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Language Matters

“She had a shotgun wedding.”

“She’s living in sin.”

“She’s just his bit on the side.”

One late September Saturday in 1983 around 100 of my grandparents’ friends and family gathered for a 50th wedding anniversary party that my Mum and her siblings had organised. It remained a surprise until the Friday afternoon when my Aunt told my Nan that there was a hair appointment booked for her on the following morning. On hearing the news my Nan broke her heart crying and revealed a secret that she’d kept for 49 years. You see, they hadn’t married in 1933, they’d married in 1934, just six months before their eldest child was born. For almost half a century my grandparents had been lying to their children and friends, hiding the shame of their ‘shotgun wedding.’ In the face of this very public celebration the mask finally crumbled and my Nan confessed that we were celebrating a year early. But she swore that Aunt to secrecy and the rest of her children only found out five years later when their parents died within a few months of each other.

Almost 80 years to the day after that 1934 wedding I was sat in my local pub chatting to a then partner about the news that had come out of his country that day; America’s Supreme Court had allowed same sex marriages to stand in five states meaning for the first time more Americans lived in states where these unions were legal than not. That evening he stated his view that “non monogamy is going to be the next relationship structure to come into the spotlight and upset the status quo.”What makes you say that?” I asked. He argued that people have always gossiped about and judged other people’s relationships and that as each one becomes more socially acceptable (and disparaging the people in them becomes less acceptable) it paves the way for something new to bear the brunt of judgment. “Think about it,” he said. “Having a child out of wedlock used to be the worse thing that could happen, but imagine calling a child a bastard now? And living in sin – you’d never say that these days.” His view was the legalisation of same sex marriage marriage would mean another paradigm shift and the door was now open for non-monogamous couples to out themselves and ‘enjoy’ a period of being the object of fascination and fear.

I can’t really decide whether he was incredibly astute or over simplifying things and bloody lucky in the timing of his statement, but it’s undeniable that in the last five years ethical non-monogamy and polyamory has been enjoying its moment in the spotlight. There’s an increasing amount of coverage in the mainstream media, some of the most popular dating apps have introduced the opportunity to declare your non-monogamous status and more people are coming out about their relationship structures to family and friends. And, as he predicted, there’s backlash.

While it would seem inconceivable in 2019 to make asides about ‘shotgun weddings’ or ‘living in sin’, comments like ‘she’s his bit on the side’ still prevail and they carry the same weight of casual thoughtless judgement. I read something recently where someone talked about poly men “pretending to be enlightened and sex-positive and forward-thinking when really it’s just them wanting to stick their dicks into as many women as possible.” A couple of weeks ago LoveLustLondon tweeted an OKC comment where someone’s blanket message to non-monogamous folk was “don’t even think about messaging me and good luck catching an STD.” Comments like these are not prejudiced on the scale of homophobia or racism, but they are prejudiced nonetheless and can be deeply hurtful to non-monogamous people. And they are lazy. People who make them are invariably lashing out and making no effort to understand or respect the dynamic and hard work that goes into successful open relationships.

Of course, there are some people who are using the increasing profile of non-monogamy and tick boxes on apps to behave in an entirely unethical way. Tech can facilitate in a far more efficient way the same poor behaviour that drunk Saturday nights with mates or late nights at the office used to pave the way for. Humans have always and will always behave like arseholes sometimes. A while back a few of us got involved in a Twitter chat defending poly in light of someone claiming that it’s being evangelised. Exhibit A said at the time: “The pseudo-poly guys and opportunists on dating apps are assholes, but ‘it seems to be all over the media and it’s the evangelical ones who shout loudest’ is exactly what people used to say about homosexuality: “why do they need to shove it down our throats, etc”.
To extrapolate the point Exhibit A made, to those people who make snide comments about poly being trendy or poly people just wanting to fuck everything that walks, I would suggest they replace poly with ‘gay people’ and check whether their comments stand up to scrutiny. If your comments are stigmatising someone and how they are honestly and consensually living their life then you may want to interrogate your attitude rather than their lifestyle.

Last weekend, knowing this post was in the pipeline, I asked Twitter what their experiences were. I could have written this post just sharing people’s responses. I think the one that made me saddest was The Curious Mermaid who said: “The more I read of these tweets, the more I feel that I’m right to still be in the closet about non-mon as far as work acquaintances and parents are concerned.” I hope in time it becomes as acceptable to talk about your different partners without raising eyebrows as it is to now say you’re moving in with someone. I’m unlikely to ever experience the half a century of shame that my Nan did when she became pregnant with her first child, but I also look forward to the day when describing me as someone’s ‘bit on the side’ becomes as unlikely and unacceptable as discussing that someone is living in sin.

This was meant to be posted in time for the fear prompt last week but time ran away with me. Here it is a week late!

