Thursday, 29 July 2010

Real Is Not A Size

The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has declared that Christina Hendricks, star of the TV series Mad Men, should be a "role model" for women and the fashion industry to aspire to.

In her (absolutely admirable) mission to combat the unhealthy ideals encouraged by the beauty and fashion industries, Featherstone is battling the "unrealistic stereotypes" of stick-thin models in magazines and advertising. And in the process, Featherstone has singled out the buxom, size 14 Hendricks as having the ideal female figure. "Christina Hendricks is absolutely fabulous," says Featherstone. "We need more of these role models.”

I find this a particularly interesting statement to make. Without question, I believe that we need to create more positive and realistic role models for young women. Overtly skinny models are blamed for encouraging a negative body image, and I think that they do create a dangerous ideal for girls. However, holding up the figure of Christina Hendricks as the ideal body is actually just as risky. With her waspish waist and large bosom, is her figure any more attainable than a wispy model’s? I feel that while heralding Hendricks as the perfect body will bring a sigh of relief from the naturally curvaceous girls - who have previously strived for a lithe figure they can never have - suddenly there are new impossible goals for women without curves.

In truth, society might be trying to make things better, but its view on body image is still skewed. In trying to change the attitude that “skinny = good”, it has merely flipped to “skinny = bad”. This is an entirely unfair perspective as of course, many women are naturally thin, and suddenly they are supposed to feel bad about themselves. It’s exactly what the “skinny = good” perspective has been doing to big girls for years. I appreciate what Lynne Featherstone is trying to achieve here, but this is not improving our ideals, it is merely switching them around.

Everyone loves to declare that women come in all shapes and sizes. So why is nobody accepting this fact? The media frequently discusses “real women” to describe anyone size 14 and up. How unfair is that statement? So women who are lean or petite are not real? So they are somehow bad people? I am not of a thin build, but if I were, I would be feeling pretty bad about myself right now.

Creating any “ideal” is going to cause body criticism somewhere else. It creates a divide. For example, I am big-chested and I find it a troublesome feature: as well as trying to find clothes that fit well, a large bust also draws a lot of unwanted attention. Yet society's "ideal" includes big boobs, so I don’t feel I am entitled to complain. In effect, I am wary of discussing how frustrated I am with my excessive bosom, because excessive bosoms are the desire of anyone who hasn’t got them. Any comment I make about being lumbered with their size is misconstrued as bragging... and I am inundated with remarks that I’m lucky and should “show them off” more. Yet on the flipside, small-chested women who discuss their desires for bigger boobs will receive nothing but empathy. This is what happens when you set a single ideal: everyone is expected to want the same thing.

I know naturally slim women who complain about feeling boyish and who long for curves. They too seem reluctant to talk about it, as if skinny women are expected to feel grateful somehow. Why are we unable to celebrate more than one shape? Why must we choose a "side"?

Skinny is only a negative thing if someone is unnaturally so. Just as curvaceous figures are only negative if unhealthily so. I believe if there is to be any ideal it should simply be a healthy, happy version of every woman’s own individual figure. There should be no negativity about a certain shape. The reason we are so unsatisfied is because we are all SO different, and trying to fit ourselves into an ideal is completely disasterous. It sets women against each other, turning critical eyes towards fellow females, and against ourselves.

If you have a body like Christina Hendricks then enjoy it. If you have a body like Keira Knightley, then enjoy it. Whatever it is, your figure is your own. Embrace it. Be healthy and happy. There is no perfect dress size. The term "real women" should refer to women who are real, whatever shape that might mean.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

It Could Be Worse...

After years of working hard to reach this point, I now work for myself as a freelance writer. I took a huge leap of faith to get here, and I have come further than I had hoped I might. It's been an exciting and rewarding period of my life.

The time has now come, however, for me to go back to a day job in addition to my writing. I've got the proverbial ball rolling, and now I need to keep it going while still paying the rent. Unfortunately, the search for a sub editor/copywriter or similar journalistic/media role has been extremely difficult in a competitive industry where demand well exceeds opportunity. Lately I have found the effort poured into my applications is wearing me down. My confidence has taken a knock, and I feel stuck in a financial and motivational rut.

So it was rather refreshing to come across an email from my last major non-media role, back when I was a receptionist/secretary/office lackey. Those were the days when the idea of being commissioned to write an article seemed like an impossible dream. Any career frustrations I might be suffering from right now seem tiny in comparison to the real, scream-into-a-pillow career rut I was in back then.

This email represents a typical day in my old career life.
It might just be the best dose of perspective I could ever get.

