I cut myself. I have done since I was about 14. I don’t need to go into the reasons why; it’s just a fact to me now. It’s a part of my life, and the life of my family and my partners and my friends. A lot of my friends do it too; they’ve got different problems to me but they deal with it in the same way. It’s actually a kind of perpetual mundanity now; of course it’s deeply distressing, but it’s a distress that I’ve had to get used to.
I’ve tried to stop quite a few times. The longest I went without harming myself was two years, but I soon spiralled again after a stressful few months and haven’t stopped since. It’s put a huge strain on my relationship with my parents, who obviously find it difficult to understand. My boyfriend deals with it pretty perfectly but it, clearly, upsets him. Past relationships have completely deteriorated due to their lack of understanding. Sometimes I get approached by strangers; once, a woman followed me around Tesco after spotting my scars to inform me how the love of Jesus would save me. People on the tube stare without embarrassment. It’s something I’m always uncomfortably aware of.
I’d say it’s not an understatement to claim that mental health and self harm affect my life in a significant way. It dictates pretty much everything, from my relationship with my mother to my fashion choices (long sleeves every day forever, anyone?). At points, I’ve been suicidal.
So, how did I feel when I saw your front cover, which told in excruciating detail how Robin Williams died? I felt triggered. I felt like I wanted to burst into tears on a packed train. In short? I wanted to cut myself.
Your cover was irresponsible and exploitative and probably the cause of a great deal of distress. I’d refer you to the media guidelines on reporting suicide - but I’m sure you’ve already read, and ignored, them.
Because hey, who cares about suicidal or mentally ill people or people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
Great headline, right?
It’s an inarguable fact of life that, in many areas of popular culture, women’s bodies are presented in a heavily sexualised way. Magazine covers, lads mags, advertisements, pornography and even fashion editorials; no matter your opinion of the phenomenon, sexualised imagery of women is hard to escape in 2014.
What can be more difficult to find, however, are healthy attitudes to genuinely autonomous expressions of sexuality. Whether it’s attitudes to casual sex, to women who act in porn or to women who perform other forms of sex work, the male gaze is often not only consumptive but judgemental to boot. Women engaging in any of these areas are dismissed as “sluts” and “whores” or thought of as “dirty”. The message is clear; we want to fuck you, but we don’t respect you. Or, in the words of a sex worker I follow on Tumblr: “you’ll jack off with your left hand and point with your right”.
This can be very clearly illustrated in the recent case of the “Duke Porn Star”, an American college student whose work in adult film was “exposed” by a fellow student. The surrounding furore, as well as the death threats and abuse she’s received, were explained in her words here. It’s pretty shocking (but sadly, unsurprising). Casual sex is seen in much the same way. Many women I know have been criticised, mocked or judged for their sexual expression - sometimes even during a sex act! If your number of sexual partners is deemed too high, that’s a crime too; even if the person judging you has themselves contributed to that number. Stripping faces a similar fate; I’ve heard friends of mine say they’d happily visit a strip club and pay for a lapdance but would “never” date a stripper.
What does it say, then, that genuine sexual autonomy is looked down on? It says that women are still expected to be passive receptacles. That sex, for women, is still totally performative; we’re expected to engage in sexual behaviour, but heaven forbid we actually enjoy it. And don’t even THINK about seeking it out yourself, or seeking a career in the sex industry; even when you talk eloquently about your choices they’re still deemed to be the wrong ones. You must be defective, or damaged, or have experienced some kind of trauma (the “stupid little girl who doesn’t understand her actions” as Belle Knox was told). There’s no way that a woman can enjoy sex as freely and self-indulgently as a man!
If you have a political or personal problem with promiscuity, porn or sex work, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t want to engage in that behaviour yourself, that’s also fine. What isn’t okay, though, is using the objectification of women for your own ends and then denigrating the women who are providing you with pleasure. The bottom line is this: if you disdain or vilify sexual autonomy, you don’t deserve to benefit from it.
As women, we’re often defined by our relationships with men. Even in discussions of rape or sexual violence, women are referred to as “someone’s wife, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister”, as if our personhood alone is not worthy of mention. And, while we should never be defined by our relationships with any other person, our friendships with other women may have the radical potential to help us escape this compartmentalisation.