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Status, stigma and self-testing

I am writing this from the back of a vehicle in Nigeria. I’m in Lagos, the biggest city in Africa and home to 21 million people. New Africa. A so-called mega city. Vibrant, ambitious, tenacious, captivating. And becoming increasingly liberal as the trappings of our globalised world take hold? Not where it really matters, no.
Today I was told of a dress code for women who attend a business skills development course. Encouraged into business and championed as role models for a modernising country? Yes, but as just as long they don’t do it in trousers, v neck tops or skirts that end above the knee. But worse than that, sexual freedom is being curtailed.
In 2014, the Nigerian government increased the punishment for homosexuality to 14 years in jail. Anyone ‘assisting couples’ may face a 10 year sentence. In 2010, just 18% of men who have sex with men were reached with HIV prevention services. They do not access the services they need to manage their sexual health out of fear for their freedom. The result? In 2007, 13.5% of men who have sex with men were living with HIV. By 2016, that had risen to 23%. It’s not only men who have sex with men whose health is being failed by the Nigerian government. They are falling short on recommended target for testing, treatment and counselling services for the whole population. The country has second largest HIV epidemic in the world.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, in my hotel my room in Lagos, I exercised a privilege many Nigerians don’t have. I took an HIV test. The kit came courtesy of Freedom Shop and was given to me at Eroticon. The whole process took about half an hour in total: a few minutes reading the blurb that came with the test, five or ten minutes rereading The Other Livvy and Emmeline Peach’s great reviews, an embarrassing number of minutes summoning up the courage to use the lancet and then 15 minutes for the test to progress. It was easy, discreet and, actually, quite an empowering experience. It may sound odd to say I enjoyed the process, but I did. I was in control.
I live in the UK. Here we can pick up a kit like the Bio-Sure HIV Self Test for under £30 and test at a time that suits us. If we have a little more time and are not anxious about visiting a clinic we can test for free. Home testing kits are free for high risk groups. Yet, despite the ease with which we can access testing and a low prevalence rate, the UK still needs to make progress. Here, new diagnoses are almost double the average for Western Europe, it is estimated that 13,500 are unaware of their positive status and 40% of those diagnosed positive receive a late diagnosis. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that just 14% of those who identified as high risk had taken a test recently.
It is easy to think that the world has got a handle on the HIV pandemic. Comparatively speaking it has. The first time I worked in Africa, in 2003, I was visiting communities where almost the entire population of working age adults had died and the majority of households were headed by grandparents or children. Then, fewer than 200,000 people around the world were accessing treatment, now 19.5 million people receive antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. An HIV positive person on ARVs who has had an undetectable viral load for more than six months can’t pass it on.
But there is still a long way to go. 17.2 million HIV+ people still aren’t getting treatment. The rate of HIV infection hasn’t declined amongst adults since 2010. There were 1.8 million new cases in 2016. We all have a role to play in tackling HIV, by taking care of our own sexual health, especially if we are lucky enough to live in a country where stigma is (relatively) low and testing and treatment services are free, by staying up to date on the facts and testing our knowledge and joining campaigns where our voice can make a difference.
Happy World AIDS Day!
For self-testing kits plus a whole lot of other useful stuff for staying safe and heathy visit https://www.freedoms-shop.com/

