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Role models and jellyfish

24 Sep

ocean

Human beings are prone to acts of madness. We engage in activities that can to others seem pointless, reckless and downright dangerous. Many people would have been thinking this when they read about Diana Nyad. Earlier this month, Ms Nyad made her fifth (and ultimately successful) attempt to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to the Florida Keys. Not in a boat, but by swimming 110 long, painful miles.

What possesses a 64-year-old woman to swim a volatile stretch of water brimming with sharks and jellyfish?  To be honest, that’s not important. More important is what we can learn from her. What can someone who has such a strong desire to achieve a goal that they will persevere for 35 years and endure a skinful of jellyfish venom teach us? She certainly deserves to feature more highly in people’s minds (and the press) than a £300,000 per week footballer.

Nyad is a role model in the true spirit of the term: someone who inspires others to achieve their dreams whatever the discomfort required. She has no shortcuts to success. Neither celebrity nor money can help her. Ultimately her success is down to sheer hard work and preparation (with perhaps a dash of luck on the day).

In the dark days we are living in, we need to read stories of the apparently pointless. Far from being trivial compared to current world events, individual endeavours such as Diana Nyad’s remind us that the human spirit – and with it hope – still remains. We need such seemingly mad acts to keep us sane.

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Yummy Mummy or Boring Bob?

27 Mar

women's magazines

I am at an age where I’m old enough to be someone’s mother. I am actually a mother as I have two kids. What I mean is that I am now old enough to be the mother (maybe even grandmother) of the generation I consider to be ‘young’, the wannabes, the men and women who will be our next future. And that makes me feel old. Listen closely enough and I can sometimes be heard uttering the telling phrase: “Policemen are so young these days”. What’s a girl woman to do when she finds herself at the top of  a slippery slope grabbing on for dear life with her stubby fingernails?

I’m not a big fan of health and beauty magazines aimed at women. They’re very pretty to look at and sometimes even include an interesting feature amidst their trivialisation of women (under the guise of empowerment of course). They have the ability to tweak the love handles and poke the pimples of anyone harbouring a dash of insecurity. One day they could even be the cause of my daughter valuing lipstick over the human race. It was to my horror then that I found myself reaching for the latest issue of the Boots Health & Beauty magazine looking for inspiration and solace. Such depths of self-pity had I reached.

Egged on by the promise of “tiny and oh-so-doable steps” and just the hint of the chance to CHANGE MY LIFE, I stumbled across Louise Kearney whose goal was to “look glam at the school gates”:

“When I drop the kids off at school, the other mums always look so well turned out and cool – I wish I knew their secret! … I’d love to re-invent myself as a yummier mummy, but I’ve got no idea where to start.”

Louise may have been smiling in the photo but it was a desperate cry for help and it struck a chord. My two children are now old enough that I can start to reclaim my body safe in the knowledge that I’m not planning a pregnancy that will come and b*gger it all up again. Like Louise, I will become a school runner from September when my oldest starts to drag me daily into the snake pit that I’m led to believe the school playground to be. Oh clever, clever Boots magazine! Louise could be me. I was practically ripping open the laptop to order the magical products prescribed to cure lovely Louise of her baggy mumsiness.

Most exciting of all was the discovery that I was already halfway there to achieving the status of aged, yet desirable, woman. I have a bob. There was me thinking I had a boring old haircut. But no, look in the mirror again and feel the power of the bob. According to Lord Trevor of Sorbie, Louise’s ‘hair expert’ in the article, a razored bob is the way forward: “Trust me – a shorter style will help turn back the clock”. I trust you Trevor, I trust you.

Content that I now had the tools to be gorgeous, I let my guard down and dipped into the rest of the magazine. Little did I realise that my new found confidence was about to be shaken. On page 24 I received the following slap in the face courtesy of the magazine’s columnist, soon to be 40-year-old (gasp!) Katy Regan:

“Plus I’ll ditch the bob, which my twenty-something make stylist informs me ‘is a look only women over 35 go for these days’!”

Only sad, desperate old women over 35. The bob: the blue-rinse for the 30-something generation. How we’ll laugh at them behind their backs when they ask for a cut a bit more ‘Ann Hathaway’ and we tell them that a bob would much better flatter their face shape. It hides the wrinkles and the jowls, darling. Know thy place.

The world of women’s magazines yet again reveals just how superficial it can be. Whilst I am frightened by the industry’s output and the negative impact it can have on self image, I am even more frightened that there are people (usually women) writing this content and failing to see the hypocrisy of it. Scarier still is if they are producing the content in full knowledge of their influence but are choosing to subjugate any twinges of sisterly solidarity. Of course these magazines have their place and should never be taken too seriously (indeed, I feel I am getting a bit serious here and may need to pause to adjust my blue stockings). But the potential of even the most lightweight and frivolous of magazines to do harm should never be underestimated. Especially by an old duffer with a bob like me.

