The Female Contortionist

By Ruth Ankers

Women all over the world have experienced it. Heart break. The kind that takes you off the map. The kind that distorts your vision for years after. That takes the air out of your lungs and leaves you gasping for breath.

You take time to recover, you build yourself up again and you feel stronger. Like you “can” for the first time in what feels like forever. Like you “are” again.

So, what do you do when someone new comes along?

I’m suddenly in very dangerous territory.

I know I am, because I’m holding back, wary, which is unlike me. I’m checking myself constantly, measuring out the perfect amount of “me” to give to him. I think about what I say, twice, three times.

I have to make sure, this time, I don’t do anything wrong.

I hand pick the best bits of me and I carefully lay them out to him, like i would at a Saturday garden sale.

If he buys this, we should be fine.

And he does, he likes it. We’re onto date two and now I’m trying really hard not to mess it up.

If I let him see the real me and all the bits that aren’t perfect he will end it, and I will feel rejected, again.

I don’t know if I can take that.

Convincing somebody that you’re perfect is exhausting. Trying to be positive all the time is exhausting. Evading your narly spots requires you to bend and stretch yourself in ways you haven’t before, and I’m telling you now, you will end up tangled. You will find yourself a contortionist and him watching you from the side stage as you manifest yourself into someone you’re not. Ta-da!

Why can’t I just be myself?

Why, when he is opening up to me, telling me things about his family, do I withhold all my secrets. Why do I nod along, a paper cut out of myself. Why can’t I give him anything of myself?

Why is it so much easier to not let him in? I know I can’t sustain this forever. But if I break, I only have myself to blame.

It’s a month in and it’s not changing. If anything it’s getting worse.

The closer I get to him, the higher I build the wall. Although I think I’m doing a pretty good job of making it invisible to him. I’m constantly waiting for him to notice, to say those dreaded words “we need to talk”. And he does.

But here comes the crux.

Despite the fact we worked it out, he told me something which woke me up. He said he felt that “something was missing”.

And he was right, wasn’t he.

The bit that was missing was me.

The real me. The human, fallible me. With a whole lot of history which has made me who I am. The substance, the wholeness, the grit and the bits that have worn away. The backlog of life experience, the grazes and bumps and the skeletons in the wardrobe. The wholeness that comes with being completely human.

So, if your reading this, please take my advice.

BE YOURSELF.

All of you.

Know that it is okay to be vunrable. To be human, to come with bruises and bits that hurt.

It’s okay to open up and tell the truth, it’s okay to not be the version of yourself which came in the original packaging.

You have had a LIFE and that has shaped you. Something you should never apologise for.

Don’t hide yourself, contort yourself or withhold yourself from someone. They too are human, they too have a history and a whole lot of baggage that comes with that. They have been rebuffed as they have moved across the world.

If you can accept someone for who they are why don’t you feel you deserve to be accepted for being you?

In the words of Will Durant:

“We must steel ourselves against utopias and be content with a slightly better state”.

We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be ourselves.

About The Author

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Ruth Ankers is a Drama and Applied Theatre Practitioner and Teacher. She favours writing poetry and short plays. Ruth is a firm believer in equality of gender and is really exited to be writing for Gender + the City!

Illustration by Anna Wanda

@annawandagogusey

http://www.wandalovesyou.com

The Gendered Experience of Time and Numbers

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible.

By Freya Turner

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible. The clothes shopping experience isn’t intuitive. It isn’t about holding an item up to the body and seeing how it looks and feels. It’s instead carried out through a prescribed number with huge significance. But of course this number has no inherent human meaning. The meaning behind this number is faux, established only by the marketing, fashion and beauty industries.

Our experiences are coloured by undefinable, subjective movements that are ever changing and shifting. Our body shape alters over the course of a day due to what we’ve fuelled it with. It changes due to our cycle and hormones. We can have a different body shape from one year to the next depending on the type of exercise that we’ve been enjoying at any certain time. Why are we still finding value in a compartmentalised unit, a category, and in self-branding? We do this because it is easy; it transforms our experience into one that is recognisable and relatable to society. However, subjectivity is complex and difficult. Of course, we also find value in a clothing size because we see what sizes are available and we make judgements on where we fit in those available or unavailable sizes.

