Mother May I?

By Kaisha Langton

“You are selfish.”

“You are going to regret this.”

“Who will care for you when you’re old?”

“You will live an unfulfilled life.”

“You are not a real woman.”

This is what you get when you tell someone you don’t want to be a mother. Aggressive and shaming language of this kind haunts childless women and attempts to bully them into conforming to the status quo.

Childlessness has two main subsets: childless by chance or childless by choice. With 18% of British women aged 45 in 2016 without children, compared to just 11% in 1971, childlessness is clearly increasing in the UK. There are a multitude of reasons why women cannot or do not have children. However, all women without children are positioned as ‘other’ in normative society.

In media and films, single women without children are usually cast as the villain or an evil jealous witch. This typecasting reoccurs in traditional fairy tales such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, as the innocent children escape being cooked for dinner by the vicious, old, childless crone. Another type of ‘predatory’ woman is found in Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, who’s sexually powerful, man-obsessed and career driven.

Furthermore, there’s the trope of the ‘crazy cat lady’, who sits around knitting misshapen hats for her many kittens, the furry creatures who have taken the place of the children that she was supposed to have, but never quite managed to.

And of course, our single days are not much better, we are Bridget Jones, desperately dreaming of our Mr Darcy so we can ‘properly’ settle down, get married and pop out little sweetums.

But what happens if you just aren’t built with the desire to have children?

Since I was fifteen, I’ve known that I will not have children. Now aged 26, I’ve visited the doctor to ask to help my body reflect this decision medically. I was turned away. Doctors refused to give help, with a pitying look in their eyes, and assurances that it is the right thing to do because. Obviously, I am too young (and perhaps, too female) to know my own mind.

But I am not too young. I am old enough to drink. To drive. To smoke. To have sex. To gamble. To receive the highest rate for minimum wage. To watch all films with any certification. To fight and die for my country in the army.

And yet I, and the many others that come to this decision at a young age, are told that we are too young to know what we want. We are ‘too young’ to have authority over our own bodies.

The doctor’s comment was just one of the many marks against my decision. My friends and family express the same, but with a softer approach. Sometimes, it feels as if they’re acting out a scene or reading a script. Trust me, I have eleven years of experience in hearing this script over and over – which is usually:

  1. A pitying look
  2. A tilted head
  3. A sympathetic smile
  4. The words: ‘You’ll change your mind one day.’

My close friends also challenge my choice. They ask ‘what if you fall in love with someone that wants children?’ ‘What if your partner threatens to leave you if you don’t have a child?’

Needless to say in this case, they would not be the person for me.

The decision to remain childless is personal, and that does not mean it is any less valid. It is as simple as deciding to get a piercing or a tattoo: a choice concerning my own body and prerogative. This is my life to live as I see fit.

I am resolute in my decisions once I put my mind to them. The fact that even my closest of family and friends believe I will “grow up” and change my mind is irksome. But I can understand why they feel the need to react like this.

After all, biologically, humans are built with a complex set of mechanics. We are intricate machines with complicated methodologies. To ensure the human race survives, we are born with biological impulses. To perpetuate our existence and thrive, we logically possess these imperatives for survival, territorialism, competition, reproduction and group-forming.

Simply put: we are born with a biological clock which counts down to the (supposedly happy) moment when we can produce our very own mini-me. These biological impulses are so deeply instilled in our social systems that we grow up playing pretend families, cuddling dolls, and thinking about baby names.

Like many others, I was raised in a heteronormative family structure and assumed that my future would mimic this. But for me, this picture seems stifling, and at odds with the future I see for myself. I have different drives – to attain all of my career goals and travel to places in every corner of the world. And I believe that children that are not wanted or cherished are a waste.

And yet, I’m still met with a stream of distrust, denial and disagreement.

It is time for those who judge women like me to check their attitude at the door. I have known that this will be my path for over a decade. That does not mean that you should avoid asking questions, or shy away your curiosity. But my departure from the norm it does not give you permission to preach, or the platform to define the parameters for which my life will be deemed fulfilled and accomplished.

You have made your choice, I respect that.

Is it really too much to ask for you to do the same?


