WOMAN. A DANGEROUS BODY OF THOUGHT.

WOMAN. A DANGEROUS BODY OF THOUGHT.

I’m a poet and writer and in Scotland and Ireland I run Wild Women Creative Writing Workshops. All kinds of women come to these, with all levels of education and from all walks of life. And the one thing that astounds me time and again is their lack of confidence in owning and naming their own intimate body parts.

Though why should I, of all people, be surprised? After all, I was brought up by a Scots Presbyterian mother who thought the word ‘pregnant’ was rude. ‘Expecting’ was the preferred euphemism. And God forbid that words such as ‘nipple’ or breast’ should be uttered in daylight for fear of an immediate tumble into prostitution. You can imagine, therefore, that vulva, clitoris and vagina were so far beyond the pale I didn’t even know they existed till I got my hands on a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). (It’s pretty awful. Don’t buy it. It was all that was available in 1970.)

And here we are, multiple decades later, and I’m finding a fair number of women still squeamish about naming their own intimate body parts! (Not you, obviously. If you’ve visited the REEK website you’re well capable of shouting I LOVE MY VULVA at the top of your voice.)

But why, you may be wondering, do female body parts feature in my creative writing workshops? Well, that’s simple. The workshops are aimed at helping women find their true voice. The voice comes from the body as well as from the mind. That comes from lived experience in the physical world. A writer must be capable of writing anything she needs to write. If a writer cannot write from her vulva, write about her breasts, express the emotions of her uterus, explore her full female experience in all its complexity, she is limiting the range of her voice. She is operating on half power.  

A woman who is confident in naming her own body grows into a more confident woman, a woman able to take control of the language and influence it. A dangerous woman.

Names given to parts of the female body are often derogatory and objectifying. Think about it, even the term ‘old bag’ refers to the womb (and therefore the woman) being seen historically as no more than a container. An incubator. Shades of The Handmaid’s Tale.

And as for ‘cunt’? Well, that’s got a long and colourful history! Some believe it’s related to a word for ‘wedge’ while others trace it to more elevated sources such as ‘priestess’. Whether you think it comes from Sanskrit or ancient Egyptian, or Norse, Irish or Klingon, it’s still the word that about 80% of women in any Wild Women Writing Workshop hate saying out loud. Yet it is a common and ancient word for part of their own bodies. By being taught from an early age to abhor this word, are they also being taught by stealth to undervalue their own intimate body, and by extension, themselves as women?

Inga Muscio says in her book, ‘cunt’,  “According to every woman-centered historical reference I have read – from M. Esther Harding to bell hooks – the containment of woman’s sexuality was a huge priority to emerging patrifocal religious and economic systems… Literally and metaphorically, the word and anatomical jewel presided at the very nexus of many earlier religions which impeded phallic power worship.”  Which is basically where we are today. A woman who ‘owns’ her cunt, who can talk about it easily and without fear or shame, who can even be proud of her cunt, is a dangerous woman. She is a direct challenge to the patriarchy.

But first and foremost I am a poet. That’s my preferred way to express myself. So here is a poem.  V****A, written, of course, with the help of my female body.

Magi’s new poetry collection, including V****A is just out. It is available http://www.luath.co.uk/washing-hugh-mcdiarmid-s-socks.html


SMELLY LITTLE LIES

SMELLY LITTLE LIES

Little Lies founder and full time lady boss Jade Beatson about female entrepreneurs, feminine smells and start ups

What smells remind you of femininity? What are your favourite smells and why?

For me, femininity is soft, delicate and romantic … but altogether separate to being a Woman. So, smells that remind me of women would be strong and bold, like rich coffee, cinnamon, or fresh lilies. However, smells that cast up femininity in my mind are dainty, sweet and floral, like roses, honey and peaches.

My favourite smell has to be that one when you climb into bed with fresh sheets dried out in the sunshine. No matter what washing powder you use, that smell of fresh air is the best.

Do you feel pressure to act / look a certain way to fit in with the ideals of female beauty? How do you combat or comply with these pressures?