* This is a real email; names of all but myself have been changed


From: Jones,Steve
Sent: 24 October 2007 13:29
To: Morris, Audrey
Cc: Jackson, Tim
Subject: Gents toilets

Dear Audrey

I would be grateful if you send round a plumber to fix the Gents toilets. It would appear that some members of staff are having problems flushing them which leads to unpleasant surprises on a daily basis.

Thanks very much.
Please feel free to contact me should you need any assistance.

With kind regards

Yours sincerely
Steve Jones

Corporate Finance


From: Morris, Audrey
Sent: 24 October 2007 13:37
To: Jones, Steve; Nelson, Claire
Cc: Jackson, Tim
Subject: RE: Gents toilets

The toilets are maintained by the landlord and any problems should be reported immediately to the help desk. Claire please do this now.


From: Nelson, Claire
Sent: 24 October 2007 13:42
To: Morris, Audrey; Jones, Steve
Cc: Jackson, Tim
Subject: RE: Gents toilets

Hi Audrey,

I have actually reported this twice recently (the previous time was just last week).

However, on both occasions after repairmen have come to take a look, I was told by facilities that the flushes do work, but that they take a couple of seconds to flush when you hold them down. Apparently as they are not actually faulty, they are not replacing them.

However, I can speak to them again.



From: Morris, Audrey
Sent: 24 October 2007 13:44
To: Nelson, Claire; Jones,Steve
Cc: Jackson, Tim
Subject: RE: Gents toilets

Please explain the problem to them in detail so they can properly resolve it.

If special instructions on flushing are necessary, they should be clearly posted for users...


From: Nelson, Claire
Sent: 24 October 2007 13:53
To: Morris, Audrey; Jones, Steve
Cc: Jackson, Tim
Subject: RE: Gents toilets

I have explained this to them thoroughly Audrey, and apparently it is just a matter of holding the flush down.

But as I said I will talk to them again and push the matter toward a better resolution if I can.


Wednesday, 7 July 2010

7/7: Five Years On

Five years ago today, I was a wide-eyed New Zealander who had been in London for only two months, and was still a stranger to the city. I was living in Cricklewood, London, and had just started temping as a travel consultant in Tower Hill. I didn't know many people, and would regularly email home from the internet cafe across from my flat. I was relishing the strangeness of it all, and it was a wonderfully exciting time.

Then the bombs went off. This is the actual email I sent home that day.

-----Original Message-----
From: Claire Nelson
To: Home
Sent: Thu, Jul 7, 2005 9:41 pm
Subject: A very strange day.

A series of bomb attacks on London's transport network has killed more than 30 people and injured about 700 others. 
Thank you for those who have sent me texts and emails - yes I'm safe and well, although it has been the most surreal day. 

This morning I got on the tube as usual, changed at Westminster, and stood packed shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other commuters. I had my headphones on, and thought how ridiculous it is for people to be squashed in like this but that I was somewhat used to it now. Then, just before we were to pull into Tower Hill station, the train suddenly stopped. There was silence.  (Well, I was listening to T-Rex, but only very quietly). The thing is, I started to feel a bit panicky. There was no reason to – this sort of thing happens all the time – but I did, and I felt silly for it. There was no announcement from the driver initially, and it started to get really really hot. Sweat started to trickle down my face. 

I took my headphones off and looked around me. People were all looking very uncomfortable. I held a cold drink in my bag to my forehead and wondered how long I could stand the heat before I went crazy and smashed a window. I decided I would not be the first to wuss out! Then the driver announced that there was a power surge which had caused the signal failure, and we would be up and running again shortly. And we were. 

As we all stumbled out of the station at Tower Hill there was a barrier up stopping people from coming in. It was raining, and outside there was a large crowd looking furious. An old lady pushed past me into the station. “Sorry ma’am, you can’t come into the station,” said a security officer. I thought there must have been a problem with the line. I didn’t think it was anything serious. Why would I?  
I got to work late, and was left to man the phones while the others had a meeting. A man called to speak to the boss in our area and when I said he was in a meeting he said “Well let him know there was a bomb at Liverpool St Station.” 
Then calls started coming in from colleagues’ family members and friends, checking that they were alive. When the team came back they were all shocked by the news, and suddenly no one could do any work. We managed to get onto the news websites and found out what had gone on.  More bombs had gone off. One of the girls I was working with said she would have been at Liverpool Street except she decided to go swimming this morning, and she was pretty shaken. 
All morning we had more and more updates, and each time it was worse. Suddenly it was luchtime... the morning had gone so quickly... but no one took their breaks. We had even been told at one point not to leave the building, although we knew other places had sent their staff home.

