The Great Escape

A road trip up North, our first romantic getaway together.  I book a couple of bed & breakfasts online, and arrange a few days off work.  First stop is my grandmother’s on the outskirts of Manchester.  There are no words to prepare anyone for my grandmother, an individual in every sense of the word.  She lives in a little retirement-village-come-trailer park.  Despite knowing we’re just there for an overnight, she has bought half a grocery store of food, and relentlessly suggests we cancel the B&Bs and stay with her for the week.  The “tell me again why you can’t stay?” conversation plays out at almost hourly intervals, as she hopes the guilt will wear me down, and we will eventually concede to spend our five-days in her little shoebox surrounded by her nosey, cranky neighbours instead.  I hold fast, and keep reminding her we are leaving in the morning.  She lets us share a room, but makes him a bed on the floor as a statement.   We’ve been sleeping together for months, so we share my bed instead (sorry Nana!)

The next morning, we convince my grandmother we will visit again soon, escape the Trailer Park for the Elderly and Overly Observant, and head for Lake Windermere.  We find the cottage on the road above the lake, surrounded by trees.  It is beautiful, and the Bed and Breakfast rooms are up a separate staircase in a side wing of the massive cottage.  The room is delightful, with a lovely view.  We settle in, and enjoy a couple of pleasant days relaxing, walking down to the lakefront for dinner and walking back in the dark, with a bottle of wine to share in the room.

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Two days later, we say our goodbyes, and head further north for Scotland, bound for the rugged and barren Solway Firth coast.  The bed and breakfast is very difficult to find, the last bit of the road is a long, narrow dirt driveway.  We finally arrive at a small, secluded stone bungalow, and knock on the door.  A woman in her fifties answers, she’s friendly and very pleased to see us.  The couple explain they have only recently “opened” their home as a bed and breakfast and we are their first ever guests.  They show us around the cottage, a two minute walk down to the sea, the views are breath-taking.

We get our bearings in the bungalow – which doesn’t take long.  The couple seem overly attentive, so quaint – they obviously want to get it ‘right’ given we are their maiden voyage into the world of hospitality and catering.  They suggest places to go for dinner and we eat out at a restaurant in the nearest village, fifteen minutes away by car, before heading back down the dirt lane in the pitch black to the bungalow just after sundown.

The couple are in the living room when we arrive back, and they invite us to join them.  Politely, we do so, making small talk for a while before excusing ourselves and heading to our bedroom, which is next to theirs, I might add.  We giggle behind our hands like school children, amused by the awkward atmosphere in the bungalow, given we are the only guests (and the first ones at that.)  As it is too early for bed, we agree it might be easier to go for a walk – the seafront is beautiful and it will give us some time to ourselves.  We get our jackets and pop back up the short hallway to the living room to let the couple know we are going for a walk.

They laugh.  “You won’t manage, you can’t see your hand in front of your face out there.  Besides, it’s a narrow, rocky path, too hard to follow in the dark, you could fall into the sea at the end!”  We gently insist we will be careful before quickly heading out the door just as our ability to stifle our laughter gives way completely.

Outside in the yard, we suddenly stop laughing.  We stop walking, too.  We really cannot see our hands in front of faces, as we had been warned.  City kids, this is darkness like we’ve never experienced.  We try to use the little flashlight they lent us, but it is as good as a chocolate teapot, and clearly no match for the black Scottish sea sky at night time.  We can hear the waves, but we cannot see a single thing and realise we are absolutely completely at risk of falling in the sea, and a walk is a total impossibility.

Now we have the humiliation of going back inside and admitting the couple were right, a walk was a ridiculous suggestion.  Tired by now and having run out of ideas of what to do, we decide to turn in for the night.  The room is decorated in daffodil yellow, curtains, walls, everything, and the bedding feels fresh out of its packaging, like just a few hours ago.  We get ready for bed laughing at the newness of it all.  We hear the couple retire to their own room shortly after.

Young, in love and on vacation, we climb into bed with “plans”, although I bring things to an abrupt standstill when the bed makes a sound.  He reassures me we can be quiet, and that they won’t hear, but I feel like someone’s parents are in the next room and there is no way I can enjoy any intimate contact on that bed and risk it making a single creak as a giveaway.  We de-camp to the floor, occupying a gap about 18” wide next to the bed.  Yes, if you are picturing that space, it is much narrower than the bathroom on an average aeroplane.  We manage somehow, though decidedly, it was not the best sex ever.

