explain that with words, published by The Independent.

Bring Back Pubes

Body hair is everywhere! At least it will be soon. In the two years since I stopped shaving, we have seen a feminist movement build and, frankly, mock the idea that it isn’t needed any more. Women today are told to be afraid of our legs and feel guilty for eating on the way to work, to hate our vaginas and our skin colour at the same time, and are even made to deal with anti-abortion protests outside of clinics because the men with power choose to regulate women’s bodies instead of the climate or, erm, the banks. We have voices. We have bodies too, and body hair is fast becoming our war paint.

A few days ago I was invited to the facebook group, “Women Against Non-Essential Grooming”. After some initial confusion as to the meaning of “grooming” in this context, I saw it was a forum for women to discuss and support each other in the trials and tribulations of growing their hair. Last week, Dr Emily Gibson made the headlines with her plea for women to leave their pubic hair alone. This sort of chat is no longer a product of my entrenchment in feminist circles. This is becoming a Thing. A Thing that’s no longer confined to postgraduate reading groups or homophobic/European stereotypes. It’s breaking out of the exuberant feminism that is emerging – onto talk shows and into parks, bars and public transport.

This month has seen the Armpits4August campaign encourage women to get sponsored to grow their underarm hair to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), symptoms of which can include obesity, acne and excessive hair growth. But this campaign is not a charity gimmick. The aim to challenge beauty norms is stated unapologetically – not whispered, or inferred:

“Armpits4August believe that we should be deeply concerned that we live in society where hair on adult women is seen as shocking and disgusting, to say nothing of the pressure this places on women to uphold this idealised image of beauty, and the time and money it takes to maintain this illusion…”

The sponsorship aspect is not being used to equate the act of growing body hair to a unicycle ride to Bournemouth dressed as one of the power puff girls. It is being used as a hook, to build a safe and supportive space for women who may not have ever considered letting their hair grow, or considered themselves feminists, to experiment. This campaign, unlike much of the feminism before us, acknowledges the differences between women, and works against the activist trap of preaching to the converted. It understands that the experience of body hair for a white, blonde woman in an office is a very different one from that of a Middle-Eastern woman on a university campus. We are individuals, but we can be united in this joint experiment – the blessing of social media.

More and more women are seeing what it feels like to save that money, pain and time. And that’s not just the time it takes to remove hair, but the time spent thinking about it. Planning it so you’re freshly hairless for your date on Tuesday, but that it has grown back enough to be waxed before your holiday the following week.

This stuff is so deeply internalised, that for many women, feminism and activism begin alone, looking in your bathroom mirror. It comes in that moment when you gasp – you realise how weird, how completely nuts it is that every single woman you know scrapes and pulls out her body hair, unquestioningly and forever. Like robots. Like sexy little fembots; the greatest marketing success in history.

Direct action is not just the forte of groups like UK Uncut. When a woman stops completing the routine that all of the women she sees and knows have been completing diligently since puberty, it is direct action. A private rewiring of her brain, or a public protest, a declaration to everyone who is watching (and at rush hour on the Central Line, that’s quite a few people, trust me) that so many of women’s choices have been buried by heavy expectation and societal norms. This is Everyday Feminism. This is the personal becoming political. This action has a ripple effect. It’s a war cry for a critical eye. And that eye is contagious, as we have seen from the consistent gender critique of the Olympics, and the incredulous coverage of waxing kits for under fifteen-year-olds being described as natural and ‘PLEASANT’.

This is not about condemning other women. We must be kind to each other and easy on ourselves as we draw our battle lines. When I say I’m having a bad hair day, I’m usually referring to my moustache and on the way to remove it, with some sort of cream that burns and smells like eggs or threading, that pulls it out in little clumps. That’s my personal limit and that’s OK.

As the government cuts come into full swing, it looks like more women will leave work to look after their children and girls will be deterred from pursuing higher education and enjoying the privilege that the creators of Armpits4August and I have had. But as our choices continue to be limited by the Government, we will find choices we never even knew we had. Body hair begins to cut through the privilege that has caged feminism. It is simple. We all have it. It says: you have the freedom to make a choice. And what’s feminism if not that?

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WOMAN! Know Your Place: Exhibition

I won a competition run by IdeasTap and judged by Sabrina Mahfouz and my present was that I got to do an exhibition at the Bush Theatre with Nikandre Kopcke, based on WOMAN! Know Your Place.

We used this call-out for submissions:

1: Woman! Where’s Your Place? Take a picture with a one-line caption beginning “it’s…” and send it in.

This can be whatever you want it to be. Take a picture / choose a picture you already have and give it a caption that describes it in the context of being a woman with a critical eye, whatever that means to you. These can be sarcastic / sad / joyous – anything.

2: Woman! Enjoying all those “compliments” on the street? Record a one-line response to those charmers and send it in.

It’s hard to know what to say when you’re shouted at or touched on the street, but we’ve all been there and often it lingers. These responses will be made into a video collage.

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Women, Austerity & UK Uncut

I wrote in the Guardian about UK Uncut’s  ‘bail-ins’. If you cut our childcare, your banks will be full of babies…

Babies in Banks

I am in the process of organising a UK Uncut action, set for this weekend, against the unnecessary austerity cuts that will push women’s rights back a generation. I stand with women who have been betrayed by our government.

Women will bear the brunt of these cuts. As the Fawcett Society points out, they make up 65% of the public sector workforce and will therefore be hit hardest by job cuts. They disproportionately rely on public services such as the NHS, for reasons such as pregnancy and longer life expectancy. They will also be expected to bridge the gap where childcare and services for the elderly are removed, directly affecting their right to work. The repercussions of these cuts can be seen already, with recent figures showing that the number of women aged 25-49 on jobseeker’s allowance is now at its highest since records began in 1997. It is time to take to the streets.

This Saturday, I will help transform a high street bank into a creche. This will be just one of scores of UK Uncut actions hitting RBS branches across the country, days after the bailed-out bank announced the size of this year’s bonus pot. UK Uncut have called for a second day of “bail-ins” – creative protests in which bank branches are occupied and transformed into a service threatened by cuts. Expect to see libraries, aerobics classes and laundry services for the elderly set up inside the banks that contributed to this crisis.

The first time I participated in a UK Uncut action, I was blown away by the enthusiasm of people walking past. It felt fresh and, dare I say it, hopeful. I spoke to one woman who explained what the welfare state meant to her and the role it played in supporting her single mother in the 1950s. I watched as she joined the protesters, enthused by their creativity and enraged that Cameron’s “big society” is clearly a viciously unjust one. His is not a necessity, it is a political choice, and it got me thinking.

The UK Uncut model empowered me to create an action that was particularly important to me, with the help of the like-minded people I got in touch with. But how do you tell the tale of the countless women whose lives will be damaged by these cuts? We settled on childcare as a theme, following the outrageous closure of 250 Sure Start centres and cuts to child benefit, tax credits and the health in pregnancy grant. These are services that give women the confidence and independence to seek worlds beyond child bearing and motherhood.

Despite my family’s origins in Pakistan and Egypt it has taken until now for me to fully comprehend how lucky I am to have been born in this country – and how much I love it. And I don’t have to cast my mind to the Middle East to feel grateful either. I spent last summer in American suburbia where I met a hard working, educated single mother to three children. Because of a lack of state support and the astronomical cost of university and healthcare, she couldn’t afford central heating. I was proud to be a British woman then, but now the security that has allowed my friends and I to grow is being torn away.

This government would rather slash the already threadbare state protection for vulnerable women than tame the reckless machismo of our “too big to fail” banks. This is not a tragedy for women alone. It will affect all of us, except for that tiny ruling elite who are fuelled by greed and ego. This Saturday, people opposed to and hit by the cuts, from women to the disabled, public service workers and those on housing benefit will be taking the fight to the banks. Join us.

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Hijabi Barbie

This is the first time I realised I was writing about feminism. This is also the first time I spoke publically about my moustache. For Emel Magazine.

Hijabi Barbie

“I can be anything, from a rock star to a race-car driver, and so can you!” squeals Barbie as I visit her cyber walk-in-wardrobe. Unfortunately, it would seem that Barbie’s version of the American dream extends only to those who weigh 110lbs (7.9 stone) or less. If Barbie were a human woman, she would stand tall at 5 feet 9 inches, rendering her size-3 feet quite inadequate for balance – especially when taking her F-cup breasts into consideration. Human Barbie’s waist would measure around 18 inches and she would lack the requisite 17 – 22% of body fat required to menstruate, thus representing the body of 1 in 100,000 real women. When the figures are laid bare, it seems clear that Barbie’s physique is that of a plastic doll belonging to a fantasy world that only a Danish dance-pop act can do justice to, rather than a real body actual women should be trying to emulate. But the truth is Barbie is very much a part of the real world too, and she symbolises generations of women who strive to be ‘beautiful’.

Courtney E Martin, author of ‘Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters’ writes, “our bodies work on their own success/failure scale. We can work 4 years to get a degree, but can be failures in an instant, once we step onto scales.” Such a sentiment will not be a surprise to most Western women who will have felt the inescapable pressure to be smoother, flatter, huskier, poutier and archier, and then the inevitable disappointment when their bodies don’t comply. From the corsets of times past that made fainting a hobby, to the Monolo pinkie toe amputations of today, women have a long history of enduring pain to be ‘beautiful’, and society has a long history of encouraging that. It is within this framework, where women are willing to lose dangerous amounts of weight and actual body parts in order to be validated as ‘beautiful’, that the potential danger of a Barbie doll is nurtured.

