Foundation stones

The wind was warm, lulling my skin into a sense of security that may yet prove to be false – this time of year is prone to change, to deceit in its budding fingers and icy pavements, its wide-eye skies that retain a burnished bronze at the horizon line… and the silky darkness of blue above, when the stars make a cold fire.

The tombstones were warped in a hazy red glow from the lamplight. Unnatural, almost hellish, and I had to bite my fist against the hard laugh in my chest. I’m prone to inappropriate thoughts and giggle-fits, which is one reason I can’t be trusted in important corridors and silent rooms.

I fell in love with the city’s cathedral at first sight – those tall turrets, so elegant and poignant against the sky, surrounded by lean-back roof lines and the echoing colour spirals of a rose window, the largest kaleidoscope I’ve yet seen. Trembling rose stems, twining about the black iron fence of the graveyard, and the weather-etched stones themselves, centuries past and names long melted into the face of tomorrow. Dear reader, we all end up in the same places, at the end. Whether marked or not, we go through the same channels of decomposition and leave behind those who once called us Friend and Foe, Lover and Life, Stranger and Oppressor, Comrade and Colleague.

You can go your own way. I’ll take mine.

The shadows etch themselves onto the cathedral face in wrinkles of time, backlit and forward thrust until the entire building lives and breathes contentment under the stars. At other times she is jumpy and hurtling towards the storm, set against the sky like a livid mark of every worried thought and hideous fright; sharp black and gunmetal presence. I love to walk straight into the teeth of the wind that endlessly circles her stones, feeling its fingers tear through my hair and making my eyes water. Tonight, those fingers caressed. Tonight, for the first time in a long while, I felt something close to myself again.

The fretful, arrogant, innocent, fumbling woman-child who is, the storyteller with a real problem of getting to a point, because she’s not entirely sure where it is she’s going to or who she is supposed to be…. except in a long form narrative. It’s just how we roll. It took me until age seven to fully grasp the English language and its numbers; age nine until I could handle money and time. To this day, I find myself going cross-eyed in trying to arrive at where I am supposed to be, perhaps through a reluctance of commitment (ever the nomad) or a latent fear of laying claim to what is Mine. Because then it is responsibilities. It is adulthood and a release of ideologies.

Or so I once thought. As it turns out, approaching 30 has at last brought about the inner peace my Nanna once extolled, which I heard and could make little sense of at the time. 17 is no age to try and foresee/feel the future, especially when you’re slowly dying a little more each day with anorexia. But now I know it – this sense of, well, these are my opinions and I’ll tell you because I have nothing better to do, you have yours and that’s fine … but I’m going to shy away and lean into a smile like a wary fox, a weak waver on the wind but a strong back, and walk where my thoughts and feelings go. And that’s that. I’m also now more open to change in the way the sky pales into spring. Black and white are no longer prerequisites. To leave a place is not to say it vanishes forever – I can return, the cathedral will be here for me to walk around its grounds and vanish into the light of the unicorn for a moment or more, knowing myself hopeless and helpless in the face of Time and fate and whatever else, so strong a hand at my back right now. So it seems. Less a boot up my arse, at least, than in 2013 when life unravelled. But things happen, and we go with them and it’s not the end of the world, only a series of events that perhaps propel us to –

Others. Places. Nostalgia has its place, and I still know its sepia tones in the fading light of the sky, on the hair of the twins as they grow, in the lines deepening around my eyes. The little boy wept downstairs the other day, when he learned I was leaving. The girl came upstairs to tell me, and in her solemn eyes her voice came out like the future bell –
Everyone moves on to other places.

She’s six years old, going on Eternity. They have souls made of stars, come out with things that shiver up my skin, watch empty places in rooms like the cats I once knew. I won’t say Goodbye to them in that way that feels like forever; it’s only down the road, this new home of mine. And even if it was the other side of the world, well, there is social media now. There are connections that were once only possible while sifting through the minds of sci-fi authors. There’s symbolic interaction, which has become the beckoning hand of the future, while I stand at the crossroads scratching my head in that way of the wanderer who holds a map she can’t yet fully read or understand.

There are certain things that go beyond words. We all know it. Given the option between an image and a set of lines, I’m ashamed to admit – as a writer – that I’m more prone to hold up the former, while trying to whittle down the latter into something that will get across what I meant to say. We’ve been here before, I know, but it’s worth remembering. A song, a picture, a video, all bear a salience that more formulaic prose can’t improve upon. When nothing else will do, there’s symbolism – with all its fault lines and misinterpretations and layered meanings. A curse and a blessing. Once you see the world for what it is, there’s little else to do but accept what is, will be.

Somehow, I am still alive. Somehow, I’m moving to a flat that I will furnish to my own tastes, funded by a new job in a research centre that I hope will allow me to move sideways in employment, if not up. Every bit on the CV helps. I’m not old yet, not middle-aged, not so bitter that I’ll break as all blades that have gone wrong in tempering, do. I’m here, and this is Now. You can come along, if you like.

Golden leaves and rustic walls. A lady cathedral that will stand beyond my days and nights, and I’ll see her again soon. Nothing really ends, nothing lasts forever. These are things I wish I’d known as a child, when it seemed that to walk out of a room would have it – and the people within – disappear, walk away, move on, leave me behind. My greatest fear. And adolescence, when it seemed the shaking of the world as it changed would knock me off my feet, when too much happened at once. How funny, how odd, that now I relish the speed at which things progress – if only because it means I don’t have time to stop and Think.

Hurt. Feel. Wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
Of course I am. But the sepia tones light my mind all the same, because I’m that sort of person. But now, I know not to stand still and Wonder for too long. Life has a habit of shifting with bubble evanescence until a completely new scene appears, and I must run to catch up. I’m doing all of this alone, you see, and can’t afford to let go or be afraid.

And as that little girl said, Everyone moves on. But we each of us take the stages of our lives with us, as chapters for others to fall into and read – backwards to move forwards – if they so wish.
I like to bookmark the best bits with a song, a picture and a smile at once was. They complement what is to come.

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Which for now, for tonight, is another chapter of a novel that – as mine invariably do – began life as a shortie, last year, as a collision of thoughts and emotions while brushing my teeth. I keep trying to start a blog entry on Russian propaganda, on the urgent need for the west to combat this with specific channels in the face of a rising (dis)information war… It’s a different front-line altogether. But I’m hopeless at starting most things without preamble, and am having trouble drawing the necessary lines between stars. While my voice falters each time I hear it, breaking on glass, on a mirror I’m not entirely sure I should be stood in front of to see myself, with a shadow close behind.
I know my own mind, its fault-lines and its high tides and buried burdens. We all have a story to tell. It’s just, mine are getting stuck in my throat at the moment.

Or perhaps my own excuses are a dull pain yet to be mastered. That fear of putting my name to something that might turn out to be an Even Bigger Cockup (I could spin you a few.) But I’ve fallen already, and got back up, and still trip over my big toe for no reason whatsoever while walking barefoot (there’s a useless factoid for you.)
This is my personal blog, after all. I make no claims of faultless accuracy, though I’ll do my best with what little I have; and I too often set myself up for failure by forgetting that I began this blog (and the old one, CelenaGaia) primarily to loosen up my mind and to offload, to talk with friends, in that inimitable way of bloggers with time on their hands and too much to do, and the protraction of emails and the disengagement/re-engagement of social media and offline life… and writing.

