Exposing40

Friends. Photography. Adventure.

Category: Reflections (page 1 of 5)

Observations

“Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliot Erwitt

Usually when I pop up on Wicked Wednesday it’s to respond to the prompt with some big thinky piece about relationships or bodies or something I need to get off my chest. Not so this week! But the prompt is ‘observe’ and as I’m halfway through a six week course at the Photographer’s Gallery that a few of you have I asked about I thought I would do a bit of a diary entry…

The Possibilities of the Photographic Body is a six week course led by Tom Lovelace. In case that link gets killed at some point in the future the blurb reads: “This workshop series examines contemporary approaches to the compelling and ever-present subject of the human body and how it is represented in photography. Using the body as a starting point, participants will explore contemporary photographic practice through a range of themed sessions including the digital body, performance, architecture and gendered forms.” Reading the programme there wasn’t a single week of the schedule that left me feeling ‘meh’ so without much more than a minute’s thought I’d signed up.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that the cycle of my professional life is working like a dog for nine months of the year and flitting around during the summer enjoying photo adventures, gallery outings and lazy lunches. The summer months offer a welcome opportunity to recharge and I could never go back to 9-5 life but that doesn’t make the winter months, and in particular the slog up to Christmas when we’re churning out fundraising appeal films at a ludicrous rate, easy to cope with. As much as I hate to admit that age becomes a factor in our physical and mental resilience, I have noticed over the last couple of winters that 12 or even 15 hour days are not quite as easy to tolerate or bounce back from as they were even five years ago. Last winter I got sick and the viruses I picked up had me rundown until well into July.

This winter I resolved to take more care of myself. And taking care of myself means carving out time where I am not working. Working at home is great in numerous ways, but when you register no more than 100 or so steps in a day going bed to desk to sofa for a late night bowl of pasta and back to bed, via the kettle and bathroom a few times, it’s not so healthy. Fern’s fitness challenge where I’ve pledged to five bouts of exercise a week is one thing that’s making me break from work. This course is another. The very simple act of turning off my computer bang on 17.00 so I can be out of the house and in town by 18.30 makes me feel more in control of my ‘downing tools’ time than I have in years; it’s amazing how not needing to catch a train can make the end of the work day slide.

What a joy it is to sit and listen to an engaging and down to earth (no old school or patronising arty snootiness here!) course leader who really knows his shit talking enthusiastically about fascinating photographers. I have so many new names scribbled in my notebook that I just know that I am going to go down a rabbit hole of research during that twilight period between Christmas and New Year. In week one we visited and discussed Shot in Soho, in week two we took our own shots in the streets of Soho and this week we used the gallery as our playground.

Our group is made up of professional photographers, Masters students, a curator, a gallery agent, an academic and a drag queen from Brazil. We have an opportunity to share our work with the group and this week we saw a work in progress that is about the expression of chronic pain, a stunning series that explores a genetic flaw and political commentary through cabaret. It’s so fascinating! I can’t wait to see more of the work next week. I also talked about Exposing40 and shared some of my favourite photos from the last five years. It was particularly fun sharing this image; this friend and I have visited the Photographer’s Gallery more times than I can remember over the quarter of a century since we met at Uni and I honestly never thought I would be stood up there talking about a photo I had taken of her.

What I am loving most about this mini adventure is that it is completely without agenda or expectation. There is no set homework, there’s no exam at the end, no investment beyond the time and initial fee. I am not planning a career change. I have no intention of making Exposing40 anything more than the fun hobby project it currently is. I don’t want do anything more technical than use my iPhone or my small camera on auto setting. I am not doing it for any reason other than it’s interesting. It is just time spent with talented people and learning for the pure pleasure of it and that feels like a real luxury at this time of year.

Me in front of Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s How Do You See Me? a digital installation showing on the media wall at The Photographer’s Gallery until 30/11/19

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Always in Character

“I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.” Jane Eyre

I am many good things: I am fun and funny, I am generous and kind, I am thoughtful and loyal. I can also be mean and spiteful, needy and angry, I lash out at myself and others. All of these things are entirely in character.

When someone is described as behaving ‘out of character’, unless it’s a portent to a medical calamity it is usually used to describe the less pleasant aspects of their personality. I wrote at length earlier this year about a period of my own poor behaviour. Until this morning I hadn’t revisited it since writing it. It was hard to write, hard to post and while still experiencing the aftershocks of that chapter I had no desire to reread my analysis of it. I only read it again just now because I thought to myself “I wonder if I used the words out of character in that post?”

The result of that ‘get it off your chest then put it on a high shelf’ purge means I had blanked out much of what I written. Until now I hadn’t appreciated how tangibly I’d described my behaviour, the examples I had given or how much thought I had put into articulating why it happened and how we can stop it happening again. I am belatedly very proud of how well I wrote in the face of adversity!

And I was pleased to see that I hadn’t used the words ‘out of character’. Because I don’t think we behave out of character. We can’t behave out of character because our character is hardwired into us. I learnt this week that the word comes from the Greek work kharakter, an engraved mark, symbol or imprint indelibly stamped on coins. Our character is indelible.

The sides of our character we typically celebrate are the attractive aspects that make our loved ones relish our company. But the other bits are equally valid and rather than brush them off as ‘out of character’ I think our job is to understand what triggers them. In the same way we understand what brings out the best in us we must understand what brings out the worst.

I watched a talk the other evening where the speaker said: “We assume that if we have characterised someone as good they can’t be bad and vice versa but if we see character as behaviour on a continuum then when people act in ways that surprise us maybe it is not that surprising.”