In 1965, 6 years after Barbie was born, Mattel released ‘Sleepy Time Gal Barbie’ who was decked out in pink pajamas and eager for slumber party fun. Her sleep-over accessories consisted of scales pegged to 110lbs and a dieting handbook with one page of advice that read, “don’t eat.” Barbie’s love interest, Ken went to his slumber parties with cookies and milk. Harsh. Still, in the political age of ‘baa baa rainbow sheep’ we may feel safe to assume we can’t rely on modern products to so diligently demonstrate the double standards of real life directly to vulnerable children. But we’d be wrong in that assumption.

Teaching children gender norms which will make money for a few old men in the short term, but have an ever-lasting effect on the mental and physical health of many young girls has become so commonplace that marketing and advertising agencies have got a name for it. KGOY stands for ‘kids growing older younger’ and finding examples of it is not difficult. Since the introduction of high heels for babies which the makers thought was ‘heelarious’ and everyone else thought was scary, I’ve been keeping an eye out for offenders (a past-time that falls somewhere between very entertaining and completely distressing – not recommended for men). Bratz, our favourite ethnically diverse and arousing dolls seem to win. The Bratz offshoot dolls, ‘Babyz’, take the trend of sexualising pre-pubescent females to a whole new level by presenting actual baby versions of the dolls in a nappy, bra and make-up, with bottles of milk dangling from their necks and swinging by their thighs. Apparently, the next offering in line is ‘BarelyBornz’, that is, plastic foetuses with navel piercings and nail varnish, to cover up the fact they don’t actually have fingernails yet. (Ok, I made the last one up, but you believed it for a second, didn’t you?) Bratz also have a line of ‘bralettes’ which are currently providing ‘support’ for girls as young as 6 in Australia, meanwhile, the hair removing product, ‘Nair’ has released ‘Nair Pretty’ with a target market of 10-15 year olds. My personal favourite find (one of those which goes in life’s ‘only in America’ category) is a pair of pink children size knickers sold at Walmart which ask “who needs credit cards..?” across the infant vagina. Suddenly Barbie’s quite an attractive prospect in more ways than one!

Where does all of this fit into an era that boasts of women’s liberation – a time that some even have the nerve to refer to as ‘post-feminist’? One thing we do know is that with the increase of women fulfilling roles of power and influence, has come an increase in women ready to use that power to keep other women and girls enslaved in timeless beauty rituals. In 2006 Ariel Levy wrote Female Chauvinist Pigs, to draw attention specifically to women’s roles in perpetuating this beauty myth. Barbie may have been created by a man, but it’s women who edit, write for and continue to buy magazines that chide women for being confident with the bodies they have, provide 10 page features on how to please men, 251 pages of adverts, and fashion spreads which are also adverts. There are women performing vaginoplasty surgeries which improve the appearance of a vagina with the potential of permanent numbness as a side-effect, in a world where 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of female genital mutilation each year. That’s why when Kate Moss said “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” she was not simply irresponsible. She and other women with power who are choosing to take the place of more traditional chauvinists are not Barbies, they have flesh and brains and taking that into consideration it becomes harder to know where to point our manicured fingers.

But where women have power, they have the power to make positive change.

Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday in 2009 (I know, she’s aged well) and as part of the celebrations 500 dolls were made to represent different global cultures and auctioned at Sotheby’s to raise money for Save the Children. Among the dolls was one in a hijab and trousers and another in a vermilion green burqa. This decision prompted a predictable onslaught of anti-Islamic rhetoric, feminist outrage and ‘Taliban Ken’ style jokes, with the prestigious New York State National Organisation of Women (NOW) stating, “women must be able to make their own choices… but the burqa is more than a choice. Women are forced to wear the burqa or risk being murdered… selling a doll that is clearly wearing a symbol of violence is not acceptable”. I am the first to draw attention to the human rights atrocities being carried out against women in the name of Islam, but calling for an unequivocal ban on the doll misses an important point (just as when Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbies in 2003 – but Saudi’s relationship with feminism is another article). For the hundreds of women who are being hidden and abused under ‘Islamic’ dictatorship every day, there is a woman who is wearing her burqa on Oxford Street. For every feminist who believes that modest dress restrictions can be a personal choice but that they reinforce the misogynist ideal that puts a burden on some women to cover up rather than men to avert their gaze, there is a feminist who feels empowered by Islam and freedom in her modesty. She is a political actor, and just how feminist is it to pacify her?

I was raised by a women who was empowered by a non-alcoholic cocktail of both feminism and Islam and however my beliefs may have evolved since being a child, I am forever thankful that it led to me being one of the least insecure and body-conscious young women I know. It’s not as simple as the donning of a hijab or the outlawing of Barbie dolls (in fact my mother doesn’t feel it necessary to cover her head to be modest, and I had my fair share of Barbies) it’s about relishing in the responsibility of being the primary example to the young girls around you, their first stop in the onslaught of socialisation that is to come. The day I saw my mum stop a stranger at the market and complement her weave was formative in teaching me that through loving my own body I need never begrudge another woman’s beauty and in fact I ought to celebrate it. My mother’s decision not to have scales in our bathroom was revolutionary. Such acts are our ammunition in the fight for young minds and every woman has the power and dare I say it, the responsibility to be an agent. I still don’t know how much I weigh.

I am no Barbie. My body is big enough to house all of my vital organs, I like it when my outfits clash and when I say I’m having a ‘bad hair day’ I am usually referring to my moustache. Unless my genes skip a generation, I don’t think my future daughter will resemble a Barbie either. Yet, would I buy her one if she asked? Absolutely. Whether she chooses one in a bikini or a burqa, it will probably end up wrapped in tin foil on a space mission, or if my child takes after me, naked and bald in the microwave. Regardless of what inspires women to fight against what society expects of them, be it religion, politics, literature or a friendship, it’s the lifestyle changes real women stick by which ultimately influence our daughters – not plastic dolls. Empowering girls to love their bodies is not childsplay.

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“I’m a hairy black bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.”

This is an article I wrote for a new ny magazine called YOUNG, COLORED & ANGRY that only features the work of brown people. It’s about the experience of having body hair, as a woman of colour.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.00.55 PM

Body hair is everywhere and nowhere. In the Western World, it is a weed that is pulled from women’s bodies systematically and without question, rigorously policed by a chokehold of patriarchy, capitalism, racism: shame.

In my examination of mental health, art and activism, body hair is often characterized as an abnormality or aberration, for example as the medical condition ‘hirsutism’, as a pornographic fetish, as something threatening or something trivial, and always something to be removed, something to be removed, something to be removed in every sense of the word.

In my first relationship and close contact with a man, I would watch, as he would routinely wake up, rub his hand over his face, and leave the house to begin his day. I have always worn very little make-up myself, and tend to let the hair on my head do whatever it decides to that day, but still, the disparity between us in freedom of movement and freedom of mind was clear – and I began to see this disparity everywhere I looked, in advertising, in the lives of my friends, in the university sanctioned reading lists that were considered exempt from criticism.

It was around then that I stepped into the shower to perform my regular shaving ritual, and a small thought pushed its way to the front of mind: that this act is absurd, and that the double standard that it is couched within is even more absurd.

It wasn’t until two years later, when I left university and moved into a large shared house in London, that I was able to transition from someone who “experimented” with body hair (which often meant wearing cardigans in the sunshine) to someone who could begin to accept her body, find it beautiful even, and begin to make choices about it that felt like they were hers.

Danni Paffard was the enabler of this transition, and my experience watching her is the basis of much of my strength of feeling around the importance of the image. Danni lived in the room above me and was always running. She would run up and down all the stairs of the four-floor shop-turned-house and would leave the house at 6am every day without fail to run the streets of London. She’s an environmental campaigner and is known among friends for being hilarious, and having a piercing laugh that can work as a routing device at music festivals when everyone’s phones have died. Danni is loved by men. She wears lots of mascara and has an asymmetrical fringe. She doesn’t remove any of the hair on her body and makes no attempt to hide this fact regardless of where she is. Danni Paffard blew my mind. I remember sitting opposite her for the first time, watching her tie her hair up with both hands, desperately trying, like a child, to catch a glimpse of her armpits.

It wasn’t just seeing the hair so brazenly displayed that began rewiring my brain, it was the context, the fact it was so clearly situated among other stylistic choices: the make-up, the clothes, the fact that she laughed so often, danced so hard, felt desire and was desired, and yes, the fact that she was able to muster an unapologeticness which I felt could shatter the world.

I believe that much of her ability to live like this comes from an inherent confidence which is undoubtedly tied to social factors. That she is a white, middle class, able- bodied, heterosexual female cannot be overlooked, but neither can it discredit her role in my personal awakening. Besides, there are many, many women who share all her identity markers, and who do not challenge beauty norms in this way.

It was the fusion Danni Paffard represented (hairy social deviant meets outgoing stylish babe) that created a new level of understanding within me, and perhaps her being white and fulfilling so many other traditional beauty norms was part of that.

In a psychological review of work that has been done on ‘hirsuteness’ (“an excess of body hair in the male distribution” (Conn & Jacobs, 1997)), Keegan (2003), states:

A display of facial or body hair is only acceptable in women who in some way represent the ‘other’.