I think, like everybody, I feel pressure when it comes to my appearance. But I don’t really care what other people think, it’s more that I put that pressure on myself; it’s about being the best version of me. If I’m happy with my outfit, how my dress hangs or how clear my skin is, then I go about my day with more confidence and positivity. But, if I feel my look is drab, my jeans are too tight and I’ve got spots, I’ll generally be so much more introverted and will take on tasks with less gusto. So my approach and advice to everyone when it comes to appearance is definitely to dress for yourself and have fun. If over time you notice your jeans don’t fit any more, I say buy a new pair. Struggling to fit into the same ones will only make you feel miserable. Wearing something that fits great and you love will help you to radiate positivity, and we all know that good shit happens when you send good vibes out to the world.

Do you feel there is enough support for female entrepreneurs?

Absolutely not. I find that a lot of the usual business startup assistance really only apply to small ideas and very basic set up advice. If you know how to create a brand and launch a business but are looking for support to develop it or do anything remotely outside the box, then these places aren’t much use.

This is partly why one of the motives of Little Lies was to create a platform where girl bosses can work together to help each other out. Whether that be us providing a retail platform for an indie brand, helping a small maker or crafter to develop a wholesale side to their business, or our blog being a place for creative women to have a voice – we’re all about strong women supporting strong women. We’ve been so lucky already to meet other likeminded women who love other people’s success and are excited by new ideas and collaborations. Because of these partnerships, beautiful things are made.  

What was the concept and ethos behind starting up Little Lies?

I wanted to bring the things I love together into one online location. There’s a heavy influence from the 70s music scene, with a mix of products across homeware, clothing + accessories. We’re a place to find the little possessions you adore owning, we’re not just another ‘fast fashion’ store where it’s all about getting a new outfit for the weekend. Our products are selected not only their style, but their versatility; we want people to buy garments with the intent of experimenting with ways of styling them and loving them for a very long time.

As well as being a retailer, people come for cool clothes and gifts, I strive for our customers to feel included by Little Lies; like part of a movement toward supporting women in business. When our customers shop, everything is done with the utmost care and attention, from their item being folded and wrapped beautifully, to the notes we write or the leaflet we include that we reckon they’ll like the most. This ensures our customers not only get an item they are happy with, but that they enjoy their Little Lies experience. This allows us to continue to grow the venture. We have now set out to offer internships and job opportunities to give our Scottish Bitches an exciting place to work in fashion, to create more badass collaborations like this one with REEK, and to reach out to other total Girl Bosses to unify and build a network of strong women who support, nurture and god damn glorify each other. My gut feeling has always been that the more people creating cool shit, the better. Creativity is not a competition. It’s a journey we can all take together.

What female or gender equality causes mean the most to you and why?

If I’m being completely honest, the whole conversation around equality completely baffles me. I mean, how the fuck is this still a thing? No matter what form your body takes, be it male, female, tall, fat, black, white, unicorn shaped or whatever else it may be; we all have the same going on inside. Life is about learning about that soul inside people and celebrating the good that’s going on in there. An ideal world would allow every human to have the same opportunities, and success would be gained by merit and kindness. I could dive into this topic and never come out, but my motto is and always has been simple; treat others as you’d like to be treated.

What signifies female strength to you?

There are a whole host of things that make women badass, but I would say that pushing a brand new human out of a tiny hole has to be the most badass of them all. Cause if that’s not strength, I sure as shit don’t know what is.

What makes you a Damn Rebel Bitch? Tell us what kind of bitch you are.

In the days of obsessive Instagram culture and Kardashian psychosis, I guess I’m a Damn Rebel Bitch because that totally makes my eyes glaze over. So much of today’s female culture involves comparing yourself to others and tearing them down if they have something you’re jealous of. But, I’m genuinely happy for other people and always have been. It has helped me to see the good in others and allowed me to form friendships and partnerships with some seriously inspiring people. Aside from that, I guess my most Damn Rebel Bitch moment, and the reason I’m here with you guys, has to be bowing out from a safe career route and carving my own path with nothing but an idea and a shit tonne of determination.


DEMAND MORE ADVENTURE!

DEMAND MORE ADVENTURE!

The Museum of Childhood holds over 60,000 objects in its collection and the vast majority show a gender bias in one way or another.  Be it through colour, subject matter or images, there are messages to children about who they should aspire to be, how they should look and behave. This is especially represented throughout the book collection and is obvious in what has been produced for girls in the last 150 years.

Messages are often mixed – girls are encouraged to be adventurous, but also to make sure they look attractive and know how to catch a man – be it through obvious instructions in Jackie magazine about how to have glossy hair, or through nineteenth century moralistic fiction about how to be modest and god-fearing. It is often clear that once you’ve caught your man your aspirations for education, sports, solving mysteries and a career are to be put to one side.

