Category Archives: Personal

A month ago

A month ago I didn’t know you. That was ok.

And a month from now things might have changed and that will be ok.

But for the moment, you’re taking up my time. You’re diverting me, and keeping me awake and planting in my mind things I didn’t know I loved and I love that.

I don’t worry about how long it will last; it’s all new and one day it will be a memory.

I’ve already set that in stone.

US Commercials and the Chipping of Body Confidence

I’ve been in America just less than two weeks, and already I’ve become aware of changes in myself. Some of them are good (definitely looking less pasty and discovered a deep love for tacos), but some of them edging on scary.

Being 20, I feel quite relieved in having roughly surpassed the phase of body confidence issues. I’ve stopped wanting longer legs or skinnier arms. I probably won’t ever be able to buy jeans from Zara, and that thigh-gap craze is certainly not one I can aspire to. But I’ve been size 10-12 since I stopped growing and I go in and out in around about the right places. Most importantly, I’m lucky to have been surrounded by friends who place little emphasis on image. I’m no Kim K, but there can only be one of her.

So perhaps to my surprise, yesterday I found myself in CVS studying the backs of tooth whitening kits. I had just left the gym and been staring from the treadmill up at the wide-smiled narrators on commercials that pop up every other second here. Their skin and eyes were brighter than mine. Their eyelashes longer and cheeks less chubby. Their lips a better shape and eyebrows more defined. All a thousand times better looking than me (and any other person I’ve ever seen in real life) –  presumably due to the mercy of their home teeth whitening kits.

Doing my research in one of the many pharmaceutical isles I was torn between whether I wanted a ‘multi-dimensional smile’ from Crest White Lux Supreme, or if  NiteWhite Complete‘s ‘active ingredients’ to ‘safely and effectively bleach your teeth’ were more my thing. Opalescence even offered a choice of between 10% ‘mild peroxide’ to 35% ‘maximum strength for non-sensitive teeth’, reassuring me that even ‘brown or dead’ teeth had some hope. I don’t think mine are brown. I checked them out in the mirrors on the makeup isle and they’re more a sort of light grey. But I did want it to do something. Maybe 15%?

It was $47.99 for an 8 pack in the melon flavor. I got out my currency converter app as I waited in line- just over £32, or about 3 trips to the dentist even with the dental insurance that I didn’t buy.

And then it struck me… I didn’t invest in dental health cover here, yet I’m about to pay to peroxide my own teeth….. Really??!

With North America now accounting for over 44% of the world’s pharmaceuticals revenue, much has been published to analyze, and often criticize the nature of the industry in the United States. A recent report commissioned by the World Health Organization highlighted the increasing ‘conflict of interests’ between the ‘legitimate business goals of manufacturers and the social, medical and economic needs of providers and the public to select and use drugs in the most rational way”. In short – too often Americans are being sold things that they don’t need.

Standing back, it’s not difficult to see that this is an industry the companies have pretty well worked out. As Republican platforms continue to challenge the mild but important progress of Obamacare, the huge costs associated with private insurance sets the industry on a precedent. Compared to European consumers the Americans I’ve met here are far less money-conscious when it comes to pharmaceuticals; with few other options, they’re used to personally devoting large sums to healthcare and thus inadvertently buying into it’s commercialization. And perhaps more dangerously, those without insurance are left especially susceptible as they attempt to meet their own healthcare needs at corner shop pharmacies with little guidance. Trawling through supposedly impartial advice forums on the internet can easily turn into staring at yet more advertisements. With far more relaxed laws on the advertising and distribution of medical drugs than within the European Union the law is on their side; the radio, the television, in shops and magazines, each pristine figure you see beaming through the camera that looks that much more goddess-like than the average human, persuading you – persuading ME – that I’m in need of the new ‘quick fix’. And once you’re paying for the teeth whitening and headache pills and extra protein and weight loss tablets and waist constrictors then it’s not much further down the line to botox for aiding collagen deficiency, breast implants for defeating low confidence or ritalin for the too-common menace of ADHD.