Two such categories of ‘other’ emerge: older women (i.e. past the need to be sexually attractive) and ‘foreigners’. To be happy about the presence of ‘superfluous’ hair is also the prerogative of women regarded socially as deviant, e.g. lesbians. One implication of this, which is not directly spoken, is that sexually attractive heterosexual women cannot display facial and body hair. (Keegan, 2003:14)

That body hair is palatable in situations where the women involved already lack value in society or have in some way ‘let themselves go’ speaks again to the importance of The Image, and particularly images which challenge those ideas by fusing unexpected images, for example, a woman’s hairy stomach with her manicured nails. These fusions are so powerful because they present the hair as an active choice rather than an involuntary byproduct of old age or illness or lesbianism. In short, images can remind women they have a choice, and what is feminism, if not the pursuit of the right to make empowered, agentic choices? As Lesnik- Oberstein writes:

Attendant on this issue is a challenge too to some (mostly popular) feminism to consider more carefully its formulations around ‘fun’ feminism and ‘victim’ feminism. The whole idea of make-up and clothing, or other ritual decorative practices, as constituting in any simple way ‘celebrations’ of ‘femininity’, serves to close down important questions around the coercive practices of social ridicule and social exclusion for those not willing or able to participate in this ‘celebration’, never mind the more general question of how women (or anyone) come to believe that they have freely ‘chosen’ to engage in certain practices. (Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006:6)

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As I have grown in confidence and challenge myself to experiment with my body further, it has become a billboard; at clubs, on the subway, in classrooms, and I have come to think of it as an act of direct action, as well as one of deep self love. My body provokes many conversations with women, usually after a few drinks, and these have become the conversations I enjoy the most, as there is a real feeling that a psychological burden is being unloaded between the women participating, as personal stories that have often never been told before are being vocalized. These conversations are not always easy, however. Sometimes women feel judged or chastised by the sight of my body and the jarring reminder that there is another relationship we can have with our hair. I am met with a great deal of defensiveness that I try to dismantle, often by telling a few stories of my own, about my moustache and the other parts of my body where hair growth still disgusts me. Still, these conversations, by and large, become about choice, and by making something which is barely allowed to be seen so strikingly visible, that conversation has been achieved.

As I welcomed increasing discourse and activism around body hair, I couldn’t help but feel that something still wasn’t right. I began to realize that the experience is different for Women of Colour in a way I did not have the language to express, or was frightened to. But as feminism became more of a diverse space, and crucially, via social media, one that was easily accessible by diverse women, this very dilemma began to be played out.

‘Misogynoir,’ coined by activist Moya Bailey in 2013, became a go-to term on the blogosphere to describe the double bind felt by Women of Colour by virtue of our gender and race. And as I read more, it transformed my understanding of my instincts. It helped me realize why I felt uneasy as my white, middle-class feminist friends gleefully lambasted Beyoncé for the way she moves and for her contradictions, and why I felt uneasy about a feminist body positivity movement that did not seem to account for the unique experiences of black women.

Then in August of last year, writer Mikki Kendall called time on these double standards when she started the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It exploded, inviting Women of Colour globally a chance to grab the microphone. Using social media as a tool for unity, change and liberation, women tweeted vignettes of what it means to be a non-white woman and a feminist, and why that’s an important distinction to make.

My unease also came from the look in my mother’s eyes every time she saw my body hair. The look has been persistent over the years and communicates so much more than a feeling of disgust or judgment that I have come to expect. I could not help but feel that as a Pakistani woman who grew up in a racist 1970s Britain under constant threat of attack, there was a deeply racial and particularly social element to her discomfort with my choice, though that was never said.

This line of thought was reawakened while studying under photographer Deborah Willis. Around the same time I heard about gender professor Breanne Fahs’ course at Arizona State University entitled Race, Class, and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives. As part of this course she offered an extra credit for female students willing to grow their body hair and male students willing to remove it and document their experiences. This was widely discussed on social media and Dr Fahs analysed her students responses wherein she found body hair removal “an example of how women have internalized patriarchal ideals of femininity.” The interesting bit of this however, was that while the majority of her female students found the challenge “difficult” and “disgusting”, there were marked differences between the experiences of the female students of Colour, and the others. As she reports:

Reactions to body hair carried raced and classed elements, as women of color and/ or working-class women reported more familial regulation about body hair and far more social penalties for growing out their hair than did white or middle/upper class women. Women of color often expressed that body hair exacerbated their ‘differentness’ from white or middle/upper-class women in the course. For example, Ana compared the quality of her body hair with her white classmates:

When I compared my hair to the hair of the other girls in class, there was an obvious difference. My hair grew in thick and coarse. The other Latina women in the class understand that the white girls had it easier because their hair was thinner. I felt like people would think I was a ‘dirty Mexican’ because of the hair, that I was doing something nasty, and people would connect my body hair to my being lesbian or Mexican.

Body hair for some women of color became a marker of racial status, which made it harder to assimilate into white middle-class educational settings. (Fahs, 2013:494)

Isn’t it amazingly fucked up that a body that is maintained in line with society’s narrow code of acceptability (a white code) is one that has “looked after itself”, that has not “let itself go”? This is discussed by Foucault (1986) who describes it as a process by which regulation of the body comes to be seen by us as self-care, rather than as a process which may reflect gender or economic power relations – or racial ones.

With regard to respectability and body hair, the most striking testimony can be found in Breanne Fahs’ classroom study:

I come from a family that didn’t have much money, and to let yourself go is going against everything I have been taught. I’m always careful about coming across as respectable and clean, just so I don’t confirm all of those stereotypes people have of me as dirty and low class.

These comments reflect the association of body hair with both a lack of femininity and a lack of respectability, as women of color implicitly faced judgements about how their bodies circulated in public spaces as indicators of their racial or class statuses. Women of color constructed their bodies as having more at stake in this supposed loss of respectability. (Fahs, 2013:494)

No-one, as far as I can see, has tried to measure the psychological impact of body hair practices for Women of Colour, but it has been attempted for white middle class women (surprise!) with a very direct correlation proved across the ages between ‘hirsuteness’ and ‘psychological morbidity’. In a 1938 study by Rabinowitz et al on hirsutism and anxiety, women with hirsutism had significantly higher levels of anxiety than the control group. In 1992, Barth et al measured psychological morbidity in pre-menopausal women with hirsutism. The results found that there was a measurable correlation between hirsutism and social dysfunction in women, which in turn led to overall psychological morbidity in hirsute women.

More recently, Lipton et al, in their 2006, ‘Women living with facial hair: the psychological and behavioral burden’ found results that support many of the earlier studies carried out; namely that 1. Women with unwanted facial hair experience high levels of distress and that hair removal constituted an immense time and emotional burden for these women. In addition to the time burden, it appeared that many women had concerns about their appearance, felt ashamed, and lacked self- confidence. Thoughts about unwanted hair were constantly in the minds of most women, demonstrated by their frequent checking for hair, and 2. Although a large number of women perceived their facial hair to be severe, a finding more pronounced in mixed race and Asian women than white women, this perception was found to have little bearing on their psychological health.

It’s getting there but the research is lacking, or perhaps useless. What about women who are not considered medically ‘hirsute’? What about women who do not display signs of mental distress? What about black women? This is not a medical phenomenon, it is a social one.

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There is clearly a mental onus around body hair rituals that exist outside of the realm of having a full blown mental breakdown which can be measured on some sort of psychological scale (though that obviously counts too). I can’t help but feel that for many women, particularly Women of Colour, the mental health effects are much more insidious, hidden among other pressures and concerns, hidden from ourselves,  couched confusingly within a culture where these practices are considered ‘self-care’ and the experience of participating in them, indeed a therapeutic one.

I am interested in the small stuff. When there is open critique of beauty rituals, this often revolves around the cost of them, the time they take and the pain that must often be endured. This is a neat retelling of the experience. A few studies I have read indicate that body hair is something that is “always on their mind”. This quote, found in one study on psychology and hirsutism is particularly harrowing:

Behavioural measures to conceal hair in this sample included covering the lower part of the face with the hands, staying in shade, maintaining physical distance from others, moving quickly to avoid close observation, wearing concealing clothes and an avoidance of physical contact. (Zerssen et al, 1960)

The mental burden of hair removal does not stop when the hair is removed. It has to be planned and timed around social events, wage delivery and potential sexual encounters. For example, if Layla has a work event on Thursday and a date on Saturday and wants to wax her moustache for the work event, she may encounter a problem as the hair will not grow back fully before her date on Saturday so she may not be able to remove it again before then, but the stubble will be showing, which is unacceptable for a date. Headspace.