For the sake of our own mental health and the health of all our relationships – familial, professional and personal – we need to understand our own continuum and take responsibility for it. That responsibility is to help others to understand how their behaviours create an emotional response and activates the different facets of our personality.

In affairs of the heart, if I feel threatened or usurped I will lash out and speak cruelly about the person who I believe to be a threat. But I shouldn’t just lash out, I should explain why I am feeling vulnerable and help my partners to understand that I need complete honesty and I need reassurance. They may not like that part of me as much as the part that’s independent and ballsy and generous, but there you go!

If a member of my family shares different political beliefs then I need to be explicit that teasing me needlessly and endlessly about Brexit is deeply upsetting. I didn’t help my Dad understand that and the pressure built and built until the valve exploded. I was angry and I said terrible things that hurt him. He called my response immature. He was right. The damage has been fixed now (although I need to work on his declaration last summer that “if this is what politics does I am never voting again”) but had I just had the difficult conversation to start with, months of family distress could have been averted.

Like everyone, I evolve with every experience and I am a work in progress but I like learning about myself and I like to understand my emotional responses and what triggers them. I like learning how to manage myself so I am as best as I can be. I enjoy enhancing the bits of me that make me fun to be around and quelling as best I can the parts of myself that can make me difficult.

IMG_0355 (2)

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Hundreds and Thousands

“The green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus singing
All these poses oh how can you blame me
Life is a game and true love is a trophy.”

Poses, Rufus Wainwright

I’ve had the above lyrics on my ‘to write’ list for getting on for a year now. Last December there was a lyrics prompt on Wicked Wednesday and not knowing what to choose (I love too many songs for that to be an easy choice!) I asked Exhibit A to suggest some. He offered three and these were the lines that spoke to me. I didn’t make that prompt deadline and at points over the year I’ve returned to the lyrics but never found a good enough reason to get my words down. But this week’s relationship prompt ties in so closely to what I wanted to say that I find myself making time – after midnight and with a (disgusting marmalade flavoured) gin and tonic by my side.

The point I had wanted to make about the words above is that for me true love is not a trophy. At least not in the way that ‘true love’ is sold to us as the ultimate goal. I don’t want a big love, a trophy love (in the most positive meaning of the word trophy!) and I don’t feel like my life is less for not having it or wanting it. Yet, also, love is a trophy and it’s one I hold up and am very proud of. Love is so very important to me and my life is full of it. I give it freely and I take it with delight. I love my family (most of the time!), I love my friends and I love (some of) my partners. Some of them I just like but that’s ok too. For me, love is not the cherry on the cake, love is hundreds and thousands; smaller and singularly less spectacular than a big glossy fruit, but collectively so much prettier. To me.

And this is where my thoughts on love dovetail with my thoughts on relationships. The word relationship is often default taken as being a reference to the ‘one you love’, your intimate and sexual partner. But to me all my significant relationships make me who I am and I invest in them equally. If my oldest friends and I didn’t all show up for our annual gathering I’d be concerned that our cadence was out of step. If any one of Jedi Hamster, Charlotte Brown or me ceased to appear regularly in our WhatsApp chat or were unenthusiastic about our quarterly cards and Camembert meet-ups I’d worry about what was awry. If somehow mine and my business partner’s shared view that the business is both the most important thing (it funds life!) and the least important thing (it’s only work!) became unbalanced then that would be a problem. If my most important partner and I fell out of our monthly routine of good food, wine, sex, chat and music then we’d be cutting our red thread. If @19syllables and I didn’t seamlessly segue between winter coffee and summer naked adventures and back then that would be perturbing…

I could go on – there are many more to mention but I need my sleep and I’ve made the point. In short, I don’t need a big love because all my little loves colour in the lines of my life. And all the different relationships fit together like a jigsaw puzzle that has all of its pieces.

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Friendly Concern

Last week I was having dinner with three other women. Not close friends but a group of ex colleagues who I meet up with once every 12 – 18 months. The conversation takes the usual twists and turns of people who’ve known each other for years but see each other rarely. The dynamic of colleague friendships fascinates me; for the period you work together you spend more waking hours with each other than you do your family, friends and partners, you see each other at your best and worst, you spend long evenings in the pub analysing crises and internal politics and then poof! – just like that jobs change and you’re down to a couple of hours every year or so.  Anyway, the conversation went the usual way – asking each other about work, holidays, children, nieces and nephews, common acquaintances.

Then the searching “Sooo, how are the love lives then?” directed at me and one other single woman with the hungry gazes of two women who have been married for years and want you to give them something new and exciting to pore over. As I have written previously, I am increasingly open about my relationships with those closest to me and who I see regularly. Not so much with ex colleagues who I see rarely and whose response I couldn’t necessarily predict. But last week I had one of my ‘fuck it’ moments and I found myself talking more freely and honestly than usual.

The response? Well, one woman exclaimed: “Oh my God, I need another drink!” and promptly ordered a large glass of Rioja. There was surprise, there was fascination, there were some sensible and some annoying questions and there was (happily) very little judgement. But there was also concern. Was I definitely OK with this? Am I being treated OK? Is it what I actually want? Does my partner’s wife know? Is she OK with this? Have I ever met her? Do I like her? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes! What I realised was that while there was little judgement of me the tone of the concerned questioning was loaded with judgement about my partner.

