Menstrual Hygiene Explored: Choice: The Greatest Gift.

This blog is part of Irise International’s #12DaysofChristmas Campaign.

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Irise International’s Christmas Campaign invites us to give the Gift of Education. Here’s why it’s the best investment you’ll make this festive season.
Meet Florence*. She’s a 13 year old school girl from Bushenyi District, Uganda. She is top of her class at school. Her mother died giving birth to her youngest sister, Joy. Florence has decided that one day she will train to be a doctor and help the women in her country survive childbirth. Florence misses her mother but never so much as the day she thinks she is dying.

It was a rather ordinary day until she slipped out of maths class to use the pit latrine and saw the blood running down her leg. For a long moment she just stared at it. There was no toilet paper in the latrine so in the end she wiped her leg with some leaves and grass and stumbled home as quickly as she could, imagining at every step that the blood was seeping through her skirt and fearing that her neighbours would know that there was something terribly wrong with her. She spent three days furtively ripping up old bed sheets and using them to disguise the fact she was almost definitely dying. She tried to tell her father several times but each time she opened her mouth the words wouldn’t come. On the fourth day her aunt came to visit and Florence started crying. Her aunt was deeply embarrassed by Florence’s confession but explained as quickly as possible that what she was experiencing was ‘the woman’s curse.’ Florence was desperate to know more about what was happening, but all her Aunt would say was that it wasn’t nice for women to talk about such things

Three quarters of girls in Western Ugandan believe that period pain is a sign of illness.

Florence was soon to discover why it was called the curse. The maths lessons she had once loved suddenly became an endurance test. She fidgeted in her seat in constant fear that the rag had fallen out of her underwear. One day the worst thing imaginable happened to one of her classmates. The girl stood up to answer a question and revealed to the entire room the large red stain on the back of her skirt. The boys were merciless. They shouted at her that she was dirty and the girl hung her head in shame and ran from the classroom. She was too embarrassed to show her face at school for a week. After that Florence decided to stay at home on her heaviest days. Her father needed her to look after the younger children anyway and it wasn’t worth the risk. She believed she would die of humiliation if she stained her skirt at school.

The fear that had coursed through her the first time she had seen the bright red blood snaking down her leg never entirely went away. Florence worried. She worried that the pain she experienced every month was a sign she was sick. She worried when her periods were irregular that there was something wrong with her. When she heard her friend bleed for 7 days instead of Florence’s usual 5 she worried that she was abnormal. Once she nearly worked up the courage to ask her father for sanitary pads. She had an important exam coming up and of course ‘the curse’ fell at exactly the wrong time. She opened her mouth to ask but he looked so tired and stern sitting in his chair that the words died on her lips.

50% of East African schoolgirls report missing school during their period.

When she was sixteen Florence was no longer top of her class. She had somehow slipped to the bottom without really noticing it was happening. Her father began to gently suggest that he could use the money for school fees elsewhere. She didn’t blame him. She felt useless and stupid at school. The golden glow of confidence that had filled her when the little numbers in her book all danced into place had faded. The numbers seemed like an impenetrable row of soldiers now. They danced for her no longer.

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It was during the rainy season that she met Ben. He was a boda bike driver with a shiny new red motorbike. He had developed a habit of lingering outside the school gates waiting for teachers who needed a paid lift into town. She liked his eyes the first time she saw him. They were always laughing even when his expression was entirely serious. One day he offered her a free lift home. The grey storm clouds hung low over the horizon like a massive belly. She accepted.

Like so many things in Florence’s life, what happened next seemed to slip entirely out of her control. She liked his eyes and when they were fixed on her, he made her feel special. He told her all sorts of things with his laughing eyes. He said that having sex could make period pain go away. He said that it was OK as long as they only did it on safe days. Florence wasn’t sure she wanted to do it at all but like so many of her words, the misgivings faded on her lips and he smothered them with his mouth.

25% of Ugandan girls are pregnant before the age of nineteen and report their first sexual experience was associated with the use of force.

Ben was kind. He bought her small gifts, nail polish, some body lotion. The sort of things her father would never have spared the money for. Once she wondered out loud about visiting the family planning clinic but Ben told her that his mother had warned him that taking pills and injections could cause infertility and deformed babies.

By her eighteenth birthday Florence was pregnant and her father grumbled affectionately about having to put together a bride price. She accepted the pregnancy. It seemed that fate had always known what was in store for her. Her dreams of going to university now seemed like a childish fantasy. She once told Ben about it and his eyes laughed with her. He too had once aspired to the ridiculous, he told her, with the grin that she was coming to love. He had planned to move to the city and become a wealthy business man. Florence laughed but she felt a little hollow inside, as though an echo of possible future was fading away. She remembered the girl who had whizzed through her homework, the girl who had surprised her teacher with her knowledge and who had always known the words to say. She remembered how once the horizon had seemed limitless and she had been a golden girl with the world at her feet.

It is time for the global community to deliver for girls like Florence.

For Florence poverty means that she lacks the freedom to choose. Florence needs and deserves the knowledge to understand and control what happens to her body and the ability to become a confident agent of change in her own life. Irise International works to develop and deliver participatory, rights-based education on menstruation and sexual & reproductive health to ensure girls like Florence reach their full potential.