You can track the history of attitudes to women and their place in society through the children’s book collection.  The books from the 1920s and 30s reflect the progress women were making in the post World War One era.  Some women had been given the vote, Amelia Earhart was performing aviation feats, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel and Margaret Bondfield became the first woman cabinet minister.  However, girls and boys were still being informed of what was expected of their gender.

Herbert Strang’s Annual for boys in 1921 contains adventure stories, explains how ships and locomotives are designed and built, and features the art of wrestling.  Mrs Strang’s Annual for girls from 1923 also contains adventure stories alongside a guide to embroidery stitches and a story which has the opening line of ‘In the kingdom there lived a maiden who was not at all pretty and therefore could not have expected to marry a prince.’  Presumably this meant she had the freedom to pursue an academic career and find the cure for the common cold!

However there are many books of this era that encourage girls and young women to emulate the older generation who were pushing the boundaries for women, but after World War Two the focus shifts and the 1950’s girls and young women were once again encouraged into domestic settings, as men returning from war found their roles in society.

Sexism is not new, women have been fighting for a voice and for equality for centuries.  But what we predominantly think about in feminist conversation is the voice of women, adults – not necessarily how children are directed and moulded by seemingly innocuous toys and books.  The 1960s and 70s saw more and more focus on teenagers and their music, fashion and how they interacted with the opposite sex.  Magazines became the go-to oracle of advice.  Confusingly for girls Jackie magazines from the 1970s carried adverts for young women to join the Navy or Air Force, or study midwifery alongside articles on how to get a boyfriend and wear the fashions of the moment.

Today’s equivalent to earlier publications are no less gender specific. Hello Kitty is clearly targeted at girls with its bright pink cover and cutesy drawings, whereas footballing annuals, whilst possibly read by female football fans, have no coverage of women’s football and perpetuate the male domination of the sport.

In many ways the messages sent to children through mainstream books, toys and clothes have gone backwards in equality, rather than forward. Clothes shops have stands of pink and purple clothes for girls, and boys have the choice of dark blue and khaki. Similarly racks of children’s birthday cards are often stereotypically gender specific. Television talent and reality shows tell our teenage girls they should have false eyelashes and a fake tan to be successful.  We still have a long way to go to empower girls to know it is OK to be themselves and aspire to what interests and satisfies them – certainly in mainstream culture. This starts at a very young age. Of course these materials have to be judged alongside the wider social and family context, but certainly for the girl who wants-to-know most present-day materials don’t challenge the staus quo of gender stereotyping. We just have to hope that the adults around young children can help them to find more unusual materials or simply challenge the existing mainstream ones.


An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Simone Murphy to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'

SIMONE MURPHY

SIMONE MURPHY

An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Simone Murphy to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Simone Murphy to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Simone Murphy to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Simone Murphy to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Simone Murphy to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'

Simone Murphy Britain’s Next Top Model contestant and full-time Damn Rebel Bitch speaks to REEK Perfume about her experiences on the show, in the industry and all things smelly.

What women do you most identify with from history to the present day that have also inspired you to push further in your career or your personal life?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by strong, outspoken, forward-thinking women – my family and friends. Their strength and kindness is what inspires me – we rely on each other, support each other and celebrate achievements together. Being on Britain’s Next Top Model I got a lot of experience in the fashion industry – and those women were behind me.

What would your top advice be for aspiring models and for those who see the final results of fashion imagery?

I would encourage any woman to pursue what motivates them and makes them happy. To succeed as a model, as with most careers, you need to be prepared to work hard, to believe in yourself, be determined to succeed and to grasp every opportunity. On a more ‘model-specific’ note there isn’t anything I can tell you that hasn’t been said before; drink plenty of water, eat well, get enough sleep and work respectfully with the people you meet. I love fashion and am drawn to more conceptual images – like art, it isn’t always raw and honest, you have take it with a pinch of salt and appreciate it for what it is.

What smells remind you of femininity? What are your favourite smells and why?

I think a lot of my female identity comes from my mother and two grandmothers. They are extremely different people but wear clean and floral scents. I know my Grannie wears ‘Un Jardin En Mediterranee’ by Hermes which is a smell I love because it reminds me of her instantly. I also love the smell of being in a humid climate just as it starts to get dark because it reminds me of exciting summer nights in Ibiza.