On scheduling sex…

Will you write a post about scheduling sex?”
A request at the tail end of a regular boozy Friday sushi night I have with one of my oldest and closest friends. As is typical for our Friday nights these days, our evening ended with sex talk. Or rather, talk about sex! Our nights out are gloriously formulaic. Booze. Sushi. More booze. More of the same sushi dish because we love it so much. All while rattling through updates on work, politics, mutual friends, family. By the time the plates are pushed to the side and it’s just a steady flow of booze that we don’t really need any more of, we are onto our two favourite topics – book recommendations and talking sex.
The giveaway words in the paragraph above are ‘these days’. Until a couple of years ago the final drunken chat was always just about books. Sure we touched on husbands (well, one husband – hers) and dating stories (mine) but we didn’t talk about sex. What changed? I told her about this blog. She’s one of a handful of offline girlfriends who know about Exposing 40 and without doubt I now talk about sex with all of them in a way we didn’t previously. And I don’t mean the bawdy indiscreet chat that often characterises the way women talk about sex in popular culture, I mean enriching, revealing and occasionally therapeutic talk.
A friend talking about marrying a man with whom they don’t have the most exciting sex but whom they thought would be a good husband and father. Another saying it seems like we are living our sex lives in reverse, mine getting kinkier, hers less so. One opening up about wanting to explore sex with women and asking about what experiences I’d had. All of these conversations born out of chat about my blog. I don’t believe they would have happened without it. Do I believe these conversations matter to these women? Absolutely.
The subject of scheduling sex started with my friend saying “you have so much more sex than me”. “I’m sure I don’t,” I replied. “But if I do it’s only because I plan it.” There followed a conversation about scheduling sex and why (given her 10 hour days, husband with unusual working hours and two small children) it might be a good for her. She found every possible reason why scheduling a regular time for sex wouldn’t work and I understood the resistance. It doesn’t sound particularly sexy and we all like to think that the kick off point for sex is far more spontaneous and passionate than that.
But the truth is for so many of us it isn’t. As we roll into our forties careers and businesses are often at their most demanding, families are young and parents are getting older. We may have settled into relationship structures that might mean we don’t live with partners. Or we are living many miles apart and seeing them infrequently. And it may not be very glamourous to acknowledge but we’re also just a lot more tired! There are two outcomes here – you can let sex drift or you can put more effort into making it happen.
Whether you’ve agreed to shove the kids in front of a DVD every Sunday morning or you make sure you always have a plan with a partner you live apart from to look forward to, the problem with scheduling sex is that sometimes when the time comes you just don’t feel like it. I have joked before about being hungover horny on my own on a Sunday but more interested in pasta and pesto by the time date night rolls round on a Tuesday. My response to not really feeling in the mood? Fuck anyway!
This might not sit well with some people. Why have sex if you don’t really want to? Are you allowing yourself to be forced into something or, worse, forcing a partner into something they don’t want? I am absolutely not advocating that. But if it’s more just a case of feeling a bit ‘meh’ then I will almost always choose to quell that feeling. I seem incapable of writing a long post without dropping a running analogy in somewhere, but I liken this to not really wanting to shove on your trainers and head out on a training run after a long day at work. As runners will know, however much you don’t feel like going out you will rarely regret it and you’ll almost always feel better for making yourself do it.
I make plans to see partners a good two or three of weeks in advance. All of our work, social and other relationship commitments, plus some of their childcare responsibilities, demand this. (Although to be honest, even without all those considerations I would still want to plan ahead – not having things to look forward to makes me unhappy). I won’t know how I’m going to feel by the time those plans roll round. But if I am not feeling horny on the day I don’t want to give into the desire to just not bother because we may not see each other for another two or three weeks. It’s not just about the sex or the orgasms (I can get on with the latter just fine on my own), it’s about investing in intimacy, in the part of our relationship that is about more than being friends, in the joy and restorative effect of skin on skin contact.
I haven’t always been that good at communicating how important the casual intimacy is to me. I have had ridiculous snotty crying meltdowns because a partner didn’t want to fuck and I read it as rejection, only to later admit that I wasn’t really feeling horny either. I am not proud of that but I am getting better at being less emotional in how I talk about sex and I am also more confident about saying ‘look, whatever sex either of us is having with other people and with whatever frequency, I still expect us to invest in each other.’ They’re not always easy conversations to have but they are almost always worth it.
The request to write this post actually came 18 months ago so why am I finally writing it now? Well, a couple of weeks ago I attended the press and blogger launch of the Scarlet Ladies #ITalkSex campaign. At the end of the event we were all asked to tell the room why we talked sex. I said that I talk sex because it should be a joyful happy thing but too many people have anxieties about it; talking can help dispel them. I include myself in ‘many people’. Choosing to articulate some of my experiences on these pages helps me think through my responses to situations so I can better understand myself. That in turn helps me feel more at peace with myself and have more constructive conversations with partners.
When I think about some of my more personal posts I am reminded how swiftly others have come forward in solidarity or with a ‘me too’ sigh of relief when I’ve talked about an issue that also chimes with them. Whether it’s relationship status, orgasms or being childfree. What this blog has taught me is that we are rarely alone in our perspectives or our insecurities. If the posts we all write here, in our relatively small community, are helping women (and men!) to feel less alone, have the confidence to be more honest about their expectations or to try new things, imagine what could be achieved in sex and body positivity if we started talking more freely and honestly with those who aren’t also sex bloggers?
A few days after the launch event I was out with my friend who requested this post and told her I was finally getting round to writing it. “Do you talk about sex more now I have my blog?”, “Er, YES,” she replied, snort laughing. I asked her if it was helpful. Her reply? “I find it far easier to talk to my husband about sex now and to bring up the things that are bothering me since I started talking these things through with you.” Testimony!
The #ITalkSex Campaign brings together women from every walk of life. We are united by our belief that by talking openly about what we need, how we feel or what we’ve gone through, we are helping women everywhere to find the confidence and empowerment to accept and love themselves for who they really are. If you want to find out more visit the #ITalkSex campaign website to learn more about how we can all get involved and be part of this movement. Follow @scarletladies and the #ITalkSex hashtag to stay up to date with the chat, including these great posts from Livvy and Tabitha.
The Scarlet Ladies are having what will surely be a brilliant #ITalkSex party on Tuesday 12th September at their beautiful home 23 Paul Street. If you’re not based in London but want to join in the chat our favourite purveyor of filth, @GirlOnTheNet, is hosting a Twitter party at 20.30.

After the Flood

photo-23-01-2017-13-39-46My periods started when I was 12. Summer 1987. My stepmum (who can be a bit Victorian!) put me to bed with tomato soup and a hot water bottle. I was thoroughly confused. I felt absolutely fine and was somewhat flummoxed about being sent to bed as if I was sick. Generally speaking the subsequent thirty years followed much the same pattern – not the being sent to bed bit, the feeling absolutely fine bit! For three decades I’ve never suffered any sort of PMT and can count on two hands (probably one, actually) the number of times I’ve had significant period pain. I occasionally get a bit teary or inhale a bar of chocolate a couple of days before I am due, but that’s the extent of the problem periods ever caused me.

Until about 3.5 years ago, that is. Up until that point my periods had always been light with a couple of slightly heavier days in the middle. Then, one Saturday in summer 2013, came the flood. It gushed. And when I say gushed I mean it flowed like water with clots the size of eggs. My flatmate at the time asked if I was having a miscarriage. A couple of hours later it was all over. ‘Odd’, I thought, then didn’t give it much more thought. Until nine months later.

A new cycle had started where every six to nine months I would have a catastrophic period. And when I say catastrophic I mean being stood with a friend in Covent Garden and feeling my jeans soak down to the knees within 10 minutes; changing a super plus extra tampon three times during a 15 minute train journey; wrapping myself in towels like a nappy and being afraid to fall asleep because I was staying in a friend’s daughter’s bed. And do you know what? I didn’t do anything about it. It just became the pattern I got used to and planned for. I knew if I was going to have a flood then nine times out of ten it would happen on day three and so when a few months had passed and I knew a heavy one was due I would start to adjust my plans for that day – not scheduling work meetings or social plans, sleeping on towels. When it happened I’d have a few hours of chaos then breathe a sigh of relief, knowing I had a few months respite ahead.