About the Author

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Kaisha is a recently qualified journalist with a BA and MA in English Literature. She enjoys working her way through the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die List, writing about important issues plaguing our society and drinking prosecco in the sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

Image by Emma Plunket

A Response to Grayson Perry’s “The Descent of Man”

By Ruth Ankers

Perry says:

“Somewhere in every man’s head there is a governor, an unconscious inner voice sending instructions through the intercom. The department of masculinity is there to maintain standards. He takes ideas and images and assembles them into the model of a perfect man. The governor sits there constantly checking that his man is living up to this ideal, If the man fails, he is made to feel unworthy, he may hate himself, he may take it out on others”

Greyson Perry believes we need to “sack” this governor that it is time men should be their own governors, and I agree.

Feminism has been in the limelight for a long time now, we have been re-evaluating and challenging society’s approach to women for what seems like decades and that’s great. But after reading Perrys book I began to think; Is it only men’s attitude towards women we need to change or in fact do we need to be working on men’s attitudes towards THEMSELVES too?

There is undoubtedly an invisible pressure on men to perform, to be successful within society, in work, in family life, in social circles. Success is rewarded with respect. But “success” is simply a construction of what the “department of masculinity” sees being success. We need to work on that. Greyson Perry suggests we should be “rewarding men for not succeeding in their drive for dominance” I know; wow; that’s a statement and a half. But in essence, I think I agree. In order to be respected and valued men should not have to be deemed as “successful why not just “prosperous”; to be living a fulfilling life, to be kind, to be open, and to be honest? We need to rewire the way we think to see that these things are also successes, not just making lots of money or being head of the office.

Perry thinks masculinity is not biological rather it is something which we have developed culturally. It’s difficult to say for sure and I’m reticent to speak on behalf of “mankind”, so instead I will speak for myself and say that I can recognise that there is a different between my biological tendencies and my gender. There are certain things about my body which I am aware make me a woman, other than that, I really don’t see that there is much of a difference, certainly not a difference which is big enough to cause a divide between people or worse a divide within MYSELF.

I have a huge amount of respect for men who are intelligent enough to see that. Perhaps then it is as much my responsibility as it is any mans to begin this “revolution” which Perry talks about. The revolution starts with men “negotiating a new deal on masculinity”. So other than joining Grayson on his protest to get men on board what else can I do to encourage this movement starts to gain motion?

I need YOUR help. To take the pressure off, to commend those men who choose to say “no” instead of “yes” and to praise men who can see that they too have the freedom and support to be who they are, rather than who society says they HAVE to be.

Equality is freedom for all, we may be closer to that, but we’re not there yet. We need to keep our minds open and fight for what we know is right and fair.

I salute the men of the future.

In fact, many of them are already my friends.

Continue reading “A Response to Grayson Perry’s “The Descent of Man””

Does Blade Runner 2049 succeed as a Reproductive Dystopia?