The woman’s experience is defined by a spectrum of units, where every part of our existence is precisely definable, dated, and set within boundaries, unlike the male identifying experience. The majority of men’s sizes occur in some version of small, medium or large, with trouser sizes defined in waist measurements. Men have a somewhat meaningful language to describe their clothing, along with a scale that reflects the truth. Women experience clothing their body through an arbitrary scale that is unrelated to body measurements. The industry for planners, diaries, organisers, calendars and lists is huge, and the majority of it is marketed towards women. This perpetuates the idea that women must log, sensibly plan, and organise their lives in secret, inaudible, and beautiful ways. Those who identify as men are barely a part of this world.

It used to be commonplace for women to ask whether their bums looked big in something. Now we barely hear it. Now women pay money to get bigger bums. Whether that’s through gym memberships or surgeries, people are paying to the look. Women’s ideal body types change all the time. Our bodies are commodified, dated trends.

Think about one of the most recent women’s razor adverts, where we are sold three different razors for three different sides of you. Women’s bodies, personalities, and day to day experiences are things to endlessly measure and label as if they are a material item. This is happening whilst it is becoming more commonplace for women and men’s experiences to be tracked and compartmentalised, through the spread of new technology. Myfitnesspal and fitbits have taken the fitness industry by storm. Youtubers share their daily or weekly eating and fitness routines with their followers. The same thing happens on Instagram. It seems like it is more vital than ever before to measure the productivity of our bodies and share it with others. But the way this rhetoric is shaped and used is gendered. Online influencers who are in the wellness/fitness area are predominantly women. The majority of Myfitnesspal users are women. The majority of Instagram users are women.

Women are expressing themselves through these platforms, but it is done in a way that limits their experience. For example, the language of wellbeing often involves words like ‘clean’ and a string of hashtags. Women, conscious of this or not, are believing the false idea that we must oblige to compartmentalise our experiences into single words. This is a sign that women still lack the sense of autonomy, spontaneity, and expression that men do.

Also, this ties into the issue of time. Men are more able to live their lives feeling as if they have time on their sides. Women, on the other hand, will be more likely to feel as if they are on the wrong side of time. This is because in Western society in 2017 it is still a common perception that when women age, they become invisible, resentful, and worthless. And if women decide to have children, they then risk triggering the end their own autonomy. They lose themselves, their time and even their own names as they become ‘mothers’. Employers still fire pregnant women, and rearing children still entails mothers joining an institution where it is commonplace for women to do the majority of the unpaid, intensive childcare and emotional labour. Women are painfully aware that with age comes disadvantages and distrust from others. All the more reason to get more organised and use a weekly planner.

What I have found particularly disturbing recently is what I’ve heard from women who have experienced some sort of body change; namely weight gain or loss. They find it almost incomprehensible. They feel disembodied, as if that cannot be them, and that they must revert back to what they used to be. This body change may be the result of some sort of emotional trauma, or physical illness. Regardless, she will likely punish herself, due to the guilt and shame of occupying space in a new body, through implementing a strict diet and exercise regime in order to get back to ‘herself’. God forbid that a woman does the amazing feat of having a baby and has a body which has grown in size to enable and support the entire process. She must lose the baby weight, of course! Erase your body’s ability and adaptability. Why is this still happening?

But we are societies who, in reality, are inflexible about identity. In the era of the individual, where the individual is free in the midst of a disjointed, disparate political society, it is no wonder that we are seeking to say something about ourselves in a way that is audible and comprehensible to others. We want our identities to be consistent and definable because it seems like that is the only way that they can be noticed. This works paradoxically for women, for the more that they self express through the numbers of their bodies and experiences, or reductive codes like hashtags, the more that they are exposing the instilled belief that women must be kept an eye on, tracked, and defined. A woman’s true experience is defined by subjective changes but we are not happy with this. We are playing a numbers game which cannot grant us our freedom.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

 

Sun, Skirts and Shorts: What is Acceptable?