I don’t know why I didn’t do anything about it for so long. I am certainly not squeamish or embarrassed about these things. Avoiding their exact name to hopefully prevent Google showing a client my arse, for four years I have worked for the body that produces guidelines and sets the clinical standards, training and examinations for women’s health in UK and further afield. I have made training films for them, filmed caesareans and abortions, met women they support in Africa who have endured horrific complications in childbirth and who don’t have access to the simple things we take for granted – smear tests, contraception.

If I was pushed to say why I didn’t walk the five minutes across the park at the end of my road to my GP, I would probably say it was because I had found my way of dealing with it. Or that going to the doctors because of heavy periods when we see so much about the NHS being at breaking point was just, well, a bit lame. But it was lame not to go. And it wasn’t a body positive decision. For me, body positivity shouldn’t just be about accepting your natural shape and what you look like, it should also be about looking after the mechanics of your body so it works its hardest for you. Yet every few months I was adjusting my life to fit around a medical condition that was easily fixable.

So what happened? Well a few of us bloggers were out last summer when, with no word, I got up, left the pub and dashed to the nearest shop. Having had a flood only three months earlier I wasn’t expecting another so soon. Returning to the table to a chorus of ‘where did you go?’ I ended up sharing some of my horror stories. To cut a long story short the marvellous Dr Livvy imparted some sharp words of wisdom of which two things stuck in my mind: “Could you confidently wear white trousers during your period?” and “if not go to your GP and ask them to refer you for a scan.” Two days later as I stood in a graveyard washing my legs under a church tap I realised the problem was escalating and decided to heed her advice. Six months on I sit here having had “a multitude” (to quote the gynaecologist) of polyps removed. A Mirena Coil that went in as they came out should prevent them returning.

The operation took half an hour, I was discharged within three hours and have had no pain or bleeding. The growths are at the lab but polyps are rarely malignant so that concern isn’t really on my radar. Do I feel daft for leaving it this long? Of course! I already was, to be honest. Back in December, over lunch with the aforementioned client, I was talking about my upcoming op and confessed sheepishly to my years of ignoring the problem. She’s the clinical lead on the organisation’s global health strategy and often brings an international perspective to chat. Her response was to talk about African women being three times more likely to suffer fibroids which, if left untreated, can lead to a hysterectomy. With surgical facilities in many countries scarce or dysfunctional, more widely available Mirena Coils that could help prevent fibroids would have a profound impact on outcomes for many women. She also talked about cervical cancer being the fastest growing threat to women’s health in developing countries – 90% of deaths occur in countries where there is limited access to cervical screening. Her chat was a gentle reminder to me that in ignoring what was going on with my own body I was also ignoring what a privilege it is to have this advice and treatment readily available.

And for many women that advice and treatment is even further away now than it was when she and I had lunch last month. On Monday, as I slumbered happily under general anaesthetic having a quick, safe, free procedure, Trump re-enacted the Mexico City Policy. The policy means any international organisation that provides or promotes abortion services – regardless of how those services are funded – is prohibited from receiving US funds. This doesn’t just affect the provision of abortion, which would be bad enough. Organisations providing other women’s health services, such as contraception and smear tests, will lose funding for all their services if they also provide abortion services. Marie Stopes International has already said it cannot agree to the conditions. In the next 12 months its partnership with USAID would have helped them reach 1.5 million women in some of the world’s poorest countries. Its predictions on what the loss of its services could mean over the four years of Trump’s term are terrifying.
The world of women’s health was different when I left hospital than it had been when I arrived six hours earlier. These last couple of days have reminded me that we must be vigilant about our own health but over the coming years we will also need to keep supporting organisations who provide services to women around the world.
Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked
Menstruation Matters