At the time I calmly answered all their questions, reveling slightly in the fact that I’d sent a little shock wave through our pleasant but pedestrian evening. Yes, it suits me really well. Yes, I get many of the nice bits of a long term relationship but with none of the compromise of family Christmases and blended lives. No, I definitely don’t want to ever live with anyone again. Yes, I know her and I was at their wedding (that tit bit always shocks the listener and delights me). I’m off on a gallery day with her and another friend next week actually. Without the bloke? Yes, he doesn’t need to chaperone us.

But on the way home I started thinking about their line of questioning and how frequently people default assume that non-monogamy is something that is done to women by men and that it is something that women put up with because they have to. I started reflecting on other occasions where I have had this assumption projected on me. My best friend: “But you are so sensitive I just worry that you are going to get hurt.” Me: “But the things that hurt me are things that could happen regardless of whether a relationship is non-monogamous or not.” Exhibit A, The Other Livvy and me at an event in my local bookshop discussing a book called Is Monogamy Dead? and a woman asking EA rather aggressively “But what would you think if they had other partners?” and the surprise in the room when I piped up “I do have another partner.”

That last one always causes surprise. People outside of this community never expect me to have other partners. Even if they can just about get their head round the fact that I have an established and happy relationship that will never be more than it is, with a man who is married to someone else, and that is enough for me and fine with everyone involved, then introducing the notion that I have other people in my life just about makes them fall off their perch. My Mum, who now always asks about Baby M, never asks me if I’ve been on any other dates or after other partners who I may have mentioned. It’s like that is a bridge too far.

The more I thought about it the more I found myself getting annoyed by the narrative that non-monogamy and polyamory are things owned by men and accepted by women and that men will be the ones with multiple partners while the woman stays happy with just the one. Even if my friends or a stranger in a bookshop weren’t explicitly acknowledging that assumption it was there in the way they asked their questions. When I mused this point on Twitter last week @kinkynerdy rightly pointed out that the assumed status quo makes no allowance for poly lesbians, for example.

Interestingly, much of my experience with non-monogamous men suggests something contrary to the assumed norm. When I think about the significant men I have met since I joined OKC in 2013 – not the brief flings or one off sex dates, but the ones that turned into something more – I note that four of them opened up their relationships as a result of their wife or primary partner having an affair. Now, I am not advocating this approach to opening up a relationship – all of them came with a fuckton of baggage – but unless I exist in some microclimate or have unique appeal to men who have been cheated on then this wafer thin data suggests that there are many women open to shirking a one penis policy!

The thing that bothers me most about the common narrative is that it is taking away women’s agency in non-monogamy. It is suggesting that women may be passively accepting something that is somehow second best. Do people really look at me and my life and my business and my travel habits and see a woman who is ‘settling’ for a life because that’s all she can get? Do they think I am lying when I say that I don’t want more than I have? I also hate the way it pitches women against each other. The subtext of people’s questions can be that women who are in a relationship with the same man see each other as enemies or a threat when in reality we are connected through a shared affection. There is deep joy and camaraderie in sharing a small joke or knowing smile about a mutual partner’s habit. I have written a letter to a woman I have never met who lives 4000 miles away, expressing sympathy for a terrible event, not because I had to but because it seemed inconceivable not to extend a kind word to the wife of someone who meant something to me. For me, one of the greatest joys of non-monogamy has been discovering a completely new kind of friendship and respect that can exist between women.

That non-monogamous relationships are becoming more accessible through dating apps and normalised through mainstream media delights me. Six years ago I didn’t even really know what non-monogamy meant; now my mother asks after my partner’s five-month-old. I once worried there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to settle down, now I have meaningful relationships that nourish me without stifling me. Sex is back in my life. That people might look at everything I have and somehow think I am being short changed distresses me. Did I spend my thirties explaining that ‘no, I don’t want children and I am happy to not be married’ only to have to spend my forties explaining that “yes, non-monogamy really works for me, I am very happy’. Must women always have to justify their choices?

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Sometimes coming joint second

The last few months haven’t been easy. I have spent it getting over an ex. And it’s not even my own ex, it’s a partner’s ex. In fact, getting over this has proved more problematic than getting over some of my own exes – I have an enviable degree of ease in moving on from my own dead affairs of the heart; I tend to shrug them off with an ‘Ah, that was fun’ and no backwards glance.

To be honest, it wasn’t the break-up that upset me, it was the entire existence of this person in my partner’s life, albeit only for a few months, and so I am not really getting over the break-up, I am getting over the relationship. And with that it has thrown up a whole lot of questions for me about how good a partner I have been. Spoiler: I have been a bit of a shit. Why I am writing this now? As part of my own healing process, really, and to draw a hard red line under a difficult period. And because this week’s WW prompt is tantrums and I have had too many tantrums for any self-respecting 44-year-old in the last six months!

But really, it was this tweet from Nooky Semper, asking about the difference between jealousy and insecurity that really got me processing my thoughts and crafting sentences in the shower. Was it jealousy that made me so unhappy? No I don’t think so. I don’t ever really experience the debilitating grip of the ‘green-eyed monster’ and I never wonder or worry about what partners are doing when they are not with me. The voyeur in me delights in hearing about their sex adventures and I will happily host posts written by partners and by hot-damn-why-don’t-you-live-closer men about their wives.

