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How to be a Woman

This week I read Caitlin Moran’s book ‘How to be a Woman’ and experienced what can only be described as an epiphany. Without being overly dramatic, reading it provided me with a monumental feeling of relief, akin to the one you get when you’ve sat in a steam room too long then finally emerge back into oxygen laden air and can BREATHE again. Let me tell you why.

The book is about Caitlin Moran’s life and her views on what it is to be a woman, the main message being that we all need to reclaim the word ‘feminist’. For too long it’s meaning has been muddied with negativity and as a result has become associated with women who are anti men, who don’t laugh much, tackle only serious political issues and wear bad clothes. What Moran is saying is that we have to remember that all being a feminist really means is that women should be equal to men, and that’s it. Interestingly she also makes it very clear that some of the most strident feminists she knows are men; in particular her husband who taught her the very definition of what feminism should be ‘Everyone being polite to each other.

She then goes on to tackle subjects such as pornography (of which she approves whole heartedly by the way, though wishes some of it involved women who looked like they were enjoying themselves and weren’t just being violently rammed) , pubic hair ‘there is a great deal of pleasure to be had in a proper furry muff – unlike those Hollywood versions, which look like they want only for a quick squirt of Mr Sheen, and a buff with a lint – free cloth,’ periods, sexism, motherhood and abortion in a refreshing, honest, clever and (most importantly) FUNNY way. I love her for it.

In fact, as you can probably already tell, much of what she said struck so many chords I was practically playing a medley.

So why did this book have such a strong effect? Well, in order to answer that fully, I’m going to have to meander off down another path or two, but bear with me.

Firstly, my daughter, Lily, is six. She’s gorgeous. A bright, bubbly, emotional little girl, who’s already developing a brilliant sense of humour. As a result she likes to show off from time to time, in order to amuse us, and this often incorporates some dancing around. So far so childlike. Recently however, when watching her strut her stuff to a bit of Jessie J, I’ve been uncomfortable to note that her hip action is fairly ‘developed’ for her age. Now and again she can appear almost coquettish and her dormant sexuality which is definitely not ready to emerge for years, sometimes rises to the surface without her even realising it. This is not something I ever draw attention to, though her dad and I have been known to exchange slightly baffled looks, but it saddens me, and also leads me to question where she’s learning to gyrate like a Latvian pole dancer from. It’s certainly not from me. If only. Admittedly I do dance round the kitchen a lot, but as much as I like to imagine I’m looking hot to trot and sexually delicious, thanks to video footage I know that in fact I look like my Mum does when she dances. Like a white woman with limited rhythm who’s really enjoying herself but in a slightly clunky way. At home we never watch MTV so Lily hasn’t learned this behaviour from music videos either. So, I can only conclude that knowing how to ‘frot’, must have seeped into my daughter’s consciousness by osmosis due to what she’s seen on the telly.

On a Saturday night she’ll often catch some of ‘Britain’s got Talent’ or ‘X Factor’, Saturday night live entertainment shows that go out pre watershed, so should be perfectly fine. However, I will never forget last winter when Christina Aguilera suddenly came on and basically started having sex with a chair while dressed in suspenders and a basque. It was a difficult one to negotiate. For a while I just sat there startled but quickly ended up crossly ordering Lily out of the room, despairing as to why the ITV bosses hadn’t thought to deem her act TOTALLY inappropriate. Aguilera honestly looked grotesque, skanky and like a woman completely devoid of any imagination whose strings were being pulled by an odious porn baron.

Then, when Nicole Scherzinger joined the judging panel on X Factor, Lily and I agreed that she was probably one of the most beautiful women on the planet. She looked a lot like Pocahontas and came across as the real deal. So imagine my disappointment when she appeared on a different show recently, only this time to perform one of her tracks, wearing a skirt so short you could see what she’d had for breakfast, and thrusting around the stage while touching up her own bosoms in a way that was pretty much only speaking to men. Once again I ushered Lily out of the room feeling angry that I’d been put in this position by another woman. (On a separate note this is why I LOVE Adele. A woman who writes soulful, beautiful songs and then sings them brilliantly while wearing a nice frock. Go Adele!) Anyway, the point I’m taking nine years to make, is that despite knowing that these successful, financially independent women presenting themselves as low grade sex objects is wrong, I think at times I’ve been loath to express this as stridently as I should have in case I’m mistaken for a prude.

You see thanks to the ‘ladettes’ of the early 90’s I think some of us have got confused along the way. At a certain point I think feminism mutated. Suddenly, instead of trying to change how women were treated and perceived, we decided it might be more fun and a lot easier to adopt a sort of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em join them’ sort of attitude. We decided we should be able to drink as much as men, be as sexually aggressive (and active) as them, and that if a woman wanted to get her bits and pieces out, or make money out of being a stripper then good for her. But maybe we were missing the point? Perhaps we should have concentrated on being ‘paid’ as much as men, instead of trying to drink them and our less robust organs under the table. As for the sex bit, well there’s no issue with that, but I can say one hundred percent that I would feel many things if my daughter decided to be a stripper in order to put herself through college, and none of them would be proud. Still, Caitlin Moran has very usefully articulated how to cope if faced with conflicting emotions in the future. From now on, if confused about whether I’m feeling uncomfortable because I’m a prude, or because something is actually seriously awry, I shall simply do what she advises and ask ‘Are the boys doing it?’ In the case of Christina, Nicole et al, the answer is no.

After all, when Michael Buble, Enrique Iglesias or Gary Barlow perform on these shows they do not come on wearing a mankini and then proceed to bend over in order to proffer us a good look at their meat and two veg, wiggling provocatively and throwing their heads around in some sort of semi orgasmic state. It would be great if female pop stars would offer us the same courtesy.