Death Maths

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Mark Twain

I read an article back in the summer called My middle-age dread. The article pissed me off, to be honest, the writer being more concerned with lamenting how cool she used to be rather than sharing anything particularly insightful about life in your forties. What did amuse me was the concept of death maths and reaching the point in life where the law of averages means you become closer to the end than the beginning. Statistically speaking my life expectancy is 83. I read that article one week before I turned 41.5. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘I am exactly halfway through.’
But why start the countdown so soon?
Next Wednesday I will be at a funeral. A friend’s mother. We will travel to the funeral in a converted Routemaster bus, the coffin in the bottom and us on the top deck. After the service we will party in a village hall decorated with palm trees, drink champagne and eat paella. My friend’s Mum died of a very rare cancer. She could expect about a year from diagnosis. That was six years ago. Since then she’s travelled in Burma and India. In July she and my friend were in Spain, swimming in the sea and feasting on paella.
Elsewhere, the mother in law of one of my dearest and oldest friends has just gone into a hospice. They are in the most dreadful countdown of all. But amidst it all my friend’s husband is still considering running two back to back marathons in the Sahara next weekend. He’s running for a charity his Mum is a trustee for. She wants him to stick to the plan.
When this woman first got sick last year my friend and I had one of those reality check conversations about what the next ten years are likely to have in store for many of our peer group. And it will be hard. Aging parents come at a time when you’re at what can be the toughest stage of your own life. Families are young and demanding, careers are changing gears to senior management, businesses are being nurtured, mortgages are in full throttle.
Life in your forties is tiring, but it’s also brilliant. You know yourself. You are building foundations for your future. For a time when someone might run a marathon for you, or decorate a church hall with palm trees. So you have the money and freedom to backpack round Burma in your seventies, even if you’re sick. For the time you inspire someone to think that they’re not halfway to the end but that they’ve still got all that life to live again.
Of course, I would be lying if I said I never had ‘fucking hell, I’m halfway through’ moments. I’m not a total Pollyanna! My confidence with my business, my friendships, my home, is as robust as it can get without being complacent. But I am not the same with relationships or sex.
I’m happy with the relationship status I bestow on my partnerships and don’t want any greater commitment than I have, but I sometimes fret that ‘what if I suddenly decide one day that I do want true love again, not just fondness, and I am too old’. I worry that I have left it too late in life to be exploring new sides of myself and often feel silly asking for what I really want when it comes to sex. I police what I say out of fear of fallout, then get cross that a situation is making me unhappy. I sit with partners and play out in my head things I will say, do or ask for, not always fully listening to the conversation we’re having but also not letting the words out. I put up with patterns that make me sad or chip away at the confidence I try to nurture.
I know I need to change this about myself. Only I can drive that process. And if I look at what I have achieved in other areas of my life, I know I have the spirit to. I just need to grasp the nettle. But that’s just something to work through. A big thing, but not an insurmountable thing. What I have absolutely no truck whatsoever with is the point that ran through the article I mentioned at the top of this piece about no longer being cool in your forties. Fuck that!
Life changes, it doesn’t become less cool.  Cool is seeing my friends juggle all of the challenges of parenthood, raising brilliant little people who make me laugh constantly. Cool is the kitchen disco we have after they’ve gone to bed because why waste money on a babysitter when you could spend it on wine and cheese? Cool is sitting in a beer garden with a friend, talking out the challenges of self-employment. Cool is the smell of a new country when I step off a plane on a new job. Cool is running two marathons for your Mum. Cool is the party my friend is throwing for her Mum’s funeral.
Cool is situation appropriate, not age appropriate. Don’t do death maths, do life maths.
Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Manicured

Manicure 2I emailed this photo to a partner once. If I remember correctly the subject line read ‘manicured’. A teasing photo to show off a fresh shave and a new manicure. And you know what, full disclosure – I’d applied a dab of concealer because I had an ugly spot from an ingrown hair. It glowed like a belisha beacon and to my mind didn’t make the photo that hot. I wanted his cock to twitch, not for his mind to think ‘ooh, that looks a bit painful!
But would I dab a bit of make-up on before opening the door to a lover? Errr, no! No more than I would arrange my legs as I do for a photo, or angle myself to create an allusion of cleavage that if you look at me straight on is actually more of a nice wide highway through my chest up to my neck! And no more than I would expect a lover to hold his cock as he does when creating a glorious photo, or to stand perfectly upright, legs apart in that way that’s just so spine-tinglingly hot when you see it on screen.
Erotic photos are often designed. Created to prompt a reaction – a shiver of anticipation, a lurch in the stomach, a hollow ache. And that’s fine. Photos (and film) are great for that. But if you tried to position yourself like that when you were actually in the same room, you’d just look fucking weird and, more to the point, you would be thinking so much about how you look you’d almost certainly not be in the moment.
When companies like Ann Summers create cynical events like today’s Facebook session on ‘vagina contouring’, advertised with a photo of a full make-up bag but actually promoting a ‘non surgical enhancement’, they are yet again sending a message that in real life women need to ‘beautify’ to look like the well-lit, artfully arranged, air-brushed versions they see in photos and films. Sessions like this, which I am sure the PR would try and tell you is about helping increase women’s self-confidence, just give women something else to worry about. Think about how it feels, not how it looks! If you’re interested in contours I suggest you pop into the far more sex and body positive Sh! – they’ll ply you with fizz and let you have a good old feel of Rosie the vulva puppet. She’s got a very prominent G spot – you can’t miss it!
And if you’re with a man or woman who you think you need to enhance the look of your cunt for, then I suggest dumping them. Find one whose face gets so close the odd ingrown hair is out of focus anyway, who’ll casually pick off a stray bit of tissue without fuss, who’ll ignore or giggle with you at the odd farting sound, and for whom blood is just another fluid that’s occasionally there. Someone who enjoys a real cunt, basically.