What I do have is a sometimes debilitating degree of insecurity that can leave me ludicrously anxious. Without information and reassurance I display many of the erratic (and distasteful!) behaviours associated with jealousy. So maybe Nooky is right – maybe it is a fine line between insecurity and jealousy. On reflection, I think what shook me so much last summer was the surprise of it all. I chatter away to my partner about who I am swiping on and who is sliding into my DMs but he’s not quite so loose-lipped as me so when I realised there was someone more significant in his circle it gave me a profound wobble. He didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t lie. I just didn’t have the information and reassurance I needed to feel secure and when I worked things out for myself the insecurity was already doing its worst. Last summer was a bit of perfect storm for me anyway – I had a huge ‘don’t come home again’ row with my Dad about Brexit, my business was not in a good place and I was already working through in my head the other changes that would occur in our relationship in a few months’ time. I was low on bandwidth to cope with curveballs.

I am also ‘blessed’ with off the scale status anxiety and while I still have no desire to have a primary partner I have realised that the possibility that I might be joint second does not fit at all well with my vision of myself in a hierarchy. My partner has pointed out that while I relish hierarchy it doesn’t mean he does and of course that is fair but I found myself thinking all the not-good-poly thoughts that I might not be good enough, that he’s gone off me. He reasonably and rightly pointed out that I manage to accommodate two or three ‘partner light’ arrangements without it affecting my feelings for him and of course he is right.

For me the hardest part was that I didn’t like her. I am used to thinking the other women in his life are magnificent, talented, hilarious, sensational women but I didn’t feel that about her. I found her opinions challenging and her comments about weight hugely upsetting and some of her attitudes to relationships jarred with my outlook. And I did not cope or behave well in the face of this adversity! In fact, I became a bit of a monster. In public I wrote thoughtful comment pieces but in private I had spiteful WhatsApp tantrums. I am lucky probably that I have a partner who has both patience and a remarkable ability to just ignore you rather than judge you when you’re being a harridan!

It’s at this point I feel the need to give @19syllables a cameo; last week when I was pondering what you call a partner’s partner if metamour seems highly inappropriate to the situation. “Step Fuck” she quipped. Now, being in possession of a lovely stepmum I don’t go in for the ‘evil step…’ trope but we guffawed so loudly at her joke I think we disturbed the sewer rats under the pavement where we were drinking coffee! I think Step Fuck is a perfectly glorious flipside to metamour!

So, here we are months later. I can’t deny that when it ended I was relieved. I am not a total cow – I was also a little sad for him when that happened because I could see he was sad – but my instinctive response was ‘Oh, thank God, we can get back to normal now’. Although of course, that was easier said than done because his new normal meant there was no time for us to re-establish our balance and contentment levels before an entirely welcome and glorious hiatus was upon us.

But now spring has sprung and we are slipping back into routines of writing geeky lists, long evenings at my dining table and cheeky photo adventures. I can feel my shoulders relaxing and my sense of calm returning. And the best thing to come out of it has been acknowledging my desire to dig in and survive the trouble. My default is usually to up sticks at the first sign of properly hard work but I found that I didn’t want to. There is too much wine to be drunk, recipes to road test, long lunches with mutual friends to enjoy and adventures to have. It’s nice to feel that way. Winter has gone!

And I think we have a new found appreciation of expectations and boundaries. I am certain he is much more aware of what I need to know to stay secure and I most definitely learned how not to react. I trust him to be more open with me next time and I hope he trusts me to be less wedded to a meaningless hierarchy. Because there will be new partners in the future, for both of us, and I must remember what he said: “It was something and now it’s not. It didn’t affect how I felt about you when it was something and it doesn’t now it’s not.”

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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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The Long Shadow

Me: I still have ‘big scary post’ on my list.

EA: You really need to just write that

Me: I’m basically never going to write that post, am I? Not unless there’s some celibacy prompt on Wicked Wednesday or something that I won’t be able to ignore.

EA: Smirks.

I periodically like to brainstorm blog ideas with Exhibit A and it’s often successful, but this time it came back to bite me on the bum. By the time we’d finished dinner Marie had emailed him to confirm that celibacy was now on the list of future prompts. Stitch up. Possibly. But the fact is this blog is four years old next month and I’ve had ‘big scary post’ on my list of things to write for almost as long. So why have I taken nearly four years to write this and why, when I sat down on Monday evening to write it, did I almost sabotage it by purposely letting myself get upset by something entirely unrelated? How exactly did it come to be called ‘big scary post’ anyway?

If I’m honest I think it’s because I was (am?) ashamed. Ashamed and embarrassed to write about a period of my life where I didn’t have sex for five years. Then, after that drought was broken, went on to only have a handful of flings over the following few years. Nine years where I could, if I thought about it for not too long, probably remember every occasion that I had sex. There is no reason to feel ashamed about this, I had done nothing wrong. Thankfully, there was no distressing reason for it either – no abusive relationship in my past and I wasn’t harbouring an unrequited love or nursing heartbreak. I wasn’t being unnecessarily unkind so that karma got me (sorry, but I totally believe in karma!) and I didn’t have sex on a pedestal. I was just a normal late twenties woman who’d had a couple of infatuations, a small love, a big love and a good amount of fun casual sex during the ‘Camden party days’. That my sex life dried up was entirely circumstantial.

First off, marriage and babies happened. Not for but me but for all the people I used to party with. There is a period during your late twenties and early thirties where you are on a merry-go-round of hen dos, weddings and new baby celebrations. The life that you knew momentarily becomes hijacked by celebrations of other people’s milestones. Of course, this is wonderful, but if you’re not on that path you emerge slightly bewildered that your own life has ‘settled down’ against your will and with you as a solo player. For a while, if you want to stay close to your oldest friends you swap stumbling home at 3am with tales to tell for a bottle of wine on their sofa and interrupted conversation. (Spoiler: the storm passes and before you know it they’ll be up for stumbling home at 3am again and if you’re really lucky you’ll have some new friends in the shape of their children.)