By Jo Gough

When the sun comes out, so does the issue of ‘appropriate’ school uniforms. In some schools, shorts are off the uniform list – seen as too immature for young boys, whereas skirts for girls are mandatory. Does this suggest that it’s acceptable to infantilise and sexualise girls? That the exposure of female bodies is normalised? Whatever the case, school uniforms should be practical and comfortable, and not a patriarchal vehicle to control the bodies of young people.

In the workplace these power dynamics continue: a man on Twitter showed himself wearing a bright pink dress, having been sent home from work for wearing shorts. More recently, in a row over uniforms, boys at a school in Exeter made the news for wearing skirts to school, to protest the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear shorts[1]. In a previous workplace, working outdoors with no shade and no shorts, a male colleague asked for a skirt and was denied. Wearing a skirt was unacceptable to the employer – as this would challenge the heteronormative structures put in place by institutions.

Traditionally, shorts were seen as clothing items for boys. From around puberty onwards trousers were given as a marker of becoming a man. The idea that trousers equal masculinity is pervasive, and the clothing revolution (unlike the era of the miniskirt) has not happened for men. Clothing symbolises male status and the conformity of being ‘a real man’.

Perhaps the refusal to allow shorts is also because tights cannot be worn. One of the school boys being interviewed in Exeter explained that they were told they would need to wear tights – as hairs were unsightly. Boys think that they are getting the raw deal, but tights are also part of a uniform, so girls rarely get more air flow than wearing trousers on a hot day.

Female clothing is made with no pockets, thigh rub is painful, skirts are poorly designed for the wind or sitting comfortably, and there is a sexualisation and vulnerability that comes with skirts and dresses. Why it that skirts is aren’t also seen as too immature for young women once puberty hits? How come there isn’t a transition, as with men, in becoming ‘a real woman’.

It’s natural to feel concerned over pleats in skirts, short summer dresses and frilly stark white socks. Girl’s school uniforms are sexualised symbols in the media, pornography, fancy dress and fantasies (see Brittany Spears). Teenage girls feel pressure to hitch up their skirts to feel more attractive. One school decided to ban skirts, because teenagers were making them so short that it was:

‘Not pleasant for male members of staff and students either, the girls have to walk up stairs and sit down and it’s a complete distraction. After a while it stops being a uniform issue and starts becoming a safeguarding issue[2]’.

Girls have to wear tiny tennis skirts for PE, but are told that this is inappropriate in other areas. Femininity is enforced through tiny skirts, but somehow it is unfair on men when women continue this past puberty. Women then enter the world of work, and the expectations for a professional female are tight skirts and high-heels. That schools are concerned for male teachers is a stark reminder of the victim blaming culture we live in, and it’s an insult to men to assume that they have no self-control, even in the presence of children placed under their care.

Therefore, school uniforms are framed to sexualise girls and women, and banning shorts because of antiquated notions of masculinity is archaic. It should be more acceptable that boys and girls should have the choice to wear whatever version of their school uniform that suits them. With the multitude of gender identities being expressed in our increasingly intersectional world, it’s crucial that we make room for autonomy in young people’s clothing choices. However, this seems disturbingly far away.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jun/22/teenage-boys-wear-skirts-to-school-protest-no-shorts-uniform-policy

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/school-bans-skirts-after-hemlines-5988614

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About the Author

Jo is an aspiring writer, deeply interested in gender, current affairs and popular culture. She has a degree in Education and Psychology, and it is what is not being said in news reports and how people react to the news and popular culture that gets her writing. To the left in politics, Jo has always tried to make the world that bit fairer. Twitter: @redphiend
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Emotional Ed, or My Experience of Sexual Education

By Lucy Caradog

My school waited until Year 9 to give us any form of sexual education, apparently in order to coincide with the year that the national biology syllabus taught us about reproduction, so as to give us fourteen-year-olds a comprehensive understanding of sex and relationships. I’m not saying that this wasn’t a good idea in theory, but it meant that some of us had to wait years until the rumours around sex that we heard about from some kid’s older brother in Year 3 were finally disspelled. That’s a whole six years of thinking that [insert funny sex myth here]. And even though most of us had cleared up the major misconceptions, we were still a bunch of teens who giggled at any innuendo and thought that sex was something to be ashamed of. We were in dire need of information, which we thought we would be receiving when two individuals, a man and a woman in their early- to mid-thirties (whose source were unknown to us) were brought into class.