So. We’ll see. There’s still a lot to read and to learn (backwards) and I’m doing this a little off the cuff, but I’d hate to lose myself in study at the expense of speaking out on what crawls up my back and occasionally makes my mind turn pale.
I’d like to say, of this year, that procrastination did not get a look-in. I took the jump for a new job and a new home, in a week. I can do things I once thought were impossible.
Now, I’m more prone to a shrug and a tired-defiant smile in the face of others’ doubt and my own (chronic) sense of self-defeat. This is one of the fun parts about getting older. One of the less fun parts, is finding you can no longer make it to midnight on a Friday. I woke up at 11.30-ish to find my cheek plastered to the keyboard, with an assortment of winking numbers on the screen (thankfully having missed Delete.) Long hours at work, time spent online, going through life as a perma-pedestrian and a gym fiend and a fuck-up and friend … there’s no time for boredom. My worst enemy.
But life is realigning itself, as it should post-anorexia. I find my priorities changing. This is no small thing, but I couldn’t really explain it all in a way that your eyes wouldn’t glaze over.
The world gets a bit bigger, each year.

The moon was a yellow and ragged thing tonight, rising through the clouds like a bell-chime. It turned gold in passing, grew stronger in the lines. I watched its course with interest, past the silent windows with their thickening darkness, across the tan-purple sky, over the flickering lake. The water was a beetle’s back, a sense of Tomorrow; the cries of the birds split the brooding quiet.
The stars went on with their feigned indifference, their watchful eyes. As above, so below.

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Marching for our future

Two themes mingled on the streets of Paris today. In the photographs and reports pouring in, I saw hope and hypocrisy: both will shape the future of this world. Crowds marched in defiance of the terror waged against them in the past week. Leaders went arm-in-arm in supposed solidarity for freedom of expression, after the recent attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket … while back in their home countries, those who stand for freedom of speech and democracy face persecution and imprisonment.

I don’t suppose any of this was far from the minds of more liberal leaders but then, within the context of the march – honouring the fallen – it’d be difficult to speak of other things. I must admit, I found myself hesitating before calling attention to the brilliant research by Daniel Wickham (@DanielWickham93) on the unique abuse of human rights / freedom of expression by many of the world leaders in attendance, if only because I didn’t want to dampen the moment. But then, there are so many moments in time, and they all add up to Change – or not. I thought of Tracy Chapman’s song, “If not Now…”
Then when? One voice among many.

With responsibility comes the shocker of having to give up a lot of what you might believe in. For the greater good, etc. Belarus, for example, is allowed a lot of leeway when it comes to human rights, just so the Lukashenka regime doesn’t kick up a shit-storm between the EU and the loudly-snarling bear, Russia. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“The Lukashenko administration gives the EU chills from time to time. Belarusian officials make claims about Belarus’s exit from the Eastern Partnership. Belarus threatens to redirect its cargo transit routes from Lithuanian and Latvian ports to Russian ports. Belarus also promises to deploy Russian Tactical Ballistic Missile Systems against Poland. The message is clear: The West must turn a blind eye on the human rights violations in Belarus in order to cooperate with Lukashenka.” – Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus, Andrei Liakhovich.

The world’s internet freedom is falling, with Turkey and Russia leading the descent. In Azerbaijan recently, the US-funded Radio Azadliq was ransacked by the Azerbaijani authorities, with twelve employees arrested and others threatened with the same if they chose not to comply with questioning.
The reason?

“The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
Siyavoush Novruzov, a high-ranking member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, defended the raid as a national security issue.

Speaking to local media, he said it was necessary to close the bureau to prevent espionage, adding, “Every place that works for foreign intelligence and the Armenian lobby should be raided.”

And still.

I found the scenes in France heartening for a number of reasons – most of them pointed out by other people, tweeting as they watched with me, or attended the march themselves. Jamie Barlett (@JamieJBartlett) of think-tank Demos, put it most aptly:
“In 20 years, there will be a new wave of fearless journalists, cartoonists, writers – who as children were moved by the events of last week.”

We can only hope, for this is what and who will stand against the hypocrisy seen today. We all of us have a common enemy, exemplified by the extremists who would like to stir up trouble between Muslims and the countries they call home, or those who would have online dissent (AKA freedom of expression) flogged into silence, or those who would brainwash a populace with disinformation about external persecution, while quietly raiding the home piggybank.

If we’re marching for something – in our minds on social media, with our bodies in the multicultural cities – then let it be for change. Real change. Not words produced today, in the pathos of the moment, but for all of our tomorrows, because we still have to live among each other, every day, and our lives are as intertwined as they have ever been. What comes next, will count the most.

Reflections on responsibility: Charlie Hebdo

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the horrific and tragic events of Paris. You’ve probably read enough, and formed your own conclusions about those dark moments, when freedom of speech and humour took the blows of extremism. The satirists’ pens of Charlie Hebdo were deemed by the perpetrators as too deadly to be allowed to continue sending up their version of religion.

But then, the employees of Charlie Hebdo had a habit of sending up other religious and political figures too – as well as your average, everyday Brit. That’s what they do.

A cartoon is a bloodless weapon. Its barbs lie in ideas, in putting pressure on inflated opinions, on stereotypes – on the fanatical oppressors who would like to silence those that stand for liberalism, for the freedom to interact across cultures.

The weapons that these murderers used, do not stand for Islam. They are not held up by every Muslim alive, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise. Right now, Muslims across the world are condemning the atrocities that took place – though, as Alex Massie rightly pointed out, they have no need to do so. But somehow, silence has become synonymous with complicity. I’ve seen and heard enough gross generalizations and mudslinging in the hours that have passed since yesterday’s events, to know that once again the names of 1.6 billion people will have become tangled up with those who, in fact, actively seek their destruction more than anyone else.

There are days when social media is a gift, a weapon of information-dissemination for the greater good. When flight MH17 was brought down last summer, only minutes had passed before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were flooded with screen-grabs of text and pictures taken from the profiles of Ukrainian separatists, to be used as evidence of what had taken place. The original posts were (as expected) subsequently deleted, but by then, there were already too many holes to plug. One tweet can become hundreds, thousands, within an hour.

But then there are what I’ve come to know as the spin-cycle events – when something kicks off, and events are carried forward through the arteries of social networking by the instantaneous decisions of those handling information thrust under their thumbs.
I’ve been there. I know how it feels, to react to something – pressing down on a tweet or retweet – before the little voice of conscious reasoning has had time to pipe up, to ask – “Reconsider?”

Given that yesterday’s horror took place as a direct blow against freedom of speech, I know this talk of self-censorship isn’t going to win me any favours. But it’s my opinion, based upon about 18 months’ worth of experience.

Last year was a shitter, on that I think we can all agree. One tragedy after another, with the summer in particular seeing some of the bloodiest and most mind-numbing events possible, spread out across the world, and thus onto social media. If these taught me anything about myself, it was that my reactions to breaking news – and the reactions of those around me – matter as much as the news itself. There are consequences, because there are lives behind every screen.