I also chose that time to start working in a sector with a higher than average proportion of women and gay men. My now business partner (who I met at work) was the only man in a department of 30 women. My (gay male) desk mate once looked up at the huge open plan office and said “do you know, we can only see seven men from our desk and they’re all gay.” I wasn’t likely to meet a string of suitors for casual affairs at work!

“What about online dating?” I hear you cry. Mmm. I refer you to the age rings in my trunk and ask you to count the years backwards! Online dating was fledgling back then. I joined Dating Direct and Guardian Soulmates and every so often I half-heartedly went on a dates but those sites largely filled me with doom. The fundamental flaw with them was they assumed that everyone was looking for ‘the one’ and people behaved accordingly. Namely, in a tedious this-is-how-a-first-date-should-be-done way. If that wasn’t your bag there weren’t really any options 15 years ago. I still remember the straw that broke the camel’s back. I spotted a hot bloke on Soulmates and clicked on his profile. “I wake up to Radio 4 and go to sleep to Radio 6”. Really? REALLY? Your opener is going to be that self-conscious? I didn’t hang around to read the rest but I am sure if I had got to sentence three I would have discovered that on a Saturday evening he liked to curl up with a bottle of red wine and a DVD.
Apps for hooking up and sites where you could be more nuanced in your preferences were way in the future. In hindsight, I am sure there were numerous like-minded men who would have been more than happy with the kind of relationship that I now know suits me but those conversations were not happening in the early noughties. At 30 the idea that I would one day use apps to seek out men who were specifically looking for a secondary partner rather than ‘the one’, or couples looking for a regular play partner would have been inconceivable. That tech did not yet exist and my social life had shrunk to nights in with mates and nights out after work with colleagues and I just slipped into a place of acceptance that sex wasn’t part of my life.

So, if I can objectively look at the personal, professional and tech environment that I was operating in and recognise the circumstantial nature of my celibacy, why do I still feel shame about it? And why was it a ‘big scary post’ for so long? I think it was scary because however much I can rationalise why it happened there is still a part of me that sees it as a reflection on me. I am embarrassed that I accepted without much of a fight the loss of something so important and fun. And I worry that all the rational reasons I use to explain why it happened are just hot air. That actually it might be that I just wasn’t hot and that people didn’t fancy me. That thought casts the longest shadow.

There is much about my physical self that I love. I love my height, my legs, my arse, my hair and my face does a very good job of reflecting who I am on the inside. I don’t like my belly or my tits but generally as a whole package I can live with what I’ve got. But I don’t really believe I am hot. And that lack of confidence in my physical appeal bleeds into sexual confidence. I equate being good at sex with being physically appealing and as long as I don’t really believe I am physically appealing I don’t really believe I am good at sex. I should say at this point that I think I suck cock like a boss and I have awesome partners who work hard to reassure me that I am hot and good and that I should just shut the fuck up about all of this, but the voices in our head linger.

So what changed? How did I emerge from a sex-free decade to the life I have now? At 36 I became self-employed. I joined a host of freelance networking groups and bobbed about all over London meeting new people. Overnight I had new circles of friends, all in the mid-thirties to late forties ball park and virtually all of them committed to nurturing just one baby – their business. I had a found a new tribe and they shared my priorities. Within months I was having a fling with a fellow freelancer. Then in early 2012 I was on a contract where idle lunchtime chat with a fellow consultant led to her saying, “You haven’t heard of OKC? Oh my God – it’s amazing! I am having so much sex!” And the rest as they say is history. There I have met many more like-minded people, one of whom led me to this tribe.
The app can get a bad rap and people can be inappropriate but I don’t really see a whole lot of difference between a drunk bloke in the pub pinching my arse and saying my dress would look better on his bedroom floor (hello North Wales circa 1995!) and someone being suggestive in an app. They’re certainly easier to mute in an app than the pub! I think of OKC as being like the flirty parties and pubs of my twenties. I don’t give a fuck what radio station you listen to and I like watching movies on my own. Some flirting and some suggestive chat as a gateway to some drinking and fucking suits me fine. Would I have had the wilderness years that I did had something like OKC existed in 2003? Probably not. Am I bitter that it didn’t exist 15 years ago? Hell yes!

So now I am in the happy place that I am – with one regular partner who I value deeply and other more casual affairs that come in and out of my life according to how my diary is dictated by my business (roll on April when work quietens down for six months and I’ll be looking for this year’s spring/summer flings!) – I have finally written this post. How do I feel? Relieved to be honest. That period of my life sometimes makes me feel a bit of fraud in this community and, like I said, the long shadow affects my self-confidence at times when I feel more vulnerable. But something I have learnt here over the last four years is that almost every time I have worn my heart on my sleeve someone has popped up to echo my sentiments or to express relief that they are not alone. Part of what makes this community strong is how honest people are and how giving they are of their own experiences in supporting others. It’s kind of a relief to look at this secret, take a deep breath and chuck it in the fuck it bucket.

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

A Love of Photography

“The show’s aim ultimately is to look at the couple as a catalyst for creative dialogue. What Modern Couples seems to suggest is that if love was the catalyst, it was often the photographer’s darkroom – that liminal, womb-like space – that incubated and protected creative fulfilment in its early form.” British Photography Journal

Some of you may have seen on Twitter or Exhibit A’s Sinful Sunday post last weekend that he and I went to see the Modern Couples exhibition at Barbican last weekend. Those of you who know either or both of us will undoubtedly know that photography is in the DNA of our dynamic. In fact I would say it’s the red thread. Before we’d even met he’d send me his photos for feedback or occasional editing before posting; his early Sinful Sundays are woven in my mind with memories of our earliest interactions. The first time I photographed him was only the second time we’d met.