By Polly Hember

The reproductive dystopia has become an increasingly popular thematic trend within the sci-fi genre. Global human infertility causes societal collapse in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, Margaret Atwood’s blazing novel The Handmaid’s Tale sits at the centre of this anxious exploration into what the future might look like for women, with the recent Hulu dramatization planning to take Offred past the last pages of Atwood’s masterpiece into a second season. So, a film about the creation of bioengineered androids (replicas) and the creator’s morbid obsession with making them able to reproduce, in a world filled with sexbots (sorry, “pleasure models”) and larger-than-life holograms dancing naked in the billboard streets of the sprawling, nightmarish L.A. of the future, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 fits right into the trend. Except… it kind of doesn’t. There are intensely anxious themes surrounding reproductive rights and gender politics that resonate profoundly with contemporary polemics, yet they are never pursed or unravelled in Blade Runner 2049. The portrayal of the female form is central in this film and almost wholly problematic, begging the burning question: is this an inherently sexist film or a clever exploration of the reproductive dystopia?
The villainous Wallace, played by a brilliant Jared Leto, is fascinated with finding a way to make female replicas fertile. A particularly nasty scene sees him slice open the womb of a helpless, newly-birthed replicant, as if to show her utter lack of value as infertile in his (very creepy) eyes. The main plot sees K (Ryan Gosling), a beaten-down replicant “blade runner” who chases down old models to “retire” (read: kill), search for the missing miracle child of Rachel and Rick Deckard, as seen in Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner.
There is an ominous underbelly to Wallace’s Frankenstein-esque desires; is he attempting to create an android race that has no need for “human” women at all? What does this mean, then, for the women of 2049? Is he attempting to outdate or perhaps “retire” an entire gender with the invention of synthetic wombs? Why, then, is there no mention of this plot that precipitates the possible extinction of an entire gender?
Well, because, as many other critics have pointed out, this is a man’s film. It is a film aware of and solely driven by specifically male desires. This is critically apparent in K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram that he can switch on and off at his will as he walks into his cell-like apartment. Programmed to please, she learns and stores K’s likes and dislikes, playing the doting housewife, switching instantly to sexy, then simply switched off when no longer needed – or else paused as a telephone call comes in, interrupting her Siri-like control system, flickering comically, waiting for a kiss that never comes.
The critical questions that swirl around in the swampy L.A. nightmare of Blade Runner 2049 are the same ones as the book the original film was based on. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks what it means to be human. K seems to place value on being physically born, on having a soul. Replicants, we are told, cannot lie or disobey orders, but we see K do both of these things. Does this mean he’s human? In Joi’s case, I feel it becomes a crucial issue of autonomy.
She is a sexy simulacrum, she is “a sci-fi fan’s wet dream” who is programmed into servitude and therefore has no free will of her own. Their love story is touching, yes, and it attempts to ask the viewer whether this can be genuine emotion the android and the hologram feel. However, this question seems concerned with K’s hurt feelings rather than gender politics. A distraught Gosling looks up at a rainy, urban swamp of advertisements; swirling Sony projections and Coca Cola signs blare in the background as a giant, nude version of Armas looks down at him, designed to advertise the very ‘Joi-ous’ personal hologram product K purchased. He looks beaten, as he seems to question the validity of such a (critically male) consumer-driven society and whether Joi is unique and her feelings for him are valid. However, even when it asks these questions, the film remains problematic. When their entire relationship is built around a one-sided fulfilment of male desire, it becomes exploitative.
Joi’s complete opposite, the cut-throat and cold Luv (Wallace’s personal replicant companion) is fierce and fantastic, but the power politics are still inherently problematic. She is governed by Wallace’s whims and follows orders imperiously, which results in her nightmarish and dramatic death. Lt. Joshi, played phenomenally by Robin Wright, is fantastic as K’s strong but worn-down director, however she is severely underused and her character unexplored, killed off before the film gets going. The politics of the sex worker and underground rebel Mariette are muddy and never fully explored; she seems trapped in the same cycle of exploitation as that Joi operates in. In fact, Mariette is hired by Joi to act as a sentient, soulful sex-puppet so K and Joi can consummate their perturbing relationship, then bitterly ordered away by a jealous Joi, who tells her: “I’ve been inside you, and there’s not as much there as you like to think.”
Blade Runner 2049 is a cinematically spectacular film. It is visually stunning with a fast-paced plot, engaging characters and clever nods to the original, it’s highly enjoyable and attempts to ask interesting ontological polemics concerning the human condition. It presents a fragmented, polluted world that explores the horrors of what might be. However, the evocative female characters are all tied into reductive narratives where they simply serve and comply to the male drive behind the story. By neglecting to unravel Wallace’s sinister intentions with his reproductive replicas, the film avoids stating the true horror of this reproductive dystopia. It’s a film wreaked with a perturbing and persistent male gaze, which, seen through this lens, makes the nightmarish landscape of L.A. look even more frightening. Whilst K continues to seek out the answers to questions like “what does it mean to be human”, the women of this film are killed, silenced, retired or simply switched off at the flick of the button on their remote control.

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About the Author

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Polly Hember

Polly is a Freelance Writer, Editor-in-Chief of On the Beat, Art Editor at the The Rational Online, a coffee-drinker and country-music listener. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Bristol where she focused on feminism and early twentieth-century women’s writing. 

 

 

 

Editor

Daf Jenkins

Image:

Photosource: Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. Allstar/WARNER BROS.