Yesterday, I picked up on the ongoing scenes in Paris via tweets from journalists, who in their turn had caught eye-witness accounts from the scene, or from various channels. It’s easy enough to get sucked into something when scrolling through a list or timeline. I felt that familiar chill in my fingertips, the tight nausea in my throat, and a desperate pressure behind the eyes. It was utterly essential that I get out what I could to my followers, to share what I was seeing –

– pressing down –
– until an image of a bullet-riddled police car landed on my timeline, and I pressed Retweet. And stopped.

I work with the police, in a civilian staff role. My colleagues are friends, people I sit beside to eat, drink with in bars. I know their families through Facebook.
I also follow, and am followed by, police officers on Twitter, albeit with less personal relations – but the fact is, they live through events such as this. Sometimes they die by them – as did Ahmed Merabet, the officer tasked with protecting the people who poked fun at his religion. Not that this meant a thing to the cowards who, brandishing Kalashnikovs, put him to death while he lay on the ground, unprotected.
I wonder if it will mean anything to the likes of Nigel Farage, with his “fifth column” theory on how extremism somehow equates with multiculturalism.

Looking around at my Twitter feed, at the lists I keep, I saw yet more and more disturbing images arrive, as reports filtered in. Most tweets were kept within the character limitations, and the words alone were enough to strike my mind silent, cold.
Experience. It’s taught me that at times like this, it’s best to back away, to keep still for a bit – to process, to mourn, to rage, alone. To allow others to do the same, or to follow and pass on as they wish … but to give them that freedom, too. Not everyone wants to have a graphic image arrive in their timeline, out of context.

In truth, it’s taken me this long to write about it because I had to wait to calm down. Yesterday, I was trembling with anger. The hypocrisy was astonishing – we managed a media blackout when it was the Islamic State beheadings, so how on Earth was the slaughter going on in Paris any different? The propaganda machine was in full swing, and we were throwing our weight behind it. I saw the clip of officer Merabet’s cold-blooded killing, turned into a Vine. Retweeted.
How is this humane?

The sad fact, social media has given us a double-edged blade. We’re as able to keep in touch with each other, with the world, with information that might otherwise be prohibited or inaccessible, as we are able to darken each other’s minds, and diminish the last moments of helpless people, by turning ongoing events into a cultivated drama for our feeds.

Graphic content. It has its uses: to imprint an image or scenario on the audience’s collective mind and memory. To shock us out of everyday  complacency. To leave an undeniable mark. But with its use comes the responsibility of acknowledging how singularly inhumane it is to reduce a person’s death to a blurred and bloodied frame. Their last moments caught, held, then spread out across a vast network of tweets and retweets, news channels – all for the gratification of…what? Who?
Only the bastards that began the atrocities. The ones who want to see us in fear, panic, discord. I saw plenty of people fall out on Twitter yesterday, over this and that detail. Meanwhile, people died. And their deaths were shared and witnessed countless times.

As we saw again with the print papers. Many front pages were dedicated to the cartoon satire that upheld freedom of speech, the right to josh anyone and everyone on this planet. Some went for an improvised version of this, in muted tones, to channel the aching sorrow, the outrage. And still others have chosen that final, barbarous image – the photograph of Merabet lying prone, defenceless, with his last moments slipping away.

Held on a front page, to then line a bin. A street. A cage.

I’m sorry. I know this probably an old argument, or it’ll seem out of place, among all the other more nuanced writings on this subject. But that man was somebody’s child, loved one, friend, colleague. Above all, he was human. The fact that he was a Muslim shouldn’t matter, really, but it has to be taken into account, because vacuous idiots want to drive the same nail through all those who follow the Islamic faith, nailing them to the same wall.

My beloved friend Nillu is a Muslim. This isn’t exactly the first thing to cross my mind whenever we talk. I know her for the person she is, the unique individual and writer. I’m sickened to say that I’m reminded of her faith more often when in defence of it, at times like this, when I fear for her right to exist as a human among others, rather than be talked about as a collective murderous whole. Which is what I keep seeing at the moment. Names, faces, lives, are being blurred out, just as surely as the satirical cartoons made at Charlie Hebdo were blurred out by certain news agencies yesterday, in tweeted pictures. Already appeasing.

We’ve got our wires crossed, here. Are we fighting the extremists, or doing their work for them, by turning on the people they claim to stand for – who want nothing to do with them – while giving idiots like Farage and Marine Le Pen access to our doubts and fears about being killed, to use for their own twisted ends? Printing stark images of murder, while stepping back from publishing the brave images of Charlie Hebdo?

Can we take a moment to breathe, and remember that there are real lives at stake here – real people, with families? They are our colleagues and friends, their children go to school with ours. No, we don’t have to support or even try to understand anyone’s religion that is not our own – goodness knows, there’s enough death and persecution and blaming to go around, in the name of any faith, just as surely as there is among those without any faith at all.

But we do have a responsibility to appreciate and support their rights as individuals with connections, voices. Pressure points. Hopes and dreams and secrets.

They are us. We’re taking care of each other, on and offline.
These are the things that extremists fear, more than anything.
That’s what I believe, anyway.

Tawny horizon

Trigger warning: Weight loss / anorexia.

It’s 19.31pm, and I’ve just climbed into bed. I haven’t yet found that balance between the cyber and real-time worlds, between interaction and concentration.

Or perhaps the problem is a bit more internal.

Standing in front of the full-length mirror yesterday, I took in the curve of each rib, my flatter chest, and knew myself to be diminished. Walking home tonight, I had to plunk down on a low brick wall (and resist the temptation to fall backwards into someone’s flowerbed – we’re not in Hipster territory any more, Toto) because my legs were trembling.

Trouble is, when the world and life and errors and wanting and worries, all go flaring past with comet tails to catch a-hold of… health can become a distant star. A lonely moon. I never mean to lose weight, honest. But certain comments of this year have stuck behind my ears, about how I’d “bulked up” (around my arms and shoulders, from weight-training) and was “filling out” my tops. So. I guess old habits sneak back in, when everything else seems more interesting than standing still. Eating more is sort of tricky, too, on a frozen wage.

I know these things shouldn’t get under my skin, not after all these years; and as C.S Lewis said of it, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

And still. And still.

I know it’s perhaps early for New Years’ Resolutions, but mine are simple enough:
To create more time, with prioritising.
To pay attention to what really matters.

And that’s it. The rest, you don’t need to know, since I’ll inadvertently hurt someone or another along the way. But I’ve neglected enough Things this year, and have burnt a lot of ambitions and expectations on the pyre of Disappointment. My fault. I know better now, and where my weaknesses are. The strengths … haven’t shown their faces yet, but I guess that’s part of the learning curve, too.

What better time to rest and regain weight, than Christmas? That’s probably the wrong thing to say, hence the trigger-warning; but honestly, I’ve had enough of censoring myself. That isn’t a jab at anyone in particular, only this Thing in my head, which has slowly crept back up and wound tight claws through my mind. I find myself thinking about food/eating in that old invasive way, with the attention/fear of the constant hungering. I’m not in a relapse. But the very fact that I have to focus on this again, and find myself struggling to lift weights that were only months ago getting easier, says as much as the tapering-off of writing. Now, I get in from work and scrabble out perhaps 500 words if I’m lucky. If I haven’t spent too much time reading, talking, flicking aimlessly –
(White noise)
Researching this and that. All necessary. But life looks like a Dali clock at the moment.