Researching the psychology of body hair, I have found a repeated testimony of women describing hair as “dirt”, themselves as “dirty” and the process of hair removal as one intricately tied to the idea of cleanliness. Douglas (1970) suggests that a contravention of order by any object which is “likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications” becomes, “dirt”. This is striking and makes me think immediately of sexual assult survivors self-reporting as feeling “dirty” (Coy, 2009). So let’s think about race. Worldwide, darker skin is considered undesirable and dirty, with many practices employed by women such as scrubbing and bleaching, in efforts to lighten the skin (Craig, 2002). Many racial slurs imply dirtiness. So what is actually going on when women of colour take their hair off? What does it feel like to live with a daily triple burden of brown skin, body hair and a history of sexual abuse, as so many many women do? This framing around the concept of dirt helps to understand why so many women may become so observant of hair removal practices, which are closely related to ideas of cleanliness and purity. This shit goes deep. These ideas were also found in the testimonies gathered by Fahs:

Ruby confronted her own sexism and racism about body hair: ‘I also thought, like most people, that women who did not keep up on their appearance through body hair removal were lazy, dirty, and kind of crazy. . . I never thought that it could be a choice.’ Sharon, who could not finish the assignment because she found it intolerable, described her fear of dirtiness as a raced dimension: ‘As a black woman, I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by white people. I don’t need to be made aware of that any more than I already am.’ Ana similarly commented on her body hair by noting its raced and classed dimensions:

I found myself wearing makeup more often, at first unconsciously. Before I’d stopped shaving, I hardly ever wore makeup. I started because I didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t ‘take care of myself’ and I’m always aware of the fact that, as a Mexican, I have to go that extra mile. I’m not a college professor and I don’t live and work with other feminists like some of my girlfriends do. I’m a waitress, and my coworkers would think I was a freak. (Fahs, 2013:495)

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Last year, Chinese women made headlines for “bombarding” Weibo, a social media site with images of body hair growth. Although framed as a competition, this was a highly politicized online campaign, including the statement:

Many people consider it personal hygiene or etiquette for girls to shave their body hair, be it leg hair or underarm hair. Guys, on the other hand, get away with sporting bushy armpits and a forest of hair on their legs, arms and even chests “because it’ s manly”.

In the UK, 23 year old Harnaam Kaur has made big headlines this year due to her decision to keep her facial hair and speak very publically about it. She has polycystic ovary syndrome and began growing hair on her face aged 16. After years of intense bullying, shaving, waxing, bleaching and a few suicide attempts, she decided, supported by her brother and close friends, to grow her beard out fully. For her there was a religious element too, that appears to give her strength in her decision. She began growing her beard shortly after being baptized as a Sikh and therefore not cutting the hair on her head anymore. In one interview she said, “It’s the way that God made me, and I’m happy with it.” She has since gone on to write articles, give many television interviews, and was the only woman included in a London exhibition by photographer Brock Elbank, that was in celebration of the beard. She also has her own YouTube channel on which she talks, directly to her audience, about her experiences. She has said:

I can laugh about it now but back then it affected me so badly that I began to self harm because it felt better than all the abuse I was getting. I’d talk to people with a hand over my face and I wore baggy, tomboy clothes to cover up the hair on my chest and arms… But I wanted to make my own decisions and live for myself – not anyone else… I’d had enough of hiding. I’d had enough of the bullying and the self-harming and the suicidal thoughts… I’m able to go out and shop in the women’s section without feeling I shouldn’t be there. I wear skirts, dresses and jewellery and I like to get my nails done like every other girl… If I had any message it would be to live the way you want – it’ s your journey and it’ s your life.

A further black women and body hair related search on YouTube returns a video posted by Brittany Virginia Green, a young, American Black woman, called, “Why I DON’T Remove My Armpit Hair (OR ANY OTHER HAIR ;)”. It has had nearly 5000 views and has a constantly renewing flurry of mostly positive comments underneath. The video is powerful, funny and very thought-provoking. She says:

No. I’m not doing it anymore. And I feel like there’s a different type of sexiness to it. Like, a natural, womanly, womanly, sexual, sensual, aura to it. I don’t know how to explain it, I just feel like this is me in the raw. I’m a woman. I’m not nine. I have hair on my vagina. Get over it. Also… hair is psychic, it’s a part of our nervous system. It’s psychic to be sensitive, to know what we want, to be aware, to be self-aware, to be able to pick up on unsaid ques… hair assists with that. When we cut it off, we’re cutting that off… So, with all that said, I’m keeping all my hair, boo. Every last bit of it. Coz ain’t nobody got time to be sitting in the bathroom… doing all these things. I’m keeping it. I love it. I’m a hairy bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.

She also speaks to her black identity and its relevance in conversation about body hair:

Let me tell you this. I’m a black woman. My hairs are coarse, curly, and thick. I know a lot of Black women or mixed women or Latina women or Irish women, or Italian women can relate. We deal with razor bumps, dark marks, just all the complications that come with shaving your armpits, or waxing your bikini line, or doing all this stupid shit that we really don’t wanna do, but we do because it’s etiquette, it’ s an anomaly to see it on the street, or because our guys expect us to do it.

These intersections of race and body hair politics are empowering and promising and brilliant, bright and visual, but they are not common enough. I am collecting testimonies, using a call-out for self-identified Women of Colour to tell me “how your racial identity has influenced your relationship with your body hair, if at all”. Below are some responses I have received so far:

Jenny: Becoming-aware of body hair was definitely concomitant with becoming-aware of not being white (I remember one of my best friends referring to me affectionately as a ‘half-caste’!). The first time the two came together in my head was when a half-Polish girl in a group of other friends (and certainly an ‘other’ in the school due to her name, too) talked to me about getting rid of our moustaches, which I was very embarrassed about discussing. (She used bleaching cream; I tried, but it had the horrific consequence of bleaching my upper lip skin as well, which didn’t show on her). She said we both had dark hair because of our ‘heritage’; and afterwards I remember becoming-aware of the idea that Asian women have more body hair (which I just fact-checked and apparently ISN’T TRUE). The idea that I have more body hair, especially facial hair (that I need to get rid of, but that’ s another story) is in my mind linked to me being half-Indian/Pakistani. I had totally internalised this idea until you asked about it.

Nadia: I found that growing up asian girls were taught that straight hair is desirable. Even now hardly any asian girls and even black girls embrace their natural hair (luckily there are some websites like naturallycurly.com). Also having dark body hair was a problem with asian girls at school, they would get their eyebrows and moustaches threaded/waxed off well as the white girls got away with less waxing as they tended to have blonde body hair.

Shauntell: well for me personally, i didn’t start becoming more free and comfortable with my body hair until i got in the #naturalhairmovement, which basically is a movement for black women that decide to go to our natural roots, fros, frizz, kinks and all and learning to love ourselves, and educating on ourselves about our history more. it’s a lot deeper than hair, i can tell you that lol and throwing out relaxers etc.

i had done the big chop and have been natural for 2 going on 3 years now. doing just that alone was big defining moment for me and was really deep for me. around the same time i did that, i also started questioning other beauty standards i had once subscribed to and wanted to go against tho’s as well. so i simply stopped shaving.

at first i was really uncomfortable and even disgusted with the sight of it, much like the hair atop my head, because i wasnt used to seeing it. but i realized that was a conditioned response. i started talking to a guy friend of mine and he really made me feel better about myself. i honestly have never felt sexier than i do currently, body hair untouched etc. i feel more like a woman that’s in control of my own life and body and it’s extremely liberating.

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— — —

There is so much more to talk about; the Muslim women in East London that I have lived with for years, who cover their bodies completely in public, but talk to me in the waiting room of our local beauty salon, minutes before their full body wax; The cultures wherein the onus of beauty lies with men, or elsewhere; Men, and the rapidly growing pressure on them to conform physically to hair and beauty standards, for them too to be subsumed by this patriarchal capitalistic nightmare; There is the precious relationship between body hair and identity experienced by Trans People of Colour which is being written about beautifully by Sabah Choudrey. There is also class, which is so often lumped together with race as a way of side-stepping it, but is central to this conversation, and every conversation.

In conversations I have had about body hair I have been told I am a killjoy, that I should just be grateful I still have my clitoris, that I should shut up. In conversations I have had about race, I have been told that I have never experienced racism, that it is all in the past, that I am making people uncomfortable, that I should shut up.

It is in the past, and that’s why it is in every cell inside my body and every hair outside of it. My hair gives me voice that is louder than the haters, it is a radical re-scripting and a crucial daily reminder to me and the people around me, that the choices offered to us are not the only choices available. Before we can make a true choice, we have to remember we have one.

Works Cited:

ASU professor encourages students to defy body hair norms. ASU News. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <https://asunews.asu.edu/20140703-body-shaving&gt;.

Ali, Alisha & Sichel, Corianna, Structural Competency as a Framework for Training in Counseling Psychology, The Counseling Psychologist (2014)

Barth, J. H., Catalan, J., Cherry, C. A., & Day, A. (1993). Psychological morbidity in women referred for treatment of hirsutism. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 37, 615–619.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable weight: feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge. Coy, L. (2009). Invaded Spaces and Feeling Dirty. In Rape: Challenging contemporary thinking.

Cullompton: Willan.

Craig, Maxine Leeds. Ain’t I a beauty queen?: black women, beauty, and the politics of race. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Douglas, M. (1970). Natural Symbols. London: Routledge. Eagleton, T. (2003). After theory. New York: Basic Books.

Ekbäck, M., Wijma, K., & Benzein, E. (2009). “It Is Always on My Mind”: Women’s Experiences of Their Bodies When Living With Hirsutism. Health Care For Women International, 358-372.

Fahs, Breanne. “Breaking body hair boundaries: Classroom exercises for challenging social constructions of the body and sexuality.” Feminism & Psychology 22.4 (2014): 482-506.

Fahs, Breanne. “Dreaded “Otherness” Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions.” Gender & Society 25.4 (2011): 451-472.

Fahs, Breanne. “Shaving It All Off: Examining Social Norms of Body Hair among College Men in a Women’s Studies Course.” Women’s Studies 42.5 (2013): 559-577.

