Book Review: ‘In Praise of Difficult Women’, ‘A to Z of Amazing South African Women’, ‘Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different’
9 September 2018
There is a tremendous wealth of reading material on the topics of feminism and gender equality – books, news stories, opinionated blog posts (scroll back a bit to see evidence of that…), etc. You can’t open a newspaper, or indeed any form of social media, without having to engage with the topic, and this is entirely to the good. However, an important part of moving forward with the conversation is to also see reflections of the positive reality we should all be striving for. This requires highlighting certain previously-ignored (deliberately or otherwise) people and experiences, and reframing others through a new lens, one free from the grubby fingerprints of patriarchy and discrimination.
I’ve been lucky enough to read three fantastic books over the last few months that do exactly this, without trying to score worthiness points or make the reader feel like a complete arse for not previously having heard of many of the people featured. The first of these was, full disclosure, written by my former university digsmate, Ambre Nicholson (with gorgeously vivid artwork by her husband, Jaxon Hsu), but we haven’t seen each other since we graduated 15 years’ ago, so she certainly had no expectation of me buying her book.
A to Z of Amazing South African Women is a celebration of 26 genuinely extraordinary South African women (as Nicholson points out in her foreword, choosing just 26 was a near-impossible task). From the famous fossil, Mrs Ples (surely the world’s only 2 million-year-old celebrity?) to 28-year-old gender norm-subverting musician, Dope Saint Jude, this book looks at the dazzling achievements of activists, athletes, artists, actors, authors, and many other occupations that don’t actually begin with ‘a’ (sorry, slight alliteration safari there). The things that these incredibly diverse women have in common are immense courage, conviction, and a lasting impact on South Africa. While the page dedicated to each is brief (by necessity, as each one would otherwise warrant a very large book of their own), every single description leaves you wanting to explore more. This is a book to read with Google close to hand, as I guarantee you will immediately want to read up on each of these heroines.
Rather than feeling ashamed of not having heard of so many of these women (many of them do not slot conveniently into a racist, patriarchal interpretation of South African history), I felt inspired by their stories, and delighted that this well-researched and beautifully-written book exists to highlight their contributions, and to show a new generation of South African women just how much there is to aspire to. Even if you’re not from that part of the world, it’s a glorious and important snapshot of female tenacity and brilliance within a society that didn’t allow women to even have their own bank accounts until a few decades ago, not to mention one within which an entire ethnic majority were denied the vote until 1994.
In looking for ‘new’ heroines, Karen Karbo’s In Praise of Difficult Women is another fabulous book, with beautiful yet fierce portraits of each woman by Kimberly Glyder. Highlighting 29 women who have unapologetically taken their place in history, Karbo neatly turns the patriarchal putdown of being described as a ‘difficult’ woman on its head. Yes, the women in this book are and were all difficult, in all the diverse ways that their 29 different personalities made them. With Karbo as our hilarious guide, being difficult is reframed as a refusal to conform, to stay silent, or to live in a way prescribed by either gender norms or society at the time. These women – among them Josephine Baker, Amelia Earhart, Nora Ephron, Shonda Rhimes, Margaret Cho, and Ruth (Badass) Bader Ginsberg – are ultimately all defined only by their own measures of success, whether professionally or personally. They’re also all fallible, not interested in hopping up on a pedestal and maintaining some arbitrary standard of feminine perfection. Karbo is honest about the fact that almost all of them did hurtful things along the way (you know, like a normal person), but how many male achievements does history caveat with the fact that ‘he was also sometimes a bit of a meanie’?
It is a joy to watch Karbo so deftly play with the very definition of ‘difficult’. In Jane Goodall’s case, she writes, ‘She always seemed to trust herself, which made her a difficult woman.’ When describing the unstoppable force that was Martha Gellhorn, she makes the important point that ‘The most difficult women are the angry ones.’ As we know, anger is rarely seen as a positive feminine trait (unless it results in a tabloid-worthy cat fight between two pop stars…or Kardashians) – how refreshing to have it cast in a new light as a great motivator to do great things. For those of us here in Brexitland, her description of the formidable Angela Merkel emphasises just how unassuming she is, and how this is in fact one of her greatest strategic advantages – ‘Difficult women need not be tap-dancing, opinion-slinging extroverts.’ She so successfully dismantles the traditional notion of being ‘difficult’ that, by the end of the book, I found myself listing all the ways I could try to be just a little more difficult in my own life.
A particular highlight of the book for me was the inclusion of Laverne Cox. While so many people are getting their knickers in a twist about which public bathrooms transgender people should be allowed to use, she just cracks on with her unique combination of activism and megawatt glamour. Feminism is for all of us, and Karbo, with her mix of deliciously dry humour and low tolerance for bullshit, isn’t going to let us forget it. You will finish this book determined to read every word, listen to every note, and watch every screen time minute by the women featured, and her amazing asterixed (it’s a word if I say it’s a word) footnotes of humour will make you wish you could go for a drink with the author herself.