(A trick I use now, is to let both phone batteries go flat by the end of the day. Then I have to walk home in silence, to re-order my thoughts.)

I don’t want to lose contact with the people I know and care about, or fall behind on the topics that interest me, engage my focus in ways that anorexia never could. I want to be more than a walking eating disorder (which was my identity for a long time.) Even in hospital, I spent the long lowlight days doing crosswords, writing snippets of poetry, reading reviews in Empire magazine… anything to keep in touch with things outside of my head, away from symptoms.

I’ve let things slip, working longer hours to keep up with rising food bills… and perhaps as an excuse to keep moving. This is a sneaky illness, it plays by its own rules, and most often below the surface.

*

Still no word about whether I’ll keep my job next year; though when I mentioned this to the new PA, she only laughed with that unhappy sound of someone used to this sort of system. To be honest, the guys will probably know about the official moving date when I do.

I can’t begin to tell you how hollow my chest feels, to think about it; and to know that this will likely be our last Christmas all together in that building. Standing on the top floor this afternoon, as is my wont when in need of a breather, I watched the western horizon turn tawny, flecked over in blue – a Joni Mitchell song of the sky. Those pigeons went skirling past, as ever, leaving their shadows like blackened leaves on the parking bays.

I wonder about a lot of things – how the guys will fit all their kit into the smaller space; where they will go for a quiet talk, or a cry; how they will cope with the integration of offices, in an open-plan idea of a police station. Who will end up where. If I will go with them.

The £2bn being ploughed into the NHS feels like a sticking-plaster, with fresh cuts to other services kept beneath. And that’s before we get onto the fact that 1 in 6 police officers will be cut from the service by next year. But I can only speak from a limited experience on the ground, and then, from the perspective of a cleaner.
I am small. And tall, in my own way.

A bit like Metpol’s (new) New Scotland Yard.

“It is quite extraordinary that in the rush to sell the police estate, the Mayor’s office don’t appear to have planned space for their police officers and staff.
Yet more money looks set to be spent to sort out this mistake, at a time when the police face ever greater financial pressures.” – Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member.

Our old girl will rock back gently on her heels, and take a deep sigh for winter. She’ll leak green-black tears down the windows, to pool over the floors; and she’ll whistle through her teeth with the rising winds. She is more than Work to me. I still give her walls a pat, when trudging up the worn stairs at the end of a shift.
I hope she won’t be knocked down. But as Stephen King said, Everything’s Eventual.

*

Outside the art shop in town, a man sat busking beneath a sullen sky, in lilac shadows. His stickered-up guitar sang a song of lonely hearts and wild roads, of sweeping streets and times since gone, never lost in the heart. He raises money for Leukaemia sufferers, and is well known in town. The glitter-shine of a red and gold Christmas tree speckled his face; the wind sent his hair flying beneath a fluffy Santa’s hat. The shop awnings kept him sheltered from occasional spatters of rain.
This evening, I couldn’t help but notice another pastel sky behind him, softening the edges of Westminster. The buildings glowed on the canvas, caught behind the glass, as he played on.

Gender Stereotypes: Harming our children

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently slammed No Gender December – an awareness campaign backed by Greens senator Larissa Waters, to highlight the consequences of gender-marketing toys to children. The PM insists that he doesn’t support “that kind of political correctness” and asks that we all “let boys be boys and girls be girls.”

Well, fair enough, Mr Abbott. I mean, where’s the harm in promoting stereotypes? Let traditions speak for themselves, right? Quit the meddling?

Well, no. As Senator Waters put it, “This isn’t about some toys being off-limits. It’s about children being free to play with whatever interests them without fear of being judged or bullied.”

There are the key words – “judged” and “bullied.” They come with very real consequences for children, for societies.
As an authority figure, someone people (might) look to as an example, it would’ve been nice if Mr Abbott had taken a more responsible line when broadcasting his views: but then again, these are clearly his beliefs, too. Which is a shame. It’s worth noting that his approval ratings have taken a good kicking from women voters in particular, with only 37% believing him fit to be their chosen leader.

The sad truth is that his views are in no way singular. They’re just another facet of the “outdated stereotypes about boys and girls” that feed into “very serious problems such as domestic violences and the gender pay gap.”
In response to Senator Waters, the Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi was a little more direct:

“Frankly, I think [Waters has] consumed too much Christmas eggnog to come up with an idea like this… To say you’re giving a boy a truck or a hammer is somehow leading to domestic violence and gender pay gaps is simply bizarre.”

Well, all things move towards their end, and one thread ties to another to form a smothering whole. Were I Mr Abbott, I’d be a bit cagey about having my views backed by someone whose idea of equality is suggesting that a man could have put his partner in a headlock to restrain her if she was being aggressive, or that this could be used as a restraining technique by police officers.

But then again, toys are only a few symptoms of a much wider problem involving sociocultural beliefs and attitudes about gender roles. The denial of certain types of behaviour and thinking – basic rights – for both girls and boys, create fissures between the sexes that become filled with beliefs that cause grief and pain, even when we’re not wholly aware of it happening. Doubt and frustration about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Repression of individuality.

Favouring boys and men, whether through the son-preference and gendercide seen in China – where one out of every six girls is eliminated through sex-selective abortion, abandonment, or infanticide – or with the global gender pay gap, feeds into the historical context of male privilege and patriarchal societies. When it comes to girls and women, their bodies and minds, male sexual entitlement plays host to a terrifying range of oppressive measures and actions. The kind we saw in horrifying detail with the Isla Vista murders.

Awareness is about picking apart the knots that help to perpetuate gender stereotypes and segregation, many of which begin at birth.

Take gender colour-coding. Walk into your average nursery and you’ll know from a cursory glance about the room what the baby’s sex is. From the moment we’re born, our identities are pinned to us with the associations “pretty in pink” for a girl, and boisterously blue for a boy. These perceptions have apparently become so ingrained in the public mind, that a backlash occurs when the perfectly rational argument for equality is proposed. As though by offering girls positive alternative role models – “women who do amazing things. Scientists and sportswomen and musicians and businesswomen and activists” – their progression through life is somehow inhibited by “politically correct” meddling.

In email responses to the PinkStinks campaign, set up by twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore, one little girl wrote: “I am nine years old, and I think PinkStinks is my voice. Girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?”

And on the flipside, recrimination: “Do you sell campaign T-shirts in pink? And do you have any with ‘I am a leftwing communist loony trying to brainwash girls’?”

Abi called it “a wholesale pinkification of girls” that “sells children a lie – that there’s only one way to be a ‘proper girl’ – and it sets them on a journey, at a very, very early age. It’s a signpost, telling them that beauty is more valued than brains; it limits horizons, and it restricts ambitions.” Emma, referring to the vitriol directed at she and her sister for the campaign, said “We’ve tapped into something that’s clearly very deep and very powerful. Some people plainly feel attacked.”

