White Women Drive Me Crazy

Originally published by Buzzfeed, this personal essay got over 1 million views in 4 days and I personally received hundreds of responses from people it resonated with. Still reading & replying.

Yesterday I stepped on a white woman’s yoga mat by accident and she looked at me like she had woken up to me standing at the foot of her bed, like I had just suggested we murder her husband and run away together. She looked at me like I had escaped from a zoo, like a hippo had found its way into this Brooklyn yoga studio and was casually waiting for the 8 a.m. class to begin. She looked scared, like she had just found out that the world really did end in 2012, and she had been going to yoga three times a week since then for no reason, because she is actually a ghost.

She looked at me like I did not exist in her world; but here I was, and she did not know what to do with me.

Sometimes white women look at the rest of us like they are hungry. These are the kinds of white women who might refer to us as chocolate, or coffee with or without milk, or Princess Jasmine. Common accompanying behaviors include commenting obsessively on our features; asking us to speak languages we have nothing to do with; really trying to take selfies with us; an uncomfortably overblown interest in our lives (especially when they find out we have heritage from Egypt or other suitably palatable brown countries their ancestors have stolen from); and using the brown hand emojis.

They say, “Are you okay?” when they know we are thriving.

Sometimes they look at us with grief and pity, like they’re watching a UNICEF ad rather than a person dancing very discreetly to Moby at a bus stop. This look comes from a place of assumption — for example, “It must be hard to be a liberated Muslim woman (let me save you).” And then surprise — for example, “You are so articulate.”

Sometimes they look through us with a hard, vacant stare after we have said something funny or clever, or when we look even better than we usually do. This look is also employed when it becomes no longer convenient or safe to be allied with us, and can be turned on very quickly and without warning. They say, “Are you okay?” when they know we are thriving. They say, “Are you okay?” instead of “I feel uncomfortable,” because they are not used to feeling uncomfortable and they are happy for us to be the problem instead.

Sometimes, when we defend ourselves, white women look at us with the utmost fragility. They claim access to emotions such as fear and pain without missing a beat, like they were born to do it, before we can even dare to consider that we may be frightened or hurt, too. Their eyes rattle in their sockets, saying, “Why do you punish me for having such a big heart?”

On an East London playground in 1999, the kids are playing kiss-chase. It was a playground game and potential site of trauma for many of us, where boys chased girls and girls chased boys, and if you were caught you were kissed. I didn’t play because I didn’t want to chase the boys and also I wasn’t invited to play because the boys certainly did not want to chase me, but I watched, and I wished I was a boy and I wished my boobs would come quickly. My first crush was either Mary-Kate or Ashley; I don’t remember which. I sat in front of the television before school, 9 years old, buck-toothed and wiry headed, lost somewhere in the space between wanting to kiss her and wanting to be her. Looking at her shiny pug nose felt warm, like toast or wetting the bed, and I was happy alone, watching her through the glass.

White women, especially the monied ones, are so dangerous because they are allowed to be so soft. Stroke by stroke, they construct a type of womanhood that viciously negates the fact their bodies still function as agents of white supremacy. They are so gentle with themselves that they simply cannot comprehend that they could be oppressed and yet still oppressive.

White women are innocent until proven innocent until proven innocent.

We are taught to walk home with our keys between our fingers for protection from men in the night, but no one tells us how to defend ourselves from the white women who will try to ravage us from the inside out, with a smile, a comment, a betrayal, a vital inaction, a look. How they will choose comfort over effort, how they will read this and think I am talking about someone else, another pardon. And even if we are told, even if our mothers tuck us into bed with a warning, we won’t truly hear it, because white women are innocent until proven innocent until proven innocent.

On the beach last summer, my friend J said, “Think about Islamophobia, transphobia, slavery, prison … Black and brown men experience as much gender discrimination as white women.” And within the safety of a nonwhite circle of friends in the sunshine, with no white feelings to protect, no white shock to absorb, we leaned in and considered it: the person who asked J if they are a “rug dealer,” the racism and fetishization of feminism, and all of the times I have walked through a room of white women to stand next to a man of color without even thinking about it.

It’s funny, because sometimes a white woman is so delicate that I will elicit a full-blown horror reaction from her just by standing too close to her stuff, even though she is a white woman doing yoga and so in fact none of this was ever her stuff at all. It’s not funny, because this look becomes a call to the police, becomes another brown person incarcerated in a cell or a psych ward, another black person murdered. Despite having received more love in my life than is reasonable, and despite being told I am beautiful, as an instruction, from the beginning, this look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.

The look at the yoga studio felt familiar, like an old relative I had not seen in a while and didn’t want to see. As I registered the look, I regressed to the childhood version of myself who did not know why I was being looked at or what I had done wrong, but knew what humiliation felt like and knew what panic felt like and knew what it was like to be a wild animal, a beast or a pet. The depressed version of myself, unable to be looked at by anyone, watching British TV dramas with entirely white casts in the dark and feeling cozy, or some fake version of that. The adolescent version of myself getting hot for Mary-Kate, for Cameron, for Scarlett, waiting for them to notice me, lick my face, touch my hair. Brown people are the greatest time travelers, existing so many places at once and yet definitely also here.

This look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.

We eat eggs and I tell Y about how when I was 8 years old, I taught my white friend, B (actually called Becky), how to count to 10 in Urdu. How at school the next day she looked at her feet as she shuffled past me, and the white teacher pulled me aside and asked me why I was bullying Becky, because Becky’s mum said I was bullying Becky, and that maybe it would be best if I didn’t sit next to her anymore. She suggested this with the kind of half-arsed, sad-eyed, apologetic shrug that white women perform when it is less of a scene to administer psychological warfare against a brown child than it is to challenge your fellow white woman.

I remember well the acute shock and confusion of that day. I had been so damn sure Becky and I were having a good time. I felt so guilty, despite my mother’s insistence that Becky’s mother was a racist bitch and that I had done nothing wrong. I felt frightened of myself and my potential to hurt innocent white girls without even realizing it.

“It starts so young,” Y says, when I stop talking. “How we learn to doubt ourselves, second-guess our intuition, mistrust what we know to be true, and all because white people are meant to teach and not to be taught.” Eighteen years later, the affirmation still feels fresh, like it feels godly to tell this story to the person I love and not have to explain the experience of constant emotional contortion, not have to explain why it hurts.

About two years ago, I walked into some art event in downtown Manhattan, realized I was the only person of color there, and immediately walked out. I guess my time being a token was over. In this city where emergency vehicles wail like mothers, like the worst has already happened, I have learned not to live in the shadow of whiteness. I have learned that I am the sun, the object and the shadow. I have learned to bend over, to shake my arse, to put my fingers deep enough inside myself that at the age of 27 I finally put a tampon in right. Cleanliness is overrated, and I have always seen beauty in the city.

I dug my bare foot into the purple yoga mat and held the white woman’s gaze.

My first panic attack was on a Northern Line tube carriage in London during the summer of 2011. I didn’t know what anxiety was yet, but I had it pretty bad, and I had become obsessed with the fear that I would jump in front of a train or be blown up, should I successfully make it onto one. Despite having no idea how any type of bomb works, I would methodically check everyone’s hands to see what they were doing whenever I got on a train or bus. This was my secret, because I was ashamed that I had become the horrified white woman, but the more I tried to suppress her, the more anxious I became.

I did not expect to shout at the white woman with the yoga mat, because I do not shout. I cry, I stay in my bedroom for weeks, I write, I make sly remarks to people I love, I cut myself, and I slap people too hard on the arm when they make me laugh, but I don’t shout. Maybe I’ll prove them right if I shout: “Look, it speaks.”

A couple of years after that panic attack, I was standing in a huge crowd of white people at a music festival, wearing a backpack with some wires inside. I opened it to get something out and I registered a sharp feeling of gratitude that none of them seemed frightened of me. Guilt, even, that I had put them in a situation that could be perceived as a threat. I’m the bomb, I realized, standing there. I am the bomb. I had not become the horrified white woman; rather, her panic, disgust and fear, her grotesque theatre, had found a home inside me, and it had flourished to the point of saturation. I was seeing explosions everywhere because I was finally ready to explode.

“Listen, it was an innocent mistake,” I shouted at the horrified yoga woman. You could also call it a generally audible remark, or one tangible thing in a giant sea of mental fuckery. Innocent. I am innocent. I have always been innocent. “So if you could fucking relax I would really appreciate it.”

I walked away, waiting for remorse, shame or anxiety to visit, as they usually do after any sort of confrontation I get into in white people’s rooms. They did not come, and in the space they usually inhabit I felt something like peace, or at least it was quiet.

Later I ask my friends, “Is this what it feels like to give no fucks? Has my time finally come?”

“Sweet dominion over white emotion,” N replies with a slow smile. R the poet says, “I want their bigotry to die in public. I want to kill it enough to become human.” Emerging from a cloud of cigarette smoke, P announces, “I think Princess Jasmine was the first brown femme I had a crush on. I mean, she was such a great princess of color until white women ruined it.” We look at each other and laugh.

At work last week, my colleague pulled me aside hurriedly and said, “I’m really trying to work through something in therapy, but if I can’t, I might have to drop a bomb on you later, okay?” I said, “Okay,” but I also could have said, “Why do white people always want to drop bombs?” or “Sorry, this dumping ground is full” or “In 2017, can white women relax?”

I don’t know if I liked sleeping with white women because I’m queer or because they all smell so good. Like if I pressed my body against theirs and breathed deeply enough, some of their clean might rub off on me. I just wanted to feel clean. I wanted to smell good. These days I mask my smell with the scent of roses and a Burberry perfume I can’t afford and everyone says I smell good but I don’t fuck white women anymore. ●

In Defense of Self Defense: Why The MacDonalds Workers Who Beat Up The Racist Are Heroes

Published by Media Diversified.

In 2001 I was sent to my first day of secondary school with the instruction that I am clever and beautiful and that if anyone hits me I am to hit them back ten times harder. Survival knowledge. But I still close my eyes during battle scenes. You know. I don’t like violence, I don’t choose it. It makes me feel sick. In fact, I still haven’t watched the video of the MacDonald’s employees beating a man who called them “fucking pakis” while they were at work last Saturday night. I haven’t watched it because I do not want to expose myself to the physical attack, nor have to endure the psychic violence of witnessing racial abuse…again. I haven’t watched it, because I don’t need to see it to know they are heroes.

