Monday, 26 September 2016

Feminism: Don't Fear the F-Word

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As a little kid watching 1970s shows on our huge walnut monstrosity of a tv set, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: Wonder Woman. With her strong Amazonian figure complete with glossy black mane, no-nonsense stance and superhero powers she was the embodiment of Girl Power, long before the term was coined.

I don't recall the exact point I lost interest in her and other strong female characters (remember Supergran, the badass in a bobble-hat?) and my focus shifted towards hair, make-up and boys, but it's with sorrow that I picture my lively superhero impersonations screeching to a halt; that moment when I stopped leaping off furniture, homemade cloak flapping behind me, and started flapping over more important preoccupations instead, such as...looks...and...weight?

From birth we're drip-fed a steady stream of gender stereotypes; tiny writhing bodies immediately swaddled in either a pink or blue blanket in the hospital. At that moment our fate is sealed: it's dolls for girls, cars for boys.

In ballet class I was always cast in the male roles due to my height; other girls wore frilly tutus and frothy frocks, pink ribbons in their hair, whilst I was coaxed into plain shirts and pedal pushers with my hair slicked back, since my beanpole frame fitted the stereotypical "boy" mould.

Later, as an impressionable teenager I'd bury my head in Mizz, More or Just Seventeen magazines, my young mind absorbing the endless images of waif-like models (so-called "heroin chic") like a sponge, as the hollow-eyed girls gazed dolefully up from the page. We know that social media creates anxiety and distorted body images for today's children, but back in the early Nineties we had much the same message, albeit it on paper rather than online: girls must be thin and pretty, above all else.

So it was with a heavy heart that I came across this Facebook post by dismayed dad Matt Frye recently, in which he juxtaposed two current magazine covers: Girl's Life and Boy's Life. Spot the difference. So boys, you can 'be what you want to be', whilst girls should busy themselves with creating 'dream hair' and how to 'wake up pretty.' Gah. Several celebrities came out to decry Girl's Life in articles like this one and a graphic designer redesigned it as she saw fit in another. This blatant sexism simply highlights the fact that decades later, nothing has changed. Not. A. Thing.

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Am I coming across as a feminist here? I certainly hope so. The F-word often has negative connotations, conjuring up stereotypical images of snarling bra-burning lesbians chanting man-hating mantras as they hold placards aloft, revealing hairy armpits which they refuse to shave as it's "demeaning to women."

In recent interviews both Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Kardashian deftly swerved the f-word, denying outright that they are feminists - thus doing a major disservice to women everywhere. They both claim to support equality, so why don't they have the balls to use the word? I myself fall on the side of Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and the awesome Caitlin Moran, all of whom are vocal feminists:

MORAN: (Reading) So here is the quick way of working out if you are a feminist. A - do you have a vagina? And B - do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations. You're a feminist.

So I'm a feminist, yes, but not a femi-nazi. It's Girl Power, not Grrr Power. I believe that women are equal to men, not superior or worthy of favouritism. To say that you're anti-feminism or "not a feminist" to me means you don't believe that women should be treated as equal to men. Of course, you don't have to be a woman to be a feminist. President Obama, father of daughters, penned this powerful essay in support of feminism. Feminism clearly benefits men too.

Whilst researching this piece I came across a Facebook group entitled Women Against Feminism. Wait, what?! The Suffragettes would be spinning in their graves. If women aren't going to support other women, what hope have we got of redressing the balance? It astounded me to read that only 29% of American women and 42% in the UK would describe themselves as feminists. Really, girls? <face palm>

So can you be a feminist and work in beauty (as I do), peddling anti-ageing creams to women, thus perpetrating the "younger, prettier, slimmer" message? Well, I want to look and feel good, just like anybody else - male or female - and I also believe that women and men should be treated equally. You can wear mascara and want equality too: the two are not mutually exclusive. If anything I find a bold red lip gives me just the confidence I need to send some old-fashioned misogynist scarpering with a flea in his ear.

Since we're on the topic, let's look at how I came to be in this industry in the first place. Having breezed through my GCSEs and A-levels with top grades, I opted not to go to uni and instead applied for jobs in the banking sector. I had the intelligence, although perhaps not the confidence, required to work there.

My first-ever interview, at the Citibank tower in Lewisham, was conducted amidst a sea of testosterone-charged men on a busy trading floor. To an outsider (me) they looked as though they were drowning as they made frantic gesticulations, barking orders into phones. I was eighteen; the guy opened the interview by demanding aggressively: "give me examples of when you've been under this kind of pressure," as he tipped his head towards the chaos. It was downhill from there.

Next up was Deutschebank in the City, and despite the intimidating all-male environment I made it to the second interview...where the interviewer proceeded to ask me out on a date. I declined. I didn't get the job.

My already shaky self-esteem was shattered at this point and I questioned both my ability and suitability for working in such an environment. It completely turned me against it. I saw an ad in the Evening Standard for a London make-up artist, applied and instantly got the job. I was surrounded by welcoming, like-minded women and fitted straight in.

To balance the argument, I should add that some female school friends of mine did get banking jobs and have been very successful, so maybe it was me. One is a partner at a prestigious London accountants; she is part of the mere 29% of women at the top. Forbes reported last year that it will be 118 years until the gender pay gap is closed. Great, only 117 to go then...

Whilst chatting to my girlfriends about this topic, they recounted countless tales of sexism and discrimination which they've experienced over the years in their traditionally male-dominated roles, such as being treated as secretaries, not having their hands shaken...or simply being ignored in meetings altogether. It would seem that it's still very much a patriarchal society in which we live, as  this FT article highlights.

A recent report found that more than half of girls and young women have experienced sexual harassment at school or college in the past year, with teachers often dismissing it as 'banter.' Teenagers, particularly girls, are suffering from a depression epidemic, with a major government study finding 37% of girls feel unhappy or worthless (15% for boys) and another revealing that HALF of young women 'lack self confidence and fear for their futures.'

This data saddens and concerns me greatly. I don't have children of my own, a fact that I've written about extensively (and society has a problem with, despite the fact that I'm not childless by choice), but my partner has two daughters - and I care about yours. Laura Bates, who spoke out recently about why every girl needs a feminist dad, has written a brilliant manual for girls entitled Girl Up which comes highly recommended by some of my girlfriends with daughters.

As adults, we have a responsibility to demand equality for the next generation of women. Are we going to sit back and accept the status quo? Do we want our girls being treated as second-class citizens - patronised, underpaid and belittled throughout their lives? It's time to take a stand. For the sake of girls everywhere.

I've always applied the old 'fake it 'til you make it' method to get by in life. Just imagine if we could fill the next generation of women with enough self-belief that they don't have to fake it.

At all.


 H&M's empowering new She's A Lady advert


 Always #LikeAGirl campaign

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How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

23/1/17 Update: My Tweet to Piers Morgan gets 203k views after he claims to be a feminist on Good Morning Britain (following his comments against the Women's March) and makes The Sun Online. Which certainly livened up my morning commute :-)


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