Aaaaaaaaaah…….. god this is all such a…….. RELEASE. I feel better already just for having written that and what I paid for Caitlin Moran’s genius book is far cheaper than therapy.

My next session on the couch came in the form of Moran’s chapter on lap dancing and why it is basically horrid, which leads me to my next story.

Many years ago now, Charlie, my then boyfriend now husband, was going on a stag weekend. It was made known to me that part of the ‘celebrations’ were to involve going to a lap dancing place in Acton (nice). I remember feeling almost engulfed by panic by the idea. Not because I was jealous of how my boyfriend would feel when looking at the strippers but because I simply didn’t want another woman putting her naked fanny and bosoms in his face. It was that simple really. However, when I expressed my concerns to a few of the other girls whose partners were also going, in the main they couldn’t understand what I was so bothered about.

‘It’s just a laugh,’ one girl said ‘Just boys being boys.’

‘You can’t stop him from going in with them all,’ said another ‘He’ll feel like a right dickhead.’

Now, as a girl who’s always earned her own money, who has partied very hard (often in fields), and travelled the world I’ve always considered myself to be ‘modern.’ Now however I was starting to feel like Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet. All I needed was a bonnet and a parasol and my transformation would have been complete.

As the stag grew closer, Charlie and I found ourselves bickering quite a lot. He was eager not to upset me and told me time and time again that in all honestly he’d rather NOT be going (especially given the earache it was causing him) but also kept saying ‘But if they’re all in there, what am I supposed to do, sit on the coach like some kind of freak?’

‘I don’t know,’ I wailed. ‘I just don’t see why there has to be no choice in the matter and why in order to be seen as a ‘cool’ girlfriend, I have to be really casual and laid back about you getting centimetres away from other women’s vaginas. Women who are probably glassy eyed, world weary and who, let’s not forget, are other people’s DAUGHTERS. And besides, why would you want to be turned on around your friends anyway? Surely feeling lusty about someone you can’t touch should be done in private so you can do something about it. IT’S WEIRD.’

In the end, I realised I was fighting a losing battle. When the day arrived I could see how genuinely miserable Charlie was about it all so I decided to cut him slack. ‘Look, it’s fine, I know you love and respect me. Just do what you need to do,’ I said, grudgingly. He left looking like a man who’d been consigned into the army in 1939 and was heading off to the trenches as opposed to someone who was about to endure a day of go karting followed by a titty bar (though to be fair, in terms of fun to be had, there’s probably not much in it.)

The next day, when a very hung-over Charlie finally emerged from his pit I asked him how it was. ‘It was fine’ he said ‘And by the way, I didn’t go in.’

‘Didn’t you?’ I gasped. ‘Why? What happened?’

‘We drew up in the coach and I just said I’m not going in. Jemma doesn’t want me to, I don’t want to, so I’m not doing it.’

I was blown away by his gesture (a coach, in Acton, oh the romance of it all) and delighted by my man’s ability to ignore peer pressure. Pathetically though my happiness was short-lived, for (and I’m ashamed to admit it) I was suddenly swamped with worry about what his friends would have thought. In seconds I went from being happy about the fact I’d got what I wanted, to imagining all his mates bitching about what a fearsome old harridan I am. Maybe I was a fearsome old harridan? Again I was confused. However, the next time I saw one of his friends, he recounted only with affection and a touch of pride how Charlie had resolutely refused to move off the coach, like a determined squatter and how funny it was, especially given that by this point he’d drunk about 25 pints. (And yes, there’s always a possibility he only didn’t get off the coach because he couldn’t walk.) Anyway, I loved him then (Charlie not his friend) and I love him now for respecting what I’d said and understanding that I’m not demented for feeling the things I do.

Reading ‘How to be a Woman’ has made me realise that while it’s easy to sometimes sweep these undoubtedly feminist feelings we have under the mat, it’s important that we don’t, because they do matter. And besides, if you’re feeling uncomfortable about something it’s pretty likely someone else will be too. (ITV had a record amount of complaints about the Christina Aguilera performance that I mentioned earlier. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.)

Not only do we need to speak up but we also need to actively encourage the cultivation of good female role models for our children. We need women like Adele and Lady Gaga to show them that there is another way. That you don’t have to be cutesy and seductive in order to be a successful female. You can also do it through being original, intelligent, strong and/or funny, which is why I love presenters like Davina Macall, Claudia Winkleman, Sue Perkins and so on. They’re funny ladies. If they happen to look nice too it’s just sort of a bonus.

Sadly, gone are the days when the height of sexiness was Bucks Fizz whipping off their knee length skirts to reveal, shock- horror…. mini- skirts. (And let me remind you that said mini- skirts were topped off with primary coloured sweatshirts.) Or Bananarama jigging about, looking almost bored and like they hadn’t brushed their hair. But we can all do our bit for the feminist cause by simply saying what we really think. For my part I want to continue to write books where the central female character has a multitude of concerns and feelings. ‘Real’ characters girls can relate to, and who (hopefully) will make them laugh. (Funny can be so under-rated for some reason).

In the meantime, please go and buy Caitlin Moran’s book. Hopefully you will devour Moran’s home truths gratefully, like a dog who’s been trapped in a hot stuffy car and has finally been let out and given a bowl of icy water to lap. Then perhaps you’ll tell all your friends about it so that we can all learn from her infinite wisdom.

Spreading the word like a devout Hare Krishna I tweeted the other day ‘Reading @caitlinmoran ‘s How to be a Woman makes me happy in a ‘maybe I’m not deranged kind of way.’

Seconds later my phone beeped. It was the lady herself. ‘You’re not deranged. It’s the world that’s a little bit nuts.’

I couldn’t agree more.

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