Even though they made a number of what I would now call ‘mistakes’, bear in mind that this was a Catholic school, and a strict one at that, which may be why we didn’t notice that anything was amiss . We didn’t for a second wonder why there was no mention of birth contrl or STIs, or why any sexual act or feeling between two individuals who did not identify as a man and a woman was treated as impossible. We giggled madly when the man wrote the word MASTURBATION on the whiteboard in capital letters, and even more so when he attempted to rub it out only to find that he had accidently used indelible ink. I still to this day can not fathom why, when separating the boys and girls to tell us about “the changes our bodies would soon be going through” (FYI: I was at this point a C-cup and my cycle was so regular I could predict in advance when to get dispensed from swimming lessons), they decided that the man should be the one speaking to us girls, leaving the woman to teach the boys about erections and body hair.

The low point, however, came when they had reassembled us to discuss relationships. This was the longest section of our afternoon, and featured a hypothetical couple, both teens just like us, named Romeo and Juliet. That’s right. The Shakespearean tragedy was reappropriated to serve as an example of an average teenage relationship. Oh but wait, it gets worse.

Romeo and Juliet met at a party and started dating. It was going well until Juliet went on holiday for a week or so, a preplanned ski trip with some friends and family. There’s snow, there’s skiing, it’s basically the fun-filled holiday every middle-class fourteen-year-old dreams of, but all Juliet can think about is Romeo. She was lovesick, and therefore unable to enjoy herself in any capacity. She gave her boyfriend a call, thinking he was probably as hung up on her as she was on him. Little did Juliet know, Romeo was spending her holiday hanging out with his mates, watching the football, doing whatever ‘dudes’ do when their significant others are away. Juliet was the last thing on his mind, and when she phoned and told him that she missed him, she was surprised to find that he did not exactly reciprocate. This was when our instructors told us that Juliet was making a typical mistake: what she didn’t understand was that men’s brains “work differently” to women’s brains and that men operate on more of a “out of sight, out of mind” basis. It was thus unreasonable of Juliet to get upset. They explained that we girls would just have to accept that when it our time came to be in relationships, it was unlikely that our level of infatuation would be returned.

To say that I am angry at having experienced such appalling sex education is not quite right. Looking back on it as an adult who understands love and sex and everything inbetween, it is even slightly amusing. It was not amusing when I was sixteen and spent time pining after a boy I had already given up on because I had been told not to expect him to like me as much as I liked him. It was not amusing as I watch my friends play hard to get because, even though they were not subjected to the Story of Romeo and Juliet, they have some deeply ingrained idea as to how to capture a boy’s attention, and a subconscious idea that this is a difficult task, something they should work for. I remember being fourteen, fifteen, older maybe, and chatting with my girlfriends about our crushes on boys. We complained in a matter-of-fact way like 1950s housewives about the work we had to put in to keep our lads captivated.  That this was a woman’s work.  We did not expect to be on a level footing, we did not believe in an even give-and-take.

I have heard my fair share of sex ed horror stories. The ‘pouring-ink-into-a-water-glass, this-is-your-soiled-virginity’ story, for example. I don’t mean to discredit these stories; I appreciate that my experience is a different thing altogether. Maybe it is because I went to a particularly uptight Catholic school, or I had an uncommonly misogynistic instructor. All I know is that it took me a long time to get over this information and to trust men to love and respect me the way I deserve.

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About the Author

Lucy Caradog is a student in English and American Literature who’s interest in gender, sexuality and feminism stems from literature on the subject. She writes essays and short stories on these topics and others that can be found in various university publications and in a Writing folder on her laptop. She hopes to one day work in publishing whilst continuing to write on the side. Lucy also enjoys illustrating, and her artwork can be found on instagram @orangetoplucy