Looking at that quote above, I would invert it for a more accurate commentary on us. Love was not a catalyst for creativity, but photography incubated and probably, at times, kept alive a friendship that over time has given way to a deep and nourishing affection. There were times in the early days of knowing each other that we didn’t always behave that well towards to each other but somehow we always stayed connected through the photography. We could sit and argue at his kitchen table in North London and 10 minutes later he’d be naked on his balcony and I’d be talking through an idea.

That I am more often than not the one behind the camera mirrors one of the objectives of the Barbican show, which is to subvert the notion that it is always the woman who is the muse. It would never have occurred to me to call Exhibit A a muse, but maybe he is. I certainly rarely think of anyone else first if I have an idea of how I would like to photograph a man, despite me shooting other partners since I started this blog. He’s a willing model if an idea seizes me and is up for many things that others wouldn’t be. A busy lido on a hot sunny day in July? Sure! I’ve messaged him on a weekday morning in February and 45 minutes later he’s been naked in his garden balancing on one leg. And when I’ve wanted him to be the one behind the camera he’s never really batted an eyelid at my rather random requests, whether that’s ‘make my belly look as fat as possible‘can you make a 50 in stars on my back’ or‘I want to balance this mirror on my throat.’

Of course, he means much more to me now than just being a willing photography partner in crime. We’ve got a mutual love of the Manics and a strong Spotify and ‘one for the road’ game too! Seriously though, there’s much I don’t recognise about either of us from the early days. His circumstances were very different, while I was reactivating a long dormant sex life (I’ll write about that one day!) and primarily interested in the physical. I was deeply and vocally averse to any suggestion of a more committed connection – with anyone. Over time, and largely through this community, I have learnt how relationship structures aren’t quite as black and white as I had always thought and I have realised there’s much on the spectrum between fully blended lives and friends with benefits.

That photography is still a big part of how he and I look, despite all the ways we’ve both evolved over last five years, makes me happy. I am probably biased, but I think our photography has got better as we have got better together. And this adventure has brought photography back into my life in a more significant way than it’s been for years. In my business I lead on production and writing – it’s my business partner who’s behind the camera. For years my relationship with photography was as an exhibition goer and travel snapper rather than anything more creative or thoughtful. I love that meeting EA and setting up my blog brought this part of me back.

While the “liminal, womb-like” darkroom (oh, how I miss those days!) may have given way to computers, the intimacy of the developing process has not been superseded by tech. The joy I feel at diving into the editing process is just as it was when I passed through the light-resistant revolving door into the deep red light of the darkroom at university. Last Sunday, flicking through my camera, EA looked at the original of the image below and commented that it hadn’t worked too well. ‘It’ll be fine in the edit,’ I said, because I knew the light was falling just right for me to realise the image that was in my head. The inspiration for the photo below was one we saw at the exhibition.

Writing about Modern Couples The Art Fund talked of it “charting how the concept of a ‘couple’ has evolved, along with society’s approach to marriage, family and gender, it showcases the way in which a variety of intimate relationships – traditional, famed, short-lived and fixational – have resulted in experimentation and, at times, subversion of the status quo.” I like this. I like that the couple is in inverted commas! And I like that I was at the exhibition with Exhibit A. I like that it showcased a multitude of relationship types and celebrated those where art was the lifeblood of them, not a by-product.

Last Sunday was a good day. It was also a funny day. Will he be a Dad next time I see him or will Baby Liv-EA keep them waiting and grant me and him another (closer to home!) meet-up? Who knows! But as his Uber was on its way I said ‘I am looking forward to the next chapter of us.’ And I really am. With all the other changes that will unfold there’s one thing I am sure of – there’ll definitely be photos!

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

Fat, beautiful, worthy

 

“The most attractive component to me of any woman is self-assuredness, willingness/ability to own their wants and desires, lack of concern about conforming. I’m obviously very visually stimulated and I think watching at a party is a great example of this; a ‘classically hot’ person who is boring is a whole lot less fun to watch than an average or whatever body type having a good time and feeling the moment.” American chap

A couple of weekends back I read a tweet that’s stayed in my mind. On the surface it was benign enough. A woman wondering why her friend was still single and listing various reasons why this was surprising – sparky, fun, bright. So far so good. The final thing on the list was “slim and pretty.” Someone responded saying they failed to see what being slim had to do with it. I took the lame option and fired off a rarely-seen-from-me subtweet about misogyny and women not needing fatphobia from other women.

Because comments like that are fatphobic. The subtext is that being slim is better than being fat. That being slim makes someone more worthy of finding a partner. And when slimness is held up as evidence in a case of ‘oh my God, I can’t believe you’re single’ then what does that infer about fat people who are not single? That they had some massive stroke of luck? That they must have bagged a partner and then ‘let themselves go’? That they’re a sympathy fuck? Even if this is not what people mean, when they hold up slimness as a barometer of attractiveness and worthiness then I can assure you that is what fat people will hear. It is what we are socially conditioned to hear.

Me: “What do you find attractive about me?”
Him: “I think it’s your mouth and your manner – the way you know exactly what you want and make sure you get it. Also the way my handprints look on your arse.”
Me: “My mouth as in what it does or what it says?!”
Him: “What it does, how it looks, what it says – it’s an all-round good mouth.”