It’s easy for us British (protected by the veil of what is and isn’t covered by NHS)  to critique the american appetite for self-perfection. Yet as someone who considered myself relatively comfortable within myself, being here, surrounded by the commercial possibilities of betterment I’ve both never felt more  inadequate or sensed the need to reach further lengths for a desired outer appearance.

drugs

Austin’s Late Night bus riders: Welcome to Texas

A voice came from down the isle. ‘Don’t worry bout her lady, she trippin. She been trippin long time.’ I looked back up at the driver. Her eyes were slow and dim. Her skin was blotchy, lined and her pores stood out of her nose like pinpoints. She was making a kind of humming noise and her eyes couldn’t help darting across the highway, looking me up and down, then darting back.

I had been waiting at the bus stop outside Austin airport for about 20 mins. It was hot, dark and sticky. The insects were screaming in the long grasses either side of the highway and by then, I had been travelling for an entire 24 hours. And now the driver – this small, scatty latino woman with few teeth was in another world. It became immediately evident that a taxi to the motel would have been a far better option.

‘I’m just going past the prison. And I take a right after Walgreens and onto the Interstate. I donno after that. I follow the signs. It’s a long route. So you’re from London England? I love your accent. I been to New York 20 years back but my husband died and I haven’t left Texas since. I been driven this bus for 14 years now. I got some folks in Dallas…. ‘

My back hurt from carrying the luggage and no further progress was being made as to the route of the bus.

The man down the isle called out again. ‘Come on down, leave her.’ I looked in his direction. The dimly- lit bus was empty apart from 3 people sitting in a huddle. An overweight woman carrying a trolley of crumpled plastic bags, a broad old man in cleaning overalls and a skinny woman with a vacant expression wearing what seemed to be pyjamas.  The man held his hand out straight to shake. ‘I’m Walter and I know every bus route in the city.’ He spoke as if it were a title. An accolade to proudly show off. ‘I’ll help you miss, where you tryna go?’

I felt obliged to step on board. I put down my bags and showed him the address. Walter rode the bus each day, twice a day he said, from his home in Clear Creek to Travis County Correctional Facility in the south.  He worked as a janitor there. I didn’t realize at the time, but by car the route takes 20 minutes along two straight highways. On the bus, it’s upwards of an hour, with 30 minutes between each bus.

The bus started again and no one seemed to mind that I hadn’t paid. Following Walter’s directions were like remembering AA route planner directions from London to Edinburgh using only B roads. We went left then right then past this house and past that house and round a few roundabouts and up another highway then looped back and went the other direction on the second time and took the turning to go past this place but Walter was getting off to check on his nephew so Betty (the large woman with the trolley) would take over from here. Betty nodded as if it were a routine shift-change.

And the bus trundled on past grasses and weeds, cruising through the clear highway at the pace of little more than a jog. Apart from Walter, no one got on and no one got off. There was no urgency. The night was empty.

Betty was disabled, she told me. She had a tube that ran from her nose to a bag of fluid she kept under the crumpled bags in her trolley. I didn’t ask what it was for, but it made it difficult to understand what she was saying. Her boyfriend was disabled too, apparently. He lived near Timber Creek and they spent most days together. But he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t get out of the house much so she came on the bus to visit him in the morning and went back each night. They met at the hospital a year ago and ‘the rest is history.’ She burst into raucous laughter after she said this, her eyes glistening and stomach plunging up and down as she slapped her thighs triumphantly. I smiled.

We kept going. More grasses, weeds, street lights and empty diners. I became increasingly worried I had no idea where we were going and had been traveling for almost an hour. Betty was still chatting and the other skinny lady silently listening. They seemed to have forgotten that I would ever need to get off. My internet wasn’t working so I asked if they had a phone I could use. Betty’s was a brick. Too old for 3G and the other lady, as Betty told me, didn’t own one. The lady shook her head to confirm. Perhaps I shouldn’t have complained about my lack of connection.