Finally, a book that doesn’t feature a single woman (although transgender men who were raised as girls are on the list), but entirely reinforces the idea that feminism is good for everyone, especially as it breaks down the stereotypes of being a boy or man. Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks describes itself as ‘true tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons’. As damaging as we believe the Disneyfied tropes of pretty, predominantly-white princesses in need of rescue are for young girls, the idea of chisel-jawed, muscular heroes as the masculine ideal surely don’t do anything good for boys? The boys in Brooks’ book are all heroic in different meaningful ways: Barack Obama, Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk, David Attenborough, and Ai Weiwei are just a small sample of the 100 inspiring stories of boys from all walks of life, of various nationalities and ethnicities, and from near and far points in history. Quinton Winter provides lush and entirely frameable illustrations for each one.
With two boys of my own, this book (a gift from one of their wonderful godmothers) is a total game-changer in our discussions around traditional expectations of their gender. As well as highlighting extraordinary accomplishments, and often huge triumph over various odds, this book introduces concepts such as being gay or transgender in a very simple and unforced way. My husband read it for our eldest, and when the word ‘gay’ first appeared, my eight-year-old asked what it meant. While he knows several of our friends are either in relationships with, or married to, people of the same gender, we’d never actually discussed the language around it. He completely understood the idea that you simply love who you love, and wasn’t at all fazed by the idea of gender not being a binary state. While we’re not on a mission to produce the world’s most ‘right-on’ eight-year-old, being able to introduce examples of people who live lives different from his own limited experience is invaluable in opening up ongoing conversations.
The book similarly provides role models who have called upon their intellect, ingenuity and courage to do great things. With the amount of toxic masculinity floating around so many traditional ‘heroic’ endeavours (the world of team sports in particular seems to present us with an inordinate number of grim examples of ‘macho man’ culture gone horribly awry), I want my boys to know that they needn’t be defined by their ability to kick a ball, or whether they can act tough. The things that would make them great in my eyes would be to live a life truest to who they are, with an openness to all the complexities of the world around them.
We live in strange days, where a rabid tangerine somehow dominates every headline, and entire sections of humanity still find themselves under constant threat. However, these three excellent books remind us that heroines and heroes still exist, and have always existed, even if the context they’ve lived in prevented them from being acknowledged. I would highly recommend you read at least one, or ideally all three, and find yourself inspired, uplifted, and even, perhaps, a little more difficult.
17 June 2018
While I could spend many hours watching make-up tutorials on Instagram (I mean, the magic of contouring!), I am definitely a ‘no make-up make-up’ kind of girl. I will always prioritise skincare over the stuff to cover up my skin, and while the sheer number of cleanser/acid/serum/lotion combinations to suit each individual skin are way beyond my (lack of) expertise, the following three tools help me on a daily basis to keep it in the best condition possible without a facialist on speed dial.
Hayo’u Beauty Restorer
I have mentioned the Hayo’u Beauty Restorer on Instagram before, in nothing short of glowing (pun intended) terms. For a relatively simple-looking piece of jade, it gives brilliant results that improve with daily use. With the help of an easy-to-follow instruction video by the founder of Hayo’u, Katie Brindle, you need just a minute a day to perform a combination of deep breathing, strokes and pressure point holds that improve circulation and assist detoxification. It may sound a little ‘alternative’ when you consider the more high-tech approach to modern skincare, but it’s based on a healing technique from Chinese medicine known as Gua sha.
I use it with the heavenly Hayo’u Beauty Oil (on my forehead, cheeks and neck only – it depends on how your skin gets on with facial oil) every evening, and it is not only hugely relaxing, but has already made a significant improvement to the definition of my jawline and the firmness of my skin.
At £35 for the Beauty Restorer, it’s a one-off investment (unless you drop it on your bathroom floor…) that will keep on giving. The Beauty Oil is £33, but there are sometimes specials if you buy both. There is also a range of body products (next on my list!)
Clinique Sonic Brush
This tool requires a bit of a deep breath on the price front (although, not quite the deep breath of some of its competitors!) At £79, the Clinique Sonic Brush is obviously a bit of an investment (I suppose some beauty experts would consider it a mere drop in the ocean of insane product prices…), but I’ve had mine for a year, using it every single morning, and I’ve only had to recharge it once and buy one replacement brush head (£17). The good news is that it’s often on special at Boots and on some of the online shops that stock Clinique – I bought mine half price – so if you’re willing to wait and watch a bit, you might see it drop in price at some point.
It really gives your skin a really thorough, but not abrasive, clean if used with the Liquid Facial Soap (£16.50 – it lasts for ages) for a minute every morning. It did lead to a bit of a break-out for me initially, but now helps me maintain a clear complexion like no other product has managed before.
The Body Shop Round Body Brush
At an entirely sensible £9, this is certainly the best value for money skincare tool I own, and I have used one every single day for over 15 years. When used to brush in firm strokes up your limbs towards your heart before you bath or shower, it does amazing things for your circulation and the tone of your skin. It’s said to reduce cellulite, but I can’t attest to the validity of this claim as that has a lot of do with genetics (my mum doesn’t have any and I seem to have benefited somewhat from this, but she wasn’t kind enough to pass on the flat stomach and skinny arms, so this is not my sad attempt at a stealth brag). The fact that dry body brushing is said to exfoliate the skin and stimulate the lymphatic system means it can surely help keep the skin healthy and refreshed, even if it’s not going to completely eliminate cellulite.