The always brilliant Laura Williams wrote recently about why she’s no longer talking about weight and body image: “Yes, I am gorgeous. But on reflection, the only way to empower myself, and to also empower the women around me to accept their bodies in whatever shape and size they come in is to remove discussion around them full stop.” I grant you I am talking about it right now, but ignore that discrepancy for a moment and just absorb her wider point. Fat or slim, we all need to think a little bit more before we speak and become more comfortable in just being.

This post isn’t intended to be a massive dig at slim women – they have been subjected to the same social conditioning that all of us have. Fat women are just as bad at holding slimness up as a virtue. Whatever your size, when celebrating one type of woman puts another one down it is not a feminist action. And I believe it’s not all about how fat women are seen (although that is a huge part of it), it’s about changing the way we see ourselves too. We must stop thinking that our size and body shape is the defining benchmark of our attractiveness. We may not want to admit it but we are often our own worst enemies and in undermining ourselves we undermine other women.

What is the use of celebrating our beautiful undulating curvy wobbly sisters if we then berate our own bellies, bums and thighs? How can we hold up others if we don’t hold up ourselves? And if we continually talk ourselves down and believe ourselves to be unappealing what does that say about how much we respect the choices of the people for whom we are an object of love, affection or lust? I have not always been good at this. Full disclosure: the outward-facing body positive E40 is not always how I behave in private conversation with friends or when I am battling insecurities and taking them out on partners. But I am a million times better than I was.

In pursuit of evidence for this post I decided to do some deeply scientific research. It basically involved me asking men and women what they found attractive about me. Those polled ranged from one offs to casuals to established partners. The comments are peppered through this post. I highly recommend this glorious exercise in positive affirmation. Exhibit A came back with this:

“I met E40 five years ago, after some initial chat on a (non-kinky) dating site and several months of messaging. I’m not sure why, but the fact that she’s fat had never even crossed my mind during our various conversations, so there was an initial ‘huh!’ moment when she first opened the door to her flat and said hello. The kind of ‘huh’ you get when confronted by new information or something you hadn’t quite been expecting. After that, I went inside, took off my coat, and didn’t think about it again for the rest of the date.

“Nor have I really thought about it since then, to be honest, in the same way that I don’t really think about her toes or ears! The size of her belly is rarely a factor in anything we do, and as a result I consider it just another part of her – I don’t understand why anyone would choose to get hung up on it. There are way too many other interesting bits to focus on!

“So yes, I’d say I find E40 attractive neither despite nor because of her body shape – instead it’s her energy, openness, and creativity that draw me to her, as well as her excellent legs and ridiculously strokable hair. Five years later, those are the qualities (along with a hundred others) that make me glad that we met each other, and that we’ve managed to build the connection we have now. I wouldn’t change anything about that, and I wouldn’t change anything about her appearance either.”

There’s an important point there about acknowledging fat. We cannot expect partners not to notice it but we must also trust that this won’t negatively define their feelings and that to them we are more than the bodies we inhabit, just as they are more than their bodies to us. Would we ever say “I worry that you don’t find me as hot as other people because I am so slim?” I think not!

We also need to own our fatness more confidently. I realise I can be a bit Pollyanna sometimes and I know some people have had horrible experiences on dating sites. But if we are really honest with ourselves, how open are we in our profiles? I know my dating profile says “a little bit extra” when my belly is definitely fat. It is only in the last year that I truly shook off the shackles of fat belly shame and put a full length photo up. Yet I carry all of my weight around my middle. So when I was only putting up pretty smiley head and shoulders photos was I really owning my whole self? EA was justified in being surprised when he saw the whole me for the first time. It didn’t bother him but I have had comments from others that I looked different to my photos and they were fair comments.

I know some people worry that they won’t get attention if they are fully upfront in profiles, but there really is no point in being anything other than honest. Jedi Hamster pointed me to this article about a woman who created two identical profiles, except one used photos when she was a size 10 and one when she was size 18. Size 10 her got exactly twice as many messages as size 18 her. Predictable and disheartening you might say? Maybe, but like I said earlier we’ve all been conditioned to think slim is best so let’s not judge the men for a minute. What I liked was her closing comment: “You could interpret these results slightly differently. A size 18 woman, posting some of her least flattering, double chin-featuring pics, received 18 messages in five days.”

Interestingly, the profiles of the men who messaged fat her were similar to those who messaged slim her. Both versions of her attracted fat and slim men of varying degrees of ‘typical’ accepted attractiveness. This is an important thing to note. Fat people don’t sit in a little colony together, only fancying each other. A friend who is one of the most body confident people I know had this to say on the matter: “It’s important to remember us fatties don’t just fuck each other. We desire and are desired by people who would be thought of as conventionally fit/slim/hot. And we are not always defined in sex by our fatness. Sometimes us fatties get comments about how sexy we are that don’t refer to our size. It’s important to hear those comments and share them so that other fatties know that it’s possible to be sexy without it just being about the size of your body. Having lovers for whom your size is not relevant, for whom you are, simply, sexy enables us to feel like anyone else having (good) sex – it makes us feel transcendent.”