Lightweight

IMG_3880Ah, weight. That thorny issue. I almost didn’t write for this week’s Wicked Wednesday prompt because despite my blog being about body positivity, I couldn’t really think of anything to say about my own weight that didn’t make me sound smug or like an annoying motivational speaker. But actually, I do have something to say about weight. Weight isn’t fat. Fat is fat. Weight is weight and whether you’re slight and androgynous or bountifully buxom you have a weight. And you know what? I kind of think those of us whose weight tips the upper end of the scales have a louder voice in the body positivity conversation and it’s not something I am that comfortable with.
I completely understand why this is and why our right to own and celebrate our beauty and sexiness, whatever our shape or weight, should not be taken away.  And I am in no way questioning the damaging impact promoted ‘ideals’ of beauty that are pedalled by the fashion and beauty industry have on our self-esteem. I just think that in celebrating our big beauty we should be careful not to silence the voices of lighter women who have as much right to form a healthy relationship with their body as we do.
Last summer I had a conversation about this blog with a friend of a friend who is tiny in height and weight. Tears prickled in my eyes when she recounted stories of being dubbed a ‘concentrate camp victim’ at school and how now, as a Mum at the school gates, she feels excluded and judged by women talking about post-baby bodies. Of course a slim woman has as much right to talk about changes in her body as a result of motherhood as one who is trying to shift a few pounds, but do we ever really think about that? Do we think to involve slimmer women in conversations about weight or consider how they may also need a morale boost? That chat was a wakeup call  for me about the dangers of believing that because someone is slim they must be happy with their body.
And when we assume the primary reason a woman is loved is because she is slim we reduce her relationship with her partner to being about her body. We ignore her intelligence, her kindness, her spirit, that she might inspire her partner to be a better person, that they make an awesome team that’s greater than the sum of their parts. I am pretty sure nobody has ever once looked at me and thought ‘I bet he loves hanging out with her because of that big squishy belly’ so why do people so often think a partnership where a woman is slim must be built on the foundation of her body? Of course our relationships need a big dose of mutual ‘wow, you’re hot, I want to fuck you’ but the fact that most of us find a whole range of physical types attractive means chemistry and good partnerships are quite clearly about so much more than the body.
IMG_0173Slimness, also, does not equal healthiness. I sometimes quip ‘I’m fat but fit’ in reference to my ability to happily and slowly plod around 26 miles despite my belly being a homage to the awesomeness of cheese and wine. Jokes aside, I am confident about my fitness levels; I have no question in my mind that I am significantly healthier than an old flatmate who is markedly slimmer than me, yet smokes, frequently goes without meals and barely exercises. A slim but sedentary body will never be as healthy as a big one that moves.
Related to this is the bullshit notion that women exercise primarily as a way to lose weight. I am not saying it isn’t a massive motivator for some. Of course it is and that’s fine. I am currently engaged in a ridiculous programme of high intensity interval training as a way to quickly shift the results of two months of post-marathon partying. I’m cool with this. It’s problem and solution exercising. The exercise that enriches me and makes me feel mentally lighter is the running, the long walks, the quiet weekday swims in an almost empty pool. That exercise is about the whole of me, not my waistline. A slim woman expressing disappointment at not having time for a run or a gym session will often hear ‘oh, don’t worry – you don’t need to exercise’. It is meant to be encouraging but it means her exercise becomes about her weight and not about the headspace it gives her or the endorphin rush she gets or how it improves her energy or reduces stress.
I don’t think anyone who is likely to be reading this blog has ever intentionally made a slim person feel bad. It’s not how this lovely community plays! But I bet many of us have unintentionally said or thought something that assumes a slim person automatically feels good about themselves just because they are slim. One of the things I think is most telling is the relative lack of posts and photographs we see that explore slim issues. I had a conversation with another friend last summer and she mentioned how as a slim woman it’s hard to have a real voice in the body positivity space for fear of being judged. I said then I wanted to explore this with Exposing 40 and I mentioned it again in my Christmas post. But here we are in July and I have done nothing more! So, feel free to hold me to account on this! Let’s widen the conversation. If you have something to add I would love to share your thoughts and photos here. I have written this largely from a woman’s perspective but as ever I am always interested to hear from anyone with anything to say.

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Normal is Everyone’s Different

I cry quite easily. OK, I cry really easily. But really, you try reading the comments section on the Great Wall of Vagina site without welling up…
It’s too late for me and my health because it got ruined by labiaplasty. But it isn’t too late for others and I honour and thank you for this.
Great Wall of Vagina“I’m 17 and was really self-conscious about my ‘lady parts’. I was already thinking about having surgery to ‘fix’ it. Seeing your sculpture totally changed my mind and now I feel 100 times better about myself!”
“I was referred to this site by my gynaecologist when I asked about vaginal rejuvenation. I’m happy to discover that I am perfect already.” 
This important piece of art has allowed my daughter and me to discuss and explore how everyone is different and beautiful.”
Much has been written about Jamie McCartney’s Great Wall of Vagina and I am sure most of you will know of it. For those of you who don’t, it’s a nine-metre-long plaster cast sculpture of 400 vulvas, featuring women aged from 18 to 76 and including mothers and daughters, identical twins, transgendered men and women, a woman pre- and post-natal and another pre- and post-labiaplasty.
Speaking at Sh! on Saturday, McCartney revealed that he had hoped to feature more post-labiaplasty women, but only one of the eight who had been cast pre-op returned. Why? Because, rather brilliantly, they had all changed their mind about going ahead with the operation after seeing their plaster cast. “I had always thought it looked like a parrot’s beak,” exclaimed one, apparently astonished to find that she looked ‘normal’. Or, more to the point, when she realised that normal is actually that everyone is different.
And the one who did come back to be recast post-op? Well she bought her friend to do the cast because she was so unhappy with the results of her operation she didn’t want Jamie to see her again. How overwhelmingly sad that a woman should feel so ashamed of how she looks she puts herself under the knife, then feels more shame as a result.
The strapline of the Great Wall of Vagina is ‘Changing Female Body Image through Art’ and it is clear how committed McCartney is to using his work to help women think differently about themselves. He believes the power of plaster casting as a tool for reflecting on self-image lies in the fact it’s three dimensional, tactile and offers a scale that doesn’t always exist in the flatness of a photograph or a reflection in the mirror. He revealed how plaster casting his own body helped him deal with his own eating disorder and told of mothers bringing their anorexic daughters to be cast by him so they can truly see how they look.
McCartney had been dabbling in genital plaster casting with partners for some time but decided to develop the project after being shocked to learn that that labiaplasty was one of the fastest growing cosmetic surgery procedures in the UK. He wanted to use his art to educate, inform and change attitudes. He probably didn’t imagine that a decade on his art would be featured in educational text books and that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the body that sets clinical standards and provides doctors with training and lifelong learning, would exhibit his work. Amazing!
One of the most poignant stories he told was not of a woman who used the opportunity to be cast to reflect on how she looks but instead used it to take ownership of her own body. In the book of the project she writes about the experiences rape and abortion and feeling that “my cunt has always been violated.” Through being cast she felt she had changed the narrative of her body.
It really is the most brilliant life-changing piece of sculpture!
A section of the Great Wall of Vagina is currently on show at Sh! and I would definitely recommend you have a wander round the website too. And did you know that almost five years ago it was this sculpture also inspired Molly’s amazing Pussy Pride project? Check that out too!
Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Who Are You Calling Crazy Cat Lady?