When I first heard this had happened, streets away from where I had gone to school in Bow, a heavily South Asian part of London, I felt simultaneously exhilarated by the bravery of these men, and guilty for feeling that way. I forced myself to mask my happiness that a racist has had his comeuppance by making excuses for him. He was drunk. Maybe his wife had just left him. Maybe his dog had just died.

I instinctively put myself in the white man’s shoes because that is what people of colour, particularly women, are taught to do. We are taught to make sure the whiteness around us is always comfortable, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when we are in danger, even when it comes into our place of work, baying for our blood, screeching so loudly our ancestors are woken. I feel guilty for my joy, and then I remember that there is nothing scarier than an angry white man.

It seems that for the most part we can all agree that racism, explicit or not, is “bad” and “sad” and tut, tut, “very unsavory”. However, there is a reluctance in discourse to see it as violence, indeed, a type of violence that wounds and tears and leaves scars buried so deep you cannot see them, so complex that when they do burrow to the surface, no-one has any idea where to fucking start. But it’s OK, because sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me, right?

The reluctance to acknowledge non-physical forms of violence makes sense. To do so would force all of us, who think we are pretty good people because we haven’t punched anyone in a while, to dig a little deeper. To accept all racism as violence would also categorize the actions of the staff in MacDonald’s that night as self defense. But those men are not allowed that dignity.

There is a racialised mental health crisis in the UK, whereby people of colour have acutely increased challenges to their mental health, and less access to support. Yet somehow in “detained populations”, people of colour are massively over-represented, with compulsory admission rates, specifically of Black people, to inpatient psychiatric units, almost three times greater than those of white patients. In other words, we must deal with our pain respectfully, or get locked up.

To me those men are heroes because they didn’t suffer in silence, or “do the right thing”. In every news report I have read, the white man’s violent behaviour has been “alleged”, his ‘racism’ in air quotes. This is part of the centuries-old project of colonial disbelief and denial of race-based oppression that keeps people of colour stifled, doubtful, behaving. Just last week two Muslim women in London had their hijabs pulled off by men in public, with no-one stepping in to help. The men in MacDonald’s are heroes for drawing a line in the sand. They are heroes for providing catharsis for all the black and brown people who can’t fight back. They are heroes because they will suffer for this, and they are heroes because that white man will not try that shit again.

Welcome to the front line of racism in 2016. Talking is really nice, conflict resolution is really cute, but it is not our job, as the receptacles of racist violence, whether physical, verbal or silent, to make the redemption process creative or fun for you. It is the white person’s job to simply not do it in the first place. Until then, people of colour have a right to self-defense in a world where no one else is going to stand up for us.

On Being Mad, Brown & Hairy

Felt very honoured to be asked to write this piece about growing up with body hair for gal-dem's first print edition. May god eternally bless the women who have made this publication possible. They have my heart.

Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don’t; Sometimes I comb my hair and sometimes I won’t; Depend on how the wind blows I might even paint my toes; It really just depends on whatever feels good in my soul (India Arie, Video. 2002)

I was 12 or 13 when I first noticed that I had a moustache, ugly black baby hairs resting on the light brown skin under my nose – what a drag. I bought some hair removal cream and set about resolving the issue. Looking in the mirror I was both amused and horrified by the yellow-white smear across my upper lip, the stench of egg and metal and the tingling. I left it on a little longer than was recommended at the behest of some sort of internal guidance system which already knew that the rules were not written for me. I left it on after the tingle became a sure burn because I knew already that pain was inherent in womanhood. I scrubbed the skin with a towel after I finally washed the cream off, until it was no longer brown, but red, swollen and hairless. I rose the next morning with a purple-brown crust where the fluff used to be, a rainbow-shaped scab that hurt when I moved my face. I remember rationalizing that this was better than having hair there, and crept out of the house to catch the bus to school. Later that day, my form teacher, a slight, dreadlocked white woman for whom I had made a copy of Ms Dynamite’s debut album earlier that week, cornered me in the playground.

“What happened to your lip, Aisha?”

“Nothing.” I was shocked by how tense my small body became, how hard my eyes were. My face was burning, this time with humiliation.

“I could guess?” she offered. That sounded like a fun game.

“Well don’t.” I walked away quickly into a sea of white hijabs and grey polyester trousers.

At my East London girls’ school, populated almost entirely by children of the Bangladeshi diaspora, we were weeding together in near silence, our bodies united by sweat, shame, desire and respectability. This silence would be punctured rarely and magnificently; that PE lesson in 2003 when Halima rolled her tracksuit bottoms to the knee, revealing a single, shining, hairless leg that we all took turns to feel in the queue for the hobby horse. The fateful afternoon when Layla, one of the bullies, locked me in a classroom and said she would only let me out if I told her where I get my eyebrows done. The first time I shaved my torso and brought it to school like show and tell, peeking from underneath my acrylic jumper, a little moon.

90229C1-R01-015.Jpg

When I was 19 I had my first relationship with a perfectly handsome and squat white man. I would watch him each morning as he woke up, rubbed a hand over his face, and ran to a lecture, feeling, and indeed looking, perfectly acceptable to the world. What freedom was this? It was around then that I really dug into my obsession with body hair (from the scalp line, down), and soon after, its intersection with mental health, queerness and race. I often describe it as an obsession, not to mark it out as a strange kook, a niche subject or an attempt at self-deprecation, but rather because the body hair obsession is a simple fact. We are all obsessed with body hair because we have no other choice. But so often it is not a creative obsession, it is one characterized by control of ourselves and others, psychological and physical elimination, self defense. I don’t care what people do with the hair on their bodies, but it really fucking bothers me that our choices are so limited – that something so personal and abundant is up for grabs. It is not just the hair on our heads the white hand wants to touch, and it is not only the physical touch we must be wary of.

The body hair focus in my work is central to my study of the mental health impacts of micro-aggressions. Body hair, for many of us, is a constant micro-aggression, attacking us from within, no matter how many times we rip it out from the root no matter how much we convince ourselves that it’s really not that deep. It exists as a mental burden, particularly for femmes, transgender and black and brown people because our stakes are always, always higher.

If we know, generally speaking, that western body hair norms and rituals are oppressive, and that the “choice” to rebel against them is stressful, then how is that same stress felt by a black person who is already navigating white supremacy on a daily basis? How is it felt by a brown person who has been taught respectability as a tool of individual and group survival? If hair removal is so deeply associated with being clean, pure, fair and lovely, how does that feel for those of us who live in fear of becoming the “dirty pakis” or “terrorists” or “monkeys” or “scum” that we have heard about? What are we reinforcing every time we shave? What are we saving ourselves from, what are we trying to be, what are we locking in? If body hair is used to police our gender, what does non-binary body hair look like? Where is liberation found in having and removing body hair? When does body hair feel good and how can we teach that to our children?

My art is a holy place of experimentation and imagining. It is fun and cathartic to make, and is a reminder to me and maybe others that body hair is not only a site of sadness, but one of subversion, resilience, challenge, beauty and joy – regardless of what we choose to do with it. I collaborate with and include only black and brown, queer and trans people because I can, and as a means of escape from a life spent explaining and reacting to whiteness. One of the things I love about working with body hair is that to some extent, everyone has got it. Everyone has a relationship to it, everyone has a story, and no matter how dubious or defensive people may be at first, everyone wants to tell it. It is somewhere between these survival stories, these bodies, these histories and these experiments that there is a freer freedom, a choosier choice, a less cluttered headspace, a body that just is. This is where I find my peace for the time being.

Staying Alive Through Brexit: Racism, Mental Health & Emotional Labour

On Brexit, for Black Girl Dangerous.

It’s the night of the EU referendum. I am three thousand, four hundred and fifty-nine miles from London, my home town, and I am scrolling. The UK is sleeping but New York is five hours behind and I am here, trying to pet the dog and have a nice time at a BBQ, while watching the votes get counted. I report the result of each area to my American friends like one of those text message services you didn’t sign up for, and we talk about it even though none of us know what it means. I text my mum to tell her what has happened while she was sleeping and in the morning she replies, “whatever happens, happens” which I momentarily mistake for apathy.

A few days later I am at New York PRIDE’s Dyke March celebration. The music is good, the weather is good, I look good in the photos, my friends are nice and I am the most comfortably gay I have ever been. This should be a good or at least average day but I realize I am uncomfortable. My eyes are darting, focusing on everything and nothing and my chest is getting tighter with every step, until it almost feels solid. I recognize this as the beginning of a panic attack and excuse myself. As I leave, an intuitive friend asks me how I feel about Brexit. On a quiet corner I cry and gasp and try not to piss myself. Brexit. I have never felt so far from Home.

I am still awake at 5am, the tightness in my chest now a watermelon. It is hard to breathe. A dear friend from London has called and I struggle to speak loud enough for her to hear me. I am searching for hope like lost keys, it’s here somewhere, I just had it. She tells me a story to try and cheer me up, a story in which all is not lost and London, in all its super-diverse glory, in all its tolerance, prospers. In this story, my friend witnesses a drunk English man in London tell a group of Eastern European women he does not know that he is so glad they are there. I tell her that is not a happy story.

And the unhappy stories keep coming.

“Haven’t you gone home yet?”

“Paki”

“Would you like a banana with that?”

I think about my mother as a child in 70s Britain, quiet, skinny, hairy, brilliant. The oldest of four, she was tasked with protecting both her immigrant parents and her younger siblings from the constant threat of physical and psychic white violence. I think about my grandmother who kept a bucket of water underneath her letter-box just in case a burning rag or a firework visited in the night. I think about my sister, my cousins, their brown skin, their Muslim names. I try to stop thinking. Eventually I fall asleep with my fists clenched.