Body Hair Politics is Beyond ‘Self-Love’

By Freya Turner

What do we think about when we think of women and their hair? Do we think about scalp hair only? A lot of us probably would. It makes sense. We’ve been socialised into thinking that hair anywhere other than women’s heads is avoidable, dirty, and ultimately ‘other’. For as much as women are, still to a certain extent, heralded in the 21st century as fulfilling their ‘natural’ duty of being child-bearers, we are berating those same women for their inevitably natural strands of keratin on their legs, underarms, faces, and so forth. As a lot of us are aware already, the work of the feminist movement is about challenging the ironies and meaningless structures that are so engrained in us. So it is worth talking about hair; every tiny strand is political, because the ‘natural’ is a construct.

Shaving only became mainstream for women around the period of World War One. At this time, razor companies were losing profits for obvious reasons; their target consumers (at that time, men) were rapidly diminishing due to war. The industry had to react quickly, so considered approaching a large demographic they had previously ignored; women. With some manipulative advertising that quickly invented a ‘problem’ for women (unsightly hair), women were pressured to shave for the sake of femininity. The rest is history. Fast forward to one-hundred years later, and most of us have internalised the argument in this advertising as some sort of natural law. We’re so removed from the origin of mass female shaving that not one person in my university’s feminism seminar could pinpoint it.

My own story with my hair is that from puberty to the age of 21, I shaved everything because if I didn’t, I felt disgusting, lazy, and a failure. When I found out that the cause of our anxiety towards hair essentially resulted from war, I was appalled. Feeling like a very naïve version of an anarchic rebel, I tested out what it would be like to not shave altogether. It was weird, because it felt like such a small act but it also felt pretty ground breaking to me. This in itself was, ironically, annoying because I felt like I was spending even more time dwelling on something completely and utterly frivolous; a sort of bodily contesting that is stereotypically a woman’s experience.

When the hair started growing it was weird seeing it, particularly the hair in my armpits. And I think it’s important to stop here. It was w-e-i-r-d seeing my own hair grow. Utterly weird. How bizarre is that? I felt like I was becoming ‘un-woman’ when I looked at my underarm and leg hair. And when I realised this thought, the hair growth felt like some sort of emotional bootcamp. It was as if the longer I let my hair grow, the more I’d feel comfortable with myself. I really didn’t want to be the person who didn’t shave because of political reasons but then is disgusted at the sight of hair. In reality, it is really hard to undo the thought that if you identify as a woman and don’t have the similar look of a baby, you’re not OK.

Growing my body hair was a weird process, and still is. I don’t want this to be a self-indulgent dessert of an article but sometimes we need to go the personal to talk political. This started roughly in May, and since then, I’ve shaved because of a job interview from hearing of the boss’ viewpoint on the respectable presentation of women, I’ve had that same boss stare at my legs when I got the job and grew my leg hair, and I’ve had friends not know how to react to it. On a positive note, the cherry on top of not-giving-a-shit-about-hair happened when I crossed the stage at my graduation with long and lustrous leg hair. Ta-ra, repressed youth-hood! I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that a year before.

And yet, underneath that, part of me wants to trawl the internet to find information about other women with body hair to feel less alone and weird for having it. What I have found from doing so is that a lot of women don’t shave because they feel most beautiful in their rawest, most natural form. Some may like the actual aesthetic of the hair, and some may just feel most beautiful knowing that the hair is their authentic self. I don’t think my body hair is the nicest, which is the point. I don’t look at my leg hair and think phwoar. What has instead developed from what I guess is politically oriented behaviour has been a drive to be fully in ‘myself’, which applies not only to my hair. The best way to describe having the hair is essentially like having a neutral ownership of my hair. It’s not ugly but it certainly ain’t pretty. It’s just there. I’m sure a lot of those who identify as men hold this same perspective.

That neutral realisation that my hair is ‘just there’ made it quite frighteningly obvious to me the extent to which women are denied a neutral perspective of themselves. There is nothing really in society that says that women can be comfortable. When I was first growing my hair, a little voice in me felt like I had to love it, or had to hate it. No middle ground. This stems from men being the baseline of normal or neutral and women being the ‘other’, which renders right down to the body where both sexes have the hair but only one can, stereotypically speaking, be ‘alright’ with it. The other is made to feel like some sort of wild activist or entirely disgusting for having it.