Media depictions of women’s friendships are somewhat lacking. There are two choices: either you hate other women and view them as competition, or you have a facile, “girls night out” relationship with your friends, where all you talk about is shoes and cocktails. It’s a false dichotomy that fails to take into consideration the true depth and spirit that really exists between women.
Our conversation is often referred to as “bitching”, “gossiping” or “girl talk”, as if nothing of worth could possibly pass between two women. Sex and the City is often derisively evoked here; all we do is sit around drinking in expensive bars and laughing about our exes, right? For a bit of variety we might mention shopping, or some other girl who we hate, or maybe even our weight. They are the only topics women can possibly manage, such is the intellectual capacity of our weak and feeble brains.
Do I talk about clothes and relationships and sex with my friends? Of course. But that doesn’t mean our friendship is somehow any more trivial than that between two men, that because we talk about these things we’re somehow less intelligent or our connection is in any way diminished. Moreover, why are those topics denigrated and perceived as insignificant? Purely because they are “feminine” and associated with women.
Talking about, and sharing, a lived experience, is absolutely not trivial. The way we travel through the world is indubitably defined by our gender, and a wordless appreciation of that from another woman can go a long way in our understanding and acceptance of ourselves. Furthermore, this kind of friendship allows us to share experiences that the men in our lives are unable to fully understand. Our experience of sexual harassment, sexist jokes or other everyday misogynies are often, sometimes unwittingly, undermined by men, and we’re left feeling unimportant and ignored. This is something I’ve never experienced in my friendships; I’m always believed, I’m always supported, I’m always left feeling as if I do indeed have value.
And you know what? Friendship between women is more than just a simple relationship; it’s a feminist act. Patriarchy seeks to undermine women, to diminish our achievements and to separate us from each other. Friendship between women can form a sturdy wall that slowly pushes against this discouragement; a vital community in which we feel safe and supported, in which we can express the way we feel without being shouted down or accused of exaggeration. It can provide us with the energy and confidence to speak up, to begin to stand our ground and let our voice be heard.
Like it or not, every aspect of a woman’s life (her career, her sex life, motherhood) is deeply saturated with complex gender politics. The solidarity that comes hand in hand with women’s friendships can allow us to navigate these nuanced difficulties with the support, understanding and love that patriarchy has tried to deny us.
Depression is really fucking boring.
There; I said it. It’s boring. There’s no real sex appeal in being fucked up, no matter how compelling it may have seemed in Girl, Interrupted. There’s no brightly burning blaze of creativity or a deep insight into the human condition. It’s actually fairly banal. The most interesting thing about me, when depressed, is the fact that I smell like a bin.
You see showering, when depressed, is extraneous. Food, when you remember to eat it, is a tasteless, grey mush. Music loses its appeal unless you’re using it to fuel your own self-pity, in which case it’s invaluable. Want to read a book? Fat chance. Even if you can drag yourself out of bed long enough to reach a bookcase (unlikely), you’ll be able to read approximately 3 sentences before the letters start crawling off the sides of the pages. Want to get dressed? Good luck with that one!
Having a relationship with your own mental health can be tricky. Self pity and self hatred are peppered with despair, hopelessness and sorrow, making the experience of having depression somewhat like Existentialist Literature Bingo. Once medication or therapy or simply time have beaten your brain back into obedient submission, there’s still an ever-present vigilance that monitors and pounces on every bad mood. ‘Is it normal to be anxious about this?’ it asks; ‘is this a bad day at work or the start of a breakdown?’
Because of this, it’s easy to become hooked on understanding why and how. Every mechanism of my brain is analysed and dissected, every whim or feeling jumped upon. It can become difficult to know where I begin and depression starts; how much of ‘me’ is a direct result of mental illness.
I saw a description of mental illness as being “the old paint under the new”; it’s an integral, instrumental part of yourself, even if you’re functional again. It’s the heartbeat that never ceases thumping slowly behind everything else; quieter, maybe, than it was before, but unmistakably present. It’s the numb ache that steadily throbs just behind your consciousness when you’re in a meeting, or on the phone, or stood in the shower. It’s the whisper that follows you home and sits on your shoulder and makes you doubt yourself. It might duck out of sight when you turn to face it head on, but it’s still there, omnipresent.