The leave voters are not the problem. They are the product of hundreds of years of colonial divide and rule, most recently implemented via a vicious austerity program that has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with keeping the elite rich. I am most fearful of the white middle class liberals who voted to stay, who think they are Good White People but are actually People With Power Who Never Listen Because They Don’t Have To. These are the people who see themselves as separate from the leave voters and the black and brown people being attacked on the street; distinct, commentators with so much to say. I have spent hours, days and years in conversation with people like this, discussing structural inequality in the UK, isolation, fetishization, why I had to escape—and still they seem to think racism started a week ago.

They are the people who really scare me, because after this recent spike of hate crime normalizes, and we are left with the constant, low-key, micro-aggressive, soul-destroying racism that has always characterized life in the UK for people of colour, they will forget. They will continue to talk over us, to tell us we are “moderate Muslims”, to get paid to write and speak about things they know absolutely nothing about and to doubt us every time we try to talk about racism. To truly consider what life as a black or brown person of colour might feel like takes work – hard work, a rupture in a free existence and then inevitably, culpability. I have yet to meet a white person prepared to do that work, to step into that vulnerability. There are cheese and crackers that need to be eaten after all.

We can talk to the leave voters all we want, and we can blame old people if it makes us feel good, but they are not the people in charge now or in the future. They did not create this and this does not serve them. I am lucky enough to have experienced higher education among the elite, the artistic and political leaders of tomorrow. They are scary. They think their white liberalism is ***Flawless, they pretend to listen but they do not hear a thing, they use our bodies and our stories, they put our faces on their websites and they pretend they can’t see us when we finally collapse, just like their daddies did. They put our heads on sticks and call it multiculturalism.

As the days continue, well-meaning Americans make conversation with me about Brexit. Every time, I feel a wave of sickness, pain in my chest and a scramble of thoughts, flashbacks, half-words, reveries. I hold my stomach and speak through long, measured breaths. Despite moving to New York on a scholarship to study the mental health effects of oppression, I am finding it so, so hard to admit to myself that a news story is making me feel like I’m dying so many times a day. I wish the white people telling me that I need to be gentle, that I should talk to those who are different from me, had any idea what it feels like to be this tired.

We will talk. Right after we have dragged the UK’s legacy of violence from under its ugly, expensive carpet, after we have learned it, taught it, remembered it, accepted it as an explanation for everything we see. We can talk after we have taught our children mental and physical self defense. We can talk after we have spoken to each other, about mental health, survival, and the anti-blackness we perpetuate within our own communities of colour, oppressing black people in a space they should be safe. We have lots to talk about. If only middle class white people would stop talking.

In 1980 my mum, a first generation Pakistani living in North London, won a writing competition aged 16, using the prompt, An Event of Importance to my Community. In it she writes:

Today it is unsafe for any Asian person to walk down the street without his colour, speech, or dress being made fun of. You, the readers, may think that I am exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is, that no-one has yet realized the seriousness of racial prejudice… I fear that by the time we grow up, we will be too full of bitterness simply to sit down and talk things over. If anything isn’t done, we are going to explode and you will explode with us.

We explode every day and we piece ourselves together again. We explode for our ancestors, when we don’t expect it, and then again when we remember. We explode every time our trust is abused, every time it becomes obvious no-one heard us, every time we have to retreat, thicken our walls that keep us locked in, angry, safe. We explode.

WHITE PPL. IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE LONDON, JUST GO

I wrote this article for The Guardian in response to all of the annoying articles about people leaving London and New York for a better life because they can. They changed the headline to something that doesn't make sense because they got complaints about the original one from a whole lot of racists.

My friend Rick takes nice photos of England

London and I are doing fine, thanks for asking. North-east London, where I was born, is pretty much the love of my life – surprising and constant, quiet and loud, dirty and home. I understand why people want to leave London because I have eyes and ears and I read the news sometimes. I have survived an attempted mugging here and I have been unemployed for way too long here. I have had panic attacks on the tube and I have watched the glass houses sprout from my childhood playgrounds in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, up towards the sky, towards nothingness. I, too, have felt the loss of this city. I have tasted the bitterness of realising who will be untouched by these changes and who will suffer, who will have houses bought for them, and who will never have houses.

I understand there is a psychic toll of living in a place where you have to fight, for space, time, money. But what these Why I am Leaving London articles are missing is that, while the psychic burden of living in the city with the highest living costs in the developed world is very real for a brown person, in my experience the cost of living surrounded only by white people is worse.

London is super-diverse. Steven Vertovec coined that term in 2005 to describe a kind of rare and messy diversity that I have never seen anywhere else – a space where so many different cultures and so many different experiences of those cultures exist in such close proximity. I like the idea of super-diversity, but it is still only another term made up by a white man to describe brown people in London. For me, London is the smell of Pakistani cooking through the window of a Haringey council house, it’s the reggae coming from my neighbour’s garden and it’s a primary school newsletter translated into 11 languages. By 15, I could cornrow hair, paint henna on hands, play most Red Hot Chili Peppers riffs on electric guitar, and had embarked on a lifelong love affair with dancehall music. You can call that diversity, or even super-diversity, or just life. So many of my cultural and personal reference points were brown people, and I absorbed the knowledge that, while we may not run the world and while the girls on TV do not look like us, we exist, and we are rich in our own way. This is a great gift.

I definitely do not wish to push the idea that London is some sort of racial safe haven. We have got so, so far to go, and so much racism and abuse to drag from underneath the carpet, and that is why I need to be here. The smells and the songs are familiar here, and I am in close contact with people who look a little bit like me and are angry about the same things. I can exist, for the vast majority of the time, without being looked at and without reacting to that look, without questioning myself, and without being the only brown person in the room.

I feel the comfort of London peel away whenever my train pulls out of King’s Cross and the threat of overt racism is increased. A few years ago, I walked into a pub in Cornwall with my then boyfriend, who was white. A man at the bar asked him “What’dya bring that in here for?” referring to me (and before you go into overdrive searching for an alternative meaning to his statement, let me save you time: it’s because of the colour of my skin). Outside London, I am put immediately into a position of defence. This is something my white counterpart will never understand. That is why when I read the headline: Live in London? No thanks, I’m happier in Bath, I couldn’t help but laugh. Good luck to you, and the majority white population that will greet you there.

If you want to leave London, or you feel you have to, then go my sweet friend. But please, not another smug, reductive article about fleeing this capitalistic nightmare for somewhere you can work three days a week and grow your own vegetables. Not another article that ignores so much about what a place like London, a place where black and brown people live and have claimed spaces, brings to some of us and that is not attainable elsewhere.

Go back to the home counties. Go, and here’s what will happen. A few months into your new life you will realise that you haven’t seen a black person in a while, but you will still describe your new city or village as diverse to anyone you speak to because there is a Chinese restaurant and a cluster of guest workers. Sometimes you and your friends will discuss diversity while you’re drinking wine together in the garden but most of the time you will forget about it. Your beautiful white children will go to schools full of beautiful white children and the rest of the world will validate you and them forever. That is not the way I experience the world and it is not the way I want to. That is not the way my body moves through it.

I’m staying behind with the women who are fighting this government for accessible social housing in the places they grew up and know the taste of. We need to fight for better realities in London. Fleeing the only place we can call home is not the answer.

“i’m a hairy black bitch. i’m a hairy, beautiful queen. and I love it.”

This is an early version of my thesis on body hair, race, queerness and mental health. It was also published by a ny collective called YOUNG, COLORED & ANGRY that only features the work of black & brown people.

“Untitled” (Facial Hair Transplant, Moustache) 1972 - Ana Mendieta

Body hair is everywhere and nowhere. In the Western World, it is a weed that is pulled from women’s bodies systematically and without question, rigorously policed by a chokehold of patriarchy, capitalism, racism: shame.

In my examination of mental health, art and activism, body hair is often characterized as an abnormality or aberration, for example as the medical condition ‘hirsutism’, as a pornographic fetish, as something threatening or something trivial, and always something to be removed, something to be removed, something to be removed in every sense of the word.

In my first relationship and close contact with a man, I would watch, as he would routinely wake up, rub his hand over his face, and leave the house to begin his day. I have always worn very little make-up myself, and tend to let the hair on my head do whatever it decides to that day, but still, the disparity between us in freedom of movement and freedom of mind was clear – and I began to see this disparity everywhere I looked, in advertising, in the lives of my friends, in the university sanctioned reading lists that were considered exempt from criticism.

It was around then that I stepped into the shower to perform my regular shaving ritual, and a small thought pushed its way to the front of mind: that this act is absurd, and that the double standard that it is couched within is even more absurd.

It wasn’t until two years later, when I left university and moved into a large shared house in London, that I was able to transition from someone who “experimented” with body hair (which often meant wearing cardigans in the sunshine) to someone who could begin to accept her body, find it beautiful even, and begin to make choices about it that felt like they were hers.

Danni Paffard was the enabler of this transition, and my experience watching her is the basis of much of my strength of feeling around the importance of the image. Danni lived in the room above me and was always running. She would run up and down all the stairs of the four-floor shop-turned-house and would leave the house at 6am every day without fail to run the streets of London. She’s an environmental campaigner and is known among friends for being hilarious, and having a piercing laugh that can work as a routing device at music festivals when everyone’s phones have died. Danni is loved by men. She wears lots of mascara and has an asymmetrical fringe. She doesn’t remove any of the hair on her body and makes no attempt to hide this fact regardless of where she is. Danni Paffard blew my mind. I remember sitting opposite her for the first time, watching her tie her hair up with both hands, desperately trying, like a child, to catch a glimpse of her armpits.

Danni & friends

It wasn’t just seeing the hair so brazenly displayed that began rewiring my brain, it was the context, the fact it was so clearly situated among other stylistic choices: the make-up, the clothes, the fact that she laughed so often, danced so hard, felt desire and was desired, and yes, the fact that she was able to muster an unapologeticness which I felt could shatter the world.

I believe that much of her ability to live like this comes from an inherent confidence which is undoubtedly tied to social factors. That she is a white, middle class, able- bodied, heterosexual female cannot be overlooked, but neither can it discredit her role in my personal awakening. Besides, there are many, many women who share all her identity markers, and who do not challenge beauty norms in this way.