‘Who here has children?’ No hands raised.

‘Who here has a cat?’ A smattering of hands…

This was Jody Day’s opening gambit at the Who’s Afraid of the Crazy Cat Lady? session at the WOW Festival a couple of weeks back. I had baulked slightly at the title. I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but really? Are we not done with that stereotype yet? It seems not. Last week, while I was still writing this post, The Telegraph used a photo of Holly Brockwell cradling a cat as the main image in its story about her sterilisation at the age of 29. Lazy, predictable, patronising photography.
Day went on to say that: “the most shamed stereotype is a single unmarried woman over 40 without children”. As someone who ticks all four of those descriptors I don’t like this statement and I’m not sure I really agree with it either. For sure, in certain sections of the media, independent women seem to be feared and are therefore pilloried, but to be dubbed the most shamed feels a little strong. While I wouldn’t say I have ever felt shamed, people certainly make huge assumptions.

The predominant assumption is that women who don’t have children must have wanted them. A few years back at a previous WOW Festival, Day, who runs a network for childless women called Gateway Women, introduced me to the terms childless and childfree; childless refers to women who wanted children but either through medical reasons or circumstance did not have them, while childfree is the term for women who made a distinct choice that children were not for them. But whether a woman is childless or childfree, it really isn’t anyone’s right to question or provide opinion unless the discussion has been invited. Nobody can know what emotional or physical struggles may exist behind a single or partnered woman not having children.
A frequent slight levelled at the childfree is that we are selfish. If recognising that the change to my life as I know and love it would be seismic and unbearable, and I would likely resent a child, makes me selfish, then I will live with that label. And if my decision means our overcrowded world and stretched public services feel the ripple effect of my selfishness, then I will suck that up too.

The suggestion that does sting is that a life without children is somehow unfulfilling or incomplete. A complete and fulfilling life is the one that is best for the person living it, not the one that’s best for the person sitting in judgement. There are many things in my life that make me deeply happy and personally fulfilled (including this blog) and I am involved in things that I think make me good for my community and the wider world. I am unspeakably proud of the business I run and the difference it makes to disadvantaged people and communities in the UK and around the world.

One of the most fulfilling things in my life is the role I am able to play in the lives of other people’s children. You see, not wanting your own children doesn’t mean you don’t want children in your life. There is an African proverb that I love and subscribe to – ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ – and I take my role in that village very seriously. Children need role models living different lives and adults they can trust outside of the immediate family. I have said to my friends that I want my home to be the safe place that when the inevitable teenage tension kicks in the kids can ‘escape’ to, while the parents can (hopefully!) be reassured that the kids will be OK. And when they’re are ready to have their first solo adventures in London then I hope it will be my spare room they crash in. I have an Auntie like that and her role in my life has been transformative.

It’s the politics of the issue I am most interested in. Today, 20% of women aged 45 are childless or childfree and there are 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s who do not have children. It is likely that this percentage will continue to grow. Yet political rhetoric and policy generally speaks to ‘hardworking families’. Who is speaking to or thinking about us? And it’s not just about children, it’s about being single too. Ten percent of adults aged 25 – 44 now live alone. That is a huge section of the voting population whose votes are pretty bloody important.

The last time there was such a large population of women in the UK who were single and without children was after WW1 when the number of casualties meant there were two million more young women (known as The Surplus Women) than young men. The war ended in 1919. It had only been in 1918 that women over 30 had won the right to vote and it would be another decade before there was parity in voting age for men and women. The Surplus Women had limited political power. We have greater potential to be a force for change.

This month saw the release of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. It charts social progress in America and looks at how it has been influenced by changing marriage patterns. Day quoted a segment from the book that evidences the impact the single woman vote had on Obama’s victory. The book concludes that through the decades single women in America have been the primary drivers of social change.

Of course, one of the biggest game changers for women and their decision around marriage is shifting attitudes towards sex. In an interview about her book Traister spoke of how previous generations of American women “were reliant on marriage as a way to have a sex life that was socially sanctioned”. Singled Out by Virginia Nicolson documents the lives of The Surplus Women and quotes a ‘sex philosopher’ as recommending the single girl “keep sex in a strong-box, with other interests sitting on the lid to hold it tight”.

