Yesterday was a bloody brilliant day. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was as close to a perfect day as I can remember this year. In the morning, I drove through a little flurry of snow to take Ted to the childminder’s, and then caught a train into town to see my editor and meet the publicist who will be working on Babies in Waiting, which astonishingly, will be on the shelves in 11 weeks’ time (plug, plug, why not pre-order it on Amazon, etc, etc.).
In the afternoon, I went Christmas tree shopping with both my sons. We went to a local garden centre, where they’d lit a gorgeous, pine-scented fire of tree ends, and a big cat sat and purred on the counter. We chose the perfect tree and loaded it into the car. “Smell that,” I said to Ted, “Doesn’t the tree smell lovely?”
“I want to eat it,” he said.
We brought it home and it did that magic Christmas thing where a tree that looked quite small in the garden centre becomes enormous in our rather compact living room. We then spent ages decorating it. Matt did his best to make the tree elegant and artistic, and Ted “helped” in toddler fashion by removing as many decorations as he added, and constantly demanding chocolate and presents.
Tom came home from work and we played the cheesiest Christmas tunes we could find on YouTube and drank bubbly as we finished the tree. It really was a brilliant day, and I can’t think of anything I would rather have done, or anyone I would rather have done it with.
Nevertheless, wherever I went yesterday, I felt that there were two shadows with me – that two women walked with me through my publisher’s offices, through the shops we visited, through the coffee shop where I sat alone and read my book. The women are Gulnaz and Hawa Akther Jui. They are both just 21 years old.
Gulnaz, an Afghan woman, was raped by her cousin’s husband, and as a result was jailed for two years for adultery. When she appealed her sentence, it was increased to twelve years. Following an international outcry, she, along with the daughter conceived in the rape, was released, but it seems likely that the only way she can live a life free of shame and out of hiding will be to marry her rapist.
Hawa, a Bangladeshi woman, signed up to study at a further education college while her husband was away in the Gulf. Upon his return, he said he had a surprise present for her. He tied her up and blindfolded her, then taped her right hand to a table and hacked off her fingers. She was rushed to hospital, where doctors said they could reattach the fingers, but the husband refused to give them the digits, and a relative of his threw them in a bin. By the time they were recovered, it was too late to sew them back on, so Hawa is maimed for life. She is learning to write with her left hand and is determined to continue her studies.
I’m sorry if those two stories are a massive downer on your Christmas spirit. But stop for a moment and think of all we have that we take for granted: our freedom of movement, our education, our right to work, our right to love the person of our choice freely, our right to determine a path for ourselves and our children, to earn our own money and spend it as we choose. I exercised every single one of those yesterday without even thinking about it.
My Christmas wish is this – that in 2012, we do all those things with love, with fervour and with constant gratitude that we can. That we grasp every opportunity with both hands, with all our ten fingers intact and strong, and we live our wonderful lives to the fullest.
I hope the angels of your choice walk with you and yours this festive season.
Now, if you’ve ever read my blog before, you’ll know I like a good feminist ding-dong as much as the next woman. But there’s a story in the press at the moment that makes me roll my eyes and bang my head lightly on the desk. H&M, the clothing store, is under fire for having computer generated mannequins on their website, with real models’ heads grafted on in Photoshop.
Right, on your marks, get set, and START your indignation! Let’s begin with a righteous plea on behalf of anorexics everywhere, and of young girls pressured into losing weight by unrealistic expectations they learn from the media. All of these are valid points, but in the case of the H&M furore, completely irrelevant. You see, these “mannequins” are not to be found throughout the website, but in a section called “Dressing Room”, where you can scroll through the H&M collection and “dress” a mannequin to see what an outfit will look like. You know those paper dolls we used to have with the outfits with the fold-over tabs you could dress them in? Like that. Now I don’t know a whole heap about coding, but I’m guessing that what they’ve made is very complex, and that, to keep it as simple as possible, it’s important that the clothes are all represented in the same size and in exactly the same pose. You know, just like those paper dolls we used to have where you... well, you get the picture.
The pictures don’t look like real women in any way. No one would be fooled into thinking they were real, and they are not appreciably skinnier than lots of real models I see in magazines or on TV. Yes the computer-generated women are a lot thinner than I am, and probably a lot thinner than most women, but so are the fibreglass mannequins they have in the actual shops, and no one’s feeling victimised by those. When I look at an outfit in H&M’s Dressing Room, I know perfectly well I won’t look like that in those leggings, and I’m guessing most women are able to make that imaginative leap. Nevertheless, it’s fun to see what the leggings might look like with that top. (It’s especially fun if you create heinous, clashing outfits: an evening skirt with a hoodie and ankle boots for example).
I do not believe our daughters (or our sons for that matter) are learning their views on body image and self-image from the H&M website. I think they’re learning them from us, and from each other. Every time we stand in front of the mirror and say, “I’m so fat it’s disgusting!” or we binge on unhealthy food and then berate ourselves, or one of us makes a crack about someone’s weight, or they hear judgmental stuff from friends at school, they learn to judge their bodies and find them wanting. As with so much in the world, the fault lies less with the media than with our response to it. You can’t be with your children 24/7, especially as they get older, but you can instil some healthy attitudes in the way you handle food in the home,
in the way YOU eat, exercise and feel about your own body, and in your attitudes to media images of unrealistic bodies.
And while we’re talking about keeping it real, here’s another thought about unrealistic expectations. With all love and respect to those who post them, if I read another tweet/facebook status that tells me if “I can dream it I can be it”, or that positive thinking will bring me what I want, I’m going to punch someone right in their karma.
It’s not that I’m not positive, I am. I’m relentlessly, tiresomely positive, positively Pollyanna-ish. It’s just that I believe that sitting around thinking positively and dreaming about your wishes will bring you jack shit. Training and education, hard, hard work and paying your dues may get you closer to some dreams, but I’ve got news for you, there are some dreams that some of us will never, ever achieve. For example, I will never be the dancer I dream of becoming. I am 5’10”, big-boned, clumsy and in my early 40s. I could take adult ballet, jazzercise and Zumba classes every day for the rest of my life and I will have very limited success indeed. You just have to look at the awful, feral gladiatorial early stages of X-Factor to know that an awful lot of sad, talentless people should have had a reality slap and never, ever been fobbed off with a clichéd behest to “follow their dreams”.
I had a boyfriend in my early twenties, with whom I had one of those horribly volatile fight-and-make-up relationships. He was infuriating and remains the only person I’ve ever thrown something at. It was massively exacerbated by the fact that I was a drama queen by nature, newly out of drama school and I loved a bit of drama, drama, drama. Are you getting the picture? One night, in the middle of a particularly vicious fight, I wept piteously and screamed at him, “You make me act like a crazy person!”
He looked at me very calmly and said, “I can’t MAKE you do anything.”
And there it is, folks, one of the great lessons of my life. He couldn’t. Nobody can.
If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to hazard a guess that you live in a relatively free society, you can read and have internet access and a computer. Therefore, I’m going to make some assumptions about the type of person you are. I think you’re a bit like me. There are plenty of real victims in the world, and plenty of situations in which you might become a real victim, but let me tell you in most areas of our privileged lives, we are not victims. No one MAKES us do anything. H&M doesn’t MAKE you feel bad about your body, anymore than positive thinking will MAKE me Darcey Bussell. Look in the mirror with clear eyes. Know what you are, what you want to be, what is realistically within the realms of possibility. And then get on with your life.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.