All women are hairy. Not just because we have the capacity to grow hair, but because unless you’ve had electrolysis, the root of the hair is physically there underneath the skin even if you’re freshly shaved. I don’t want to love this hair, I just want to feel like a grown person. And I hope that in the future we won’t have to write blog posts about female body hair. So let’s just get on the sofa of self comfortability (a new self-love?) and embrace the keratin.

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About the author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minoritarian, feminist, and urban writing. She has worked in arts and charity organisations, and she is passionate about singing, comedy, writing in different genres, and body positivity. She is currently based in north Essex in the UK.

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Editor

Lucy Wheeler

Vegetarianism, Gender and Consumption: Are your politics what you eat?

By Ruby Martin

I recently read Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian by Han Kang after picking it up in a charity shop. I had picked it up largely because of the title alone, but as a self-identifying (somewhat) vegetarian since the age of eight, I was quickly intrigued by the blurb selling vegetarianism as “the ultimate act of subversion”.

My interest was piqued. How could choosing the falafel wrap at Tesco be a subversive act? With even the most mainstream chains such as Pret embracing veggie branches, my dietary lifestyle hardly seemed ‘fringe’, despite being a leftie creative type in a liberal bubble. It seems that vegetarianism and veganism is the trend du jour in the UK, with veganism rising by over 360% in the past decade and – among women in particular – general meat consumption across the UK having been reduced, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

But why?

There are various possibilities, but evidence from a recent Mintel survey suggests that health is the top reason for limiting meat consumption. Does this mean that women are more health conscious than men? And if so many people cite health as a reason for giving up meat, can we still interpret that as a subversive act? In the same Mintel survey, around half of respondents had also said they had tried to lose weight, with 57% of those respondents being women. Now whilst losing weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are various industries who profit from the population dieting, the most obvious being weight loss, but more general food companies such as Quorn and Linda McCartney will still profit off those who think that eating less meat will help lose weight.  This affects gender as advertising companies have been known to target different audiences and throughout the years, companies have sold very different ideals to what men and women should be.

Whilst no doubt men are encouraged to lose weight, they are also encouraged to get “ripped”; women are often simply encouraged to be thin and talk purely in terms of fat rather than muscle. This is shown in the examples below, in adverts for the same diet products, HCG. To men, HCG sell the idea of keeping muscle whilst to women, muscle is not mentioned at all; instead the focus is on losing pounds and reducing bodily size.

This is shown in the same way Instagram fads such as ‘clean eating’ and other diets are aggressively sold towards women. Now this may seem like obvious stuff, but combined with the notion that vegetarianism is a healthier way to live, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that more women may incorporate it as a weight loss strategy thanks to cultural pressure.

However, before all hope is lost, we can now address how vegetarianism can be a force for good.

Whilst we could assume that all these women are turning veggie for them sweet inch losses, I believe that fails to recognise the individual agency and personal reasons behind the decision. When asked, each person I know who identifies as vegetarian had a completely different combination of reasons for giving up meat, and while health (and weight) played a part for some, other factors such as the environment, personal taste, financial considerations and animal welfare were given equal importance.  When asked why they became a vegetarian, these were just a few examples given:

“Primarily upbringing”- T, London

“Environmental reasons. The final reason why was a book I read which, in the epilogue spoke of the downfall of the west due to our over-exploitation of resources, the effects of which could be mitigated by, for example, eating less meat.” -A, Switzerland

“For me it’s a mental health thing. If I eat meat, I feel that ‘this animal died for me’. I can’t live with that” – J, Oxford

This admittedly non-scientific straw poll reminded me that everyone lives within a different cultural context which needs to be considered, and indeed that those contexts can be weaponised and used in women’s everyday politics. This idea of using consumption – or indeed non-consumption – as a weapon is something that captivated me in Kang’s book since the main character, Yeong-hye, is seen to not only reject a staple element of the cuisine that surrounds her, but she also rejects and defies her husband’s and family’s wishes and expectations through her actions. She refuses to make the meals her husband wants and implicitly expects from his wife, simultaneously rejecting entrenched food traditions and normative husband/wife power dynamics of marriage. In fact, Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian becomes a catalyst for other behaviour seen as rebellious and very much in opposition to expectations of her as a wife and daughter.  In this context, vegetarianism is a potent act of subversion.