It was the fusion Danni Paffard represented (hairy social deviant meets outgoing stylish babe) that created a new level of understanding within me, and perhaps her being white and fulfilling so many other traditional beauty norms was part of that.

In a psychological review of work that has been done on ‘hirsuteness’ (“an excess of body hair in the male distribution” (Conn & Jacobs, 1997)), Keegan (2003), states:

A display of facial or body hair is only acceptable in women who in some way represent the ‘other’.

Two such categories of ‘other’ emerge: older women (i.e. past the need to be sexually attractive) and ‘foreigners’. To be happy about the presence of ‘superfluous’ hair is also the prerogative of women regarded socially as deviant, e.g. lesbians. One implication of this, which is not directly spoken, is that sexually attractive heterosexual women cannot display facial and body hair.
— Keegan, 2003:14

That body hair is palatable in situations where the women involved already lack value in society or have in some way ‘let themselves go’ speaks again to the importance of The Image, and particularly images which challenge those ideas by fusing unexpected images, for example, a woman’s hairy stomach with her manicured nails. These fusions are so powerful because they present the hair as an active choice rather than an involuntary byproduct of old age or illness or lesbianism. In short, images can remind women they have a choice, and what is feminism, if not the pursuit of the right to make empowered, agentic choices? As Lesnik- Oberstein writes:

Attendant on this issue is a challenge too to some (mostly popular) feminism to consider more carefully its formulations around ‘fun’ feminism and ‘victim’ feminism. The whole idea of make-up and clothing, or other ritual decorative practices, as constituting in any simple way ‘celebrations’ of ‘femininity’, serves to close down important questions around the coercive practices of social ridicule and social exclusion for those not willing or able to participate in this ‘celebration’, never mind the more general question of how women (or anyone) come to believe that they have freely ‘chosen’ to engage in certain practices.
— Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006:6

As I have grown in confidence and challenge myself to experiment with my body further, it has become a billboard; at clubs, on the subway, in classrooms, and I have come to think of it as an act of direct action, as well as one of deep self love. My body provokes many conversations with women, usually after a few drinks, and these have become the conversations I enjoy the most, as there is a real feeling that a psychological burden is being unloaded between the women participating, as personal stories that have often never been told before are being vocalized. These conversations are not always easy, however. Sometimes women feel judged or chastised by the sight of my body and the jarring reminder that there is another relationship we can have with our hair. I am met with a great deal of defensiveness that I try to dismantle, often by telling a few stories of my own, about my moustache and the other parts of my body where hair growth still disgusts me. Still, these conversations, by and large, become about choice, and by making something which is barely allowed to be seen so strikingly visible, that conversation has been achieved.

As I welcomed increasing discourse and activism around body hair, I couldn’t help but feel that something still wasn’t right. I began to realize that the experience is different for Women of Colour in a way I did not have the language to express, or was frightened to. But as feminism became more of a diverse space, and crucially, via social media, one that was easily accessible by diverse women, this very dilemma began to be played out.

‘Misogynoir,’ coined by activist Moya Bailey in 2013, became a go-to term on the blogosphere to describe the double bind felt by Women of Colour by virtue of our gender and race. And as I read more, it transformed my understanding of my instincts. It helped me realize why I felt uneasy as my white, middle-class feminist friends gleefully lambasted Beyoncé for the way she moves and for her contradictions, and why I felt uneasy about a feminist body positivity movement that did not seem to account for the unique experiences of black women.

Then in August of last year, writer Mikki Kendall called time on these double standards when she started the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It exploded, inviting Women of Colour globally a chance to grab the microphone. Using social media as a tool for unity, change and liberation, women tweeted vignettes of what it means to be a non-white woman and a feminist, and why that’s an important distinction to make.

My unease also came from the look in my mother’s eyes every time she saw my body hair. The look has been persistent over the years and communicates so much more than a feeling of disgust or judgment that I have come to expect. I could not help but feel that as a Pakistani woman who grew up in a racist 1970s Britain under constant threat of attack, there was a deeply racial and particularly social element to her discomfort with my choice, though that was never said.

This line of thought was reawakened while studying under photographer Deborah Willis. Around the same time I heard about gender professor Breanne Fahs’ course at Arizona State University entitled Race, Class, and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives. As part of this course she offered an extra credit for female students willing to grow their body hair and male students willing to remove it and document their experiences. This was widely discussed on social media and Dr Fahs analysed her students responses wherein she found body hair removal “an example of how women have internalized patriarchal ideals of femininity.” The interesting bit of this however, was that while the majority of her female students found the challenge “difficult” and “disgusting”, there were marked differences between the experiences of the female students of Colour, and the others. As she reports:

Reactions to body hair carried raced and classed elements, as women of color and/ or working-class women reported more familial regulation about body hair and far more social penalties for growing out their hair than did white or middle/upper class women. Women of color often expressed that body hair exacerbated their ‘differentness’ from white or middle/upper-class women in the course. For example, Ana compared the quality of her body hair with her white classmates:

When I compared my hair to the hair of the other girls in class, there was an obvious difference. My hair grew in thick and coarse. The other Latina women in the class understand that the white girls had it easier because their hair was thinner. I felt like people would think I was a ‘dirty Mexican’ because of the hair, that I was doing something nasty, and people would connect my body hair to my being lesbian or Mexican.

Body hair for some women of color became a marker of racial status, which made it harder to assimilate into white middle-class educational settings.
— Fahs, 2013:494

Isn’t it amazingly fucked up that a body that is maintained in line with society’s narrow code of acceptability (a white code) is one that has “looked after itself”, that has not “let itself go”? This is discussed by Foucault (1986) who describes it as a process by which regulation of the body comes to be seen by us as self-care, rather than as a process which may reflect gender or economic power relations – or racial ones.

With regard to respectability and body hair, the most striking testimony can be found in Breanne Fahs’ classroom study:

I come from a family that didn’t have much money, and to let yourself go is going against everything I have been taught. I’m always careful about coming across as respectable and clean, just so I don’t confirm all of those stereotypes people have of me as dirty and low class.

These comments reflect the association of body hair with both a lack of femininity and a lack of respectability, as women of color implicitly faced judgements about how their bodies circulated in public spaces as indicators of their racial or class statuses. Women of color constructed their bodies as having more at stake in this supposed loss of respectability.
— Fahs, 2013:494

No-one, as far as I can see, has tried to measure the psychological impact of body hair practices for Women of Colour, but it has been attempted for white middle class women (surprise!) with a very direct correlation proved across the ages between ‘hirsuteness’ and ‘psychological morbidity’. In a 1938 study by Rabinowitz et al on hirsutism and anxiety, women with hirsutism had significantly higher levels of anxiety than the control group. In 1992, Barth et al measured psychological morbidity in pre-menopausal women with hirsutism. The results found that there was a measurable correlation between hirsutism and social dysfunction in women, which in turn led to overall psychological morbidity in hirsute women.

More recently, Lipton et al, in their 2006, ‘Women living with facial hair: the psychological and behavioral burden’ found results that support many of the earlier studies carried out; namely that 1. Women with unwanted facial hair experience high levels of distress and that hair removal constituted an immense time and emotional burden for these women. In addition to the time burden, it appeared that many women had concerns about their appearance, felt ashamed, and lacked self- confidence. Thoughts about unwanted hair were constantly in the minds of most women, demonstrated by their frequent checking for hair, and 2. Although a large number of women perceived their facial hair to be severe, a finding more pronounced in mixed race and Asian women than white women, this perception was found to have little bearing on their psychological health.

It’s getting there but the research is lacking, or perhaps useless. What about women who are not considered medically ‘hirsute’? What about women who do not display signs of mental distress? What about black women? This is not a medical phenomenon, it is a social one.

There is clearly a mental onus around body hair rituals that exist outside of the realm of having a full blown mental breakdown which can be measured on some sort of psychological scale (though that obviously counts too). I can’t help but feel that for many women, particularly Women of Colour, the mental health effects are much more insidious, hidden among other pressures and concerns, hidden from ourselves,  couched confusingly within a culture where these practices are considered ‘self-care’ and the experience of participating in them, indeed a therapeutic one.

I am interested in the small stuff. When there is open critique of beauty rituals, this often revolves around the cost of them, the time they take and the pain that must often be endured. This is a neat retelling of the experience. A few studies I have read indicate that body hair is something that is “always on their mind”. This quote, found in one study on psychology and hirsutism is particularly harrowing:

Behavioural measures to conceal hair in this sample included covering the lower part of the face with the hands, staying in shade, maintaining physical distance from others, moving quickly to avoid close observation, wearing concealing clothes and an avoidance of physical contact.
— Zerssen et al, 1960

The mental burden of hair removal does not stop when the hair is removed. It has to be planned and timed around social events, wage delivery and potential sexual encounters. For example, if Layla has a work event on Thursday and a date on Saturday and wants to wax her moustache for the work event, she may encounter a problem as the hair will not grow back fully before her date on Saturday so she may not be able to remove it again before then, but the stubble will be showing, which is unacceptable for a date. Headspace.

Researching the psychology of body hair, I have found a repeated testimony of women describing hair as “dirt”, themselves as “dirty” and the process of hair removal as one intricately tied to the idea of cleanliness. Douglas (1970) suggests that a contravention of order by any object which is “likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications” becomes, “dirt”. This is striking and makes me think immediately of sexual assult survivors self-reporting as feeling “dirty” (Coy, 2009). So let’s think about race. Worldwide, darker skin is considered undesirable and dirty, with many practices employed by women such as scrubbing and bleaching, in efforts to lighten the skin (Craig, 2002). Many racial slurs imply dirtiness. So what is actually going on when women of colour take their hair off? What does it feel like to live with a daily triple burden of brown skin, body hair and a history of sexual abuse, as so many many women do? This framing around the concept of dirt helps to understand why so many women may become so observant of hair removal practices, which are closely related to ideas of cleanliness and purity. This shit goes deep. These ideas were also found in the testimonies gathered by Fahs:

Ruby confronted her own sexism and racism about body hair: ‘I also thought, like most people, that women who did not keep up on their appearance through body hair removal were lazy, dirty, and kind of crazy. . . I never thought that it could be a choice.’ Sharon, who could not finish the assignment because she found it intolerable, described her fear of dirtiness as a raced dimension: ‘As a black woman, I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by white people. I don’t need to be made aware of that any more than I already am.’ Ana similarly commented on her body hair by noting its raced and classed dimensions:

I found myself wearing makeup more often, at first unconsciously. Before I’d stopped shaving, I hardly ever wore makeup. I started because I didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t ‘take care of myself’ and I’m always aware of the fact that, as a Mexican, I have to go that extra mile. I’m not a college professor and I don’t live and work with other feminists like some of my girlfriends do. I’m a waitress, and my coworkers would think I was a freak.
— Fahs, 2013:495

———

Last year, Chinese women made headlines for “bombarding” Weibo, a social media site with images of body hair growth. Although framed as a competition, this was a highly politicized online campaign, including the statement:

Many people consider it personal hygiene or etiquette for girls to shave their body hair, be it leg hair or underarm hair. Guys, on the other hand, get away with sporting bushy armpits and a forest of hair on their legs, arms and even chests “because it’ s manly”.