Betty talked and talked. About her boyfriend, her family, her health insurance coverage and her shopping. And then about the skinny woman sitting beside her who again nodded and shook her head at the appropriate moments. She talked about Texas, and how things had changed. She talked about the Mexicans and the whites and for the first time I heard the word ‘negro’ used as a description of the self. And it was used with pride – her, Walter and the skinny woman were just as much ‘negros’ as they were bus riders, Texans and Americans. It was another title referred to with a sense of communality and understanding. I became aware that I was none of those things, and perhaps in other circumstances that would have mattered, but to them it didn’t.

The bus driver shouted something about the Interstate and opened the doors, motioning for me to leave. I had few other options. None of us seemed to know where we were going or when the bus route ended so I stepped out onto the highway with my bags. Betty shuffled over to kiss me as I left and the skinny lady looked up in recognition.

The heat struck me again. I stood amongst my bags looking out over the flat, never-ending land. So this was it. Fast food chains and gas stations lined the highway. Cars occasionally flew past, but the air was still expect for the crickets rustling the grasses. I felt a thousand miles from anywhere or anything I knew. No recognizable faces or sounds or street names. No one I could phone. No google maps I could check up on. My eyes burnt from lack of sleep. I fell down on the weeds. I couldn’t already be home sick. I had barely started.

In the distance I caught the outline of a stark red and yellow logo. I squinted through watering eyes. The Super 8 motel – so maybe the driver did know where she was going. I trudged on.

In a way, it was the worst introduction to a city. A bus driver that looked like she belonged in rehab, a bus that drifted endlessly through the night and still a fifteen minute struggle alongside the highway to the motel, leaving me covered in dust and far past exhaustion. But in reality, after all of this I couldn’t have hoped for more. People in Texas don’t use public transport, and I can understand why. But the characters of the 350 bus – individuals distinct from the mainstream though they were, for me represented so much of what I came to realize Texan culture stands for. Sure, there are guns. There are rednecks and cowboy hats. But there’s also a fierce communalism. An isolated distrust of outsiders and authority that spawns localized patriotism and self-reliance.  There’s racial tension. Economic inequality and exclusivity. And there’s a genuine kindness, openness and concern for those they encounter. Arriving at the slimy, dim motel room after the epic journey – as sticky, dirty and tired as I was, I couldn’t help but already love the place.

What 20 years have taught me

  1. Determination requires confidence.
  2. Be open and people will be open with you.
  3. Sometimes you can learn the most from the people you disagree with.
  4. Talk.
  5. Know when to think and know when you need spontaneity.
  6. Life is a balancing act between making sure you enjoy the future and making sure you enjoy today. Find the point at which they’re not mutually exclusive.
  7. Everyone is a bank of understanding to be made use of.
  8. Exercise is the short term cure of everything.
  9. Put those who would put you before all else, before all else. *All the baes together*
  10. It’s true that you’ll only regret the things you didn’t do.
  11. Allow people to amaze you.
  12. Keep hold of people. You can’t tell what’s meant to be.
  13. Remember those you helped you. They haven’t forgotten.
  14. Everyone is scared of something and everyone has been through a love story.
  15. Dramas are only dramas for the moment, and there’ll be time in the future to laugh about them. Make sure you do.
  16. Don’t categorize yourself. Stereotypes don’t exist.
  17. Respect what others believe in – especially when you don’t understand why they believe it.
  18. Find someone who is in love with their own life and it will be impossible not to be in love with yours.
  19. Know those you value, and treat them as if you might never see them again.
  20. Believe in fate. Everything happens for a reason.

10 Things I’ve learnt about Britain after 2 days in Austin

  1. We shouldn’t feel bad about talking about the weather – clouds, sun, rain, snow. There’s really quite a lot to spice a conversation up.
  2. The Britain/ United Kingdom thing can truly puzzle
  3. OUR PUBIC TRANSPORT…. too much to love and appreciate. A bus every 30 mins??? None of that on Green Lanes.
  4. We’ve got the clothes shopping down. Definitely the preferred ratio of H&Ms to the overall population, and not even secluded in out of town ‘malls.’ Us British are all up for the high street browsing.
  5. Tea and Hot Tea are different things. Big mistakes can be made here.
  6. LONDON IS EXPENSIVE – and we genuinely aren’t just being paid more and spending more. We work like mad.
  7. We love fruit. And fine cheese. (American selection: ‘white rubbery block’ / ‘orange rubbery block’.)
  8. Sadly, across the Atlantic Britain is actually included in Europe… Seems it’s only us who still retain that ‘continent’ and ‘isles’ distinction.
  9. But saying you’re from London is synonymous to saying you’re from Wonderland. NOTHING COULD EXCITE THE AMERICAN MORE.
  10. Our general enthusiasm for life is abysmal. Should maybe think about introducing that ‘Hey, how are you, what can I get you?’ *flash a toothy smile* the moment you enter a shop. Or maybe not.british_empire

