25 August 2011

A kiss with a fist

Don't EVER ring Southampton again!
One of the biggest reactions I got from my post Twists in the Road was to a sentence I wrote in passing:

I lived a miserable few months first in his house, until we had an inevitable screaming row, in which he punched me in the face.

It happened so long ago – 21 years ago, to be precise – that to me it was mentioned almost as an aside. But the response I got on Twitter, Facebook and the blog itself was of horror and shock. I feel little emotion about it at all anymore. It was so long ago, and the emotional abuse I suffered at the hands (or rather, the words) of my ex-husband – calling me frigid, fat, blaming me for his depression (the list goes on) – was far worse, in my book. I can see though why it shocked people, especially those who know me as a quietly strong person who isn't crossed easily.

Women have been through far worse physical abuse than that one punch. But I remember it clearly. And here's the story.

When I was in junior year of university, I spent a year abroad. Like any American student my first thought was to go to London. A representative from the University of Sheffield convinced me, with stunning photos of the Yorkshire countryside, to visit that fair city instead. Yeah, I know. That industrial city is hardly bucolic paradise. But I loved it there. And I fell in love with a man (ok, a boy) there.

We spent an academic year in the passionate bliss that is the reserve of the young. At the end of the year, we had to part. But not quite yet. When summer came, he came to the US through a programme called BUNAC, which gave him a working permit for the season. He stayed with my family and we had a wonderful summer together. He ate our food, I drove him everywhere, he didn't pay rent, and none of it mattered, because we were in love.

At the end of the summer, after a long drive to JFK airport and a tearful farewell, he returned to Sheffield to finish his degree, and I stayed in the US to finish mine. I immediately signed up to BUNAC as well, which also gives US students work visas for the UK, planning to come over as soon as I graduated.

In the meantime, early in the new year, I was dumped.

I came to the UK anyway. I rationalised that I'd already paid for the visa and the flight. At heart, I probably (certainly) hoped we'd get back together. We didn't get back together. But because I didn't know anyone else in the UK, I stayed at his. You can imagine what the tension was like. He was seeing someone new and I was miserable.

Things came to a head one night. I phoned a friend who was in Southampton at the time and he went ballistic that I was using the family phone. I thought this was unreasonable (I still do). And it turned into a heated, blazing row. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, cartoon stars spinning around my head. After the initial shock, I screamed, and ran from the house.

…And then I realised I was in the middle of Ealing Common, late at night, with nowhere to go. A kind old man told me not to cry because I was “too pretty to cry” but I wasn't and I did. Reluctantly, I headed back to the house. I met him on the way. He told me I'd provoked him into hitting me during the argument.

In a way, it was the greatest favour he'd ever done me. In the second his fist met my temple, I fell out of love with him.

There followed a miserable time when I moved from youth hostel to youth hostel. One night I had so little money that I had to forgo a meal to pay for a room. Eventually I got a job in a pub (for the princely sum of £25 a week), and then an office job (for the extravagant salary of £8000 a year), and slowly I built up my own life from there.

A while later, he wrote me a letter telling me how sorry he was, and what a great girlfriend I was. It didn't even touch me. (Aside: my ex-husband also ended up crying one night about the way he'd treated me. Too little, too late. Don't appreciate someone after you've punched their lights out or beaten their self-confidence to a pulp and expect a happy ending.)

It's all such ancient history that when I recall it, it's as though I'm telling a story, not my own. That punch was at once the lowest point of my young life, and the start of my adult life.

Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

For advice about abuse please visit this BBC information page for resources, charities and helplines.

3 August 2011

Plinky plonky music and yoghurt for pudding

New shoes and a sanitary towel with pretty flowers on it! My life is COMPLETE!
So there's this woman. Let's call her, I don't know, Amelia.

Amelia is in her late 20s. When she goes out for lunch with her friends, she makes sure that there is a brunette, a blonde and a redhead in the group (sometimes a token black friend, but rarely), and there's plinky-plonky Sex and the City-style music playing. She considers salad a meal, and yoghurt a perfectly acceptable dessert. As she nibbles her lettuce, she and her friends talk about everything.

And I mean everything. Not just how useless men are, or diets, though those feature. She talks about constipation. Bloating, which apparently happens a lot. The quality of her stools - soft or hard? The regularity of her bowel movements. Bladder weakness. Thrush (that yoghurt might come in handy, Amelia). She envies her slim friends and is not above snooping through their houses for their dieting secrets.

Amelia worries about how she looks in a swimsuit. Really worries. So much so that she eats nothing but cereal for two weeks or drinks nothing but gluey shakes for a month to fit into it. It's not exactly a balanced diet, but it's important to lose weight for her swimsuit, even if she gains it back within a month.

When she has her period, she used to go into purdah. She couldn't wear white, or go dancing, or work. That is, until she discovered tampons in plastic applicators, which have revolutionised her life. But her sanitary products can't just absorb her blood (which, bizarrely, is a blue watery liquid). No, they also have to disguise her lady-smells with chemically-saturated cotton (careful, Amelia, you could get thrush). If the boxes are pretty, and the pads are decorated with pretty little flowers like kitchen towels, and she can pretend the applicators are lipstick so boys don't see she has periods, even better.

Amelia is horrified by body hair. She'll use foul-smelling chemicals, epilators that rip hair out by the roots, razors, anything just to get rid of it and avoid the horror of a stray hair. The razors have to be pink though.

Her deodorant can't just disguise a bit of pong. It has to be chock full of moisturiser (she gets dry armpits, apparently) and perfume.

She's also terrified by wrinkles. She doesn't have any wrinkles, because she's only in her late 20s. Nevertheless, she slathers herself in moisturisers full of big made-up science words because science really can stop you from getting older.

She also likes to put made-up science words in her hair so she can look like those women who have hair extensions and computer-generated tresses on TV. Same goes for mascara.

Amelia is slightly, adorably incompetent at her office job. She's so busy making eyes at the cute guy in accounts or gossiping by the photocopier or drinking Diet Coke that she sometimes drops files. But the job funds her shoe shopping.

Shoes. My god she loves shoes. They're practically all she thinks about, when she's not thinking about her bowels, or her waistline, or her period, or body hair, or body smells, or ageing, or the shame of hair that doesn't have the shine of a thousand suns. Shoes fulfill her. Shoes make her whole. She spends all her money and some of her boyfriend's on shoes.

Do you know Amelia? I don't either. But if advertising is to be believed, she exists. Advertisers must know women like Amelia. Every advert aimed at her seems to tell me this. Except for the ones aimed at her older sister Sophia, who's married, and spends all day grocery shopping and cleaning up after her family while chuckling indulgently at her children's mess and her husband's utter incompetence around the house.

Amelia has a mother, too, but we never see her, because her mother is over 50.

Firefox has an adblock which has made my internet browsing experience a thousand times better by blocking every ad that tries to target me. If only there were one for the TV.

EDIT: Thank you to @DickMandrake for this excellent offering from the brilliant Mitchell and Webb: Women! Sort yourselves out

ANOTHER EDIT (I can't help it. I'm an editor.) Here's another link, from the comments below. Hat-tip to @nickmellish. Sarah Haskins in Target Women: The Yogurt Edition

Image: freedigitalphotos.net