In the UK, 23 year old Harnaam Kaur has made big headlines this year due to her decision to keep her facial hair and speak very publically about it. She has polycystic ovary syndrome and began growing hair on her face aged 16. After years of intense bullying, shaving, waxing, bleaching and a few suicide attempts, she decided, supported by her brother and close friends, to grow her beard out fully. For her there was a religious element too, that appears to give her strength in her decision. She began growing her beard shortly after being baptized as a Sikh and therefore not cutting the hair on her head anymore. In one interview she said, “It’s the way that God made me, and I’m happy with it.” She has since gone on to write articles, give many television interviews, and was the only woman included in a London exhibition by photographer Brock Elbank, that was in celebration of the beard. She also has her own YouTube channel on which she talks, directly to her audience, about her experiences. She has said:

I can laugh about it now but back then it affected me so badly that I began to self harm because it felt better than all the abuse I was getting. I’d talk to people with a hand over my face and I wore baggy, tomboy clothes to cover up the hair on my chest and arms… But I wanted to make my own decisions and live for myself – not anyone else… I’d had enough of hiding. I’d had enough of the bullying and the self-harming and the suicidal thoughts… I’m able to go out and shop in the women’s section without feeling I shouldn’t be there. I wear skirts, dresses and jewellery and I like to get my nails done like every other girl… If I had any message it would be to live the way you want – it’ s your journey and it’ s your life.
— Harnaam Kaur

Harnaam Kaur - Brock Elbank, 2015

A further black women and body hair related search on YouTube returns a video posted by Brittany Virginia Green, a young, American Black woman, called, “Why I DON’T Remove My Armpit Hair (OR ANY OTHER HAIR ;)”. It has had nearly 5000 views and has a constantly renewing flurry of mostly positive comments underneath. The video is powerful, funny and very thought-provoking. She says:

No. I’m not doing it anymore. And I feel like there’s a different type of sexiness to it. Like, a natural, womanly, womanly, sexual, sensual, aura to it. I don’t know how to explain it, I just feel like this is me in the raw. I’m a woman. I’m not nine. I have hair on my vagina. Get over it. Also… hair is psychic, it’s a part of our nervous system. It’s psychic to be sensitive, to know what we want, to be aware, to be self-aware, to be able to pick up on unsaid ques… hair assists with that. When we cut it off, we’re cutting that off… So, with all that said, I’m keeping all my hair, boo. Every last bit of it. Coz ain’t nobody got time to be sitting in the bathroom… doing all these things. I’m keeping it. I love it. I’m a hairy bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.
— Brittany Virginia Green

She also speaks to her black identity and its relevance in conversation about body hair:

Let me tell you this. I’m a black woman. My hairs are coarse, curly, and thick. I know a lot of Black women or mixed women or Latina women or Irish women, or Italian women can relate. We deal with razor bumps, dark marks, just all the complications that come with shaving your armpits, or waxing your bikini line, or doing all this stupid shit that we really don’t wanna do, but we do because it’s etiquette, it’ s an anomaly to see it on the street, or because our guys expect us to do it.
— Brittany Virginia Green

 

These intersections of race and body hair politics are empowering and promising and brilliant, bright and visual, but they are not common enough. I am collecting testimonies, using a call-out for self-identified Women of Colour to tell me “how your racial identity has influenced your relationship with your body hair, if at all”. Below are some responses I have received so far:

Jenny: Becoming-aware of body hair was definitely concomitant with becoming-aware of not being white (I remember one of my best friends referring to me affectionately as a ‘half-caste’!). The first time the two came together in my head was when a half-Polish girl in a group of other friends (and certainly an ‘other’ in the school due to her name, too) talked to me about getting rid of our moustaches, which I was very embarrassed about discussing. (She used bleaching cream; I tried, but it had the horrific consequence of bleaching my upper lip skin as well, which didn’t show on her). She said we both had dark hair because of our ‘heritage’; and afterwards I remember becoming-aware of the idea that Asian women have more body hair (which I just fact-checked and apparently ISN’T TRUE). The idea that I have more body hair, especially facial hair (that I need to get rid of, but that’ s another story) is in my mind linked to me being half-Indian/Pakistani. I had totally internalised this idea until you asked about it.

Nadia: I found that growing up asian girls were taught that straight hair is desirable. Even now hardly any asian girls and even black girls embrace their natural hair (luckily there are some websites like naturallycurly.com). Also having dark body hair was a problem with asian girls at school, they would get their eyebrows and moustaches threaded/waxed off well as the white girls got away with less waxing as they tended to have blonde body hair.

Shauntell: well for me personally, i didn’t start becoming more free and comfortable with my body hair until i got in the #naturalhairmovement, which basically is a movement for black women that decide to go to our natural roots, fros, frizz, kinks and all and learning to love ourselves, and educating on ourselves about our history more. it’s a lot deeper than hair, i can tell you that lol and throwing out relaxers etc. i had done the big chop and have been natural for 2 going on 3 years now. doing just that alone was big defining moment for me and was really deep for me. around the same time i did that, i also started questioning other beauty standards i had once subscribed to and wanted to go against tho’s as well. so i simply stopped shaving. at first i was really uncomfortable and even disgusted with the sight of it, much like the hair atop my head, because i wasnt used to seeing it. but i realized that was a conditioned response. i started talking to a guy friend of mine and he really made me feel better about myself. i honestly have never felt sexier than i do currently, body hair untouched etc. i feel more like a woman that’s in control of my own life and body and it’s extremely liberating.

Shauntell

— — —

In conversations I have had about body hair I have been told I am a killjoy, that I should just be grateful I still have my clitoris, that I should shut up. In conversations I have had about race, I have been told that I have never experienced racism, that it is all in the past, that I am making people uncomfortable, that I should shut up.

It is in the past, and that’s why it exists in every cell inside my body and every hair outside of it. My hair gives me voice that is louder than the haters, it is a radical re-scripting and a crucial daily reminder to me and the people around me, that the choices offered to us are not the only choices available. Before we can make a true choice, we have to remember we have one.

Works Cited:

ASU professor encourages students to defy body hair norms. ASU News. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <https://asunews.asu.edu/20140703-body-shaving&gt;.

Ali, Alisha & Sichel, Corianna, Structural Competency as a Framework for Training in Counseling Psychology, The Counseling Psychologist (2014)

Barth, J. H., Catalan, J., Cherry, C. A., & Day, A. (1993). Psychological morbidity in women referred for treatment of hirsutism. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 37, 615–619.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable weight: feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge. Coy, L. (2009). Invaded Spaces and Feeling Dirty. In Rape: Challenging contemporary thinking.

Cullompton: Willan.

Craig, Maxine Leeds. Ain’t I a beauty queen?: black women, beauty, and the politics of race. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Douglas, M. (1970). Natural Symbols. London: Routledge. Eagleton, T. (2003). After theory. New York: Basic Books.

Ekbäck, M., Wijma, K., & Benzein, E. (2009). “It Is Always on My Mind”: Women’s Experiences of Their Bodies When Living With Hirsutism. Health Care For Women International, 358-372.

Fahs, Breanne. “Breaking body hair boundaries: Classroom exercises for challenging social constructions of the body and sexuality.” Feminism & Psychology 22.4 (2014): 482-506.

Fahs, Breanne. “Dreaded “Otherness” Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions.” Gender & Society 25.4 (2011): 451-472.

Fahs, Breanne. “Shaving It All Off: Examining Social Norms of Body Hair among College Men in a Women’s Studies Course.” Women’s Studies 42.5 (2013): 559-577.

Ferrante, Joan (1988). Biomedical versus cultural constructions of abnormality: The case of idiopathic hirsutism in the United States. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 12, 219 – 238.

Freeland, C. (2001). But is it art?: An introduction to art theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gill, Tiffany M.. Beauty shop politics: African American women’s activism in the beauty industry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Print.

Grosz, E. (1995). Sexy bodies the strange carnalities of feminism. London: Routledge hooks, b., (1992). Black looks: Race and representation (p. 101). Boston: South End Press.

hooks. b “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Cultural Studies. Eds. Lawrence Grossberg et al. London: Routledge, 1992: 338-342.

Keegan, A., Liao, L., & Boyle, M. (2003). ‘Hirsutism’: A Psychological Analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 327-345.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. The last taboo women and body hair. Manchester: Manchester University Press ;, 2006. Print.

Lipton, M., Sherr, L., Elford, J., Rustin, M., & Clayton, W. (2006). Women living with facial hair: The psychological and behavioral burden. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 161-168.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Miller. (2014, January 1). Why Are We Grossed Out by Women With Armpit Hair? Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/06/why-were-grossed-out-women- pit-hair.html

Modood, T., & Beishon, S. (1994). Changing ethnic identities. London: Policy Studies Institute. Prince, Althea. The politics of black women’s hair. Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2010. Print.

Rabinowitz, S., Cohen, R., & Roith, D. (1938). Anxiety And Hirsutism. Psychological Reports, 827-830.

Reynolds D & Florence P “Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary Body” Media/ Subject/ Gender (Manchester University Press 1995), pp. 183-196.