The mobile networks had been shut down so no one could reach anyone else. The rumour behind this was that the bombs had been set off via mobile (as the Madrid bombings had been). I had emailed most of you before I really knew what was happening but once I realised it was serious, I was so relieved to get emails from a lot of you. I thought, “What are you lot doing up so late!” But it made me feel really cared about, so thank you.
I left work early, at 4.40pm, and didn’t arrive at my doorstep until 8:15pm. 
That has to be the longest commute of my life! It involved a 2 hour walk from Tower Hill to Euston station – one of the only stations to be open, and from there I could catch a mainline train to Kilburn Park – not quite home, but somewhere in that vicinity. The underground was closed completely, and all inner-city buses were suspended. People were worried about getting home and many were booking hotels or arranging to stay with friends. I couldn’t do either, so decided to leg it.

When I left my office building and came out into the bright sunshine of the street, there were hundreds of people, most of them in suits, walking the streets with maps. Everyone I passed seemed to be talking about finding a way home. A big shaven-headed fellow walking near me looked at me and shook his head.
“Chaos, innit?” he said. 
“Bit like that.” I replied. Then he asked me for directions. I had a lot of people asking me for directions, probably because I was clutching my A-Z rather desperately.

From there, my walk inevitably took me past Aldgate, Liverpool Street and Kings Cross Stations, each of them a target of the bombings. I passed Aldgate first, being close to Tower Hill, and saw it was blocked off in every direction. There was a tent outside the station amongst the ambulances, which must be for taking care of the injured, or perhaps the dead. 

It was hard to work out a route home on my A-Z as so many streets were cordoned off with tape and police officers. People were wandering all over the place, looking bewildered, following other people, but not exactly knowing how to get home. It was like mice in a maze. The roads had mostly been closed off so there were very few vehicles about... just a few taxis and a lot of police cars & ambulances.  I wandered down Bishopsgate, past Liverpool Street. This had been the street I spent my lunch hours wandering along a couple of weeks back when working for the European Bank. If I had still been working there then I would have definitely been at Liverpool Street Station at 8:49am when the first bomb went off in the tunnel there. I can't let go of that reality but I feel a bit sick to think about it. 

All the shops in the area had long been closed, and the windows were dark. People filled the footpaths, wandering in a mass exodus towards the station, which to my surprise had just been reopened. A crowd surged in through the entrance. There was no way in hell I was going back into the underground today – I didn’t even contemplate it. I bought a paper outside the station, which was packed full of dramatic headlines, and carried on.

The weather was off and on all day. It was getting really hot, and I was sweltering. I didn’t really know where I was going, but tried following my map along main roads to keep it easier.  I overheard a man telling someone on his phone that he was heading to Euston station so I followed him for a bit. He was wearing an olive green suit so it was easy to tail him.
Passing Kings Cross a little later was unnerving. It is such a large station, and a bit of a landmark, but the streets all around were closed. Even little side streets with small hotels along it were closed. Police stood at each street entrance and were giving people directions for detours. Looking down each street you could see the station looming at the end of it, no sign of damage to the outside, but looking rather dead, as if you could sense the awful scenes inside it. That may sound silly to you but it gave me the shivers.
Cherry pickers with camera men on the top stood at the ends of some of the streets, getting close ups of the station. It had started to get cold when I finally reached Euston station.  Total madhouse – again, entrances were cordoned off nearby, camera crews were setting up all over the place, not to film the station but to film other scenes close to it. I didn’t stop to see what they were filming, I just wanted to get home.

*[I later learned I had just walked past the scene of the bus bomb at Tavistock square]

I spoke to a nice ticket man who confirmed that yes, my travelcard would get me on the Silverline to Kilburn Park. But what the nice ticket man didn’t tell me was that Kilburn Park station was not open today. It was weird enough getting on the train after what went on this morning. There was a general sense of unease in the air. Strangers on the train were all talking to each other about conflicting information they’d been given regarding stations and which ones were open. But then we were off, and it wasn’t until I ended up in [?] that I realised this train wasn’t any use to me. I stood on the platform, feeling rather deflated. It started to rain and I was currently carrying the world’s smallest umbrella. I really wanted a cuddle and a cup of tea at that point. Instead, I got directions from a rail representative, and caught a bus back towards home. It took two more buses actually, before I arrived in Cricklewood. 
I wanted to crawl into bed and read a book but the sun has come out again and it's still light.  There is a strange energy in the streets, and I can’t stop thinking about today. I keep thinking that I shouldn’t be so dramatic, it’s over, and that’s the end of it, I have lost no one and nothing, and I am grateful for it. 
But then every few minutes the enormity of it all sinks in a little and I feel a bit shaken.  I am sure by tomorrow I will feel normal again. 