Happily, I don’t have to put sex in a box or get married to enjoy it! Of course, sex and living independently is not always an easily navigable thing. You’re horny on a Sunday afternoon but by Tuesday when you have a plan you’re more interested in eating pasta and pesto and watching The Night Manager on iPlayer. You arrive back in the UK from a work trip the day after a lover leaves for a month in America. You’re excited to see one of your favourite people to be naked with but then hormones get the better of you and you cry-talk for three hours and then realise it’ll probably be another fortnight till your diaries match and you can suck his cock. A partner becomes uncomfortable that his wife’s secondary partnership has ended and even though she tries to allay his concerns he still ends your fledgling relationship.

But aren’t there hiccups, hormones and hurdles to get over however you carve out your relationships? I am much more comfortable having my own space than sharing it and I don’t want to be anyone’s priority or to have to consider anyone else in the decisions I make about my own life, so these arrangements work for me. And I am happy. Day closed her talk by making the point that despite all the progress we have made, a woman in her 40s or 50s who is happy being single is still seen as countercultural but, she said, “you cannot shame me with my singleness or my childlessness.”

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

The Legacy of School

I’ve had ‘school’ on my ideas list since not long after I started this blog back in February. I knew which of my own experiences I wanted to build the post around, but never got round to thinking how to articulate it.
Then in June @chintzcurtain tweeted this from a parents’ evening:

Yes. That!
Year 11 is far too late to be talking to young people about their attitudes to their bodies. The Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital published the results of a 6000-strong study in the British Journal of Psychiatry last month which showed children as young as eight are showing signs of body dissatisfaction that can trigger eating disorder behaviours in adolescence. Researchers are recommending public health initiatives that focus on body image. If this is going to reach children of primary school age then schools have a huge role to play in that.
When I was nine my primary school teacher decided I needed to lose weight. She suggested to my Dad I go on a diet and regularly announced my ‘achievements’ to the whole school as a cause for celebration. I went to a tiny village school with only 30 pupils, my Mum had left home and the teacher was trying to be a female role model in my life. I’m sure she thought she was doing right by me, but before I hit double figures age-wise I’d already started to be defined by the figures on the scales.
What is odd is there was no real consideration from my teacher about my family’s lifestyle or my natural shape. We walked a lot as kids. From the moment we could toddle we were off walking the dog across the fields. My brother was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at five-years-old so we had a ludicrously healthy diet. Yes I was a portly little girl (and I am a portly woman!) but a lot of that was body shape and puppy fat, not a need to be put on a diet.
Happily I didn’t develop an eating disorder, but that early experience did set the tone for three decades of on and off dieting where I always felt that rush of pleasure when friends and I went to Boots to weigh ourselves during a lunch break, or when my loss was announced at ‘fat club’.
I put on weight again last year after running the London Marathon. More than one person warned me about the ‘marathon stone’ and I laughed at them. They were right. It is predictable I guess – however much you promise yourself you’ll stick to the running few people have the motivation keep up the weekly mileage that training for a marathon requires after the race has passed. But of course you’ve got used to the carb loading and the alcohol consumption creeps back up and your body makes your gluttony known in the pinch of a waistband. A couple of months back I decided the time was right to start shifting it again, but for the first time ever I am not weighing myself. I am exercising more and drinking less but I made a conscious decision that I was not going to be beholden to numbers, but that I was only going to judge myself on the fit of my favourite frock and how I felt when I pulled myself out of the pool.
And with that I’m going to (not very) neatly segue into my other point about school. Sport. Bloody sport. School does not always build a healthy love of exercise. Oh how I hated P.E. At 5’10” I should have been the best goal defender in netball; with my legs I should have nipped across the hockey pitch. But I have zero coordination, am clumsy, the speed of the balls always terrified me and I panic in team activities because I think I am going to let people down. I lived for summer term when swimming was on the timetable. With swimming it was all about the lengths, I was only competing against myself. I think this is why later in life I have come to love running so much; I happily plod away, writing stories in my head or working through problems, sometimes I am slow, sometimes I am really bloody slow, but that’s ok because nobody is waiting for me to pass or catch a ball.
If my P.E. teacher who yelled at me for not being able to cartwheel and made me stand in the playground in my leotard in January to “take six deep breaths and don’t yawn in my class again” had told me that 30 years on this would me I’d have rolled my teary eyes at her. I don’t know what school sport is like in 2015 but I hope someone tells young girls and boys that even if they don’t take naturally to school sport, they shouldn’t give up on finding what physical activities are right for them. The saddest legacy of school sport for me was that for years I was one of those people who carried the notion that exercise was something I should do rather than wanted to do. It took me years to see the fun in it.
So what made me finally ‘put pen to paper’ on all this? I read this in the Guardian this weekend.
I am about to go to university and really want to have a proper relationship with someone, but I’m too embarrassed to have sex because of my droopy, ugly breasts. I can’t imagine ever taking my clothes off for anyone.”
I’m assuming this young woman is going to university at 18, but whether that’s out by a year or so because of gap years, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is incredibly incredibly sad. She should be excited about independence, freedom and the possibility of not-needing-to-worry-about-waking-up-the-parents-sex, not fretting about the shape of her breasts.
There is growing debate about the importance of SRE in schools and programmes like Sex in Class are taking it out of the broadsheet comment pages and onto the sofas of the great viewing public. This is good. But I hope that as well as developing appropriate sex education schools also start to consistently and responsibly help young people to deal with their body image issues so they learn to judge themselves not on what their body looks like or how much it weighs, but on what it can achieve, the wonder of how it works and the fun it’s helping them have – inside or outside of the bedroom.
 

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