This colour-coding is far more modern than many would like to believe. In June 1918, the American Ladies’ Home Journal told new mothers that pink was more suitable for a boy, being “a more decided and stronger colour”, while blue was seen to be “delicate and dainty”, and therefore “prettier for the girl.” Same old clichés, different colour-coordination. The switch-around didn’t occur until post-WWII; in 1948, it was noted in the Chicago Reader that “royal watchers” were apparently alerted to the fact Princess Elizabeth “was obviously expecting a boy, because a temporary nursery in Buckingham Palace was gaily decked out with blue satin bows.” Interestingly, it was also common practise until WWI for male babies and small boys to wear dresses until breeching, when they were put into trousers. The average age of this rite of passage was between two and seven. So no, boys haven’t always been prepared for rougher play in their clothing, and were once almost indistinguishable from girls, particularly with the fashions for longer hair. I have photographs of my great-grandfather as a toddler, dressed in a flowing gown and with beautiful curls, standing next to his mother.

But colours and connotations have come to define our perceptions and feelings, our reactions to one another. A study on the psychological effects of pink by Alexander Schauss in the 70’s, showed that “of 153 male prisoners put in cells painted pink, 98.7 per cent were weaker after being in the pink cells for only 15 minutes – presumably because of associations with the colour pink and femininity.” Which sort of flies in the face of the afore-mentioned evidence that, once upon a time, pink was the accepted-conventional colour for boys and men. It’s funny what a cultural placebo effect can do.

More troubling, is the light this shines on yet another facet of that belief that girls and women are vulnerable, the weaker sex; that femininity is something to be ashamed of, especially if you’re male. My landlady recently told me of an acquaintance who refused to let her son wear a “slightly effeminate” shirt in the two-minute drive from her house to his own; he’d got caught in a rain shower. Said acquaintance was convinced that he would contract feminine attributes and/or homosexuality if he wore the borrowed shirt, rather than a cold if he didn’t.

If you believe that kids don’t notice these gender stereotypes, that it’s an issue only adults care about, think again. From as early as five months old, children notice their surroundings in relation to familiarity (that safety-blanket feeling of “Me”) and build upon what they retain, in their preferences:

“Researchers have shown that male and female infants as young as 5 months of age become familiar with vastly different surroundings: while female infants were often dressed in pink, had pink pacifiers, and yellow bedding, boys were more likely to have blue bedding and curtains in their rooms (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990). Since parents surround girls with objects that are pink and boys with objects that are blue, infants may develop a preference for these colours based on familiarity. Another possibility is that once children identify with a certain gender, they seek out gender-related information and choose toys and colours that are commonly associated
with that gender
… Kohlberg’s (1966) early work on gender development suggests that children seek out gender-related information and look for ways to conform to these gender norms.” – Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences

So the next time you choose an item of clothing, or plan out the style of your bedroom, or daydream about the colour of your new car, ask yourself how many of your preferences are born of personal appeal, and how much are based upon the image you feel you “should” present to the world.

Then there are the toys.

“At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to choose to what to buy without colour coded gender labelling… As every successful marketeer knows, differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives you a bigger market overall.

So with three-year-old girls only being able to ‘choose’ pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girlie shade with a premium ‘Princess’ saddle. And of course that trike can’t be handed on to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.
But what may be driving profit margins is limiting children’s’ choice – and experiences. And ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential.” – Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central: “Gendered Marketing Perpetuates Stereotypes, Constrains Minds and Limits Our Children’s Potential.”

gender toys
Image: Huffingtonpost.co.uk/Chi Onwurah

The toys marketed to boys today can be taken apart and redesigned, made to race and to fly. They do innovative and exciting things; they go places. Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, believes that these toys send messages to boys that they should be making things and problem solving, while girls should be caring and nurturing.

“Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills.”

But what if a boy would prefer to play with toys marketed to girls? Thea Hughes, who started the Play Unlimited campaign which has got under Tony Abbott’s skin, found that her son Harper was being subjected to prejudice based on his preferences for pink and wearing dresses.
“I could see him starting to become aware that he’s being judged, and that he’s unable to make the choices he’d like to make, because of the social pressure. At such a young age, it’s just so sad.”

And on the flipside, Tricia Lowther of Durham in the UK, knew of her six-year-old daughter Marianne’s love for the Pixar film Cars. But when buying juice cartons in the supermarket, Lowther found that “it was a choice between cars and princesses, and I got her the Cars ones, sure she’d like them”; Marianne hid the cartons, telling her mother that “it’s boyish” and that she didn’t want anyone to know of her preference for this.

It hasn’t always been like this. I can remember, in the mid-80’s as a child, a limited Tinkerbell range of make-up and accessories; a few Barbie dolls. For the most part, toys on the shelves were gender-neutral, thanks to the second-wave feminists who had focused on driving out the typically accepted gender roles and stereotyping. This included non-sexist parenting, built on the belief that children should be able to choose whatever and whoever they wish to play with. So toys really were just toys – no Boys aisles and Girls aisles.

Lego

Fast forward to today, and feminism has moved more women into professions once held strictly by men, while men themselves have accepted – willingly – a great share of the domestic side of things. But when it comes to the markets aimed at children – toys, clothes, film tie-in merchandise etc – “stereotypes have never been so defined, or rigidly enforced. Pink and blue have triumphed in the toy market, and there are often serious social penalties for children who breach the divide. The rise of highly gendered toys is a result of capitalism, but it also suggests a deep, subconscious unease with the advances of the past few decades.”

In many films, books and video games aimed at both genders, it’s the boy-hero who saves the day, while the helpless princess (or whoever, she generally isn’t given enough characteristics for an audience member to care) waits breathlessly in a castle/haunted mansion/on a rail line, to be rescued.
He is typically portrayed as strong, fearless, unbeatable. Unbreakable. Unable to break down.
Especially if no one is prepared to believe he is actually capable of feeling so wretched, of being unable to express himself or to shoulder the burdens of the world as well as his own.

A boy’s life is geared towards activity, towards being the winner in his own small world, before tackling the bigger one –

– without consideration for the fact that he might just want to curl up with a book, or in front of a computer. He might want to sit alone, quiet and still, to write in the same way as the poets he admires. He might want to vanish into a world of his own making, where he can feel and express emotions without being called a ‘wuss’ or a ‘gayboy.’

If a boy wants to prioritize deep thinking and emotions over actions, to wear the clothes and make-up and hair-styles that he’s seen his female peers wear, he faces bullying and assault, with negative commentary about his sexuality. Anything associated with “feminine” – whether it’s crying in public or dancing ballet, wearing pink or admitting to a shy and reticent nature – equates with “wrong” and “weak”. Boys are taught to stay separate from girls by their toys, their early interactions, and through the reactions of those around them.

“Nine-year-old Grayson Bruce had been told not to bring his My Little Pony bag to school in North Carolina because it was a trigger for the bullying he was experiencing, which has included punching, pushing and name-calling…
11-year-old Michael Morones, also of North Carolina, spoke about his recent suicide attempt, which has left him in a persistent vegetative state. The reasons for self-harm are always complicated, but Morones had experienced problems with bullying. He tried to kill himself the evening he told his mother: “‘I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony.'”