It needs to be replaced whenever the bristles lose their firmness, but this one from the Body Shop lasts for ages and has all the right eco credentials!
14 January 2018
In the same October weekend last year that women across social media gave voice to the hashtag of #metoo, throwing some revoltingly shady behavior under the harsh spotlight it deserves, Conservative MP (and apparent sufferer of a severe allergy to liberal causes), Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that calling himself a feminist would be ‘ridiculous’. While the reasons he gave were based on the idea that it would somehow be impertinent for a man to claim the title of feminist, it showed a profound ability for missing the point by a country mile.
As a mother of two small boys, I temper the stereotypical relief at not having to navigate the teenage years of girls with the understanding that I have a significant responsibility to raise two men who do everything in their power to make the world equal for everyone on the gender spectrum at every age. I know that some people roll their eyes at the idea that there are more than two genders, but if we all just take the view that the science of gender is still an area where even scientists and doctors are still fumbling somewhat in the dark, then we can just crack on with the business of empowering every human being regardless of what’s in their pants.
And this, I would suggest (and it’s not an original suggestion by any means) is the very heart of real feminism, as opposed to the outdated and cynical view of feminism having something to do with hairy armpits and the goal of enslaving all men. Real feminism is about equality, where boys and girls (and everyone in between) are treated as valued individuals, with the same potential, opportunities and respect throughout their lives. It’s about acknowledging that all human beings are different and will face different challenges in their lives, but that discriminating in any way against them because of their reproductive organs is an utter waste of everyone’s time and resources.
As much as feminism is about uplifting women – in terms of education, addressing the gender pay gap, and finding solutions for the fact that women are so often disadvantaged by the exercising of their wombs (the fantastic Pregnant Then Screwed website highlights the ridiculous statistic that 54,000 women a year in the UK alone are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave), it has the enormously valuable side effect of creating a more equal society for men too. If my boys become fathers, I want them to have as much right to be at home with their children as their partners. If they ever find themselves suffering from emotional distress or mental health issues, I want them to know that they can talk about it without fearing any repercussions because of outdated expectations of their gender to be stoic and macho. Suicide is the leading killer of men under 45 (see CALM), and the pressures placed on men by a gender-imbalanced society that pounces on any sign of weakness in men as not being ‘manly’ are literally life-threatening.
The continuing reports of harassment and assault from the entertainment industry and political circles are shocking only in that they provide a clear picture of just how prevalent this behavior is. Many columnists and pundits have commented that it’s hard to work out exactly what is inappropriate (a squeeze of the upper arm? a hand on the knee? a pat on the bum?) Honestly, it’s not that bloody complicated. If you start from a position that everybody is entitled to their own bodily integrity, then there’s no need to feel anxious and hamstrung. If we’re all treating each other with mutual, equal respect, then it won’t be difficult to judge ‘the line’ between predatory behaviour and genuine compliments. If this honestly still doesn’t clarify things, then just always consider whether you’d behave the same way towards someone of your own gender (or indeed, someone not the gender/physical type of your personal sexual preference – harassment and assault are not purely an issue of man on woman, even if that is the huge majority of cases).
Feminism is all about this form of equality, and it’s literally easy enough for children to understand - when my three-year-old says goodbye to his friends after a playdate, I suggest that he asks if they’d like a hug. The same goes for when my sons’ grandparents visit – I ask the boys if they would like to have a hug. It’s a lot less awkward in practice than it sounds, and hopefully teaches them to respect their own bodies just as they respect others. For all the reasons that I’ve mentioned before, men often feel unable to report when they have been harassed or assaulted, and learning that all bodies are worthy of respect is a surely a good step in combatting this taboo.
Part of growing up is realizing that many people you encounter will behave like fuckwits, but feminism makes it a level playing field on which to be a fuckwit. It also means any form of sexual harassment or assault would become so clearly unacceptable, that silence, or the fear that you won’t be believed, would ideally become unthinkable.
Feminism is for everyone. It means little girls need not grow up believing that their faces and bodies are the only things of value, and that my sons can choose the ‘pink’ magazine at the newsagents without the man behind the counter having an opinion (obviously kids’ magazines are an entire blog post of seething parental rage on their own…) It means that my amazing guy friends, who have always been feminists, can actually call themselves that, only increasing the volume of our call for equality, and an end to the insidious and downright dangerous prevalence of casual, ingrained misogyny. They in turn can continue to provide the positive male role models for my sons, who will hopefully reach adulthood in a world where feminism is no longer a hot topic of conversation, because its central aims will be just part of the status quo. And, if this isn’t the case, they will be able to actively participate in achieving this goal.
P.S. My amazing pussyhat pin is by the wonderful Sophia 203, @p_ssyhatpin_bysophia203 on Instagram.