a caterpillar grows to be a butterfly

February 29, 2012

…and I’m growing up to be me!

So it was recently my birthday, and my very imaginative and passionate husband bought me a slew of gifts, all under the theme of self-care and self-development. The gifts related to all aspects of the person – gifts to encourage my flourishing physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Magic.

The gifts to encourage my intellectual development were three recently published books of popular feminism.

One of them is Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan. I’m a big fan of Flanagan and have been reading her superb articles in the (wonderfully high quality) Atlantic Monthly magazine for years. Since I no longer have  a subscription to the paper version, I actually do this sad dinosaur thing where I print out Flanagan’s articles and save them for a time when I can sit down with them comfortably and savour every word. I was pretty excited about receiving this book, as I didn’t even realise she had been preparing it for publication.

But this isn’t a review.

Girl Land refers to the time in a young person’s life when she is not a child and not yet a woman. Girl Land is that dark, cloudy, mysterious bit in between that none of us fully understands.

Flanagan makes a point somewhere just after halfway through that staggered me. She tells the story of how her mother would try to surprise her with conversations about men and sex at unexpected moments when she could not get away – the example she gives is when she might be washing the dog. Her mother had an urgent message that she needed to get across to Flanagan: don’t marry a man just because you want to sleep with him – just sleep with him. Flanagan found these types of conversations unbearable and would do everything she could to escape them. Her mother, also, was profoundly uncomfortable and between the two of them they managed to communicate with amazing ineffectiveness. After these awkward encounters she and her mother would retreat as quickly as possible to the safer territories of Flanagan’s girlhood, with mother preparing a special meal for her, or taking her to the mall for a new pair of sandals. The bit that struck me was this: during these post sex-talk treats, Flanagan would feel like a fraud – as though she was deceiving her mother. She had, as all teenage girls do, a private fantasy life – the stuff of burgeoning sexuality in a young woman – and she was considering when and how she would begin her own sexual activities. She felt strongly that she could not have it both ways: the tender love and pleasure of being cared for by a parent in a clearly defined role, while simultaneously becoming a fully developed sexual woman.

This point hit me like a ton of bricks.

I recalled with a sudden clarity all of the discord I experienced between myself and my parents during the Girl Land years, as some kind of incoherent battle raged between me being their little girl and me becoming a young woman, with inconvenient sexual appetites in tow. These appetites were beginning to express themselves, from their point of view, presumably in the long-haired tattooed boys I was bringing home. The sad part is that I did insist on growing up, thus excluding me from the previous parental affections of my girlhood. They simply could not cope with my transition into adulthood. Parents are terrified of their teenage girls becoming women – what if they get pregnant? I now realise that this withdrawal of my parents’ affections in the face of my impending adulthood was the reason why I was such a fiercely and uniquely independent young person. By leaving my childhood behind and becoming a young woman, I had given up my right to parental guidance and care, and therefore I had to learn to fend for myself.

In this moment of recollection, I remembered many other stories – the stories of my female friends – who in one way or another (and particularly those raised in religious households – which I was not), were given powerful messages that they were to either remain firmly in girlhood, or they were to quietly reach adulthood with a kind of sexual purity (and preferably disinterest) of which no teenager is really capable. I think of one person in particular who was harshly excluded by her family in her decision to date a non-religious young man. Their relationship was obviously screaming !SEXUAL RISK! !SEXUAL RISK! to her family, and so she was subtly shunned until the relationship ended. The irony here is of course that religious teenagers are no less sexually active than non-religious ones – they just tend to have more guilt…or be more selective in what’s sexually permissible and what’s not…or be late starters. :)

Anyhow. This is all just a little food for thought. I may well come back to this subject at another time. Suffice to say, Flanagan is worth reading.


what if baby i cannot see the sound?

February 26, 2012

Talking of full voice, check this out. At once.


They are the tUnE-yArDs

the baby-voice phenomenon

February 22, 2012

Now, I don’t want this post to be woman-bashing or female artist-bashing, but there is a current trend in music that gets right up my nose and it is the Baby-Voice Phenomenon (or BVP). This is where women with beautiful voices, ample songwriting talent and great vocal range adopt the voice of a four year old while singing.

The absolute worst (and admittedly extreme) cuplrit of this has to be Joanna Newsom. Here is Joanna speaking. Now here is Joanna singing. Now I’m not denying that this woman has talent. But she is clearly emulating a young child’s voice in order to achieve some sort of floaty ethereal effect. I can’t bear it.

Other culprits include Regina Spektor and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley), in their earlier days. They have now embraced full voice thank goodness, and would blow the socks off you live. Feist is another one, although her particular issue is unnecessarily slurring her words softly together, making it difficult to catch what she’s saying. The slurring effect really bothers me, too.

One who is guilty but to a lesser degree would be Lisa Hannigan, who almost whispers her words and sings in the softest tones possible, with a little bit of slurring, and a complete elimination of her Irish accent. Again, very talented, but seemingly holding back on full voice and full expression.