For girls who want to become engineers, mathematicians and scientists, the void starts with what is issued to them. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, believes that by limiting children with gender stereotypes, we’re setting ourselves up for “big economic problems.” At the start of her own engineering degree, 12% of her peers were women – 30 years later, that proportion is down to 8%.
“There are thousands of jobs going unfilled, and in addition a lot of our engineers are in their 50s and retiring in the next five years. At the same time we have the lowest proportion in Europe of women who are professional engineers.”

Play and child development psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says that when it comes to careers, genuine interaction between the genders, and a wide range of skills-based play available for all, are the crucial elements.
“Nobody plays with Lego and learns how to build houses, but they might learn how to overlap bricks to create a stable structure. It’s more about confidence and familiarity than an actual skill set.”

But what about when our bodies begin to change – when hormones kick in, and it can feel like the world is going to end?
(My personal experience of puberty.)

In July this year, an Always sanitary hygiene advert sought to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl.” When the women and boys participating were asked by film-maker Lauren Greenfield to run ‘like a girl’, silliness ensued – flailing arms and legs, in a display that reminded me of what we knew in school as ‘running like a Polly Pocket’: that tiny little model of a girl, all stiff hinged joints and awkward movements, used as an example of feminine aptitude for sports. It’s funny what comes back when faced with your own past, and someone else’s future.

The same question put to prepubescent girls showed the reality of their strength and determination.. They gave it everything they had. It’s a powerful and disturbing message. I had to watch it several times for the truth to sink in: that somewhere in adolescence, girls becoming women form perceptions about their bodies that are wholly negative, and based upon what society tells them is meant by ‘feminine’.

As the ever-quotable Tony Porter said – “If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”

And what happens to the girl-princess who remains tied up and tied down by a sense of her own vulnerability, waiting for someone to come to her rescue?

“Internalized sexism is defined as the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society ARE TRUE. Girls and women, boys and men hear the sexist messages (lies and stereotypes) about women over their entire lifetimes. They hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership.

There are two logical, predictable consequences of a lifetime of such messages. First, boys / men will grow to believe many of the messages, and treat women accordingly. They will be thoroughly indoctrinated into their role in sexism, protecting their male privilege by colluding with the perpetuation of sexism.

But there is a second logical consequence – the same messages also stick to girls and women, resulting in internalized sexism / internalized misogyny. Women and girls are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females (sometimes called “horizontal hostility.”) This is the way women collude with the perpetuation of sexism.

For the sexist system to be maintained and passed on to the next generation, we all must believe the messages (lies and stereotypes) to some degree, and collude with sexism by performing our assigned roles.” – Cultural Bridges to Justice, “Internalized Sexism / Internalized Misogyny.

Campaigns like #YesAllWomen focus on giving girls and women across the world a voice. In the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, this tapped a narrative both complex and wholly depressing.

“The reason women mobilized so quickly after the shooting is because we recognized immediately the language and ideaology in Rodger’s videos and manifesto; the over-the-top sexual entitlement; the rage against women who ‘dared’ to reject him; the antiquated, but nonetheless terrifying, belief that women should not be in control of their own sexual choices.”

Inequality of pay, gender-discrimination in the workplace and the legal systems, inappropriate touching, abusive relatives, manipulative and domineering partners coercing victims into signing over bank details, gaslighting (where an abusive partner breaks down the victim’s emotional and mental reserves so they’re unable to trust their own perceptions and are thus more likely to stay in the relationship.) Rape culture and sexual entitlement – yes, even in the “nice guys”, the ones who “aren’t like the others”, and so feel that if they offer support to a girl, their natural payback is the right to Get Some.

“We live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it…

We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.

It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species is ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.” – Arthur Chu, “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.

So yes, Mr Abbott – people who believe in “politically correct” gender equality, will continue to push for this in as many ways as possible. Those innocuous little threads can become big knots. From economics to mental health, the risks are there for future generations – we have to supply children with the skills and free will to achieve whatever they can, and the emotional support to think and feel whatever comes to them, without fear of peer pressure or recriminations.
Above all, we need to teach girls and boys to look out for each other.

If you’ve made it this far down – kudos.
For further reading:
Ten Practical Tips for raising an emotionally healthy boy
That’s for girls and that’s for boys
Negative stereotypes about boys hinder their academic achievement
How male sexual entitlement hurts everyone

Learning to be a woman

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of my own gender. Of what society believes is associated with it. Of the body I was born into. Not because I feel as though it was the wrong one, but because it represents how others see and treat me. Looking in a mirror, I don’t see a personality. I see tags, hooked on through personal experiences and continuous bombardment from (often conflicting) socio-cultural messages about what it means to be either gender. Laurie Penny puts it far better than I can:

“For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles. Then, two or three generations ago – an eyeblink in the long dream of human history – technology moved forwards and allowed women to escape the constraints of reproductive biology just after movements across the world had succeeded in gaining them the right to be considered full citizens in law. That sexual revolution became a social revolution, and the shape of human relations was changed for ever…Women. Men. Boys and girls. The words don’t change but the resonance does, and what it means to call yourself one of those things in the twenty-first century is something very different from what it meant in the last century and what it will mean in the next. Being a woman, or being a man, requires effort, attention, the suppression of some parts of your personality and the exaggeration of others. When Simone de Beauvoir said that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ she was bang on, but I prefer Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, reminding us that ‘That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.’” – Excerpted from “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” by Laurie Penny.

I’d got used to telling myself that “women’s issues” didn’t concern me (bear with me on this one). The ongoing debates seemed way over my head, with women far more intelligent and informed writing thought-provoking blogs and articles and tweets. How could I possibly fit in? I’ll admit now, I’d also bought into the man-hating side of things, the strange self-love/loathing that seems to permeate certain discussions about women’s rights. Which is it – do you want to be men, against them, for them? In the end, I’d shut my ears to the noise.

Until this year, and then mostly through reading my Twitter feed. I’d had no idea, for example, that such terms as “male sexual entitlement” and “male privilege” existed (much less how these could be made relevant to my own life.) That’s the beauty of social networking. Information has a way of filtering down, through blog entries and articles friends’ personal accounts, hashtag memes like #YesAllWomen, until it’s not just describing someone else’s life –
It’s describing your own.

Turns out I hadn’t been so much disinterested in feminism, as afraid to confront the truth about my inbuilt beliefs, my place in the world, and relationships with people of both genders. There are days when I’ll wake up afraid, presenting a prickly spine and bad language to anyone of the opposite sex who so much as dares to glance my way. This sort of mentality helps no one, since it means I’m tarring male friends and strangers with the same loaded brush, giving no one a chance to prove themselves capable of treating me like an individual. What happened before shouldn’t define me today, but it’s easier said than done. When it happens over and again, with a different perpetrator each time, you start to wonder if things will ever change – or if indeed, it’s something inherently wrong with your own character and/or appearance.

Veronica Roth said in her book Divergent, that “becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.”

Well, here’s my fear. I look like a woman again. And I hate it; I hate being afraid.

I see a body that’s almost recovered from anorexia nervosa, with a healthy/sustainable weight for my age and height. It’s taken a long time to get here, and even longer to knuckle down and recognize what lies beyond the restriction/compulsive exercise symptoms, which took up much of my thinking. A lot of the reasons behind the illness can be traced to a need for routine in a rapidly-changing world; everything went to hell in 2001. But I’ve had to confront something else, not easily discussed even with close friends. I’m afraid of upsetting people, of saying something wrong, but the fact is, I can’t deny what’s been going on in my head for over a decade.