Interestingly, all of the flexitarians (and some meat-eaters) I talked to, told me how they still eat meat as part of family traditions such as Christmas, to avoid what they believe to be inconveniencing their parents or family. This is in contrast to many of the full-time vegetarians I know (including myself) who have at least one other vegetarian family member and thus for whom the decision not to eat meat seems less controversial. Whilst in the ‘cushy London bubble’, to go veggie is a minor rebellion, for those elsewhere in stricter upbringings this gesture could perhaps have far more force.

More radical interpretations of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism in The Vegetarian – and indeed vegetarianism more generally – might follow those feminist philosophies which endorse the all-out rejection of every practice and material goods deemed as forced upon women by the patriarchy, e.g. the wearing of bras or marriage. However, some voices in the newer feminist waves call for a more individualist take, where women’s agency and individual desires are acknowledged and there is a belief that each woman should  be able to do as she pleases, without shame, e.g. dressing up in a sexy manner for your own pleasure than someone else’s.  This individualist stance relies heavily on the notion that this woman does what she wants for herself and that no external and possible patriarchal force is at play.

Now this individual stance certainly makes day-to-day living easier as it does not focus on complex sociocultural factors, but it is worth remembering that many ideas have been engrained in popular culture that we unconsciously absorb and accept to the point we may no longer question its historic roots, having been sold other notions along the way to make it politically more acceptable.  This can range from hair removal to marriage, and this more accepting strand of feminism can sometimes be used to avoid critically engaging with our consumption choices. This is not to say this isn’t a usable feminism, but to think about why we do things can allow us to change the systems in place as to ignore history can allow for the same mistakes to be repeated.

A politicised view of consumption that sees the choices women make as potential acts of rebellion might seem a far cry from the simple act of choosing the vegetarian option at lunchtime. However, the decision to go meat-free can bring up questions and thoughts that either buy into or reject current ideals of not only how women ‘should’ look, but how the current capitalist system can manipulate our supposed free will. Whilst most companies in the past have targeted consumers (and particularly female consumers) by making them feel bad, some companies seem to be realising that young women are on to them and are not happy. This has led to some brands starting to sell themselves as allies through mainstream ‘feminist’ notions. For example, Dove’s Real Women campaigns aligned themselves with body positivity, while many clothing brands such as H&M often incorporate feminist phrases into clothing to tap into the shifting market. The importance of motive is definitely worth thinking about with food companies, a prime example being ‘clean eating’ and similar diets selling themselves as a healthy option to ‘empower’ women. However in reality the product or the message hasn’t changed, just the wrapping.

To be vegetarian for environmental reasons amongst others is to reject a level of consumerism which is damaging our world as we know it, since meat farming has been shown to be damaging to the rainforests amongst many. Also, to be morally against the murdering of animals can show a reaction /resistance to the idea that we must kill to survive, a notion that is still somewhat fetishized in the variety of ‘one man against nature’ shows such as Bear Grylls. The moral dilemma can be problematic however, as vegan dish favourites such as quinoa can be shown to be harvested in tumultuous conditions which damage human workers, so it’s often a case of deciding where your ethics lie.

To conclude, our politics can be what we eat, with vegetarianism being just a small example of how the choices we make can buy into or subvert consumerist or cultural narratives imposed upon us and our gender. Whilst we must work hard to challenge these ideals when it becomes unhealthy, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the pesto pasta meal deal either!

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About the author

Ruby is a writer and comedian based in London who, when not taking on too many projects at the same time, likes to spend her time watching videos of animals being friends and carefully curating her Twitter. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from UCL and spent a year living and studying in Venice, which has only fuelled her appreciation for pizza and ugly paintings of the baby Jesus.

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Image credit

Unnatural Selection by Maggie Chiang.

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Editor

Lucy Wheeler