Wedding fairs: fat women don’t get married

19 Feb

Wedding day

Everyone loves a good wedding. A touching ceremony followed by watching the happy couple’s life savings being eaten, drunk and danced into a sticky carpet. Picture the bride in the months before: doe-eyed, flipping through wedding magazines, pasting her ideas on Pinterest. Maybe she’ll surf the web for tricks to make her day just that little bit more special. Maybe she’ll do something far less virtual and visit a wedding fair – the chance to mix with other couples planning their own Big Day, visit supplier stands and generally watch your bank balance plummet. Unfortunately, wedding fairs are far from the glorious champagne-tinged day out with your soul mate that you would expect. Welcome to the pressure dome.

A colleague of mine recently visited the London Wedding Show, held in the most romantic of settings – London Excel. Rather than ending the day basking in the glow of romance, I sense that she returned with a look of bewilderment and a sense of fear. Extortionate prices, unaffordable (and probably undrinkable) champagne and being elbowed out of the way by women wanting wedding cakes in the shape of unicorns (yes, really) don’t make for a pleasantly memorable day. “But,” I asked, “I bet there were lots of freebies?” Apparently not. Unless of course you count the free sachets of low calorie sugar and diet pills. Yes, DIET PILLS. Tradition clearly hasn’t made it into the 21st century.

Something to make me less fat. I can’t think of anything I’d rather have nestled in a sponsored plastic bag that my other half can carry around awkwardly as I ponder favours and they wonder what’s for tea. What better way to boost my confidence as I head towards one of the few days in my life when I will be the focus of everyone’s attention. Thanks to the diet pills – so kindly gifted – they won’t be focusing on my enormous derriere or the roll of flab that my bodice has shoved up under my armpits. Pop a couple of pills and my self-esteem will rise as high as the pure white doves we’ll be releasing.

What the jiggins were the organisers thinking?  Shame on the women loitering by the wedding cake stands – don’t you realise that cake will make you a fat and ugly bride?

The notion of crash dieting before a wedding in order to be ‘beautiful’ is, of course, no real surprise. I’m sure we all know someone who has done it. But that doesn’t make it right and those organisations selling the ‘perfect wedding’ really ought to open their disco ball-dazzled eyes and start acting more responsibly. Extreme dieting by women preparing for their wedding has even been given a name: brideorexia. (Search for that term on Yahoo and note the sponsored ads promoting weight loss that appear next to the articles – irony in motion.) Is it any wonder that what starts out as a campaign to look ‘good’ for one day can potentially lead to a serious long-term eating disorder?

Statistics estimate that in the UK at least 1.1 million people suffer from an eating disorder. Most at risk of developing a disorder are young people aged 14-25 years. As someone who has experienced an eating disorder and as a parent, the idea of diet pills being handed out at a wedding fair fills me with disgust and a desire to shake some sense into someone. Of course, wedding fairs alone are not responsible for creating eating disorders but they do a damn good job of magnifying the negative self-imagery that can set women, men, boys and girls on a spiral of misery. I’ve seen my 4-year-old pull her t-shirt up in front of a mirror and tell me that she’s worried her tummy looks fat. A 4-year-old. I’ll do everything I can to ensure she loves the body she’s in but with so many external influences to contend with I am left wondering whether it’s a battle too big to truly win.

Women: big business

30 Jan

Businesswoman

Sometimes I wonder if top female business executives would be better off keeping their mouths shut about the issue of women in the workplace and the challenges they face. Do they actually do more damage to the cause in trying to support it? Hell’s bells, I hate to use the word cause. It shouldn’t even be a cause. Whilst a topic remains a ‘cause’ it will never become normalised. Are high-flying business women really all that inspirational?

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, used the opportunity to talk about the gender stereotypes that are holding women back in the workplace.  According to Sandberg, the more successful men get the more they are liked and the more successful women become the less they are liked.  It seems that people don’t like to see women outside of their stereotypical role of wife/mother and assuming the supposedly masculine traits needed to succeed in the cut throat world of business. So unladylike!

I’m very much with Sandberg in grimacing at this unfortunate by-product of centuries of gender stereotyping. However, in the interest of openness at work (and perhaps with a misguided nod towards the ‘normalisation’ of working parents), she went on to suggest that employers should be allowed to ask their employees whether they want to have children. On this point I have to disagree with her. That’s right, one of the most personal questions you can ask someone and the answer could be scribbled down on your employment record. Perhaps the employer will also tell you openly how many doors will be shut in your face depending on the answer you give. I’m all for a climate of openness and flexibility in the working environment to help parents but I question whether Sandberg’s suggestion would genuinely benefit both parties.