What female or gender equality causes mean the most to you and why?

It’s absurd that women still have to fight for equality… but we do and we must. Our anger and outrage at misogyny must be heard and it needs to be heard by an often complacent society. I’m constantly disgusted that I still experience sexism on a day to day basis. As an older sister I’m often inspired by the type of world I would like my younger sister to live in.

What makes you a Damn Rebel Bitch? Tell us what kind of bitch you are?

I’ve never thought of being a bitch as a bad thing… It’s a derogatory word used to belittle women but in my experience people only need to put you down when you’re on your way up so I’m more than happy to take the title. To me being a bitch means you are confident, strong-willed and speak your mind which I’m sure can been seen as intimidating.

Tell us why you picked these images from our REEK shoot and was it difficult as a professional model to know there would be no retouching?

I had an absolute whale of a time at our REEK shoot and I think going into the shoot knowing the images wouldn’t be retouched gave me even more motivation to show my body in a very human way. We are so far removed from what is natural that I understand why unretouched campaigns have shock value. I love what REEK is doing to normalise the female form in all shapes and sizes and I’m beyond proud of my pictures.


An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Alex Bruni to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'

ALEX BRUNI

ALEX BRUNI

An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Alex Bruni to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Alex Bruni to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Alex Bruni to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Alex Bruni to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Alex Bruni to accompany an interview for REEK Perfume's platform 'Bitches Unite.'

REEK model Alex Bruni gives her take on activism and working in fashion as a woman is her 60s. And you young ones watch out, she’ll give you a run for your money.

Is scent important to you and why?

I  think that scent is important, because we often associate smells with specific memories and people. We recognise the smell of a loved one, for example, and I remember reading that babies can recognise the scent of their mother’s milk even before they see her. I recently watched a French movie, The Past, in which a man whose wife was in a coma and had turned into a vegetable, would put on his aftershave, which she liked very much, and then bending to kiss her, he would tell her to squeeze his hand if she knew who he was, in the hope she might recognise him. It was such a moving scene! Smell is often a significant part of falling in love, we are often attracted to the smell of a particular person.

So what are the evocative smells in your life?

Oooh, where shall I start? Freshly laundered sheets, which conjure up memories of home and summer, the gorgeous scent of jasmine which always reminds of my travels through southern India, the smell of oranges which also reminds me of home as we used to have orange trees in our garden. I love vanilla, always did, so I guess vanilla reminds me of childhood and delicious ice creams. I often put it in my coffee, just love to inhale the aroma. Smells are very important to me and I am very sensitive to them. It is not always a good thing, I can easily be offended by a bad odour ie unwashed people. Travelling on the tube in summer during rush hours can be a nightmare – it seems to me that far too many people do not shower at all.

Perfumes are one of my weaknesses, a major one. I love full, rich ones, with a hint of a bergamot fragrance thrown in. There is a strong link between taste and smell, think of wines. You both taste and smell them.

What do you think about growing old and ideas of beauty?

Growing old is inevitable so best reconcile yourself to it. Sometimes I regret not being young anymore, who doesn’t,  but in truth I don’t dwell on it, I tend to accept myself and always look to the future because I have a zest for life. To my mind age is never a major drawback. As you grow older I think it’s very important to take care of yourself, mentally, psychologically, emotionally and physically. Self care and self love are important.  Giving yourself little treats, such as buying a nice perfume, has a rejuvenating effect, I mean it!

As for beauty, I really do believe beauty has no age, nor is beauty dependent on measurements and specific proportions or a particular look. I am always amazed at how diverse beauty is! Somehow this is not reflected in our beauty industry which would like us to look all the same, in a very arbitrary way.

Tell us a bit about your modelling

Well I model because I am, really, a campaigner. I want people to change their perceptions of older people and of older women in particular, and of ageing. I want to eliminate all the negative ‘isms’ from ageism to racism and, of course, discriminatory attitudes to women. Deep down I am passionate about politics, have always been politically aware and at various points in my life I have seriously considered becoming a politician. I care about community, about society, and most of all, about people.

So watch this space. I might relinquish modelling to become fully involved in politics. That may be my next step.