The next morning, we venture to the dining room for breakfast.  There is a crocheted doily with beads on it draped over the milk jug.  We really struggle not to lose it in fits of hysterics at this point, feeling like we’ve woken up in 1923.  Breakfast is nerve-wracking at best, and we feel under-pressure to compliment everything we are served and clean our plates.  It is exhausting.  After breakfast, the couple, who we are now thinking have very little contact with the outside world, want to spend time with us.  The husband takes my boyfriend to his green house to talk plants and the wife starts telling me her life story.  I am slowly coming to the realisation that we have another two days of this … unless we can make our escape.  We manage to disentangle ourselves after an hour or two and go for a walk on the shore to hatch a plan.

I call the nice man at the B&B on Lake Windermere, who serendipitously has just had a cancellation to book for two more nights.  We then come up with an excuse that one of us needs to get back for work and we have to head back early.  We pack the car, take a handful off brochures with the promise to recommend the B&B to all our friends, and scarper back along the coast and south to the Lakes.

It was not the most relaxing 24hrs of our lives, but was a hilarious adventure which was well worth the trek.  And as I’m writing this, I’m now wondering if they perhaps wrote a blog about us, too?

A Note to My Children

IMAG0767A Note To My Children – by Judith Staff

Dear Children,
I swear far too freely
But you mustn’t, you know those words are only for adults
I love my phone so much, I sleep with it
But you mustn’t, don’t be a slave to it and let it rule your days
I have a coffee & a handful of Skittles, and call it ‘lunch’
But you mustn’t, snack on your fruit, have the sandwiches, finish your crusts
I secretly re-fold the towels your Dad folds; he never does it right
But you mustn’t, in future accept your partner folds laundry differently. It’s okay.
I workout every single day, even if I’m injured. Even if I’m exhausted.
But you mustn’t, you need to exercise but you need to listen to your body, too
I strive incessantly for perfection, and always feel like I could do better
But you mustn’t, value what you achieve and don’t be afraid to celebrate it
I look in the mirror and speak terribly unkind words
But you mustn’t, love the self you see, seek beauty in your individuality always
I keep my tears under lock and key, your Grandad says “Crying solves nothing”
But you mustn’t, let yourself cry and believe it only strengthens you
I see those around me in different spaces and I want to be where they are
But you mustn’t, we’re all where we are because we own our journeys; own yours
I have written this for you, my gorgeous children
But you don’t listen to me.
And maybe I am talking to myself.

Bookcase

Bookcase — by Judith Staff 

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Image by Judith Staff

Many times a day
My lungs are crying
Panic-laden words:
“I can’t breathe.”
“I CAN’T breathe.”
“I. Can’t. BREATHE.”
They reverberate
Over the clattering
Of my thoughts
“icantbreathe”.
In theory, I can.
Oxygen sneaks in
But it’s a drama
I take a breath
Not enough air
Gasp again
Still a deficit
A longer one
But no avail
Because each time
The breath stops
Unable to continue
When it reaches
That same spot
Where
The invisible bookcase is crushing my chest.

 

Gas Money & Sexual Harassment

 

Last week, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment.

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Reuters

In the subsequent days, many allegations have emerged from women accusing him of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. Why is it so much easier to speak out in droves? And where does that leave women whose workplace sexual harassment does not involve a celebrity whose accusations appear on the front pages of the international media?

***********

*Names have been changed  *Trigger warning – sexual harassment

Toby was gorgeous, undeniably so, and an amazing dresser. He and his wife, Lana ran a café in the shopping complex where I worked. Lana had recently had a baby, a little cherub. Though Lana was not doing well. She seemed in a bad mood all the time, sullen and quiet. She gained a lot of weight during the pregnancy and it was not shifting. Working in the café did not help Lana, with snacking a temptation.