I’m writing to say I’m sorry

I came across this poem on instagram by Marisa Crane. I was ashamed by how much it struck me, but it’s beautiful and I wanted to share.

I’m writing to say I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for putting you in parentheses,

for treating you like an afterthought,

postscript at the end of a letter

but this, this is your letter,

too late, too pathetic, 

not the one that should have been about you.

you deserved a novel, not the corner of a page turned down

in case I ever wanted to pick up

where I had left off,

I should have taken the time

to read your footnotes,

to understand the context of your smile,

of your tears, of the nightmares

that plagued you.

I hope that wherever you are,

you are doing well.

I’m sure that you are, having been lifted of the heavy,

apathetic love

that once ailed me.

I’m so truly sorry to those this is about for me. I hope one day to tell you in person. Until then, I hope you will somehow know it and understand.

apologize

Don’t hate me, but I’m struggling to be a feminist.

I’m having an internal dialogue as to what I think about feminism. It’s been going on for a while (roughly a decade) and I’m concerned I’m not making much progress. I’ve had the opportunity of an education, I can vote, I can work, I can travel where I want. I don’t feel like there’s anything I want to do but can’t solely because I a woman. Granted, occasional unwanted attention from the opposite sex is still a problem today. I think we all know that. But I don’t feel like that diminishes me as a person. To me, that’s not so much the woes of being female – more the woes of being a man who’ll never know what he’s missing.

But despite all this, I still feel some moral obligation to adopt the title:

I am a(n aspiring) feminist.

I still get a bit anxious when the topic comes up. When friends share ultra-empowering, women-rule-the-world statuses and links on facebook, or complain about their daily maltreatment by men. Or when we praise Cara Delevigne for telling us to ‘free the nipple’ on instagram and get excited about the girls of Tehran for wearing jeans and cutting their hair short. Of course, this isn’t any form of western cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism (although if it were Mauri tribespeople instead of Arabs, perhaps we wouldn’t be celebrating their stylistic transitions with such triumphalism) – no, this is feminism, so stand up girls; let’s all clap our hands and dance to Katy Perry because WE LOVE FEMINISM ❤

Well, Michelle Obama’s great. And Queen B. The Bell Jar got me through when I needed it. Can I join the club? 

No seriously, I have tried to be a feminist. I started off with If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring – written in the 80s but now considered one of the founding texts of feminist economics. As I understand, her argument suggests that in associating the value of our assets (whether human or physical) with the monetary value of the output they produce, the capitalist set-up is designed to reduce the role of women through undervaluing the work they traditionally do. The male position is therefore secured on a higher rung of the social ladder and women are reduced to their dependants. The argument seems pretty logical – because women more commonly do work with no monetary value attached (caring for children; managing the household for their families; providing basic, but unpaid healthcare), women represent ‘undervalued human capital’ in our capitalist system. Men, who aren’t expected to fill these roles and so aren’t ‘undervalued’ enjoy greater economic freedom, independence, and a higher status in society.

I get, it- feminism is about women having equality with men, and there’s no lack of cases across the world where that still hasn’t been achieved. Certainly in many of the poorest societies women have little option other than to fill these unpaid, undervalued roles. The pure fact that they are female, and nothing else, condemns them to a lifetime of dependency with little ownership and few choices.