I might even go back on the underground in the morning... I really don’t fancy that walk again.
Lots of love,

Grow Up Lindsay

Lindsay Lohan has been sentenced to 90 days in jail for violating her probation.
In 2007, Lindsay Lohan pleaded guilty to being under the influence of cocaine and two counts of drunk driving and one count of reckless driving. She has since breached the terms of her probation, and missed the meetings she's agreed to.

Yet what HAS she been doing all this time? In May 2009 she was fired from a film she was meant to be starring in. In autumn 2009 she worked on the film Machete, and in September 2009 she became an artistic advisor for fashion brand Emanuel Ungaro, which received a "disasterous" reception, according to sources, and she left the brand in March 2010. She was a guest on Alan Carr's "Chatty Man" chat show in March this year and made a TV appearance on Double Exposure in June.

Oh, and she has apparently been swanning off to the Cannes Film Festival, and trying to save the children.

Busy girl, huh?


No, Lindsay, you were not too busy to meet the terms of your probation. They were pretty simple, really. You were irresponsible and you could have killed someone. Just because you are a pretty celebrity, doesn't mean the law does not apply to you. BE AN ADULT.

Lindsay has been let off lightly once too often. At her hearing in 2007, she was sentenced to four days imprisonment and 10 days community service. She was also ordered to pay fines and complete an alcohol education program, and was given three years probation.

However she only spent only 84 minutes behind bars before being let out, apparently due to "overcrowding and the nonviolent nature of the crime".
Lucky girl.

THEN she missed a probation hearing in May because she was apparently "stranded" in France (*coughcoughCANNEScoughcough*) because - according to her lawyers - her passport was stolen. I know you can get an emergency passport within 24 hours, and it should be especially easy if you have the cash to flash to get it done. So that's no excuse.

As a result, Lindsay was fitted with an alcohol-monitoring bracelet, which TOTALLY clashed with her designer gear. This prompted her to post a message on Twitter: “can CHANEL please help me out by getting me some stickers to put on my scram bracelet so that i can at least wear a chic dress?! maybe!? x”. Nice try Lindsay. Do the crime, do the unfashionable time.

Of course being stuck in France is one thing, but as for the alcohol education courses she was supposed to attend, she didn't complete them on time and missed several meetings. According to Lindsay she thought she could do two one week and then miss the next week if she had to work. She says, after her sentence, that "it confused me because I was there thinking it was ok that I had missed those classes... had I known differently, again, like I said I would have made sure that I was in town each week and I would have balanced my work around that..."

It's a court order, not a party invitation. You have to be there, or else there are consequences.

No it's not nice to witness the misfortune of others - but she has brought this on herself. She is 24, and must learn to take responsibility for herself like the rest of us have had to. She can't cry her way out of this.

Her parents have hardly helped her cause. I find it grotesque that Lindsay's mother Dina Lohan is a TV celebrity simply because she rode in on the wave of her daughter's fame. She's launched a career of having famous daughters (Lindsay's younger sister is now becoming a pop singer) and Dina even signed up to a reality show, "Living with Lindsay Lohan". I've seen that show, and it made me feel sick to my stomach with the fame-hungry HORROR of it all. It starts to make a bit of sense that Lindsay is coming off the rails so young.

Following the jail sentence, Dina's reponse was: "It's not fair to do this to my child."
Actually, Dina, Lindsay did this to herself. And you also kinda brought it on.

Don't blame the law, nobody asked Lindsay to break it.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Free the children

I feel sorry for the children of today. It sometimes seems as if they have so much more than the previous generations, but the sad truth is, they don't have it easier at all. Having cellphones, email and fancy toys might be one thing, but what they are missing out on is the freedom to be children.
I was reminded about this issue today while reading the Sunday Times, where I learned that two children, aged eight and five, cycle to school every day on their own. Because of this, their school is threatening to report their parents to social services.

Social services? You have GOT to be kidding me!

This 1-mile commute to school may have become a source of consternation to the school and other parents, but it has also become a unwitting protest for the few freedoms children are given. Ignorance and intolerance from adults seems to be at an all-time high.

Case in point, a quote from the headmaster of the school:
"If a school feels a child in their care is at risk, they have a legal responsibility to notify the local authority. Is an eight-year old responsible enough to come to school with a five year old and take responsibility when it comes to crossing busy roads? What would happen if the five year-old has a tantrum?"

This is a frustratingly narrow-minded attitude. If a child of eight is not given the opportunity to act responsibly, then they will never learn to be responsible. To mature and develop a child needs the freedom to grow. The same goes for a child of five; and why would a child throw a tantrum while they were cycling? If they did, how is this a threat to themself or their older sibling? Kids are pretty good at dealing with their younger siblings when they need to be. It is a shame that this headmaster undermines the potential of the children in his care.