Ferrante, Joan (1988). Biomedical versus cultural constructions of abnormality: The case of idiopathic hirsutism in the United States. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 12, 219 – 238.

Freeland, C. (2001). But is it art?: An introduction to art theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gill, Tiffany M.. Beauty shop politics: African American women’s activism in the beauty industry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Print.

Grosz, E. (1995). Sexy bodies the strange carnalities of feminism. London: Routledge hooks, b., (1992). Black looks: Race and representation (p. 101). Boston: South End Press.

hooks. b “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Cultural Studies. Eds. Lawrence Grossberg et al. London: Routledge, 1992: 338-342.

Keegan, A., Liao, L., & Boyle, M. (2003). ‘Hirsutism’: A Psychological Analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 327-345.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. The last taboo women and body hair. Manchester: Manchester University Press ;, 2006. Print.

Lipton, M., Sherr, L., Elford, J., Rustin, M., & Clayton, W. (2006). Women living with facial hair: The psychological and behavioral burden. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 161-168.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Miller. (2014, January 1). Why Are We Grossed Out by Women With Armpit Hair? Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/06/why-were-grossed-out-women- pit-hair.html

Modood, T., & Beishon, S. (1994). Changing ethnic identities. London: Policy Studies Institute. Prince, Althea. The politics of black women’s hair. Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2010. Print.

Rabinowitz, S., Cohen, R., & Roith, D. (1938). Anxiety And Hirsutism. Psychological Reports, 827-830.

Reynolds D & Florence P “Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary Body” Media/ Subject/ Gender (Manchester University Press 1995), pp. 183-196.

Ridgeway, C. L., & Jacobson, C. K. (1979). The Development of Female Role Ideology: Impact of Personal Confidence during Adolescence. Youth and Society, 10(3), 297-315.

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Doctor’s Report

I am a madwoman when I am laughing with my head back like I am in a yoghurt advert. I am a madwoman when I’m crying on the train and when I’m not crying on the train because I’m waiting to get off the train, climb up the stairs, walk through the tunnel, go round the corner from my house where I know there is a doorway with a door that doesn’t open anymore, and cry there. The midnight snack of cries. The walk. The everything is ok walk. Everyone is looking at me and no-one is looking at me and my face is hard and my eyes are soft. Keep walking. Don’t look down. I am a madwoman when I pull a man into the toilets at the Buddhist Center. I am a madwoman when I’m the last one dancing and I am a madwoman when I am the first one to leave and I am a madwoman when I am having a perfectly nice time. Babies are frightened of me and they love me more than they love their parents. I am a madwoman when I fuck like my body is one organ and I am a madwoman when I get my assignments in on time. I am a madwoman when I pinch the flesh of my inside elbow under the table for 10 seconds at a time while participating politely in a conversation about human rights abuses in wherever the fuck. I’ll be a madwoman with six daughters living in the countryside with a pond and a pick-up truck before relocating to the city for all the important things and I’ll be a madwoman when you tell me you need space and I start smoking again. I am a madwoman who helps other madwomen with their heavy bags even when they don’t want my help which is often.

The man who decided my madness rollerblades to work and looks at his hands every time I cry. He is a small man with a big internet presence. There are dancing wine glasses on his website because not only is he consultant to two different hospitals and co-chair of a mental health charity but he is also an amateur food critic and retired figure skater. It’s hard to believe because his face is so small and his shoes are so clunky and plastic-looking but definitely expensive because he’s a doctor and he reminds me of those kids at school who never spoke but then were all “hey, what’s up” on msn messenger. I always liked those kids though. I like him too. And I made him like me by nodding and making my eyes go big, and I cry for the things I need like a baby, because that’s what a madwoman becomes when she’s really mad. I like him even though I said my periods were making me madder and he said they weren’t. And when my hair started falling out from the pills he made me take, he did a sad face.

My friends are jealous. I am a mad woman with a folder full of pieces of paper and limbs full of scars to prove it. I am the madwoman and they aren’t. So they want to know what their fucking excuse is. And I feel bad and I pretend they are mad like me, like when my friends feel guilty about how white and how rich they are and I pretend I am as white and rich as they are to make them comfortable, you know, the shit that made me mad in the first place. And it goes on, them telling me they aren’t really as mad as I am and I tell them it’s ok they are, because we all shave our pussies, but they wish they were mad too so they could stop for a minute.

I sat next to my mother at the cinema where it is dark and other people can do the talking for us. I sat in silent appreciation of Angelina Jolie’s tits and I wasn’t sure what was happening but I knew it was based on a true story. Angelina’s son had gone missing and The Authorities told her they found him but it wasn’t him and she told them that but they said she was crazy and tortured her in a hospital for a few years, and Britney shaved her hair off, smiling, and mum is listening to What a Wonderful World on the radio, driving in circles.

You can click on those to make them bigger if you’d like.

I’ve been writing about being mad and making pictures about being mad and I’ve recently become quite obsessed with documents.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my desk in my bedroom in New York, probably trying to avoid something important I had to do when I kicked a box. Inside the box is a wad of medical papers, maybe more than 50 sheets of paper. I brought them with me when I moved here from London 8 months ago and didn’t think about them again. They are like half a relic of my past and half proof of who I am, should anyone ever need to know when I am unable to tell them (which is always a possibility). It’s weird.

These papers document my breakdown from November 2012 to July 2014 (mainly). I had not thought much about them, as they came through the letterbox every week, from my psychiatrist to me. I had not thought much except that it was crucial I take them wherever I go. All of them. They provide me with safety and they make me uncomfortable too. They make me feel dirty, or spoilt, or dangerous, and unloveable and that they validate me. They are proof of enduring care at the hands of strangers, and they are full of definitions of myself that I do not understand yet, or have chosen to ignore. It’s all very fucking confusing. My baggage is typed on letter-headed paper and signed by a man who rollerblades to work. Cool.

Anyway I’ve been cutting them up and doing some sort of re-scripting, queering, joke-making project that I have been calling The Doctor’s Report, and I’m looking for people who want to do that with me. There are literally no requirements other than you own some of your medical records – psych evaluations, therapist notes, whatever and don’t mind cutting them up (or photocopies of them, let’s be reasonable). Contact me on aaa760@nyu.edu or however works for you, and thanks to those who already have! This is still very much an experiment, but it’s pretty funny.

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The Bravery Of Coming Out As Crazy

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I’ve been meaning to write for ages. Lots of things have happened since I last wrote. Like my glasses have a stronger prescription, I have had my first ever telephone interview, I’ve argued with racists on facebook even though I promised myself I would stop doing that in 2012. And I’ve been to the hairdresser four times in the last ten days which this time last year would have ended in a conversation with a medical professional about “managing highs and lows”, but so far has only actually resulted in very short hair.

None of those are reasons for why I haven’t written of course. I haven’t written because it’s hard. Despite all of the emails and deeply enriching conversations I have had, and all the plans I have made and strength I have gained thanks to this blog, I have to psych myself up every time I want to write on it, and that can take weeks. What’s with that?

I have noticed people call me brave a lot, for writing about my health, and while I graciously accept the compliment (who doesn’t want to be brave?) I have to admit that I have never really understood it, or accepted it. Maybe when I think of bravery I still think of horses and swords and human shields and girls saying No and girls saying Yes and the girl Maya Angelou is talking about here:

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

Not me. I struggle to see me, chronically over-disclosing on the internet, as brave.

But that’s bullshit, isn’t it. Reading that sentence now I can see how much it drips with internalised misogyny. How it willfully overlooks how deeply political the personal is. I can hear the voice inside my head telling me to hurry up and get over it and get back to work and get back to my friends and back to normal life, and besides, it never really happened anyway. The overwhelming voice of society and the people who make it, refusing to value the experience of insanity for what it is; to acknowledge it, to explore it, to understand it. The voice telling me to Forget, Forget, Forget.

It’s bullshit because I know that pens and typewriters and keyboards are weaponry as much as swords and shields and guns are. I feel like I was born knowing that. Because I would be the first person to encourage a woman to speak loudly and for as long as she needs to, without worrying about spitting while she does.

It’s bullshit because in the words of my good friend Cat, “if the stories of our lives and experiences run counter to dominant narratives, telling them is a political act”.

So why, if I know all that, do I battle the feeling that my choice to talk openly about my mental health is self-indulgent, attention-seeking, weak? Why do I question in myself the bravery I have come to celebrate in others? Is it the guilt of being different in the first place? Is this The Stigma in action? The stigma that tells people with extreme emotions, minority life experiences, mental disorders to get a job and shut the fuck up? To not make a scene. To control ourselves. To not be a burden. The dogma is so strong, that political creature though I may be, I am realising I have not been exempt from it.

You know, these days I can count on myself to just about pass for a normal person. I wake up in the morning and feel hunger instead of dread, nausea or despair. I stand at the top of a street and I wonder what I will find as I walk down it instead of wondering if I’ll make it the whole way. I can think about other things and talk about other things and I think that’s why writing about it feels harder. Now that my mental state is not my whole identity, it feels like by writing about it, I am choosing to go there. And that is starting to feel like a brave thing to do.