Tellingly she added: “At the same time I don’t wanna sound smug – like fucking handsome, fit men is some kind of prize for a fat girl. It’s tricky to get the tone right.” She’s right, we don’t want to hold up the conventionally hot people we fuck as trophies in our fight for fat acceptability, but we also need to recognise that people still express surprise at mixed size couples (of any gender make-up, actually). How often do we hear comments about similarly sized people along the lines of ‘don’t they make a lovely couple?’ or ‘don’t they look good together?’ whereas the bigger half of a differently sized couple will get ‘you’ve done well for yourself’ or ‘good for you!’ No! The fat person didn’t do well. Both people did well for finding each other, for having the good fortune to meet someone whose company they thrive in, who they fancy and who makes them feel good about themselves.

I am giving the last line to this lovely piece of feedback and I am paying it forward to any woman who needs to believe she’s hot and desirable. Own these words and go out and be your best beautiful confident self.

“You are so gloriously sexy and fuckable. Everything about you, especially when you’re turned on, is hot. Your movements, your facial expressions and damn it – your body just makes me want to work my way down to in between your legs. Feeling all of you on the way. You are fucking sexy”

 

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

Collaboration

I describe Exposing 40 as a collaboration. My strapline is ‘Friends. Photography. Adventure.’ So I really couldn’t let this week’s Wicked Wednesday prompt go past unmarked. In the true spirit of the word I decided to produce a collaborative post. I chose my favourite photos of four amazing 40-something women and asked them to send me some thoughts to use alongside them. I don’t really know why I was surprised by their words as all four are so generous with their love, but they made me laugh and cry and I now feel a bit of a plum for creating a post that’s one big love in. I hadn’t intended this to be a willy waving exercise! We hope you enjoy our collaborative post!


Honey
Exposing 40 is a force of nature when it comes to collaboration. I was naked in front of her camera the second time we met – although that time, I’m not sure I was the most easy and relaxed model. Since then, it has been so much fun giggling around places with less and less clothing. I know it is an Exposing 40 day when I am making sure I can whip my clothes off in a flash (and whip them back on again-but that is less exciting). One of the brilliant things about photo adventures with Exposing 40 is the combination of amazing ideas that she comes ready with, or thinks of in the moment and the fact that she is also up for any chaotic ideas of my own. The best thing though is that out of a day of outrageous, soul nourishing giggling and mirth, there is suddenly later the ping of amazing images landing in an inbox. It takes a lot for me to completely relax when there is a camera pointing at me, and yet, Exposing 40 knows that I can’t wait for another chance to strip off and cavort for her. I think that is the gold standard of collaboration. The fear is gone (although there is the tingle of fear of being caught) and the joy of creating together shines through. How she manages to get crisp images of giggling models is her secret to tell.


Maria
When I visited the UK for Eroticon ’17 I knew one of the main things I wanted to do was go on a photo adventure with Exposing 40. I long to take outside photos when I’m on my own at home but for some reason, I’m paralyzed by fear of being seen or getting caught. But when I was with Exposing 40 I felt like I could easily whip my kit off anywhere and the fact that we were together was a magical form of protection. Partly because we were having so much damn fun and partly because I knew that Exposing 40 could talk her way out of any legal or awkward public scrape we might encounter. We took our photos in the loveliest overgrown cemetery, there were sometimes people only yards away, but I felt secure and confident and had the time of my life. Having my photo taken by her, specifically, gave me new eyes to see myself. A pose or angle that I normally would have cut if I were taking the pictures of myself suddenly became beautiful because I was seeing myself, my figure, through her eyes. I felt beautiful in ways I hadn’t before. The other thing I love is that she includes non sex blogger friends on her blog. I am still intensely private about mine at home, so seeing her open up to let people in that way is lovely. And something I am still aspiring to. What breakthroughs could be made in my long-standing friendships if I opened up to them about this aspect of my life?

@19syllables
On our recent daytrip to the seaside Exposing 40 and I made getting a shot for the Sinful Sunday diptych prompt our mission. A diptych is often described as a matching pair of images, but this is not true. The two parts of diptychs are never matching; they are always different but together tell a story. This reminds me of our friendship. Exposing 40 and I are two things that that complement each other, not a matching pair. We have chosen to structure our lives very differently. I am married; committed happily and whole-heartedly to one man for decades (and forever), in what looks from the outside to be a relationship constructed on the traditional, establishment model. Exposing 40 has crafted a more unorthodox, non-monogamous structure for herself which is bespoke to her preferences. She is also actively and joyfully child-free, whereas a central, defining and love-filled part of my life is that I am the mother of four. Sometimes it feels as if the media would like women like us to pitch ourselves against each other; the traditional against the bohemian, but we’re having none of it. She is resolutely happy for me, quick to celebrate my family’s triumphs and console me through inevitable bumps in the road, and I only feel admiration for her choices and the way she conducts herself. Honest to herself and those she connects in a way I have not encountered close-up with anyone else before.

Tabitha
I have always struggled with body confidence – my photos for Sinful Sunday are always carefully curated, 99.9% being trashed. I was so nervous when Exposing 40 approached me for a photo. What if she indeed exposed the truth I felt about my own body? She didn’t, she exposed the beauty I didn’t believe was there. I am so grateful. I love even more when we do a shot together, giggling as the timer goes off. Just lovely. Being photographed by Exposing 40 is thrilling beyond belief- not only at the time where, for that naked half hour your world vibrates with the excited buzz of possibly getting caught – to the moment the photos are sent through. To be photographed from angles you never see of yourself, being able to recognise yourself through another’s eye. To look at a photo somebody else took and not be horrified. It is liberating, exhilarating and has changed every walk I now go on. Now I’m always scouting for the next Exposing 40 location. Thank you my friend, you’ve changed the way I see myself – it’s actually life changing x x x

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

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