Toby and Lana were ten years older than me, maybe more. They lived nearby, and would pick me up on their way to work, dropping me home afterwards. I always tried to give Toby gas money but he never accepted it, just smiled and said “It’s fine.” Toby was a total flirt – all the girls knew, and he liked that. He winked at me, often making suggestive remarks when Lana was not in earshot. Sometimes he grabbed me, teasingly as I walked by. I pushed him away with a look of mock scorn, though secretly I loved the attention. He was so much older and always looked fantastic. Lana wasn’t looking after herself, she had poor hygiene and greasy hair. She never wore make-up anymore and always looked pissed off. I felt bad for Toby being so hot-looking and having a wife who didn’t seem to care about her appearance. I also felt bad for Lana, she seemed so flat.

Toby started following me, appearing around corners when I did – the complex was open-plan so he could see me most of the time. I often went into the stockroom to check on a product – a cavernous room full of boxes. Eventually Toby was coming in every time I went in there alone, pushing me up against the boxes and trying to kiss me as I squirmed. He was different in those moments, never laughing, but serious and controlling. Holding me firmly, trying to get into my clothes he made aggressive comments like he would “have” me. I never felt afraid, surely it was all an act? Besides, anyone could walk in at anytime. I’d struggle free from his clutches, laughing and telling him to “fuck-off”.

Part of me liked being Toby’s favourite girl, at first.  But sometimes he was indiscreet, and others noticed. I began to think he wanted them to, like he was showing off.  They said Toby was acting like a jerk. They started telling me he should keep his hands off me, which was embarrassing, like as if I’d started it all.  I felt sorry for him that he was not getting any attention from Lara, she seemed so steeped in her own tired, sad world. But mainly I felt guilty in his car with him and Lara, trying to make small talk on the way home, knowing Toby had forced his hands inside my clothes earlier.  It was happening every day now, even though I tried to push him away.   I didn’t laugh, and I wished he would stop.  Toby likely knew I would never mention what he was doing, taking advantage of me in hidden corners at work while refusing my gas money.

One Sunday, my housemates were away and I was home alone. Toby and Lara had dropped me home just after 6pm. I was about to head to bed around 11.30pm when there was someone at the door. It was Toby. He apologised for scaring me so late and asked to come in. He and Lara had argued, and he didn’t know where to go. Toby looked genuinely upset.  He cut a lonely figure in that moment, and I felt bad for him.  I invited him in and said I would make coffee and we could talk. Toby asked if he could use the bathroom. I said ‘of course’, directing him upstairs with my back to him, continuing to make the coffee.

Moments later, Toby was calling me. Tired, young, and perhaps a little too trusting, I went up the stairs to see what was wrong.  As I reached the landing, I saw the bathroom was empty. Toby was in my bedroom now with the lights off. I could see the shape of him on my bed. Waiting, in the dark. He asked me to join him. I froze, absorbing the real reason he was at my house at 11.30 at night. In that moment, I knew I could be raped – it now seemed a real possibility. Backing slowly down the top three steps, I spoke, shakily, eyes on Toby the entire time;

“Toby you need to go. Right now. I need you to leave. I’m not doing this.”

Amazingly, Toby quietly came downstairs. I told him again he had to go. My heart was racing and I was ready to run, but made sure I looked strong.  He hesitated, asking me if I was sure, then he left. Maybe my reaction showed him I would tell this time if he touched me. I locked the door and didn’t sleep.

Neither of us ever spoke of that night. Toby carried on declining gas money. He carried on cornering me in the stock-room or empty corridors, trying to kiss me and feel me up every chance he got.  And I carried on trying to shove him off me, but not knowing how to stop him. When I got a car and started dating a lad from the camping equipment store, Toby finally left me alone.

 

My Wrists Can Stay

  images (20)      My Wrists Can Stay — by Judith Staff    

The aura of disgust a glimpse, or fleeting touch evokes.

Almost imperceptible, but only almost. It registers, somewhere;

A faint echo of revulsion, tinged with melancholy, impales the quiet.

I shut my mind’s eyes, desperate to stop the thought dead.

Unhalted, it always rushes towards the desire to slice, or crush,

Or suck away those places where such a vile aversion is brewed.

Where is it seeping from, this poisonous despising of my physical self?

A noxious weed with a stranglehold on my image of my shell’s exterior.

A perception saturated in contempt, living in hiding, ever beyond reach,

A lightyear or two away from what others seem convinced they can see.

My wrists can stay; the rest – one day, I promise to loathe you less.

But for now I wish you were someone else’s;

I wish you were not mine.