When I was talking to a friend about sexuality recently she said, “there’s this myth that you come out and it’s a big deal and your mum cries and then she stops crying and then it’s over. It’s not like that. You come out every day, multiple times a day. And sometimes you choose not to.” Choosing to come back here and write about mental health feels like continually outing myself as someone with a problem. As someone who will hurt you if you get too close. As someone who needs help. As someone who is different. I mean, I am no stranger to “being different” – I have never been somewhere where I am not different, and I out myself as a black feminist on the daily, but I have never felt anything like the perceived cost of outing myself as one of the “mentally ill”. The sense of weakness and waste associated with it is overbearing. Everything tells me to run from it, like a building on fire, and not to look back. It’s brave to look back, but it has its rewards too, because when you look into the flames you’re also looking into your future.

Upon hearing of Maya Angelou’s death, I drank in the quotes that flooded social media and drifted to sleep listening to her voice. It was the quote up there that I couldn’t get out of my head. How desperately I want to be the girl she is speaking about. Her words gave me such strength, but they challenged me at the same time. They challenged me to write this, and address that fucked up little voice inside me that tells me to be grateful and be quiet. Her words moved me to think about all the women that are kicking ass right now, who kick ass on a daily basis, who are advocates for themselves, who out themselves willfully, who say what society tells them no-one wants to hear. Thank you, you are so brave.

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Madonna Has Armpits

A few words on Madonna’s armpits for The Independent.

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So, Madonna has armpits. She also has products to sell. Let’s just get this out of the way. Even if that armpit picture was timed to coincide with the release of her new advert, even if that was the case – that is besides the point. The point is, why is it, that still, in 2014, despite woman’s hour and twitter and feminist pop songs, a woman with body hair will get so much attention? Whether that attention comes in the form of a snigger on the street or dickheads like me writing articles about it. Why does it remain one of the unshakable truths of the universe, that if a woman makes the choice not to shave what her mama gave her, the human race, capable of designing video games, and building really tall buildings, and writing love letters, start hyperventilating and cursing and spitting at the sight of any hair below the eyebrows of a woman. What the hell is wrong with people?

The answer to that question dear friends is ‘the patriarchy’. I’ll give you the short version because it’s a really nice day and I’m getting bored of explaining that it is a very basic and very important human right that women be allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, with their minds, and yes, with their pubis. And no, women do not have a choice. If being jeered, humiliated and exposed, if being told you’re ugly over and over again, is the consequence of being hairy, that does not make a woman’s decision to remove it a choice, it makes it a necessity.  If it was a choice, Madonna having a hairy armpit or two would not be news, in the same way that if we lived any sort of half way decent existence, people not wearing make up would not be news. As my friend Ellie put it: “There are quite a lot of people who don’t wear make up. Mostly they’re called men.”

So why then, if women’s big bare faces and furry pits are so totally natural, if they are something that shouldn’t need to be celebrated or shamed but should be allowed to just exist the way that, you know, men’s do. Why did I drop my egg mayonnaise down my dress this morning from sheer excitement when I saw the picture? Because whether I like it or not, it is a brave thing to do. Women’s bodies gross everybody out so much that even for one of the world’s most powerful women, it is a brave thing to do. For some of the fierce feminist warriors that I know, leaving the house without make up on would be a brave thing to do. I believe there is no woman living in the Western world and soon, universe, for whom it is not a brave thing to do. Shall we all just take a quick moment to meditate on that?

I don’t care if Madonna is attention seeking, not least because that’s her job. I don’t even care if she glued it on, what Madonna did is an act of resistance. Now, I know we’re all waiting for Russell Brand to say something funny so we can share the video and call it a revolution, but fuck waiting. This is the revolution. Every time a girl is allowed to make real choices, rather than do what she has to, to survive, that is a revolution. Madonna’s armpit is the revolution. My armpit is the revolution. Beyoncé bringing feminism to millions of young people who otherwise might not have known about it is a revolution. Beyoncé in general is a revolution. Jennifer Lopez making valiant feminist statements to horrific music is a revolution. Men wearing make-up and singing La Isla Bonita on the harp is a revolution.

Madonna has a long history of subverting gender norms, and as she disclosed in this interview, a long history of hairy armpits. She said:

“Drinking beer and smoking weed in the parking lot of my high school was not my idea of being rebellious, because that’s what everybody did. And I never wanted to do what everybody did. I thought it was cooler to not shave my legs or under my arms. I mean, why did God give us hair there anyways? Why didn’t guys have to shave there? Why was it accepted in Europe but not in America? No one could answer my questions in a satisfactory manner, so I pushed the envelope even further… But it was hard and it was lonely, and I had to dare myself every day to keep going… And I wondered if it was all worth it, but then I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me.”

The issue of body hair is consistently dismissed as something feminists should be over. It will never be over because that girl that Madonna describes will always exist. That girl who wants to be allowed to be herself. I bet that picture is going up on some bedroom walls tonight.

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Thoughts are not Facts

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So I don’t live on a boat anymore. Good job the name of this blog is a metaphor for being fucked in the head as well as a description of my past living arrangement. All bases covered. I don’t live on a boat anymore, but I do still have a debilitating mental illness, so hopefully this isn’t too awkward for everyone.

I haven’t written for some months, because for most of them, the ones furthest from now, I have been quite depressed. Very depressed. The video messages, sad songs and letters to my infant self I imagined I would use to express myself to you did not materialise. I have had to break it to myself gently that I am not a creative depressive. Well I am, but not when I’m depressed. Depression eats my creativity, it eats my brain, it eats my body. But even if I had been documenting my time falling down the shit-walled staircase of depression, it would not have made its way here. The thought of broadcasting that news would have been horrific to me. It is no surprise that I started this blog at a time I was hallucinating snakes, if you catch my drift.

I wasn’t sure if I’d keep writing. If once I’d clamboured out of another episode of depression the best thing to do was tell everybody about it. If I wanted to continue to draw attention to this part of my existence. If I wanted to dwell on it. And then I thought about the pain of mental struggle. How it hurts you and it hurts the people you have loved most in the world. How sometimes everyone hurts at the same time, and other times you’re so lost inside your own body, your core is so disintegrated and unrecognisable that you aren’t even capable of understanding the hurt that is going on until months or years later. And then you realise and it hurts all over again. I think this blog is positivity from that pain.

While I was depressed, I would get emails from people telling me the blog made them feel less alone. It was a strange experience, reading it back to myself. I didn’t recognise the person who was writing. I read the posts many times over those months, because it was proof that I could exist as something else. There was one paragraph in particular I read repeatedly, willing myself to believe it:

I’m still not sure why I’m doing this, or if I’m going to regret disclosing all this personal information, or if I’ll keep it up, or who I’m talking to. But on the off chance that there’s someone there, and that person feels like they will never be happy again – like they have lost themselves and the person they have been trying to make decent/clever/funny/kind for 15 or 25 or 55 years has dissolved and left just a shell – I promise you, you are still there. It doesn’t feel like it now, but one morning you will wake up and you will feel OK about it.

Of course I want to dwell on this. I have been given insight to a universe within a universe, a realm of human existence that was invisible to me. I will dwell on this forever, because I want to, not because I have to. I want to go back for the fallen women, because not everybody has got a family like mine. It made me so uncomfortable that my mental health could silence me. Depression is grim, and boring, and torturous, and insidious. It’s the loneliest thing in the world, and that’s why it has to be spoken about. Being crazy isn’t just about falling down stairs and getting drunk and kissing people you shouldn’t and screaming and hyperventilating and jumping off buildings and talking really fast and being good at art. It happens in the quietest moments, to people who look like they’re just sitting down, but are trapped inside their own bodies. That’s why I want to write about depression. It’s too easy to ignore. But I’ve had to wait until now to do it because despite all the great campaigns focused on getting people to talk about mental health, sometimes I’m the one who doesn’t want to. Sometimes I challenge myself not to talk about it for a week. Sometimes Stephen Fry is on the TV talking about being crazy and I have to leave the room. You know?

It was harrowing for me, that I was able to go so many weeks without writing anything. Or, you know, doing anything. My existence was primal. Except without any hunting or gathering. Lots of hiding, shaking, crying, fear. Days were spent sitting on the floor with my back against the door like a scene out of Eastenders. I would have to psych myself up, sometimes for hours, before I could leave to use the toilet. I watched some days come and go, from under my bed sheets, like a sad mole. A classic.

What my body lacked in activity, my mind made up for with compulsive negativity. Thoughts about my health, my life, my losses, my guilt: rumination. I attacked myself relentlessly, listing my failings, telling myself I had no friends and that I would die without achieving anything. Paranoia sky-rocketed, I avoided the eye contact of people on the street and would be extremely fearful walking around at night. Every day that passed with no calls or texts became affirmation that no-one loves me, and yet I was suspicious of friends who did communicate with me, trying desperately to figure out what their hidden motive was. Depression is kinda vicious like that; you spend so much time trying to shake off the paranoia that you don’t have friends, that by the time you do, you almost certainly will have lost some, which doesn’t help with the paranoia etc. amen. I came to resent the people who I knew would be shattered if I was gone. In that mind set, they were an obstacle. Sleep was the only reprieve, so I did a fair bit of that.

One night I had a turning point. I had been sitting on my bed for about three hours crying. Pretty standard, nothing to report there. And then everything went black. My eyes were open, but everything was black. I realised I was at the bottom of what felt like a really long chimney, with black walls all around. I started panicking because there were no footholds, just smooth walls like plastic. As I looked up I made out a dot.  Sky. I picked up my phone and started typing. I’m going to share this piece of writing, in which I inexplicably refer to myself in the third person – not a thing I ever do, ever. This is fairly brutal but if I did hit the bottom, at least I bounced, right?