An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'

MY BLACK IS INFINITELY BEAUTIFUL

NINA MDWABA: MY BLACK IS INFINITELY BEAUTIFUL

An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'
An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'

Nina Mdwaba talks about her experience modelling as a woman of colour and how she is done with appeasing white culture’s beauty standards. We are with her, are you?

I was recently involved in a fashion show , where I happened to be the only model of colour. Don’t get me wrong I had a wonderful time and all the people were welcoming , I rarely felt like “the other”. But the closer we got to the show, the closer I knew I was getting to that time of the night I dreaded, where the mua and hair team came in.  

In that moment I knew that I would be made the “other”, the girl who had a face of glitter and bronze that barely showed on my dark skin. I don’t know if the mua team had not been informed that a darker skin model was going to be part of the team or (as I would expect from past experience) the mua and hair team didn’t really give a shit, but they didn’t have products suitable for me!

Now you may look at me and think, your hair is short, what were you expecting? My answer to that would be ,”not much” and to be frank that’s only because I’m used to the same tired , dismissive excuse of “you look great as is”. Well yes, but you have to imagine, when all the models were being fussed over with their sleek blonde hair ( as the show had been curated) I was seated with a face full of glitter and my natural (peroxide bleached) fro.

There was a bitter irony in the fact that one of the hair team members had luminous orange braids (just to throw some appropriation into the mix) but somehow had no idea what to do with a black girl’s hair, so I did my usual of running some water into my curls and that was me for the evening.

Growing up, I bought into the industry of weaves and chemically straightened hair, an industry that every black girl buys into because we’ve been assimilated into believing that the western aesthetic is the only aesthetic. My mother and her mother bought into it too – it’s what was taught to them.

Then I grew up, and the more I read about black beauty, the more I saw and the more I  became my own woman, I realised that I was no longer happy with adopting another’s perception of beauty, so I chopped off my hair and began to grow it naturally.

It didn’t solve my problems – if anything it made things more difficult. I found myself entering into black hair salons where stylists refused to touch my hair because they hadn’t a clue what to do with it now that it wasn’t chemically straightened. I was fed up , so I began to do the work.

I started watching YouTube tutorials, learning about protective hair styles and products that were good for my natural hair, oils and beautiful concoctions that made my curls pop and my hair glisten. I felt more at peace with myself, my appearance and my identity as a black woman. Something I didn’t know was being stripped from me.

It’s been 4 years since I’ve cut my hair and I still get the odd request from (white) people to touch my hair (it’s annoying but I don’t always mind). It’s also kind of sweet when they genuinely want to learn. I’m more than happy to teach people about OUR culture , OUR beauty and OUR natural hair.

It’s funny now I suppose, as I sit here writing this piece remembering the day I told my mother I had cut my hair. I remember the first thing that came out her mouth was “why, are you in mourning?” “Mourning?” I responded. As though something as tragic as a death would have to occur in order for a black woman to decide to cut her hair? I was dumbfounded.

Until I remembered that as a black, South African woman from a rich cultural background filled with traditions, one of which was that a woman/mother is expected to cut her hair when in mourning. Still, in a western setting my mother was unable to separate the two and in the same way, I was unable to put two and two together. I guess what it really came down to was that she too had been assimilated into the western concept of beauty – so much so, that even her own culture was secondary to the “norm” we’d been forced to adopt as our own.

So finally, I’ve reached a point in my life where compromising my Africanness and my blackness at my own expense for the comfort of the West is no longer an option I’m willing to entertain. This is for a number of reasons, but I also  endured a traumatising experience after New Year back home, in what my country supposedly refers to as “A Rainbow Nation” where “every race and diversity is celebrated”. A white man told me I wasn’t black enough because  of the lightness of my skin, referring to me as “mocha” He used horrible racist slurs around me in an attempt at what he probably thought was “banter”. He did this even after I asked him several times to stop, and reminded him that it wasn’t only inappropriate but offensive. I eventually walked away because I realised that you can’t change the mentality of a racist, you can only walk away and hope they haven’t left a permanent mark.

As such I’ve come to an informal agreement with myself that when I see fit , I will educate those who are willing to learn and when I see a wasted opportunity I will walk away. Some people are just not worth the effort.

Optimistically, I hope for a day where the colour of my skin, the texture of my hair and my gender will be a mere aesthetic and not a clarion call to stereotypes, prejudice and hatred. Because My Black Is Infinitely Beautiful.