Last Minute Club

Last Minute Club – by Judith Staff Raw-and-Unfiltered

Do you ever read something which consumes your thoughts, and makes such complete sense that for a while afterwards, it’s swilling around in your head like when you drank your juice too fast as a kid and it sloshed about in your tummy? Something so affecting it seeps into other areas of your life, reverberating in your mind days and weeks later, like an echo?

Recently, I read Raw & Unfiltered vol. 1: Selected Essays and Poems on Relationships with Self & Others (eds. J Anderson & M Carlton. Los Angeles: Feminine Collective, 2015). An anthology of submissions from Feminine Collective, a web-based magazine, the book is brimming with excellent writing by superb writers. One essay in particular which I keep returning to is “Self-Doubt is the Mother of Procrastination” (pg. 281) by Julie Anderson*. An international supermodel, and celebrated writer & poet among many more talents, Julie Anderson communicates beautifully her perspectives on life, love, mental health, body image, motherhood and countless other topics. Her writing is alive with an authenticity which grabs your hand and holds it tightly as you read her powerful, often deeply emotive words. Creator of Feminine Collective magazine & publishing company, Julie also co-edited Raw & Unfiltered.

In her piece “Self-Doubt is the Mother of Procrastination” Julie Anderson talks about her unfinished to-do lists and overdue car services. Her stacks of pressing paperwork on and around her desk, which match my own. She explains “Sometimes, I shuffle them around the room.” I do that – my piles of paperwork are like the red spot in the Dr Seuss classic “The Cat in the Hat”, being shifted around under the guise of “tidying up” or “sorting out.” Julie alludes to the sense of pride about her ability to complete things just under the wire “….proclaiming with a snarky grin that ‘I work better under pressure’….” I am laughing reading this; my family can readily attest to my impeccable skills in this area. If we go to see a movie, they lie to me about the time it starts to avoid being the last ones in their seats as the film begins. Late tax return, unanswered emails – as I read Julie’s catalogue of delay, I mentally check off a similar list. The first few paragraphs I’m giggling away – “Yep, that’s me all over!” The essay totally gets me, in a tribal-like way. Pure solidarity.

I am thoroughly enjoying the sense of validation and flutter of pride at being so good at the skin-of-my-teeth thing, a quality I seem to share with someone incredibly successful and talented. Until about a third of the way in, Julie mentions a podcast she discovered called iProcrastinate. She quotes the host, Dr Tim A. Pychyl who says:

“Procrastination is a by-product of low self-esteem and self doubt.”

Fuck. Well, that wiped the smile off my face really fast. Only because I completely relate to that, too. I lack masses of self-confidence and self-belief – so this made sense. Lots of sense. Like, too much, in fact. My problem isn’t poor time-keeping or disorganisation – I’m up by 5am most mornings, climbing into bed after midnight following another day of ‘busy’. No, this is all about an inherent fear of failure, of never being “good enough”. I continue thinking about it. Now, instead of being a minute late and joking about making an entrance, I am thinking, shamefully “God, I really need to sort this self-doubt thing out, one of these days……” Half the time, it’s a “wardrobe-crisis”, five changes of outfit that made me late. By enabling my behaviour with a “that’s just me” narrative, I have managed to keep getting away with it. Now I saw the underlying issue: me getting in my own way.

Putting all that aside for now, there’s more: I struggle to finish tasks as well.
I always DO finish but literally right on the deadline. With written projects, if there is no deadline, I edit the thing to death until I make myself a deadline (or four), or until someone wrenches it out of my hands. I can’t let go, stuck in a perpetual editing loop. I put all this down to perfectionism. Recently, I knew my slide presentation for a conference would take me about an hour to create. I started it at about 10pm the night before it was due for submission, and as predicted, it took me about an hour. Easy. But it was nearly 3am when I finally submitted it, and went to bed for two hours before my working day began. Waking up exhausted, I began wondering why I had spent so long tweaking and tweaking, unable to say “Done”. That’s when I finally saw the connection. The same thing that gets in the way of me starting things is what prohibits me from finishing them. After all, perfectionism and self-doubt are two sides of the same coin.