Alisha [sic] Mirza is really really ill and needs help. Who can help her? Her life is disintegrating bit by bit. Someone please help. People have tried to help but Aisha is beyond help. Everyone who tries to help her breaks. Everyone who tries to help her leaves. There is no help. I have no emotions, they have been taken. There are no good days or bad days any more. Where is my humanity? Where is my humanity, my personality, my positivity, my trust, my friends, my love, my focus, my mind. I just don’t know how I’m gonna get out of this.

I stopped there to call a friend and they answered with all of the compassion and love that I had convinced myself didn’t exist, and I felt better. That was the beginning of my recovery.  The recovery that I thought this post was going to be about, before I realised that depression needed to come before the recovery. The act of writing in that moment allowed me to see my thoughts. To remind myself that they are just thoughts, not the truth. To make them tangible rather than all-consuming and paralysing. These days, after fighting quite hard, that distinction is beginning to come naturally, and that is freedom.

I spent the whole of last year oscillating between the woman who wrote the first quote in this blog, sitting on the roof of a houseboat, and the woman who wrote the second, quivering under her bed sheets. Depression will come back, and it will be disappointing and terrifying when it does. But next time I will see it coming, and that will make the difference. I am careful not to get too smug or complacent about feeling better, because I have felt better before. Lots of times. But I celebrate the fuck out of moments of hope when I get them though. My most recent came a few weekends ago, walking down the canal with a friend, making empty promises to the boats as I went past. A beautiful dark haired couple strolled past with their baby strapped to the father’s chest, and I saw it’s little round head poking out, cheeks red from the day like the sweetest tomato you’ve ever had. I felt a pang in my womb – a feeling I used to have almost every time I saw a child, but not since my first depressive episode 16 months ago. A pang of longing and hope and desire. A pang that belongs in the future. A future I’ve been too scared to think about for so long. A future I didn’t think I deserved. Life.

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Why International Women’s Day Matters

I helped with this a little bit, for the Independent.

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As part of International Women’s Day, we asked our women writers to answer five questions. We couldn’t possibly fit in all of the fantastic responses we received, but here’s a selection. And to anyone who doesn’t see the point in having a day to talk about just some of the issues facing women and girls all around the world, they’re about to show you why it matters.

1. What do you think has been the most important step forward for feminism in the last year?

Lisa Markwell: I think the quiet, ongoing evolution from feminism being a cap-F ghetto, perceived as being populated by shrill ‘sisters’, to it being a solid supporting wall for women everywhere.

Joan Smith: The big change in attitudes to sexual violence. Because of the revelations about Jimmy Savile, the public is finally realising how widespread it is.

Kiri Kankhwende: The emergence (or increased prominence) of young women campaigners such as Fahma Mohamed who has campaigned for education in England about female genital mutilation.

Katy Guest: Proposals announced late last year to allow new parents to split up to 50 weeks of parental leave between them, as it suits them. Equality in the workplace can now at least get started.

Aisha Mirza: Black women taking the microphone and starting loud, imaginative and brave conversations about identity, and the importance of acknowledging race within feminism. It had to happen.

Bina Shah: In my part of the world, the most important step forward has been the realization that educating girls is our biggest priority. There’s been a real change in awareness on the issue and our commitment to the challenge in Pakistan is being supported by our many global partners in development.

2. Which issue do you think the UK government should prioritise next?

Paris Lees: We need a radical overhaul of how we approach sex and sexuality education. Kids have greater access to pornographic material than ever before, and they’re seeing music videos that border on softcore porn. So why did MPs vote against compulsory sex education in British schools? We need to teach boys how to respect girls and the importance of respecting boundaries. We need to stop bullying of gay kids and kids who don’t conform to traditional gender stereotypes.

Felicity Morse: Childcare. If equal roles and responsibilities can be properly apportioned with things like paternity leave and proper facilities at work, then women are going to find it easier to keep on working whilst having babies. This will revolutionise how they are seen in the workplace.

Louise McCudden: Consent and VAWG in all its forms. We have protests in Bolton and London on Saturday called Yes Matters because consent needs to be taught in schools – so come and support!

Jane Fae: Inconsistent policing of violence against women. Irrespective of views on sex work, too many police forces are dealing with this issue in ways that criminalise victims and make it harder for them to get help.

Harriet Williamson: The Government should address the horrific treatment of the women currently held in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Those women came to this country for help, fleeing sexual abuse, political persecution, institutional homophobia and forced FGM.

Lisa Markwell: Get its own house (and House) in order – every party must find more women to run for parliament – and that doesn’t mean quota nonsense or all-women shortlists, it means thinking creatively about where to recruit from, and offering a genuinely inclusive, fair place to work. From this will flow better opportunities and conditions in wider society.

Caroline Criado-Perez: Sex and Relationships education. In the face of an internet saturated with often violent and misogynistic porn, it’s more vital than ever that children are given a safe space in which to discuss how to treat and relate to each other.

3. Who has been an inspiration to you over the past year?

Kiri Kankhwende:  I have been inspired by Nimco Ali of Daughters of Eve, who has campaigned about the issue of FGM and worked to help women affected by it, despite the threats and abuse she has endures as a result.

Katy Guest: Cheesy as it sounds, my mum, who gave a mother-of-the-bride speech at my wedding on behalf of all mothers. The writers Stella Duffy and Shelley Silas; Malala Yousafzai; Eleanor Catton; the editor of the Independent on Sunday, Lisa Markwell; Caroline Criado-Perez; the Pink Stinks campaign; Mary Berry; Dr Alice Roberts; Bettany Hughes; the woman who single-handedly runs my local Indian restaurant…

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Too many to list. I don’t like picking up one or two heroines when everyday unsung heroines battle away.

Alice Jones: Malala Yousafzai for her courage, eloquence and intelligence.I can’t get the various images of Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaking out against the regime minutes after being released from prison, she and her colleagues being whipped and beaten by the police at the Sochi games – out of my head. In an entirely different sphere, Bridget Christie, for making feminism funny and doing more than anyone I can remember to dismantle the myth that women can’t be funny.

Paris Lees: Caroline Criado-Perez is someone I really admire. She put herself out there and she bloody did it – Jane Austen will be on bank notes in 2017. And the crap she got for it! People are attacking her because she’s out there trying to do something positive. Love Jack Monroe too. And Lupita Nyong’o. And Lorde. I’m excited by the new generation of feminists.

Jane Merrick: Two women in politics – the Defence Minister Anna Soubry, who is a fantastic role model and not only pushes boundaries of gender stereotyping but tramples all over them; and the Labour MP Gloria de Piero, who was made shadow women’s minister and who continues to wage a campaign to encourage the disenchanted and disenfranchised to be interested in voting.

4. Where have you seen the most conspicuous failings for women’s rights in the past year?

Harriet Williamson: The rise of rape culture, particularly on university campuses. Female students are being let down by university administrations as they refuse to take sexual harassment seriously and in some cases, force victims to attend lectures and seminars with their attackers.

Jane Merrick: The Spanish government’s proposed law to tighten restrictions on abortion is deeply worrying, as is the question of girls’ education worldwide. When western forces leave Afghanistan at the end of this year, is this the moment we turn a blind eye to girls’ education in that country?

Kiri Kankhwende:  I don’t think sufficient attention has been given to the rights of women seeking asylum. Women for Refugee Women has highlighted the suffering of already-traumatised women in Yarl’s Wood Detentions Centre, who are detained despite having committed no crime.

Joan Smith: In this country, another year has gone by without equal pay. How long do we have to wait?

Felicity Morse: What has struck me most about equal rights for women is how often lesbians still face the kind of discrimination which would not be tolerable for straight women. For example pictures of lesbians kissing is still seen as titillation. They are still jeered at for ‘dressing like men’ etc.

Alice Jones: On television and on Twitter. An unedifying, unending parade of empty sex dolls and trolls seems to me to be one of the biggest threats to women’s rights there is.

Aisha Mirza: I’m not really over the cuts yet. Cuts to legal aid that strip women of freedom. Changes to benefits that trap women in dangerous situations. The dismantling of services designed to care for the most vulnerable people in society. All of those things are happening now.

5. What (if any) personal experience of sexism – involving either yourself or someone you know – have you had over the past year that you can tell us about?

Caroline Criado-Perez: I was faced with about a month of terrifying, graphic, violent and relentless threats. I was told that I would have my genitals mutilated, that I would be pistol-whipped and my flesh burned in front of my children, that I would be gang-raped till I died – that I would be begging to die. They also started posting addresses connected to me all round the internet. I felt hunted. It was quite shocking how little it took to set them off.

Bina Shah: I wrote an article for the Independent questioning why the West is fascinated by Muslim women’s dress. Two men told me that as a Muslim woman my opinion was invalid. It made me understand the importance of the intersectionality debate in feminism.

Louise McCudden: How long have you got? I honestly don’t even know where to start.

Joan Smith: Misogyny thrives on Twitter. Quite revealing that some people respond to articles they don’t like with a barrage of personal abuse.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I used to be on TV and radio a lot more than I am now. I’ve been told by friendly insiders that they don’t like me because I am combative (unlike Peter Hitchins and Nigel Farage) and too old. Go figure.

Felicity Morse: A date told me i should be quieter if I want to get laid. I didn’t shut up. Worst still, I have the feeling he might be right.

Katy Guest: Again, how long have you got? All the little stuff. Going into Homebase for a countersinking bit and being asked, “What did he tell you he needed it for?”