But what about the women who are independent? Who can, if they choose, step outside the immediate homestead and work? In most of the Western world isn’t it the financial and therefore social independence that we enjoy that forms the pre-requisite to the luxury of calling ourselves feminists? After all, I doubt many of the women Marilyn Waring was referring to in her economic model would actually labelled themselves with the term. Ironically, it seems to be those women who do enjoy more or less equality with their male counterparts that are able to join the club. `Those who don’t seem to be left outside.

Hence the confusion again set in. Maybe I needed to look at the other end of the social/ economic spectrum. If I struggled to get my head around the relationship between feminism and women without relative power, maybe a better place to start would be looking to those with relative power. And I needed to hear clear arguments. I needed someone to talk to me; to tell me personally without me having to think. So I went to the autobiography section of the Oxford Street Waterstone’s and picked out Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Surely the queen herself, the New York high flyer and all round woman-of-the-world couldn’t let me down.

It was a good read. It certainly filled the criteria of me not having to think, and I found it strangely reassuring to match up her eccentricities to my own – I definitely felt a bit less weird for four or five days and that’s always a good thing. But I couldn’t escape the sense that I was looking onto a very tightly-knit circle of grown women enjoying a kindergarten story time session.

Yes, I recorded what I ate for a month. And guess what…. I eat SO MUCH FOOD. But it’s ok that I’m overweight because on the inside I’m beautiful.’ *General applause and pats on backs all round*

Ok, the essence of the book I agreed with. Women don’t need to be worried. We don’t need to feel like we have anything to live up to, or be pressurised with any constraints. We should be confident, and happy, and feel good about ourselves.

But aren’t these pretty universal messages? I’m sure our childhood friend Arthur the aardvark and the tunes of S club 7 were saying the same things…. Why when we get to adulthood are they being withheld within the binds of daring pink and black ‘feminist’ print?

I understand that there are issues which face women to a greater extent than men. And these are real issues. Emma Graham-Harrison wrote a recent article in The Guardian highlighting how much more difficult survival is for women residing in the migrant camps in Calais purely because they’re women. We as readers can empathise with the fear of unwanted attention when we go out for the evening (mobile phone and house keys in toe). But with no streetlights, no police support, no tampons or soap, and in many cases a child to look out for (three mothers have so far given birth in ‘The Jungle’ camp – quite a feat) daily life takes on a whole new level of challenging.

But I find it difficult not to see the term ‘feminism’ as restricting these issues to the female sphere. Not in their reception – there are plenty of prominent male feminists around – but in their origin. It suggests that these are problems only women have, and society needs to deal with them.

From all that we’ve learnt in the history of the world, surely one of the most important, resounding lessons is not to look at humanity in blocks. Not to divide people up as their nationality, or their religion, their race, political bias – or gender. Not to isolate each block or pose one against another. People are intricate. They’re individual and interconnected in more ways than we realise, and in my opinion, a huge achievement of our generation has been our ability to disassociate ourselves with gender norms. It’s ok for our best friends to be of the other sex. It’s ok to spend time with whoever we want to spend time with – go to dinner with them, go on holiday with them, co-habit with them. As we’ve recently seen with the Women’s football World Cup, women’s sport is for once being regarded just as seriously as men’s. This isn’t because women are becoming more like men – it’s because the individuals on that sports team are now able to do what those individuals want to do. In many cases, our gender is coming to no longer define the boundaries of our societal or social roles and interactions. Yes, there’s a feminine stereotype and a masculine stereotype, but at last we seemed to have realised – 99% of us lie somewhere in-between, as non-gendered people.

I’m saying this because I think that’s the crux of my issue with feminism. That surely ‘feminist’ issues are just ‘people’s’ issues. In response to feminist economics – anyone can be economically undervalued, male as well as female, child as well as adult; in response to Lena Dunham – anyone can feel insecure; in response to the real challenges facing women throughout the world – the challenges you’re facing don’t just apply to you. They don’t exist in their own gendered sphere – they’re part of a wider societal, cultural, economic and political sphere that touches on and involves us all. Their relevance shouldn’t be attached to the block of humans we call ‘women’. The danger; the injustice; the lack of independence or choice; the harassment and exploitation – they all very much exist and they’re all very much causes worth fighting against. But these aren’t issues of women’s rights, they’re issues of human rights.