Ridgeway, C. L., & Jacobson, C. K. (1979). The Development of Female Role Ideology: Impact of Personal Confidence during Adolescence. Youth and Society, 10(3), 297-315.

Roth, Benita. Separate roads to feminism: Black, Chicana, and White feminist movements in America’s second wave. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Springer, Kimberly. “Third wave black feminism?.” Signs 27.4 (2002): 1059-1082.

Thomas, M. (n.d.). In the Studio with Mickalene Thomas | Artsy. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from https://artsy.net/inthestudio

Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Anchor Books. 

The Tools To Resuce Myself (aboatwithnoengine)

This was written for a series on The Politics of Mental Health being run by the brilliant Transformation section of Open Democracy.

My hair is falling out. Of course, the rogue hair on my chest is still there. Of course it is. But the hair on my head is falling out.

I find myself busy considering the potential impact of the hair loss on my identity. This is a sign that I am ok. I feel like I have an identity. The hair loss feels viscerally bad on many levels: the physical sensation of it dislodging from my scalp with such ease, with no fight, the political assault on my body as my form is altered in a way that is out of my control, because of pills prescribed to me when I was barely conscious. – Maybe it’s ironic, considering my passionate belief that women should be allowed to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies, my belief in its significance.

These are the thoughts that travel through my mind and out of my follicles.

It’s a sign that I am ok because a few months ago, when I wasn’t ok, I was trapped inside the badness of this feeling. There was no space for social analysis, or any sort of healthy interaction with the world. I would just sit, tugging my hair out of my head repeatedly, waiting for it to stop coming out, or I would fantasize compulsively about shaving it off and starting again. I would make up stories about all the bad things I had done to deserve this punishment.

I had lost my sense of self, the peace that comes with knowing who you are. I relied on external cues from friends, lovers, and doctors to navigate the world and I became them. I became my feelings, my moods. I became pleasure and pain. I lost all touch with my agency, even if from the outside it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted. I believed my thoughts were facts.

People became a stand-in for my core. Their love sustained me and I engulfed them. It’s hard to come to terms with even now, but what was happening to me was too big for us to handle or survive, let alone fix. I needed people who didn’t love me too, and the systems they have built.

With regard to hair loss, I was unable to step back and come to terms with it as a side effect of medication that may or may not have helped me to survive falling into a catatonic depression 16 months earlier, after which – following a series of manic and psychotic episodes – I was diagnosed with what they call bipolar disorder. It just hurt, like everything else.

It has taken a long time to relearn how to deal with emotions, to interact, to empathise, to reason, to consolidate the shit show inside my head with the jungle outside of it. The process is not over. I feel how I imagine it would feel to come out of a coma, or how Bradley Cooper with the long hair felt when he took that pill in Limitless: clumsy, overwhelmed, full of promise.

That has been one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a period of insanity. The punishing slowness of it. At one point showering was all I could hope for in a day. Indeed it was a triumph. I crawled to the bathroom once. (I have a degree you know).

But somehow, it was the speed itself that played a big part in the recovery. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t move faster than I was ready to. When I accepted that, it was actually almost relieving. I moved onto a shower, a meal, a walk – on a good day, maybe a session of texting and one Guardian article!

It took me a long time to accept the slowness because I was not used to moving at a pace dictated to me. I had to realise that I was dictating the pace.

Once I was able to listen to my body, it was incredibly comforting because its rhythm belonged to me, it was coming from within me, separate from the desperate push and pull of the rest of my life. The slowness wasn’t something to fight against, it was the fight.

There is no doubt that it was society that saved my life when it felt as though there was nothing inside me, when I was hollow, when my perception of reality was undoubtedly warped. Well, more warped than the average anyway, A mix of medication, mindfulness, therapy, technology and unconditional love got me to this point. But it was this feeling, this slow, steady pulse, from the inside out, that signalled the move from survival to recovery.

I say “recovery” as if I’ve “recovered”. As if I’m certain my bathroom-crawling days are over. But I don’t know that recovery is quite the right word. It’s too neat for something so very messy. What I mean by “recovery” is really the process that began when I stopped waiting to recover. When I realised it’s possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave.

Waiting for an imagined future is no more healthy than mourning an imagined past. I had to work in the present, from the inside out. I had to stop the cycle of frantically grabbing for branches that couldn’t support my weight, feeling the assault every time one snapped, feeling the pain of that encounter reverberate through me, shattering my core even more; becoming that pain. I learned to sit still and listen.

That’s not as zen as it sounds, by the way. The process isn’t zen and neither is the desired outcome. When you sit still, everything that’s been troubling you is still there. Pain starts peeking from behind the curtains, an anger problem or two stuffed in the bedside table. But the fact you’ve turned around to face it means you’ve already won.

Just like today, when I got frustrated while I was writing this article, and threw my notebook across the room and cried. That was me winning. I promise. How awesome, to be crying for a normal reason, like stress and frustration. How great to know exactly what the problem is, and live it fully but not in fear that it will take over.

I find it hard to use the language of ‘transformation’ to describe the way I am learning to live with depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis… or the way I am learning not to have to live with them. My moment of transformation was when realised I was me all along. Does that make sense?

There have been a lot of ‘realisations’ in this article. Almost all of them can be traced back to the whispered words of someone who loves me, or a conversation I’ve had in a white-walled NHS building.

Humans cause the biggest transformations within each other, and within society. My recovery has been built, block-by-block, upon the support of people who love me, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

It was a person who held my hand in A&E as my life fell apart. It was a person who woke me up, made me packed lunches and escorted me to work, who gave me mouth to mouth until they couldn’t breathe anymore. It is a person who has given birth to me so many times.

Their role in my transformation is still too big for me to comprehend.

There is a unique sort of hope in the kindness of a stranger. Somehow, despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I remember feeling that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. That’s not to say my experience with the NHS was plain sailing. Most of the time it felt like we were on a ship in a raging storm, pulling ropes and seeing what would happen, sliding across the deck on our arses. But there was a ship, and there was a crew, and we were trying.

In moments where I felt I couldn’t live in a world as utterly fucked up as ours is, it was the humanity that I found in the kindness of strangers that was able to penetrate that fog that everybody else had become a part of, and keep that glimmer of self-awareness alive, that slowly became my identity again.

Suddenly my previous activism against this Government’s brutal agenda of cuts to services like the ones that delivered these strangers to me made even more sense. Since December 2012, when I was diagnosed in hospital, to now, the NHS has been a constant and unconditional support and somewhere between the system, the strangers and the loves of my life, I started ticking again. And this time I have the tools to rescue myself. I hope I’m a stranger to someone someday.

Madonna Has Armpits

A few words on Madonna’s armpits for The Independent.

So, Madonna has armpits. She also has products to sell. Let’s just get this out of the way. Even if that armpit picture was timed to coincide with the release of her new advert, even if that was the case – that is besides the point. The point is, why is it, that still, in 2014, despite woman’s hour and twitter and feminist pop songs, a woman with body hair will get so much attention? Whether that attention comes in the form of a snigger on the street or dickheads like me writing articles about it. Why does it remain one of the unshakable truths of the universe, that if a woman makes the choice not to shave what her mama gave her, the human race, capable of designing video games, and building really tall buildings, and writing love letters, start hyperventilating and cursing and spitting at the sight of any hair below the eyebrows of a woman. What the hell is wrong with people?

The answer to that question dear friends is ‘the patriarchy’. I’ll give you the short version because it’s a really nice day and I’m getting bored of explaining that it is a very basic and very important human right that women be allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, with their minds, and yes, with their pubis. And no, women do not have a choice. If being jeered, humiliated and exposed, if being told you’re ugly over and over again, is the consequence of being hairy, that does not make a woman’s decision to remove it a choice, it makes it a necessity.  If it was a choice, Madonna having a hairy armpit or two would not be news, in the same way that if we lived any sort of half way decent existence, people not wearing make up would not be news. As my friend Ellie put it: “There are quite a lot of people who don’t wear make up. Mostly they’re called men.”

So why then, if women’s big bare faces and furry pits are so totally natural, if they are something that shouldn’t need to be celebrated or shamed but should be allowed to just exist the way that, you know, men’s do. Why did I drop my egg mayonnaise down my dress this morning from sheer excitement when I saw the picture? Because whether I like it or not, it is a brave thing to do. Women’s bodies gross everybody out so much that even for one of the world’s most powerful women, it is a brave thing to do. For some of the fierce feminist warriors that I know, leaving the house without make up on would be a brave thing to do. I believe there is no woman living in the Western world and soon, universe, for whom it is not a brave thing to do. Shall we all just take a quick moment to meditate on that?

I don’t care if Madonna is attention seeking, not least because that’s her job. I don’t even care if she glued it on, what Madonna did is an act of resistance. Now, I know we’re all waiting for Russell Brand to say something funny so we can share the video and call it a revolution, but fuck waiting. This is the revolution. Every time a girl is allowed to make real choices, rather than do what she has to, to survive, that is a revolution. Madonna’s armpit is the revolution. My armpit is the revolution. Beyoncé bringing feminism to millions of young people who otherwise might not have known about it is a revolution. Beyoncé in general is a revolution. Jennifer Lopez making valiant feminist statements to horrific music is a revolution. Men wearing make-up and singing La Isla Bonita on the harp is a revolution.

Madonna has a long history of subverting gender norms, and as she disclosed in this interview, a long history of hairy armpits. She said:

Drinking beer and smoking weed in the parking lot of my high school was not my idea of being rebellious, because that’s what everybody did. And I never wanted to do what everybody did. I thought it was cooler to not shave my legs or under my arms. I mean, why did God give us hair there anyways? Why didn’t guys have to shave there? Why was it accepted in Europe but not in America? No one could answer my questions in a satisfactory manner, so I pushed the envelope even further… But it was hard and it was lonely, and I had to dare myself every day to keep going… And I wondered if it was all worth it, but then I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me.

The issue of body hair is consistently dismissed as something feminists should be over. It will never be over because that girl that Madonna describes will always exist. That girl who wants to be allowed to be herself. I bet that picture is going up on some bedroom walls tonight.

