It Takes Guts

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….


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 – 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.

I Am Not Yours

I Am Not Yours – by Judith Staff

*trigger warning – violence

Ocean-green eyes
Television smile     0e9ee9828b5008ef3bd5d94bacd325c2--surreal-artwork-surreal-photos
My friends excited for me

Our first date
Walking close and talking
Holding my hand too hard

I just felt like salad
But, no; you said apparently
“Guys hate girls who do that”

Summer nights
Out on the town
A firm grasp on my wrist

Parking lot deserted
Hot fury bursts out of nowhere
Slammed backwards against a car

What have I done or said?
Shock suspends thoughts in mid-air
As crushing body-weight overpowers my frame

Hard to breathe
Car-door pressing into my back
Tongue thrust harshly, deep into my throat

Violent, rage-filled kiss
Incongruity – painful affection
Wondering whether my lip is bleeding

Releasing my body
Sharply gripping my arm
Consider it a lesson – (in something)

Next day, flowers
Twelve apologetic red roses,
A poem: “You are mine FOREVER”

Funhouse-flavoured depravity
A rhyme of inescapable demands
All soaked in sugar; love choking me, gently

Stifled and afraid
I don’t want to see him anymore
But boys like that won’t be told “No”

Seventeen, crying in the dark
Home alone, ignoring the phone
While the tape fills with chilling words

Five, ten, fifteen, more
Message after message
Final threat: “I’m coming for you now”

Packing randomly, distraught
Out into the night, fleeing to a friend’s
Words like fiery echoes unsilenced: sleep evades me

Following me, an icy gaze of contempt
If those ocean-green eyes fired bullets
I would bleed to death, riddled by jilted glares

Distressed tears of exhaustion
Everyone insisting “Leave her alone!”
“You’re scaring her!” – this: his very fantasy

Afraid to walk home, call for help
“Enough is bloody enough!” they declare
He vanishes then, chased away by power and wealth.

Safe at last
Still, I watch my back.
Because “I am NOT yours.”


Girls’ Speak

We have three children, a boy of 12 and girls of 11 and 9.  We talk – they have views.  Strong views, at times.  We chat with our children openly about gender issues, violence, mental health, sexuality and endless other topics that so many either avoid completely, or only feel safe to whisper about behind closed doors.  I pass no judgement on other parents’ decisions; selecting when it is the right time to talk with children is an individual choice.  I find it bemusing when others feel justified to comment on our conversation topics with the children, but perhaps their judgements originate from that place of insecurity within all of us as parents.

I worry more about my daughters in terms of their safety, their self-esteem, their empowerment and the messages they are getting from home, the media and society about who they should be.  I asked my daughters if they would like to be part of this blog, and both were eager.  The little one said “I would be honoured, Mama!”  To protect my children’s identity online, I let the girls choose names for themselves.  Curiously, both chose …. sort of ‘stage’ names.   The 11 yr old chose “Candy-Rose”*, the 9 year old “Bambi”.

*I was instructed that the ‘a’ in Candy-Rose is to be written as a lollipop and the ‘o’ as a flower, but the IT is letting me down.

The girls chose a range of topics and then I spoke with them each on their own to make sure they gave their own answers (or the younger one would copy!)

What’s growing up like for boys?

Bambi – Sometimes they can get hormones a lot and they might get a bit angry.

Candy-Rose – They go through a stage where they can get moody and aggressive and start to lose other people’s opinion. 

What is growing up like for girls?

Bambi – It could be stressful for them, they might get upset that nobody likes them.

Candy-Rose – Girls can have body-hate and low self-esteem.  And feel excluded, like on their own.  They can be not-sure about stuff, from like what to eat for breakfast to like what to do with boys.


What is equality?

Bambi – It’s 50% to women and 50% to men, and men and women can do the same things.  Sometimes we have equality but like for football [at school], boys say “I’m going on the pitch today because I’m a boy”.

Candy-Rose – Stuff like comparison, people comparing people to others…..Some days, some children come in with new pencil cases and say they went shopping, and that puts a lot of pressure on the children who don’t get treated much because there’s no money.  Nowadays, there are a lot of sayings like “Girl Power” which is really good but then some boys can’t get over the fact that in some subjects girls are better, and they don’t like it and they can get feisty.


Bambi – Puberty can be a bit tricky and a bit embarrassing… because when you get your… like, period ….. and it leaks and you don’t have one of them little things, a sanitary towel, then you might get a bit embarrassed.

Candy-Rose – Different for different people….like some people have it at 10 or an older up age.  It can be very hard on children if you don’t have people to go to and talk about it.  If you don’t have the right equipment like if you don’t have a shaver and you have like pretty much a beard, and you have to go to school with it and you get an award in assembly in front of the school…’s damaging for the child.  I think my biggest worry is if I’m at school and I get my period and I have no one to go to.



Bambi – A boy assaults a girl, makes them have sex and they’re mean and they don’t purposefully say “Do you want to do this as well?”…. They just say “Right, we’re doing this now.”

Candy-Rose – I don’t think everyone knows the actual meaning of rape and I think some people just joke about it.  Like when I was in class and I walked in the gap behind a girl and she said “Oh geez, CR, don’t rape me!” And I said to her“Don’t joke about it.”


Bambi – He is creating most of the problems of equality and stuff…..He’s offensive because he says like ‘It doesn’t matter much about consent’ and he’s building a wall even though the people in Mexico don’t want him to…….