However, more crucially, this is another example of ways in which families are being damanged by the bureaucracies supposedly set up to protect them. Misguided interpretation of laws can only lead to misguided reactions. The Department for Children, Schools and Families allows schools to play the social services card at the slightest whiff of risk, even if it prevent parents from raising their children the way they feel is best. Why does a headmaster get to decide what is best, over a child's own parents?

After all, we're not talking about child neglect, or child abuse, or lack of parenting altogether. This is about a normal happy family, and the quest for a decent, healthy childhood. It's a bike ride to school, one mile, where they pass by busy roads but cross only where a lollipop lady is on duty. Why social services need to get involved (when there are plenty of children out there who really ARE in danger, and nothing is being done about it - but I digress) is beyond me.

The mother of these two children, Gillian Schonrock, says: 
"The benefits to our children far outweigh the potential risk from 'stranger danger', road traffic accidents and other factors."

Their father adds, "We wanted to recreate the simple freedom of our childhood. We would love it if our kids could just pop around the corner to see their friends, but that's totally out these days. These days children live such regimented lives. They can do nothing unless it's planned."

I completely agree with these parents. And this makes me suspect the headmaster is laying down the law to appease other worried parents, who cannot fathom a child going out in their own. The fear of some is forced to become the concern of all, and this is what drives the greatest threat to us all - 'the Nanny State'.

It's unfair to wrap children up in cotton wool. It offers no benefit to the child - in fact, trying to avoid any possible risks does more harm than good.
Taken from the article again:
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said he had been contacted by dozens of parents in a similar situation. He believes the state is steadily encroaching and that excessive protection of children harms their development: "The irony is that the measures these parents took actually protect the children by developing resilience and resourcefulness through facing challenging situations."

I cannot imagine the physical, burning need a parent has to protect their child. But going overboard to protect them from one thing (paedophiles, dangerous drivers) can automatically cause new, and less obvious dangers (lack of confidence, distrust in other people, emotional neediness, and inevitable rebelliousness).
I personally think the latter should be more of a concern than perverts and kidnappers. For as long as a child grows up with a fear of danger and a suspicion of others, then they will never truly develop into someone open to relationships and prepared for what life throws at them. And this is damaging.

The key to a child's development is not in trying to keep them away from risks, but through giving them the opportunities to overcome them.

I feel very strongly about this, because I was lucky enough to be given the very freedom the Schonrocks are trying to give their children. And I have never doubted this gave me the strength and the confidence I needed to be who I am now.

My own childhood was full of freedom.... and yes, even some risk-taking. My parents trusted me to be responsible and I did my best to withhold that trust. In fact, my younger brother and I were the same ages as the Schonrock kids when we used to cycle to school by ourselves.
If my parents were worried about this, they did not project those fears onto me. We were educated about stranger danger and road safety, but once equipped with those lessons we were set free to enjoy ourselves. Of course I could have been hit by a car, or followed by a strange man in a mac, but the fact is I wasn't. And if I had been?
Well, what if I had choked on my dinner one night and died?
How far does one go to protect from the "what if"s?

Nobody can deny that the times have changed. Yet I think the only marked difference between a childhood today and a childhood 20 years ago is that parents have become more afraid. They are more suspicious. More likely to take their children under their wings and not let them out to fly. The Schonrocks seem to be in a minority of parents who are not letting their worries overcome their children's need for independence. It's very easy to believe that these days there are more bad people, more violent encounters, more bad drivers. But these things have always been there. What has changed is the level of our mistrust, and the extremity of our precautions.

Perhaps my views stem from living in a different place, rather than a different time.
I grew up in New Zealand, where paranoia was not so abundant. When I was eight years old my biggest fear wasn't drunk drivers or paedophiles. I was more scared of earthquakes, tsunamis (and big spiders). At school we would practice earthquake drills and told time and time again that "The Big One" was years overdue. Our teachers told us to stock up on canned food and bottles of water in case of emergency.
As far as I was aware, ANY MINUTE NOW the entire country could be shaken to its core and everyone's homes destroyed. THIS was my biggest fear, and given that it was out of my control, I learned that I just had to get on with life. Take precautions, but don't stop living. As a child that's an incredibly liberating lesson to learn. If only more adults would realise that too.

You cannot control the things you are afraid of, and letting them prevent you - or your children - from living life is, in fact, the greatest danger of all.

Me, age 8, and my brother, age 6, cycling to school in 1990:

* [original article from the Sunday Times by Kevin Dowling]