Differences aside, Sandberg did use a prominent stage to champion equality for women in the workplace and for that I salute her. But here I put on my weary face. We’ve heard this a million times before from women – or, more specifically, mothers – in top jobs. These are women who have made it to the top with immense effort but – and here’s the rub – they are also women who are exceptional in some way. Exceptional can mean a whole range of things:  they have voracious ambition (oops – I almost said like men), they have ninja business brains, they have made enormous sacrifices in their family life, they can afford dawn to dusk childcare, their partners have been the stay at home parent, etc, etc.  The list could go on. What I am trying to say is that women who make it to the top of their career bring something extraordinary to the table that (dare I say) ‘ordinary’ women (like me) don’t or can’t.  I would hazard a guess that whatever their unique quality is, it has the power to override any unfair treatment they might receive on their way up the ladder. (To be fair, the same applies to men. Not every man has, as this debate would sometimes lead us to believe, the innate ability to be a CEO just because they have different genitalia.)

Top business jobs do require an exceptionally talented candidate and when you get to such a narrow stratum of the business population is it really such a surprise that you don’t find representatives from every walk of life? Is there debate around discrimination against the unexceptional people in society? Those who are great assets to a business but cannot work until 2am in the morning? The people who say “I want to have a brilliant career and a brilliant family life in equal measure”? Perhaps we should be focussing on letting women get on with their careers and creating their own definition of success so that a woman running a multi-million pound company isn’t constantly marked out as the sole example of success in a man’s world. The women I would love to hear from are the ones who are happy, content and successful in their jobs and who have achieved a work-life balance. There are plenty of stories of women flying high because they’ve sacrificed something from their personal life or are so hard-wired to business that they started turning a profit selling tampons in the school toilets aged 11. I want to hear more from women who have achieved the Holy Grail of a perfect work-life balance – if such a thing indeed exists. That I would find inspirational.

Bagging up the baby years

20 Dec

Bagged clothes

Maybe it was the time of year. Maybe it was the day off work with no kids and the associated mountain of guilt. It could have been the duck slip-sliding across the icy pond with the Andrex puppy (if indeed that advert were being shown this year instead of the peculiar mating ritual of two snowpersons). Perhaps it was just plain old hormones. Whatever it was, today I sorted a bag of clothes for charity and it made me cry.

It wasn’t any old bag of stuff. It was a bag of my now 4-year-old daughter’s clothes through from the amazingly poo-stain free baby gros of her first few months to this summer’s t-shirts that, thanks to a recent growth spurt, would quite likely now restrict her breathing and strangle her digestive system. The process of holding up, sniffing, cuddling (was she really that small?) and folding brought the tears a-rolling. And don’t get me started on the pulsating ovaries.

When did she get so flipping big?!

When did she get so flipping big?!

Getting rid of items that hold memories is, of course, never easy. The giving away of your child’s clothes is a process that acknowledges a period in your life that has been lost and will never be regained. As you watch the rapid pace at which they grow and lose their baby features (and, in the case of my 4-year-old, start using teenage expressions such as ‘wicked’ and ‘random’, god help me) you grapple with the urge to slow time down. (Okay, maybe not everyone does – it’s frequently said that the first year with a baby can be quite sh*t and so roll on walking, talking and cow’s milk.) For those of us who have nursery artwork from the year dot bulging out of every cupboard, to hand on those little tights that went with that little dress is to begrudgingly shake the hand of Old Father Time and congratulate him on winning.

But back to the ovaries. (And apologies to those people reading this who know me in ‘real life’ and may not be able to look me in the eye again.) Filling a bag with baby clothes is now, for me, not for storage (as is often the case after your first child) but is (after a second child) for clearing the way for the paraphernalia that school children, teenagers and, ultimately, young adults bring. All that future thinking and the joys to look forward to aside, the fact remains that at some point you draw a line in your life, gently rub your stretch marks and decide to hang up (bingo wings flapping) your maternity tops. Your family is complete.

Bear with me now whilst I’m a touch morose (it’s the end of the world tomorrow apparently so no better a time to plunge into the depths of despair). Major life events – first job, meeting the one you love, marriage (or not), kids – are heavily loaded towards the first half of your life. It is inevitable then that when these are complete you start to wonder whether there is anything to look forward to. Things stop happening to you and they start happening to your children. All whilst your womb slowly withers. Don’t get me wrong, there is an awful lot to enjoy still to come – and retirement is a mere three decades away.

Who would’ve thought that giving baby clothes to charity would spark such a deep pondering of the meaning of life and of the hanging up of the reproductive organs? I’d just have cleaned the bathroom or picked my nose if I’d known.  No wonder I cried. Maybe my brood is now complete – that said, never say never.  Kids’ clothes are cheap to come by and there’s always the charity shop.