Beyonce, Contradiction & Progress

This is an article I wrote in January 2013 for The Independent about loving Beyonce, before her two secret albums and before I was taught that only Black women should be writing about Beyonce.

Beyoncé, in a high profile interview, has said that men and women are not equal and that simply, that fact is “ridiculous”:

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

It is both tragic and hilarious that the most radical thing Beyoncé has said in her 16-year career is accompanied by a photo-shoot in which she’s posing in her knickers for money. Let’s face it, on a website that simultaneously features “The Best Breasts of 2012”, her musings probably won’t even be read. This irony, one that is assumed lost on the pathetic puppet of the patriarchy that is Beyoncé, has been laboured so hard we have forgotten to be constructive. And that is the most dangerous thing of all.

Is this what western feminism has come to? Asks the amazing Hadley Freedman in her damning column. No. It isn’t. This is that cheeky duo, capitalism and patriarchy, doing what they do – and they have been doing it a lot longer than Beyoncé has been providing the beats. Western feminism is amorphous, innovative, and becoming more receptive to individual experience, and more understanding of intersectionality (the radical notion that not all women are not the same). Despite austerity, George Galloway and drinks called Pussy, there is so much out there.  We mustn’t waste time or energy picking each other to pieces. We must support and congratulate each other at every opportunity.

Beyoncé has been working, relentlessly, since she was 15, in a universe that is alien to ours. Anyone who has spent that long under the world’s hungry spotlight will contradict themselves, and that she has. On the much-loved track ‘Nasty Girl’ from the huge 2001 ‘Survivor’ album she sings, “You’s a nasty, nasty, trashy, nasty, sleazy, nasty, classless, nasty… Nasty put some clothes on, I told ya. Don’t walk out your house without your clothes on, I told ya”. Fairly horrific. Beyoncé has spoken openly about her Christian beliefs in interviews and songs, “I’m not gon’ compromise my Christianity (I’m better than that)”, while performing in scantily-clad outfits designed by her devout mother; an unforgivable contradiction in my Muslim mother’s eyes. However, on the same album we find ‘The Story of Beauty’, written in response to a letter from a young victim of abuse, “please dry your eyes, young girl, don’t cry, you’re beautiful. It’s not your fault, young girl, don’t cry, you’re beautiful. You’re not the one to blame, soon it will be okay, one day you’ll realize your beauty”. We see what we want to see.

If a superpower of a woman, who has never been known for feminist discourse and has no need to engage with it as long as she lives, chooses to, and is met with scepticism and harshness, why bother? Who are we, to hold it against Beyoncé, that she was not an unwavering feminist in 1996 and make it an inhospitable environment to her in 2013? Who are white middle class feminists to condemn Beyonce’s discussion of the pay gap (bigger for ethnic minority women I might add), to tell her she isn’t feminist enough? She contradicts herself because she is a woman, on a journey, living in a system designed to make women feel that they mustn’t question, that they have to be either, or; Madonna or whore, Angela Davis or Rihanna. There is a middle-ground full of uncertainty and I congratulate Beyoncé for stepping into it.

I contradict myself. You do too. But we get to do it in private. Thinking we have to be all or nothing is another tool of the patriarchy, used to discredit women’s experience and scare them from feminism. I don’t shave my legs but I pluck my eyebrows. That’s a contradiction of sorts, and one I’m happy to live with for now. But it is used to dismiss me. “Unless you’re doing The Kahlo, you’re not doing anything”. I don’t know what’s in my future, how far I will be comfortable challenging the confines of what is acceptable in our society. And neither does Beyoncé. But what I do know is that we need to be kind, open and non-judgemental if we want the message to spread.

Sometimes we contradict ourselves publicly too. Recently, Anne Hathaway has been lauded for her feminism, and rightly so! Her recent takedown of a talk-show host who tried to open an interview about her latest film with a question about her vagina is impeccable: “it kinda made me sad, on two accounts… I was very sad that we live in an age where someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and rather than delete it, and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis”.

Hathaway is a heroine. Case closed. No mention of the fact that she has posed nude to advertise her films. No umming and erring. Is this snobbery? She works in film, serious, lasting, dignified film – not the judge-central world of pop music of which everyone feels entitled to a piece. And let’s face it. She knows her shit. She’s also a beautiful white woman. An acceptable, non-threatening, white woman.

The race dimension of the disparity in the way these events have been interpreted is another article, but the fact Beyoncé is a black woman must not be side-stepped. In their criticism of Beyoncé, people have assumed she has brought nothing to feminism. But it is clearer than day that she brings something important to the lives of millions of women, millions of black women.  She might not quote Bell Hooks in interviews, but as one of the biggest icons of the 21st century, she sure has some stuff to say. She has long been a champion of The Independent Woman, especially where finances are concerned, and if that’s how she understands and practices feminism it is not our place to outright condemn her. Remember, this interview comes shortly after she ended her business relationship with her father and gave birth to a daughter.

If we are so intent on building an accessible, inclusive feminism, why don’t we focus on what Beyoncé has to offer, rather than her all-too-obvious failings? For the sake of feminism? And all the women who have been inspired by her? I am one of those women.

When I look at the GQ spread, I do not see tits and arse. I see a formidable singer, performer and athlete who nursed me through my teens, inspired me to sing and dance, strut and survive. I see a woman who belonged to me and the black and Asian girls I went to school with, a woman with skin our colour and thighs we could relate to. I see a club where white people were the guests – a precious space in our homogenous media. I see the first woman in 20 years to headline Glastonbury. In Beyonce’s contradiction I see hope and progress. In the backlash I see negativity and narrow-mindedness. Next time, let’s look a little deeper.

Armpits 4 August Isn't Movember

This, on armpits, for The Independent.

tabita rezaire

tabita rezaire

It’s here! That time of year! Summer cheer! Parks and beer! And acute self-loathing of body hair, as cardigans and tights come off, beauty rituals increase in frequency and cost and women’s minds are cluttered with meaningless bullshit.

As a loyal champion of body hair growth and experimentation, I am overjoyed to see Armpits4August (A4A), the month long charity event that encourages women to grow out their armpit hair, exploding onto the scene in its second year, with a healthy amount of global press. This event won’t just support women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – a symptom of which is ‘excessive’ hair growth – it will slowly but surely change the lives and perceptions of many, many people. It will change everyday decisions and actions, thoughts and brain chemistry, because it will remind people that women have a choice.

When I stopped shaving four years ago, apart from a circle of dear feminist friends who explored the possibilities of body hair with me, I felt quite alone. Quite freakish. I still thought twice, no, 400 times before stepping out the house hairy, and there are some places I still wouldn’t go today. But things are changing, and in part, thanks to the beautiful, beautiful internet (I love the internet so much). Communities and support networks are forming, and allowing women to feel so much more comfortable in their own skin, hairy or not.

For me, it started when as a young girl. I stumbled upon The Great Wall of Vagina, a work of art that documents the many varieties of vagina by a man who wanted to do something about the anxiety so many women feel about their genitals. I remember looking, fascinated, at how different they all were, side-by-side, and I felt something lift – a fear I didn’t even know I had yet. And this gift continues, with The Belly Project, F*ck! Shaving, Hairy Pits Club, Hairy Legs and Pubes, and fellow charity efforts, Julyna (cervical cancer) and No Shave November aka ‘Movember’ (testicular and prostate cancer).

However, may I take this opportunity to say: Armpits4August isn’t Movember. Throwing no shade to Movember, it's fine, but while the comparisons are obvious, they have been relied upon too heavily in the media. A part of me has been overjoyed at this coverage. Men do the moustache thing for a penis charity and women do the armpit thing for pum-pum charity. Case closed. Sure, it’s a step towards the nonchalance that women with hairy armpits dream of, but we’re not quite there yet, and it’s important to remember why.

A4A has a whole other bit. A bit about the freedom of women to do as they please with their bodies, or at least to have the opportunity to experiment enough with their bodies to work out what they want to do with them. Essentially, if a man decides to keep his new moustache till say, January or March, he might be thought of by a passing stranger as zany, or creative. A character even. Or maybe there will be no thoughts at all.  Men are allowed to be funny and outrageous, to look stupid.  Men are allowed to be ugly. Women, as we know, are not.

It’s not only the confines of acceptable appearance that are incredibly rigid for women, it’s the way we challenge those confines, and the many other barriers to equality.  We are controlled, even in our dissent. (And yes, women who grow their body hair are dissenting – they are activists, campaigners, freedom fighters. They shouldn’t be, but they are.) There’s good dissent and bad dissent. Good dissent is when, like Malala, you get a hole in your head because you want to go to school and you get saved by a white man. Bad dissent is when you take control of your body and do experiments with it that hurt or effect absolutely no-one. When you partake in bad dissent you are considered sub-human. You are shamed and shouted at, told to sit down and know your place. That’s what women who don’t shave, and those joining them this August will be facing.

I have polycystic ovary syndrome, which I discovered when I went to the doctor because my spots had got out of control. Acne was my prominent symptom. I probably have more hair than the average woman too, but considering I don’t shave, and my hair is black, I might as well be an ape as far as society is concerned so I don’t give it much thought.  That’s a flippant remark right there. Actually I do. I give it lots of thought. I think about it all the time because for me, body hair has come to symbolise the oppression of women – for as long as we can remember, across cultures and religions, invisible and insidious, perpetuated by women, patriarchy, and its old and trusty friend capitalism.

That’s why women need to actually DO THIS. Thanks to A4A, the set-up is there and waiting. I want it to be bigger and hairier than Movember because there is so, so much to be gained from it. I believe growing your body hair out is one of the most eye-opening and freeing things you can do as a woman, even if you only do it once. Just like you don’t have to stop eating meat altogether to positively impact the environment, you don’t have to throw your razors away to remember you have a choice. It’s just about remembering you have a choice. That’s it. This August, Woman 1 will see Woman 2 and remember she has a choice. End.

No-one says it better than singer India Arie: “Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don’t” – I want to live in a world where more women live by that mantra, and A4A are helping to make that possible. Good luck! And, if you want me, I’ll be organising Fannies 4 February.

Body Hair As Direct Action

This is the first time I tried to explain my thoughts on body hair, published by The Independent.