So now, I would love to have a Disney-esque ending for you, and tell you it’s all fixed so I can live happily ever after in the sunshine-filled Land of No-Procrastination. Instead, I will just say I’m still re-reading the chapter in the book, and paying particular attention to the steps at the end that Julie Anderson suggests can be helpful in addressing self-doubt induced tardiness.
And the steps she suggests are truly excellent.
And actioning them is on my to-do list.
Along with completing my tax-return.
And the emails I need to answer, the policy I am still fine-tuning, the paperwork on my desk I need to file……. When I’ve finished editing this.

*With very grateful thanks to Julie Anderson for giving me inspiration to write this piece, and reflect on my own patterns of last-minuteness and what underpins them.

Never Saw It Coming

Never Saw it Coming

*All names have been changed.     *Trigger warning – suicide.  Helpline numbers below.

It is World Suicide Prevention Day.  I saw a tweet that said everyone has been affected in some way.  I think that is probably true as I remember Mark.

1980s…..

It is late summer and my best friend Christy and I are really bored.  We have been for a swim in her neighbours’ pool, their girls attend the Catholic school two blocks away so we only really see them in school holidays.  At fifteen, Shannon is a year older than us and her sister Missy is a year younger.  The girls’ parents Lisa and Mark were only eighteen when they had Shannon so are still really young and rather cool, as far as parents go.  The house seems relaxed and we are allowed to do pretty much what we want.

After swimming we all go inside to get changed.  Mark is home lying on the sofa, and asks if we all want to watch a movie.  He puts on Children of the Corn and we all lie on the sofas and the floor sprawled out for the afternoon.  We have snacks but the film is too gory and I feel put off eating.  I am terrified by the end, and secretly glad it is still daylight outside.  After the movie, we all start saying “Malachy” in creepy voices and trying to freak each other out.  Mark makes us all laugh too, doing impressions and messing about pretending to be the characters from the horror film.

*****

December 23rd, the phone rings just before midday.  It is Christy, she calls every day, sometimes a few times.  But now she is crying.  She’s actually so distraught, I can’t really even understand her so I tell her I’m on my way.  This was not uncommon, Christy phoning me and me heading over to her place, but she was so upset now.  I grab a jacket, and run round the block to her house faster than normal, wondering what’s up.  There are police cars on the street which slow my footfall as I approach Christy’s porch, now realising something is very wrong.

Mark has killed himself.  He had got in the car in the early hours of the morning, inside their wooden garage, which he had sealed up and turned on the engine.  He’s dead.

I only went swimming once or twice there after that.  We had to walk through the garage to get to the pool and it was too much, knowing what had happened in there.  The family moved a year or so later.  Mark had not left a note.  No one knew why he had done it.  And no one would ever know answers to so many questions. Why he had left Lisa and the girls.  Why everything felt just too much.  Why he did it so close to Christmas.  Why those in Mark’s life never saw it coming.  Mostly, why he saw no way out other than suicide.

I don’t know how to end this piece other than to say, we just never know.  Even when we think we know, we really don’t.  We might never see it coming.  Be available, have compassion and look at people when you ask them if they are okay.  Ask them if they are okay and mean it.

And let them know you are prepared for whatever their answer is.

UK Samaritans – phone 116 123   USA National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1 800 273 8255

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My Wrists Can Stay

  images (20)      My Wrists Can Stay — by Judith Staff    

The aura of disgust a glimpse, or fleeting touch evokes.

Almost imperceptible, but only almost. It registers, somewhere;

A faint echo of revulsion, tinged with melancholy, impales the quiet.

I shut my mind’s eyes, desperate to stop the thought dead.

Unhalted, it always rushes towards the desire to slice, or crush,

Or suck away those places where such a vile aversion is brewed.

Where is it seeping from, this poisonous despising of my physical self?

A noxious weed with a stranglehold on my image of my shell’s exterior.

A perception saturated in contempt, living in hiding, ever beyond reach,

A lightyear or two away from what others seem convinced they can see.

My wrists can stay; the rest – one day, I promise to loathe you less.

But for now I wish you were someone else’s;

I wish you were not mine.

It Takes Guts

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image by Judith Staff

It Takes Guts – by Judith Staff 

Our children all flew trans-Atlantic before 6 months of age – all three travel well, and “get” airport protocol.  We remind them not to mention terrorism when the announcement about unattended luggage being destroyed comes on, and to put chapstick in the clear plastic bags as it’s considered a liquid (never figured that one out…?)  The main thing they understand is to be super sensible as we pass through security.  This is partly because I find it stressful – the pressure of getting five of us and our bags through the security gate with no snags.