I feel vulnerable and soft as a woman, as I did post-hospital, when I’d been built back up from starvation levels. I went to the gym on the doctor’s recommendations, though it should have been more to do with rebuilding crucial bone structure than toughening up. I’ve used exercise to whittle myself into something androgynous; the message being ‘untouchable’, in the able-to-defend-myself sense. It was as much to do with self-denial and control over pain – feeling nothing – as reducing bodyweight. I thought it would make me safer, to appear and act less feminine.
Which just goes to show how long I’ve subconsciously bought into the idea that my gender is ‘vulnerable’ – and then, based mainly on experience.

When men in the gym stop what they’re doing to watch me exercise, I want to run away and hide. I can’t figure out if it’s to with my wearing shorts and a strappy top (because I get hot) or because – shock horror – a woman is lifting weights. I’m not putting on a display for anyone’s benefit. I’m trying to lay down crucial new bone minerals to ward off osteoporosis; I’m enjoying the rhythm of sets, and running because I love the feeling of freedom.

I’ve been the trophy girlfriend. The fuck-buddy. The little girl, the waif. Now I’m trying to find myself as a woman, while struggling to control a horrible rage that would burn each and every relationship I have to the ground, if I let it happen. It’d be too easy to isolate myself because of comments about my face and figure, as though these were commodities I happened to put on display.

My gender is reflected in the eyes of the men who at various points in my life, have felt it their right to use me for their own gains; to control my body and voice. To make me ashamed of my appearance and my mind, as though whatever I have grown into is an accessible right of others, and if I dare to refuse to play along then I’m causing trouble. Being naughty. An obnoxious cow. Huffy. Stuck up.
Those are just the words I can remember.

But you know what? I’m getting well anyway. I’m starting to eat according to what I want, not what calorific contents tell me will happen to my body. I’m trying to do things that I once shunned for being “girly”, in case they tore up my “don’t you touch me” image. I have to face up to my own beliefs, unknot them, and let them go; otherwise, I’m just part of the problem. With this new-found health, I’m able to think more clearly about all sorts of topics and issues. I can form opinions and move from one point to another, in a way that was denied to me before when it the rat-tunnels of an eating disorder. These advantages keep me going, when it seems that the sudden arrival of long-buried memories and emotions will eat me alive.

As Jarune Uwujaren puts it, “No one is ever owed sex – not when they’re nice, not when they’re domineering, not when they’re manipulative, not when they’re attractive, and definitely not just because they’re a man.” When men – some of whom I count as friends – have made me squirm with repeated comments about my physicality, it’s not just out of embarrassment, or the fear that they’ll do something about it – their words are leeching me of all hope that my intellectual abilities will ever be recognized and appreciated. I want to be remembered for my writing, for my opinions and ways of expressing myself; for my taste in music, or interest in graveyards and old musty books and geology. For any number of things that don’t include how my hair looks, or what film star I resemble, or what I’d be like in bed.

I want to look in the mirror and see a personality, not a body held together by perceptions of it. I know damn fine what will happen if I give in to that fear, and try to starve all the flesh off again, to feel “safe” and untouchable. Recovery from this eating disorder has been balanced between fear of what will happen to me if I don’t gain weight, and what might happen to me if I do. Which is just buying into the same bullshit that a female form = vulnerability. Availability.

So, why should my health be at risk because I’m terrified of looking like – no, being – a woman?
In the end, it’s only me losing out.

I know I don’t live in an adult body that’s grown and changed in its own right. I live in a diminished form of myself (slowly rebuilding), because I changed its course of growth, and subsequently, my future, based on fear of being myself, in as many ways as possible. I sent out a lot of mixed messages, and denied myself experiences. Whether it’s in a professional capacity or sexual advancement – just plain old fantasizing – I’ve felt myself to be “wrong”; that my wants and needs didn’t add up to what was expected of me as a girl/woman.

But if I want to be alone – to recharge my batteries, to read and write, to get on with things – I’m going to do it. Even if that makes me seem cold or aloof. I’m not about to play up to the ‘nice girl’ image, and no, I can’t be there for everyone. No woman should feel she must do all the running-around after people, and likewise, no man should feel he has to bear all of his problems alone, deny himself vulnerability. He should be just as capable of turning to male friends for support and comfort in difficult times, as female. But that’s a story for another blog.

Awareness is just part of recovery, of growing and learning how to be Yourself, without guilt. Without adherence to social/cultural/religious expectations, if these are going to cut off the light shining on as many facets of your personality as possible.

So I’ll post a couple more entries later, about challenging gender stereotypes/gaining equality, because it turns out I had more to say than I’d realised, and this was turning into a mammoth essay.

Cheers for reading.

A helping hand?

Almost two weeks ago, while scrolling through my Twitter feed on a Friday afternoon, I came upon the thought processes of a recently-added friend/follower. The words leapt off the screen and grabbed me. That’s the only way to describe it. I had been keeping an eye on her timeline, watching with growing concern as the images and language became ever more desperate. She had recently undergone an operation, and was in considerable pain; this, and bipolar disorder, made her feel vulnerable and frightened. Though she had support from real-time friends, her use of Twitter as an outlet for thoughts and emotions meant she had gained a network of followers – many of whom are in similar situations with regards to mental health – who were ready and willing, at any time, to talk back.

I must admit, I had little to say at first. When we suddenly arrive into each others lives on social media, it’s like dropping into a chapter midway through a text. Flipping backwards, to move forwards; reading what we can, to gain context. So I stayed silent and still for a bit, watching her tweets scurry through my feed. There didn’t seem much I could do, except offer Favourites by way of acknowledgement / agreement, and the occasional tweet in response to subjects that hit home. Things I could relate to.

That is, until the Friday afternoon when it became clear that her words might progress into actions. Without going into too much detail – a crisis point was hit, one I recognized and remembered all too well. The language, I’d heard it in my own mind once, circling like ravens.
I attempted suicide twice, in 2003. Both times, I “chickened out” – my words, then – and phoned for an ambulance.

(You could say that anorexia nervosa, which I’ve had since age 16, is also a form of slow suicide. It’s the long fall before the drop, but it has the “safety blanket” element of offering security and control to the sufferer. I didn’t want to die, with this illness. I just wanted to be strong. But when holding those packets of pills in my hands, I didn’t want to be here. At all.)

So when scrolling through my friend’s tweets, finding more and more references to death and ending it all and despair, I knew this wasn’t just a “bad day”, or black humour. I’d witnessed the downward trend, as had others who follow her, and we sought to keep her online by tweeting replies wherever and whenever possible. Just to keep her talking, and to offer advice and encouragement. She responded, and – though clearly disorientated and in pain – took the responsibility of asking for professional help. A brave move; she acknowledged to me at a later date (and I can’t tell you how grateful/glad I am that there was such a later date), “I have lots of very good friends. My issue is, and has always been, asking for the help I need.”

Sometimes, the hardest part about seeking help is letting go of the reins.