Jane Fae: Violence and the fear of violence. Out one evening with a close female friend, we were not in the least bit interested in meeting or chatting to guys. Half a dozen slightly sozzled blokes decided to join us and when we failed to conform to their expectations became rude and threatening.

Paris Lees: People talking over me. I’ve been getting invited on more panel shows and radio debates and every time it’s like the boys just instantly take over. I’d never noticed it before and I assumed it would be subtle, but actually when you start to observe it for yourself you see that it’s blatant and constant.

Lisa Markwell: I do enjoy writing back to people who send letters with the standard-issue “Dear Sir” at the top (eg: perhaps you were mistaken and thought I was Mark Well?). More seriously, the editor of another newspaper asked, when told what I did, asked “what, the *whole* paper?” as if it was incredible.

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Lucky Witches

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I mean, I’ll be honest, when I started this blog, I was thinking of it more as a social experiment (of course I was, who wants to admit to themselves that they are writing a blog). I imagined it would capture the Raw Truth of Living with a Mental Illness. That after a while, depression would return, I would be too depressed to write, and I’d have to cry into my inbuilt camera instead, looking beautiful, like Beyoncé in that documentary that she wrote, directed and produced about herself. And that together we would marvel at the depth and unpredictability of human emotion.

But, I’m like, still fine and stuff. It has been about 6 weeks now. I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve had a few wobbly moments recently: explaining to the 7th passerby of the day that no, I don’t empty my toilet “into the river”, realizing that boat people love to party into the night (good) to blues music (not good), eating tuna, mayonnaise and sweetcorn from a single can for dinner, and feeling crushing Loneliness for absolutely no reason, and dropping everything to crawl back into the bosom of my loving friends with houses, lovely dirty noisy houses. And televisions. But when any potentially destabilizing thought or feeling (no matter how completely normal considering I am a human not a robot) creeps into my brain and my belly, I just do my mantras: “I have to be strong” or “I am strong” depending on how confident I’m feeling. Seems to work.

Most of the time though, I feel really lucky, like I used to. I used to feel somehow immune to the tribulations that others had to face, like I was running through a Gameboy, collecting mushrooms and hearts, riding phoenixes, dodging weird meat cleaver things being thrown by giant clowns, never getting hit. I would often marvel at my luck – I have had perfect physical health my whole life, I have had an incredible formal education and could have more if I wanted, I have total freedom over my life, I have never been hungry for longer than the time it takes to get to a fridge, I love my family and they love me back, I have seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert 5 times, I have and always have had the most fierce women around, to cry with and to laugh with, I found a perfect boat to live on the day after I decided to live on one. I’ve always felt that if I want something, I’ll be able to get it. Maybe luck isn’t the right word for that.

So being incapacitated for 6 months, and entirely reliant on other people, left me feeling like I’d dropped my Gameboy in the swimming pool, you know?

My mum used to tell me off for describing myself as lucky. It’s diminishing – it doesn’t acknowledge the hard work, the sacrifice or the good deeds that may have led to where you are. She believes that if you do good things, they come back to you, at some point, in some way. I believed that too – I mean, who would want to live in a world where that isn’t true? That’s why when I was dealt a rotten hand, I would often wonder, deep down, what I had done wrong. I took it as a signifier that I wasn’t good or special anymore. Not only did I feel pretty unlucky, but I started to see an unlucky past, mired by mini-tragedies and potential traumas. And that’s what the people around me were reinforcing, which makes sense, because if they had all sat around telling me why I was actually very lucky, I just wouldn’t have been into it. Isn’t it fascinating and terrifying how one life can be seen so differently through the same set of eyes? Hiya depression.

Once comfortably settled into my recent period of illness, I had stopped wondering what was wrong with me, and I spent almost every second of my time awake obsessively thinking about what was wrong with the world and everyone in it. I was working with the same karmic idea, that we get what we give, but this time I wasn’t following it through. I have given stuff, I kept telling myself. I have given stuff directly to people and I have given stuff to the forces that challenge structural bullshit in this world, and no-one or nothing is giving me anything back, when I so desperately need it. Despite my mother who didn’t sleep for weeks, despite my friends who lived with it and through it, despite the NHS, despite the best man I have ever known, that is genuinely how I felt. That anger, that bitterness, is what nearly drove me to the edge. Hiya depression.

So basically that is a very long-winded way of saying I am so lucky to feel lucky again. And for the time being I don’t care why – maybe someone has lent me some of their good juju, or maybe it’s all completely fucking arbitrary or maybe I’m realizing that my madness makes me lucky – or “charmed” as my good friend who also has bipolar put it. These thoughts were inspired by a conversation we had, sitting on the pavement outside a pub in Soho one recent Saturday night.

Her: Don’t you think sometimes, this is cool. I mean, obviously it fucking sucks, but it’s also kind of amazing. We experience so many things that other people never will.

Me: Yes. That is cool.

Her: I wouldn’t like to do it without meds though. Thank god we weren’t alive 100 years ago.

Me: Yeah. We would have been burned at the steak in no time. We are those women though. Now. We are the witches.

Her: We are the witches. Lucky witches.

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Slugs Are The New Spiders

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If I was a boat right now, I’d have an engine. A big, fat, highly-powered engine that you can’t turn off. I don’t know enough about engines to elaborate on that any further, but I trust you get my drift.

Last week at work, I had about 300 tabs open on my computer, few of which were particularly relevant to women’s rights, and I was flicking between them, quickly, from one side of the screen to the other, back and forth, gurning, without actually looking at or reading anything. I don’t know how long this went on for but at some point I realised what I was doing. It wasn’t the first time. This behaviour has been coined by a dear friend as “The Social Media Sweats” (TSMS) and is usually but not always accompanied by a usually but not always obnoxious stream of consciousness via the nearest available outlet.

I did a check. I had slept an hour and a half the previous night, and hadn’t eaten anything but crabsticks for two days.  I had set alarms on my phone every half an hour, which prior to TSMS had kept me to a strict regime of writing, socialising, work and life admin. I looked in my diary at the excerpt I had written the night before. It began:

“Things are so good. It’s happening so fast. Every moment I’m spending here is a precious gift. It’s like summer for the first time. Nothing is enough.”  Excellent.

I started to panic, not because I hadn’t eaten or slept – I can make up for that (and OH I WILL) – but because the thought that the productivity, positivity, discipline and creativity I have been experiencing since moving onto my boat was the product of an altered mental state, a manic episode that is unsustainable (to put it mildly), was truly gutting and completely terrifying.  That it could all be snatched away from me. That I could wake up one day soon, realise I have to walk ten minutes for a shower and wonder what the fuck I’ve done with my life.

The thoughts flooded in, as they often do during this period of self-regulation and transition into independent living. What if I’m not stable after all? What if I have only managed to cope with the move, the weird angle I have to sit on the toilet and the nights alone because I’ve been buoyed by the relentless energy, confidence and OPTIMISM that mania brings me. What if I’m about to crack?

I ran out of the office convinced I was about to implode and called Hilary, my angel (occupational therapist) from heaven (the NHS). I’m really into ‘Hilaries’ at the moment. I’m reading a book called ‘Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Wanted To Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out To Ask’ by one Hilary Smith and it’s just awesome. So funny, so helpful, by far the best book I’ve read on bipolar. I’ll review it when I run out of things to say.

Hilary took me seriously as always, told me she had seen this coming, and recommended I go home to eat and sleep, which I did, hyper-aware all the way that with every step I took I was making the pavement ripple. I felt like I was in a music video with low-budget special effects, against my will. Which is strange because on what universe would I not want to be in a music video with low budget special effects? It was uncomfortable.

Validation is important because it stops you feeling like a dick. It staves off the constant fear that actually, you’re just an attention seeker, or that anyone who pathologised themselves as much as you have begun to would also have a chronic mental illness. I get validation from some family and friends when I look into their eyes or listen to the tone of their voice, from my doctors who have always taken this more seriously than I have, from the drugs that have an undeniable effect on my ability to function, and from the experiences I have that do not occur for the vast majority of (sober) people. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when later that evening, as I walked down a dirt path towards my boat, I saw a thick python moving slowly towards me. Turns out this hallucination was just what I needed. I ran so hard and so fast that I had to sleep for two days just to recover.

I awoke to yet another breath-taking day, and as I clamboured out of my boat to greet it, as I do every morning, I saw a boat coming towards me, steered by a very handsome couple wearing matching sunglasses. “WE WIN!” I shouted to them as I fist pumped the air. They ignored me.

In other boating news, heavy rain while you’re on the boat is basically a spiritual experience. Slugs are the new spiders, which is good because I think they’re less inclined to crawl into your ear and lay eggs, but is bad because they leave snail trail EVERYWHERE including on my clothes and I’m beginning to look like the snotty kid at primary school and I was a lot of things but I was not that kid. I’m growing sunflowers and they make me want to puke every time I look at them. I spend most of my time feeling like a happy dog.

I’m still not sure why I’m doing this, or if I’m going to regret disclosing all this personal information, or if I’ll keep it up, or who I’m talking to. But on the off chance that there’s someone there, and that person feels like they will never be happy again – like they have lost themselves and the person they have been trying to make decent/clever/funny/kind for 15 or 25 or 55 years has dissolved and left just a shell – I promise you, you are still there. It doesn’t feel like it now, but one morning you will wake up and you will feel OK about it.

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