Body hair is everywhere! At least it will be soon. In the two years since I stopped shaving, we have seen a feminist movement build and, frankly, mock the idea that it isn’t needed any more. Women today are told to be afraid of our legs and feel guilty for eating on the way to work, to hate our vaginas and our skin colour at the same time, and are even made to deal with anti-abortion protests outside of clinics because the men with power choose to regulate women’s bodies instead of the climate or, erm, the banks. We have voices. We have bodies too, and body hair is fast becoming our war paint.

A few days ago I was invited to the facebook group, “Women Against Non-Essential Grooming”. After some initial confusion as to the meaning of “grooming” in this context, I saw it was a forum for women to discuss and support each other in the trials and tribulations of growing their hair. Last week, Dr Emily Gibson made the headlines with her plea for women to leave their pubic hair alone. This sort of chat is no longer a product of my entrenchment in feminist circles. This is becoming a Thing. A Thing that’s no longer confined to postgraduate reading groups or homophobic/European stereotypes. It’s breaking out of the exuberant feminism that is emerging – onto talk shows and into parks, bars and public transport.

This month has seen the Armpits4August campaign encourage women to get sponsored to grow their underarm hair to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), symptoms of which can include obesity, acne and excessive hair growth. But this campaign is not a charity gimmick. The aim to challenge beauty norms is stated unapologetically – not whispered, or inferred:

“Armpits4August believe that we should be deeply concerned that we live in society where hair on adult women is seen as shocking and disgusting, to say nothing of the pressure this places on women to uphold this idealised image of beauty, and the time and money it takes to maintain this illusion…”

The sponsorship aspect is not being used to equate the act of growing body hair to a unicycle ride to Bournemouth dressed as one of the power puff girls. It is being used as a hook, to build a safe and supportive space for women who may not have ever considered letting their hair grow, or considered themselves feminists, to experiment. This campaign, unlike much of the feminism before us, acknowledges the differences between women, and works against the activist trap of preaching to the converted. It understands that the experience of body hair for a white, blonde woman in an office is a very different one from that of a Middle-Eastern woman on a university campus. We are individuals, but we can be united in this joint experiment – the blessing of social media.

More and more women are seeing what it feels like to save that money, pain and time. And that’s not just the time it takes to remove hair, but the time spent thinking about it. Planning it so you’re freshly hairless for your date on Tuesday, but that it has grown back enough to be waxed before your holiday the following week.

This stuff is so deeply internalised, that for many women, feminism and activism begin alone, looking in your bathroom mirror. It comes in that moment when you gasp – you realise how weird, how completely nuts it is that every single woman you know scrapes and pulls out her body hair, unquestioningly and forever. Like robots. Like sexy little fembots; the greatest marketing success in history.

Direct action is not just the forte of groups like UK Uncut. When a woman stops completing the routine that all of the women she sees and knows have been completing diligently since puberty, it is direct action. A private rewiring of her brain, or a public protest, a declaration to everyone who is watching (and at rush hour on the Central Line, that’s quite a few people, trust me) that so many of women’s choices have been buried by heavy expectation and societal norms. This is Everyday Feminism. This is the personal becoming political. This action has a ripple effect. It’s a war cry for a critical eye. And that eye is contagious, as we have seen from the consistent gender critique of the Olympics, and the incredulous coverage of waxing kits for under fifteen-year-olds being described as natural and ‘PLEASANT’.

This is not about condemning other women. We must be kind to each other and easy on ourselves as we draw our battle lines. When I say I’m having a bad hair day, I’m usually referring to my moustache and on the way to remove it, with some sort of cream that burns and smells like eggs or threading, that pulls it out in little clumps. That’s my personal limit and that’s OK.

As the government cuts come into full swing, it looks like more women will leave work to look after their children and girls will be deterred from pursuing higher education and enjoying the privilege that the creators of Armpits4August and I have had. But as our choices continue to be limited by the Government, we will find choices we never even knew we had. Body hair begins to cut through the privilege that has caged feminism. It is simple. We all have it. It says: you have the freedom to make a choice. And what’s feminism if not that?

Where Are The Suffragettes

I wrote this in 2011, before Sisters Uncut had formed and made all my dreams come true. For Liberal Conspiracy.

Funny how some numbers get preferential treatment. Tucked away on the business pages of newspapers this week was a big one: the number of unemployed women in the UK is now the highest since 1988. This is business alright. This should be EVERYONE’S business, and ought to inspire shame, outrage, and a serious fight.

Last weekend at the UK Feminista Summer School people from across the country discussed the ways in which women, particularly single mothers and black and minority ethnic women, will be forced to the edge of survival by the spending cuts.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like the Fawcett Society, the statistics couldn’t be clearer – or more devastating. So what do we do about it?

Feminist activists are spoilt for choice in terms of where to direct their action. The battle-lines of feminism today are less defined, and in some ways trickier to navigate, than those that kept our great-grandmothers in the kitchen and our grandmothers out of university.

We are the frontline of feminism every day: when we politely but firmly tell our colleagues not to substitute our name with “gorgeous;” when we remove the scales from our bathrooms, wear what we want to and encourage others to do the same; when we take pride and feel supported in childcare whether we have a vagina or not.

But where is the feminist frontline of the anti-cuts movement?

The cuts are an opportunity to talk about feminism in concrete terms, in terms that don’t for a second entertain the done-to-death conservative mythology of bra-burning and man-hating. This is about women deciding between feeding their kids and buying petrol so they can get to work. This is about women trying to manage financially unmanageable households when their partners lose their jobs.

We realise now, as we fight for basic childcare that allowed our mothers the choice to build lives outside of the home, and for the legal aid and safe houses that have lifted abused women from danger, how lucky we are to be able to debate nuances of modern feminism.

It is now up to us to remind people that the public sector workers we mention when we talk about job losses are mostly women. That the charities losing, in some cases, 100% of their funding, provide services that literally save women’s lives.

UK Uncut
The first half of this year has seen some action, including a group of women blocking George Osborne from delivering his budget and a feminist bank “bail-in”. Watching mothers, fathers, women and men who would usually be doing their Saturday shopping file into a branch of Natwest to sing songs, read books, and share snacks was a moment of hope. The presence of children did not merely make for an irresistible photo opportunity and decrease the likelihood of arrest. It signified that this is a fight for our future, not a fringe issue.

No union, well-meaning NGO or politician will fight this for us. George Osborne didn’t even seem particularly perturbed by the fact that he broke the law in failing to carry out a gender impact assessment of the spending budget. The government isn’t running scared – as it should be – because, frankly, we haven’t given it any reason to.

There are no holdout hippies standing naked in front of Parliament. There are no furious mothers breastfeeding their children in the middle of Oxford Street. There are no "carried-away" separatists hurling bricks through the windows of patriarchal (read: all) institutions. There are no misguided rioters to publically condemn but privately thank for finally, FINALLY, putting this issue squarely on the front pages of every newspaper in the country. There are no suffragettes.

UK Feminista
The ideas and energy at the UK Feminista weekend allowed us to feel fired up rather than helpless in the face of impending social crisis. Fear of arrest was voiced frequently and understandably. As Fortnum and Masons defendants, we can attest to the fact that we need to be vigilant of political policing and the treatment of women in police stations as they are refused tampons and targeted for verbal abuse by female and male officers alike. We must look after each other, but we must not be stopped.

When we are told to shut up and be thankful we are not in Libya, we will say we refuse to let our daughters fight for rights we took for granted. When we are told we are naïve, we will say we are not fighting for privilege, but for common-sense human entitlements.

When we are told that our issue is not an important one, we will ask how society can be expected to survive when those who create, nurture, and sustain it are forgotten. And when all is said, we’ll let our action do the talking.

Women, Austerity & UK Uncut

I wrote in the Guardian about direct action group, UK Uncut’s ‘bail-ins’. If you cut our childcare, your banks will be full of babies.

I am in the process of organising a UK Uncut action, set for this weekend, against the unnecessary austerity cuts that will push women’s rights back a generation. I stand with women who have been betrayed by our government.

Women will bear the brunt of these cuts. As the Fawcett Society points out, they make up 65% of the public sector workforce and will therefore be hit hardest by job cuts. They disproportionately rely on public services such as the NHS, for reasons such as pregnancy and longer life expectancy. They will also be expected to bridge the gap where childcare and services for the elderly are removed, directly affecting their right to work. The repercussions of these cuts can be seen already, with recent figures showing that the number of women aged 25-49 on jobseeker’s allowance is now at its highest since records began in 1997. Women of colour are the worst affected. It is time to take to the streets.

This Saturday, I will help transform a high street bank into a creche. This will be just one of scores of UK Uncut actions hitting RBS branches across the country, days after the bailed-out bank announced the size of this year’s bonus pot. UK Uncut have called for a second day of “bail-ins” – creative protests in which bank branches are occupied and transformed into a service threatened by cuts. Expect to see libraries, aerobics classes and laundry services for the elderly set up inside the banks that contributed to this crisis.

The first time I participated in a UK Uncut action, I was blown away by the enthusiasm of people walking past. It felt fresh and, dare I say it, hopeful. I spoke to one woman who explained what the welfare state meant to her and the role it played in supporting her single mother in the 1950s. I watched as she joined the protesters, enthused by their creativity and enraged that Cameron’s “big society” is clearly a viciously unjust one. His is not a necessity, it is a political choice, and it got me thinking.

The UK Uncut model empowered me to create an action that was particularly important to me, with the help of the like-minded people I got in touch with. But how do you tell the tale of the countless women whose lives will be damaged by these cuts? We settled on childcare as a theme, following the outrageous closure of 250 Sure Start centres and cuts to child benefit, tax credits and the health in pregnancy grant. These are services that give women the confidence and independence to seek worlds beyond child bearing and motherhood.

This government would rather slash the already threadbare state protection for vulnerable women than tame the reckless machismo of our “too big to fail” banks. This is not a tragedy for women alone. It will affect all of us, except for that tiny ruling elite who are fuelled by greed and ego. This Saturday, people opposed to and hit by the cuts, from women to the disabled, public service workers and those on housing benefit will be taking the fight to the banks. Join us.