 

Sexing up women’s sport: is this really the 21st century?

13 Oct

Sometimes women can be their own worst enemy. Take former England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent’s views on how to encourage women into sport in the article Sexing up key to boosting profile of women’s sport which appeared on the BBC website earlier this month. After reading this article I had to check the date – not only to check that it wasn’t April 1st but also to see whether we’d mysteriously travelled back several decades in time.

Ms Rainford-Brent summarises her stance thus: “You want women to be attracted to the sport, but sex sells”. Note the almost apologetic addition of the word ‘but’ as if to make it alright to say “You want women to be equal, but we’ve got tits and bums you know”. She goes on:

“Some of the biggest barriers for young girls playing sport is the image and being sweaty or a bit masculine, so if you can make the sport more attractive for females to play then you will attract more girls in.”

I can imagine that’s an enormous barrier. Women are infamous for not wanting to break into a sweat. The birth rate plummeted when women realised it was near impossible to give birth without a slight dampness of the brow. How Sweaty Betty stays in business I don’t know, such is the image it gives of hairy women in gyms, armpits dripping, whilst around them men recoil in disgust at the sight of such a depraved betrayal of femininity.

According to this dubious ambassador for women’s rights, “women’s tennis … [attracts] female crowds because the players look feminine, but they are very sporty.” Really? They can look feminine AND be sporty? I’m grateful here for Ms R-B’s instruction as I had always assumed the two were mutually exclusive. Whatever next? Women can have blonde hair AND be clever? Women can have kids AND a successful career? I know this last one is extreme and every cell in your body rejects it but just imagine …

So why does Ms R-B think cricket is a shining example of what women can achieve?

“Women’s cricket also has a good advantage in that we have very feminine looking and good players, but when we started playing we wore the England men’s kit which was very baggy and heavy and didn’t look great.”

When they painted their nails pink they beat India. When they were first sponsored by Jimmy Choo they beat Australia, considered the best women’s cricket team in the world. But, by god, those heels were a b*gger when running up to bowl. Forget determination, physical strength and skill, clearly women can achieve anything with a little feminine tailoring. Make it pink and they can take on the world.

I’m not kept awake at night thinking about how more women should be getting into sport. As far as I can see, they’re already there. (I think there was something on the TV recently called the Olympics – I recall seeing at least a couple of women taking part and I believe that some even won medals. That said, we managed to detract from some very successful women by prefixing every mention of their name with the phrase “London 2012 poster girl”.)

There’s no doubt that certain sports are dominated by men and that the women in those sports struggle to be taken seriously by sponsors and the media, but is turning every women’s sport into beach volleyball really the way forward? Surely equality is about minimising and not accentuating differences. Women are as physically and mentally determined as men and as motivated by success and money. And if they break a fingernail in the process then I doubt you’ll find many sportswomen at the touch line with a tear-streaked face touching up their mascara.

How to flirt like a 4-year-old

1 Oct

Tonight my 4-year-old gave me a master class in how to flirt. She was good. I’ve been married for 7 years and with my husband for 18 years in total so maybe I’m just out of practice but, boy, was she good. This evening we entertained a tall, dark and handsome plumber. And one of us was wearing a nightie (hell no, not the plumber!).

She was slick. She was girlie. She giggled QUITE A LOT. There was no self-consciousness, just utter self-confidence. He was on her territory. He was Playdoh in her hands.

How did she do it? Being cute and blonde isn’t enough. Looking like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth helps but you’ve got to have tactics. Here’s how to reduce a grown man with tattoos to talking in a silly voice:

  1. Tell him your name (first name, middle names, surname). Tell him that you’ve been to ballet. Tell him that you have a brother (don’t mention that your brother is only 18-months-old).
  2. Show what excellent marriage material you are by offering to mop the floor for him. (And in doing so reinforce outdated gender stereotypes. Shame on you, daughter of mine.)
  3. Take him on a tour of the house under the pretence of looking at radiators. Giggle when he asks why your radiator isn’t pink. Show him your Playmobil.
  4. Whilst he has both hands busy with his phone, and with no observance of personal space, gently toy with the key fob attached to his belt (whilst your mother tries to bat you away from said keys without indulging in any toying herself).

They say that dogs and children and babe magnets. If I was single I’d be hitting the town with my daughter and letting her do all the hard work. She’s not learnt all this from me so I’m led to wonder where the nelly she has acquired the skills. Have I been whinging about the much flaunted feminine wiles of the Disney princesses for all this time when in fact they’re just demonstrating what comes naturally? I’d hate this to be true – especially when it doesn’t get you any money knocked off the bill.

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