This, combined with the obsessive self-fixation that comes hand in hand with depression, can make it easy to feel that you have no real personality underneath it all. Would I be as empathetic, as sensitive to other people’s pain, if I were ‘normal’? Would I love as intensely or as deeply? Would I even love the things I love? Would the books and bands that have defined my life be deemed irrelevant or inconsequential? It might seem insignificant, but to me it’s a deeply disheartening thought; that some of the traits that are integral to ‘being Emily’ are only a result of a dysfunction.
But the longer I think about it, the more I realise that I am not my depression. There are things I’d never have felt or experienced had I been totally sane, and these have indubitably affected who I am now. Nevertheless, there’s more to me than that. I’d still be compassionate and kind. I’d still be a good writer - I’d still love books and I’d still be passionate about words. And most importantly, I’d still be a good person. And that, no matter how bad I feel or how deep I dive into depression, is something worth holding on to.
It’s around this time of year that the familiar, creeping pressure to diet becomes most prevalent. Overindulgence at Christmas combined with the endless barrage of weight loss ads and celebrity DVDs are a potent mixture, and one that can often lead to a pretty powerful feeling of self hatred. Don’t get me wrong, women’s bodies are under scrutiny all year round, but it’s in January that the “new you!” discourse becomes strongest. Just this week I’ve seen articles on “transformative” and “life changing” diets, and about 45,000 adverts for WeightWatchers and DietChef.
What we’ve become used to seeing is “slim”. Slim women who used to be fat are the favourite of tabloids, but any kind of slim woman is okay. The right amount of curve on your bum, the right kind of flat stomach, the right sized boobs and you’re set. Make sure you’re not too thin, though, or you’ll be described as “emaciated”, or aspersions will be cast about the state of your personal life - only totally stressed, ill people are skinny, right? You basically have to look like Jessica Rabbit - although Kelly Brook, the closest thing we have to a human equivalent, has been dismissed as being “chubby” in the past, so even that’s not quite enough.
I started going to the gym about six months ago in an effort to train myself for a 10k run I’m doing for Rape Crisis (obligatory sponsorship link here). It was around this time I started looking on fitness and health blogs for inspiration and tips; after all, I’d done no real exercise for years, and I didn’t want to get it wrong or lose my motivation. I found hundreds of blogs, Tumblrs and Pinterest boards full of motivational imagery, pictures of strong girls in bikinis, and meal plans; it turned out that my new, idle hobby was a big subculture.
At first, I thought it was great. It felt empowering to be given messages of strength rather than fragility, and it was so far away from the usual image of female “perfection” the media served up that I couldn’t see any harm in it. “Hey!”, I thought, “I’m not being told I have to starve myself!”. It was a novelty, as a woman, to feel like that. But the more I read, the more I realised that I’d been duped. It turned out that, while I didn’t have to eat baby food for two weeks or only drink juice for the rest of my life, I did have to go to the gym every day, cut out all sugar and be able to bench my own body weight. Oh.
Around the time I was becoming more critical of these images, Maria Kang, a mother of three, started obnoxiously asking fat women “what’s your excuse?” (Daily Mail link). Jennifer Lawrence described her workout routine for the Hunger Games as being focused on “being fit and strong, not thin and underfed”, and claimed she would “never starve herself for a role”. Is it just me, or is this sounding a little like body shaming? Being strong was no longer a lifestyle choice - it was yet another impossible mould.
It wasn’t just celebrities getting in on the act; as I looked further into the world of fitness and health blogs, I felt more and more pressure to adhere to certain standards. These women would never sit and eat a packet of HobNobs in one go! They have beautiful houses (which I don’t), eat meticulously prepared, nutritionally balanced meals (guess what - I don’t do that either), and all look like Jillian Michaels (no points for guessing that I DEFINITELY DON’T). Every time I ate junk food or skipped a gym session I felt more than the vague sense of guilt that comes from bailing on a commitment; I hated myself, and I hated my body.
The Internet is a bit of a funhouse mirror; it might reflect things, but it also distorts them. I’m fully aware that the bloggers, yoga obsessives and fitness mad mums aren’t perfect, and their lives are probably just as full of chaos and disorder as mine. And do strong women look great? Fuck yes. But when one body shape is used as a tool to attack women, there’s a problem. And, while I’m still going to the gym and training for my run, I’m no longer comparing myself to any other type of woman. Being myself is good enough.