Why are women doing this?

I have a theory, and it might be bullshit. But it seems to me that rather than women embroiled in the BVP wanting to be perceived as little girls, or being romantically linked to their girlhood, it is instead something of a rejection of their womanhood – their strength of presence in adulthood. All of these women are photographed and filmed and styled to be as alluring as possible. I get this: their beauty is an added element that helps to sell their records. They’re not wearing pigtails and gingham dresses and saddle shoes with white socks.  They are, for the most part, hipster to the max. They are twenty-something girls…sometimes a little older. Except that they’re not girls: they’re women. I am frustrated when I can hear a beautiful voice that just won’t reach a powerful pitch – its own peak; not some imagined peak. I’m not asking for the terminally despised so-called cheese of Celine or Mariah: just full voice of the singer in question. To me it seems to be linked to the all too common need of women to shrink themselves – to be smaller, thinner, quieter, daintier. Some women love “mini” things (and not so that they can pretend they are giants either) – miniature cupcakes, tiny dogs, tiny phones, small cars – and God forbid they would drink out of a pint glass – so ungainly! And women notoriously shy away from leadership and centre-stage, preferring to take a back seat.

I was once talking to someone I know who was trying to overcome her crippling self-consciousness. She said something that really struck me: “I deserve to take up every inch of space that I occupy. I just need to believe this.” I was stunned! Why do we as women do this: why do we try to shrink down, to hide our talents, to be less than we can be?

Time for a change. I’m off to sing some power ballads at the top of my voice, to the utter horror of the neighbours.

extraordinary machines

February 1, 2012

Let’s begin with a little Fiona Apple.

Now quit yer bouncing and read on.

Our bodies truly are extraordinary machines. I found out from the wonder that is the internet that our noses have smell-memories that remember up to 50,000 scents! That’s a lot of smell. And pound for pound, a human baby is stronger than an ox (lazy though…very lazy). Apparently, each of our kidneys contains 1 million individual filters, and these filter an average of around 2.2 pints of blood per minute, and expel up to 2.5 pints a day of urine (yum). Our lungs contain over 300,000 million capillaries and laid end to end, they would stretch 1500 miles (that’s the distance, as the crow flies, from Dublin to Rome). Nerve impulses to and from our brains travel as fast as 170 miles per hour (but still not fast enough to feel pain instantaneously when stubbing your toe). In an average lifetime, the human body produces enough saliva to fill two swimming pools (instead of chlorine, you’d get lots of lovely electrolytes, mucus, blood, antibacterial compounds and enzymes). Our sneezes leave the body at speeds up to 100 miles per hour, and we have a strange penchant for vocalising them. Human beings are the only animals to shed tears linked to emotion and despite how it may seem at times, human hair is virtually indestructible!

That kind of information, despite the fact that we are literally embodying it at this very moment, doesn’t mean all that much to us. Our lived experience resonates more with the reality that our body is quite simply our vehicle for getting us around. We use it to express our affections and our violences. We use it to communicate, to think, to work and to act creatively. We spend our days consumed with meeting its needs – hygiene, warmth, food, water, rest etc.  We’ve got exactly one each and they are in various states  of disrepair. We spend half our time abusing them and the other half treating them with reverence. We move them in time to music and we sing with them and beat our hands together in appreciation of things. We type and write symbols that we’ve all agreed on and form words which started in our brains. We walk and run long distances. We sit in metal tubes and boxes that mechanically transport our bodies at astonishing speeds. We sit in the same place staring at computer screens for hours on end. We hug and kiss and have sex or masturbate. We value our bodies’ health very highly and experience deep shock when we learn that they are, as all bodies do, breaking down. We look in the mirror and we experience indifference, disgust, insecurity or perhaps, tentative, joy? We stiffen up when angry. We loosen up when drunk. We stretch like cats in the morning and at night. We wriggle our toes inside our shoes. We smell our own armpits. We pound pavements and climb stairs and lift weights and imitate the movements of Wii fit instructors or Davina McCall. We absorb beauty through our eyes, our noses, our mouths and our ears. We taste sweet, sour, salt and bitter. We pray with our bodies. We meditate from our bodies. Our bodies work, work, work at keeping us alive. Our bodies store extra calories as adipose, for rainy days. Our bodies fight infections and diseases, making us hot and achy. They cool us down with sweat when our temperatures rises. Our bodies produce antibodies for our babies, who get nourishment from our milk. Our bodies climb mountains and lie in sunshine and snuggle babies (anyone’s baby!) and hold hands. Our bodies seem to vibrate and pulsate with emotion: have you felt your blood boil? Or your heart sing? Our bodies are wondrous, stunning miracles of nature that carry us and are us and reflect our ages and experiences in their very substance. They are instruments of action, of every action, in fact!

And yet, somehow, for some reason, we have come to a place where we’re simply not allowed to like those bodies…if they’re in any way fat.