Departing for a short break to Copenhagen, we arrive at Luton Airport security.  Dutifully, shoes are removed, bags and coats placed in grey trays, and the children are solemnly quiet.  I send our young girls through the metal detector first, one at a time, before following them.  Distracted, I neglect to remove my favourite solid Mexican silver bracelet, guaranteed to set off the alarm.  And it does.  As my heart-rate skyrockets with anxiety, I make eye contact with the security guard, a portly older man wielding a detector wand.  Tentatively, I put my arms out to the sides in preparation for a search.  Laughing, he says “I’d love to give you a pat-down sweetheart, believe me, but I’d get fired, so you’ll have to wait for my colleague!” He gestures to a female security guard over his shoulder.  A shocking comment.  Shocking.

You won’t believe what happens next….

Nothing.

I say nothing.  I do nothing.

In front of my daughters, I let him get away with blatant, antiquated, patronising, patriarchal, oppressive, humiliating sexism.

And he is in a UNIFORM.   Being PAID.

When I say “nothing”, I do react of course – I blush, hotly and cast my eyes to the floor, momentarily wishing it would open up and help me to vanish, as I wonder how many other passengers heard his suggestive remark. I remain silent as the female guard briefly checks me.  We go to the opposite wall to put our shoes and coats back on, and with scarlet cheeks, I tell my husband in a small voice what happened.  He is amazed and angry, asking if I want us to do something about it.  I reply “No, I’m okay, just leave it.”  Later, the extent of my “complaint” is a single Tweet full of indignation, which unsurprisingly, fails to elicit a response from Luton Airport.

Since then, I can recall at least three other instances in the past year where men were at work, and behaved inappropriately towards me in front a roomful of people, and I did nothing apart from blush with embarrassment.  Interestingly, I subsequently end up feeling more angry with myself for not calling it and allowing the behaviour to go unchallenged, than I do with the men or about the behaviour itself.  What happens in that moment that is so disarming?  Now, I can think of a million justified responses, including the obvious, albeit reactive, “Fuck off”, to the more pragmatic – lodging a written complaint to their employer.   Doing nothing at all, I am in essence, letting it go.   Which leaves them, and everyone who witnesses it thinking it is acceptable, when it is completely not.

Why can’t I speak out in the moment?  What is the matter with me?  My friends know I am a talker, and I have strong views.  Most of us think we know exactly what we would say in response to such sexist, demeaning behaviour – I definitely think I would.   I love challenges and have coped with adversity in life, and am used to being assertive when it’s required.  I will not hesitate to speak out on what I feel passionate about, even if it ruffles feathers.  I have clear opinions on what women should not have to tolerate , including verbal comments and intrusive physical contact.  So what is the problem?

The answer I think, is that it takes guts.  For a range of reasons, it takes guts.

  • It’s always men, and as I’m only 5’3”, most men tend to be bigger than me.
  • By speaking out, I am prolonging the exchange and it might become more humiliating or even violent.  The man at the airport was a stranger, and unpredictable (the other three, I knew.)
  • Witnessing sexist behaviour is one of those situations where bystanders are highly likely to pretend they didn’t hear/see, and less likely to chip in and assist if I speak out.  So it will be a lone-wolf-girl moment if I choose to challenge it.
  • These interactions can leave women feeling ashamed (yeah – I know the shame lies with the man, but in the moment….) which can inhibit a gutsy response, or indeed any response at all.

By saying something, I would not just be challenging a man who behaved badly.  I would also be challenging a culture of sexist behaviour that has been embedded in the fabric of society for centuries.   And that takes guts.  If we all found the guts to support each other, men and women, and spoke out against sexist behaviour in public, it would help.

The best way to challenge sexism is to pull together – after all, it’s so much easier to have guts if someone’s got your back.

Girly-Girl

Girly Girl – by Judith Staff

“If you spend time in front of the mirror, you’ll be empty-headed all your life!”

A scornful mantra – my mother’s daily warning to me growing up. She truly believed it was impossible to work at looking good without becoming completely thick and self-absorbed, let alone develop any sense of compassion for humanity and make a wider contribution to society, or the planet. Yeah – a tad judgemental, I know.