The Samaritans charity have launched a smart phone Twitter app, the Samaritans Radar, which is designed to alert its users to potential “red flag” tweets that have been gathered by an algorithm, and pushed to the app via words such as “tired of being alone”, “hate myself”, “depressed”, “help me” and “need someone to talk to.” Users receive an email alert, and the app asks whether such tweets are a cause for concern. The charity itself doesn’t get involved directly unless requested.

Reading about it this morning, I offered a cautious thumbs-up. The premise seemed sound. Who wouldn’t want to be alerted to a potential crisis, such as the one I witnessed? I’d rather know about friends’ anxieties, their blue-black moods, and be able to offer help wherever possible. The app comes with guidance on how to deal with potentially fragile situations – advice which, I must say, is fundamental in progressing the public narrative on mental health disorders. There’s always room to learn more, to do away with misconceptions and prejudice. Where better to do so than on social networking sites like Twitter, where the target audience (18-35 years old) spend much of their lives? Many of them, like me, use the platform as an outlet for thoughts and feelings which can’t be offloaded in real-time. Sometimes, that “shouting into the abyss” element is actually positive. I don’t really care if I get a response, though they’re welcome; and I admit, more often than not, my projections are via other’s words, in RTs. I still have a hard time articulating how I feel.

But – the fact is, I’ve chosen to do so, and others have the choice to look, to read, to reply, to ignore.

The app has proven to be divisive, with as many – if not more – Twitter users condemning as applauding it. Through the hashtag #SamaritansRadar, they are voicing their concerns and recommendations to the creators. While some agree that it is a good idea in theory, put into practise it could cause issues with invasions of privacy, the potential for retention of personal data; perhaps more crucially, there is no opt-out function for people having their tweets screened. There is no way of knowing if this is happening, as the app retains the privacy of the user.

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The backlash to this has produced quite a raw response, with Twitter users stating that they would have to lock down their profiles – making them Private – in order to keep projections of thoughts and feelings about mental health, within secure and comfortable boundaries. Considering these are the people who are feeling most vulnerable, it’s not a step forward in terms of social networking.

We all have days when the world is filtered through nightshade, or the white noise upstairs is louder and more disturbing than ever. For many users of social media, the only way to vent is to get the words out via a tweet – or a whole ream of them. In my case, I then sit back, rub my cheek and think “well, for fuck’sake,” and feel a bit better, and get on. Would I want to be offered help/advice? I probably wouldn’t turn it away if well-meaning. But that’s assuming all replies to Twitter users WOULD be well-meaning, which is the point of former Samaritans volunteer Emsy’s blog post: not all followers are followed back. They’re not all trusted friends, and there is the potential for abuse of the app, with stalkers using it to track a tweeter’s darkest moments. Which is a horrendous thought.

“The app itself is called the ‘Radar’ app, and even in the name gives connotations of being watched, being monitored. How likely are you to tweet about your mental health problems if you know some of your followers would be alerted every time you did? Do you know all your followers? Personally? Are they all friends? What if your stalker was a follower? How would you feel knowing your every 3am mental health crisis tweet was being flagged to people who really don’t have your best interests at heart, to put it mildly? In this respect, this app is dangerous. It is terrifying to think that anyone can monitor your tweets, especially the ones that disclose you may be very vulnerable at that time.”

Then there’s the misconception-factor. It’s got quite a scope. What if I, or anyone else for that matter, chose to use humour to detox a bad mood – would hyperbole, satire etc, be recognized by the app? Apparently not. This would be up to the human element on the receiving end, to filter out what was meant, and to act accordingly. Or not. I have a dear friend who blogs regularly, the sort of pitch-dark stuff that caused a former teacher to call him in for a chat about the state of his mental health. Said friend laughed it off – it was his way of venting, via twisting bramble words and noir humour. He’s normally quite a chipper character. What the app is saying to some people, is that to remain inconspicuous, they must smile.

Twitter is itself a microblogging site. Many users choose to divulge information about themselves, and while it could be argued that this is their own responsibility to monitor security levels, the fact is they retain the right to speak freely – without the feeling of being monitored.

If several people are all following each other, and someone is sending out multiple “red flag” tweets, will they then be piled in on by well-meaning but possibly intimidating attention, when in an distressed state? I know I get a little frazzled when several tweets/messages come in at once; trying to reply to them, I often just shut the phone down and go away for some quiet time, completely alone in my head.

Imagine trying to negotiate various tweets/messages from
people you might not even be following back, while trying to offload about things that won’t make it into real-time.

Which is the main fear of many Twitter users now. In putting their words out onto timelines, will there be a constant – silent – analysis? Paranoia is not something to be downplayed, here, or looked upon as a side-effect of the app. It is the very real state of mind for a lot of people, along with feelings of fear, anger, frustration, pain, confusion … numbness. As another friend put it this morning while discussing the app, “For me twitter is somewhere to vent – sometimes all you need is somewhere to be able to say something to get it out of your head and then it is gone. Though I know that’s not the case for everyone.”

This brings me back around to the crisis point of that Friday afternoon. Would I have preferred an app to locate the tweets of a friend which might have gone missing from my feed, given that it is now curated by an algorithm like Facebook? (I’ve noticed tweets going missing, only to appear at later times or to be located on friends’ own timelines.) Would I feel safer, knowing that her tweets could be pushed to me if something like this happened again?

I’d rather be a good friend, and try to keep consistency by checking in on her wellbeing – and that of others I care about – on a daily basis. Not when an app tells me to.

I’d also watch out for a recurring trend of negative thoughts with anyone I am following. While I’d like to think that friends could come to me if they felt they needed to offload, sometimes shouting into thin air is a very pleasant experience. Not everyone wants an intervention; and not everyone I am following, follows me back. It’s a delicate balance between Twittiquette and genuine concern. As I told a dear friend recently, we can only be there for so many people in our lives, on and offline.

It’s worth checking out the #SamaritansRadar trend to get a better idea of the current mood surrounding the app. While I do applaud the charity for its initiative – using social media to encourage people to reach out to each other (let’s face it, we spend much of our lives online) – the conception of the app seems a bit flawed. No opt-out function. Glossing over the fact that tweets in the public domain are still the personal data of the identified tweeter, as specified in data protection expert Jon Baines’ blog:

“A tweet from an identified tweeter is inescapably the personal data of that person, and, if it is, or appears to be, about the person’s physical or mental health, then it is sensitive personal data, afforded a higher level of protection under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). It would appear that Samaritans, as the legal person who determines the purposes for which, and the manner in which, the personal data are processed (i.e. they have produced an app which identifies a tweet on the basis of words, or sequences of words, and push it to another person) are acting as a data controller.”

And perhaps the most damaging: the breach of trust felt by some Twitter users, who are warning followers to identify themselves if they are using the app, so they can be blocked.

A sad state of affairs. Not the Samaritans’ intended outcome, I imagine. Perhaps with a pull-back and review of the app’s production, a resolution might be found – with tweeters encouraged to engage with each other over its use, rather than using it in secret to perpetrate already-present fears.

Updated (05/11/2014) to include: Change.org, petition to shut down the Samaritans radar Twitter app, by Adrian Short (@adrianshort).

Updated (14/11/2014) to include: Samaritans app removed, all data to be deleted.