Candy-Rose – He’s just crazy!  I don’t think how he thinks people will listen to him and I don’t get how people voted for him in America.  He has no care for the environment or people.  What did the world do to him that he has that anger in him to do that to America?  If it were me, I’d be honoured to be leader of America, absolutely honoured.  Obama was so great how he listened to his people.  Trump – he just doesn’t care less.   How he can have so much hatred for women to say “Grab them by the…” you know, that phrase — to be like that is so stupid.  They need to get some common sense into him.  He needs to listen to the people, and the children….and most of all, the women.


Bambi- If someone says no, no means no, don’t persuade them…and that if you really loved them you wouldn’t force them into anything.

Candy-Rose – Not all people think consent is important.  It doesn’t just mean the women just saying “yes” because they might have been pressured, or really drunk.  If the woman isn’t sure about it or is unconscious or feeling pressured, or doesn’t want to do it, or is drunk – that’s rape.  So what you need is for the girl to be really happy about it.  Or it is not consent, and then the man will fight about it in court.  But being pressured into saying “……okay then……” is not consent.


What would make growing up as a girl perfect?

Bambi – That boys be nicer and not that rough.  And that the world was made out of chocolate.

Candy-Rose – If there was a heart detector so it would detect when a girl is ready to kiss a boy or live with them or marry them…. and if they’re not, then the boy can’t come within a metre of them like a forcefield…..and the heart detector would always give a true reading of the girl’s feelings.

‘Candy-Rose’ and ‘Bambi’, Home Spa Day, July 2016


Sex Is Not a Swear-Word

*Trigger warning – passing reference to sexual harm

Summertime and we’re staying with friends in suburban Toronto. I am eight years old, our friends’ daughter Bonnie, is eighteen. The middle child of five, she is vivacious and spirited – a law unto herself; even at eight, I recognise this and I love it about her. With long flowy skirts, jangly jewellery and boho sandals, she is full of panache. Her hair is always messy, but a gorgeous type of mess, as though it could be deliberate. Bonnie is the older sister I never had, yet wistfully imagine and always long for. I am absolutely in awe of her, and in my little-girl mind, she is every bit as wildly glorious as I dream of becoming one day.
Early risers, we are out on the hills walking together, sometime after 7am, just me and Bonnie with her family’s two dogs. Bonnie does the talking and I listen quietly, mesmerised by her lyrical stream. As she chatters away about ‘teenagery’ things, I am only half paying attention to her stories, busy drinking in the magic of the hot summer morning, the buzz of cicada bugs in the grass, and the wonder of Bonnie.
Suddenly, I hear her say the word “sexy” in a sentence.
I stop in my tracks, my eyes wide and sparkling with the childhood naughtiness of hearing her utter the ‘s’-word, and I clamp a small hand over my mouth to stifle my nearly-escaping giggles. No one else is around, but I relish in the delightfulness of Bonnie’s rebel act, knowing full well children aren’t meant to hear that word – I mean everyone knows it’s a ‘swear’!


Bonnie stops, too. She looks at me intently, as though she can hear my thoughts, and speaks to me now in a gentle, serious tone:
“Hey – ‘sex’ isn’t a bad word, you know. Sex is beautiful! With the right guy, it is the most amazing thing ever – it’s incredible…. Don’t forget that, you’ll see one day, when you’re older….”

We reflect in silence, pondering her short soliloquy which hangs between us in the humid July air. Bonnie’s expression becomes dreamy as she gazes into the distance, drifting someplace else in her mind. I feel like she’s shared an adult snapshot of truth with me that I am not meant to know, and I can’t yet fully understand.  Feeling a rush of uncontainable excitement, I hold onto it tightly.
Bonnie can’t possibly ever know how the grown-up secret she gives me out on the hill in the mid-summer heat that morning will stay with me. Neither can I, for that matter. Her words remain preserved in a dusty file on a shelf in my mind until I need them. And need them I do – many times over, in the decade ahead.


As a teen, my outlook on sex becomes all-too-soon tainted by distress left in the wake of harmful sexual encounters – including sexual assault, harassment and stalking. Intimacy, even when safe and respectful, leaves me wrestling with a rising panic. Any possibility of personal pleasure is trampled on by my hurried steps to conceal my fear and control the anxiety. Alcohol is my trusted security blanket, reliably creating a comforting haze around my awareness and helping me relax. Simply put, drunk sex seems the easiest solution.

During these years of flightiness, partying and short-term relationships, I revisit Bonnie’s legendary words in that dusty file in my mind frequently, and they continue to intrigue me. What had she meant? How did she find the utopian moments she had vaguely alluded to that day on our walk? I never doubt the validity of her message – she had spoken from her heart with such earnest conviction. Though I struggle to see little, if any, evidence of it now. What I fail to acknowledge is that this illusion of negativity I carry is merely a falsehood created by previous sexual harm, which is blighting my perspective on it all.

It’s early autumn, I’m seeing someone new, and after a few dates and lots of great conversation, we have dinner at my house. Wine, more talking and kissing on the sofa ensue. The mutual attraction is palpable, and I ask him to stay the night. He eagerly accepts the invitation, even happens to have a toothbrush with him?! But he then makes it clear that he is not assuming we will have sex our first night together.
Yeah, right…. A ploy, surely! I am no genius, but I’m not stupid, either.
But no, he truly means it, and in that very moment, as the pressure vanishes, those gloomy clouds which cast their shadows over sex begin to dissipate. For the first time, it doesn’t feel like a demand, or an expectation that I have no control over.

I could end it there, though that’s perhaps cruel….?
Okay. Yes, he stayed, no we didn’t, and yes I went into work tired and smiling the next morning. And not long after, yes, we did.
Then, Bonnie’s immortal words she had told me all those years ago, finally made sense.

Bonnie, if you’re reading this, you were right – thank you x