As a “girly-girl”, the contrast in tastes my mother and I have regarding style, fashion and image could not be starker. Her short hair always un-styled, Scholl wooden sandals beneath unshaven legs, and she’s never owned any make-up. She wears fabrics which never need ironing, practical separates in colours that don’t show the dirt. Whether they match never matters. She doesn’t like jewellery and was in her fifties before she had her ears pierced, when my brother and I booked it for her as a surprise.

Even as a child, I was always “dresses”20170727_120327, never trousers. I love clothes, the more feminine the better. I wore my long hair in ponytails tied with bright ribbons which matched my outfits. Shiny shoes with buckles – if they made a noise when I walked, even better. Elements of style choices favoured by my six-year-old self are still visible in my wardrobe today.  My friends know I still love shiny shoes which make a noise when I walk.

Once, my mother bought me brown jeans. Honestly; they had a truck on the back pocket – clearly for boys. And brown, even at its height of popularity in the 70s, was still the colour of shit, right? She made me wear them. Sometimes she bought me clothes which were totally unisex, like the matching saffron-coloured ribbed tops she made my little brother and I wear to a photographer’s to have our photo taken. Gross. Always what she liked, and always the opposite of what I would have chosen.

My Grandad said girls should all have long hair (a typical Irish Catholic patriarch.) That worked perfectly for me – by the age of five, I refused to go near a hairdresser’s, even for a trim. Except my mother never brushed my hair, and I only brushed the top layer. My stepmother would often spend Friday nights gently combing the nastiest tangles out of my long, thick tresses. She had expensive conditioner which smelled gorgeous, and she never pulled. It was she who taught me put on nail polish immaculately, & bought me my first high heels at thirteen.

At junior high, Jennifer B. and I skilfully applied our black eyeliner at 8.30am in the school bathroom. We wiped it off again in the same bathroom at 3.30pm. I devoured the monthly issues of Seventeen magazine which I still have lovingly stashed with pride in my attic for my daughters to howl with laughter over in years to come. Such an iconic symbol of my 1980s teen-hood.

My hair endured countless bottles of Sun-In, mousse and gel. I worshipped my curling iron and could empty a can of Finesse hairspray in less than a week. My mother complained loudly, saying I was always “titivating” – a ridiculous word. I just thought of “tits” whenever she said it, which made me want to laugh. I took no notice, but wished she could understand.
“You need to have values! You’ll just end up selling gold belts and not giving a damn about global injustice!” she would threaten.
But it didn’t scare me.
Running into a boy from school at the corner store without any lipstick on – now THAT scared me.

It is an outrageous notion that women who wear make-up, do their hair, shave, care what their clothes look like and – God forbid – perhaps want to look attractive are all “empty-headed”; I heard her use this term so often, it was branded on my brain. So scornful were her looks and words as she chided me for trying to look good. In truth, I never felt good about how I looked anyway. Constantly grappling with poor body image only made me try harder. I spent all my allowance on Maybelline and Timotei – I mean what thirteen year old girl didn’t want hot, juicy lips, lacquer-coated in cinnamon scented Kissing Potion®, and alluring, ass-length swishy hair, scented like a summer’s meadow full of wildflowers?!

These days, among other things, I am a mother of three children (12, 11 and 9 years old). The youngest two are girls. They have strong views on sexual objectification of women; understand that how they look should never be linked to their self-worth; have been raised to believe that bathroom scales are the devil’s work (hence we don’t have any); and are fully aware that it is not right for little girls to dress like grown-ups.

However, I encourage them to be themselves, and to feel good about how they look. They choose their clothes carefully (and fight over them visciously), they love shoes and bags, spend ages on their hair (learned behaviour which I accept total responsibility for), and stock-pile perfumed body sprays, nail polish and make-up. Both asked to have their ears pierced for their 8th birthdays. They wear my heels around the house and can now apply lipstick with enough accuracy that they don’t look like Ronald McDonald.

As for me, I have 15-20 lipsticks in my bag at any time (addicted), I straighten my hair to go to the gym and buy a new dress whenever I need a pick-me-up. But despite everything I am devoted to my family, passionate about my career and hell-bent on making a difference in the world every day.

…..And I’d like to think I have not turned out “empty-headed”, after all.