This Christmas, give the gift of knowledge to young men and women to enable them to define their own futures.

Click here to give the Gift of Education and receive a free gift ethical set on donations over £15. Gift sets include jewellery made by Ugandan women and fair trade Visionary Soap who are committed to supporting enterprise in East Africa.

*Florence’s story is fictional, but truly reflects the lives of the girls and young women with whom Irise International works.

Why Straight People need Gay Rights

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Sometimes I am frustrated by my appearance of conventionality after years of carefully cultivating a liberal perspective. I believe that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, that individuals should be able to explore their own identities free from the judgement and censure of society. I believe that female sexuality has been abused over the ages and that it’s about time that we realised women have sex drives just as much as men and that men are not animals who can’t control themselves at the sight of a bit of naked flesh. Most of all I believe that loving someone else really is the best thing about being a human being and that to begrudge two people the happiness they find in each other is wrong.

However, I sometimes think I have never been able to take full advantage of my beliefs. Unfortunately I’m much too introverted to be a fan of casual sex and the truth is I much prefer to read a good book on a Friday night. Despite encountering a disproportionate number of lesbians during my student days I always seemed to fancy men. Then at the traditional age of twenty-one I fell madly in love with a lovely man and got engaged and subsequently married in an (almost) traditional way. Sometimes I wish I could walk around with a footnote explaining; ‘just because I got married doesn’t mean I think you have to. Just because I wore a white dress doesn’t mean I support the idea that a woman’s virginity has anything to do with her value as a human being. PS. It’s incidental that my husband’s a man. I’d be just as happy if he’d ended up being a woman.

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However recently I have comforted myself with the thought that I might be more of a double agent with a great opportunity to explain to society why re-exploring our preconceptions about gender and sex is good for everyone, including boring old married and relatively straight folk like myself.

So how have I benefitted and why is this movement good for everyone?

I believe it is an opportunity for humanity to evolve our perspective of love into something more beautiful and liberating. My husband often likes to establish the limits of my love. He likes to inquire if I would still love him if he was a rhinoceros/alien/inanimate object. Of course I reassure him that I would love him whatever he was (unless that something was a conservative politician). I romantically like to think that love is the connection between the underlying spirits of two people, a union between the essence of who they are. I think I would love feebly if I could not say that I would love my husband regardless of his genitalia. I have met hundreds of men and women who I haven’t wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I fell in love with him because of who he is and I want to be able to say I would love him and marry him regardless of his sex or gender identity. This paradigm shift is more obvious for same sex couples or transgender people but it is relevant for everyone. On the back of the understanding that I love my husband because of who is he is rather than because he is a man comes a loosening of traditional gender roles that sets us both free to be primarily individual people in a relationship rather than being dominated by the prescriptive gender based identities assigned to us by virtue of our biology alone.

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This paradigm shift also has the potential to revolutionise our ideas about sex which are rooted in a heterosexual male-centric view focussed around penis in vagina penetration. I remember someone once telling me that one of the issues with allowing lesbians to marry was that legally the definition of adultery is based on penetrative sex. Now I’m fairly confident it is possible for a lesbian couple to betray one another so perhaps our definitions are flawed and need to be revisited. If we accept that two women can have sex then we have automatically drastically broadened that definition of what sex is. I kind of love the idea of a lesbian who has slept with loads of women being able to say she is a virgin because it highlights how ridiculous the concept is. The idea that one minute you’re a virgin and the next minute you’re not is just entirely divorced from reality. Sexual experience is a much more complicated medley of encounters and recognition of this can free young women from the ridiculous burden of trying to decide what to do with the “virginity” that has been hoisted on them. I could never decide whether it was an embarrassing inconvenience to be got rid of as quickly as possible or something to be given as a gift to the chosen one. Then experience taught me that intimacy is much more complicated than a simple physical act.

Dispelling the virginity myth also tackles ideas about sexual purity which can make girls feel dirty and guilty when they do have sex outside of whatever restrictions their society has placed upon it. A friend once said to me that she couldn’t understand how our mutual friend could have sex before marriage because it would make her feel like ‘used goods’. It is time to make it clear that society has no business judging the interactions between two consenting adults and that no human being is ever ‘used goods.’ Additionally if we are celebrating how wonderfully unique our partners are rather than trying to make them what they “should” be, it becomes clear that holding a person’s sexual experience, or lack of, against them is a very weak form of love indeed.

Finally, gay sex begins as an interaction between equals, free from the burden of thousands of years of patriarchy. A nun at school once told me that God was male because the man is the active party in sexual intercourse. God is the ‘active’ party in his relationship with human beings and is therefore male in character. But in a lesbian relationship there is no man, so clearly women can manage to get their act together and participate. Similarly, with male gay relationships when there is no woman to be traditionally tender and loving, the men have to step up. It is good for everyone’s sex lives for ideas about feminine passivity and masculine voracity to be dispelled.

So while I may not have chosen to marry a woman or gone further than a gender neutral haircut, I am massively enjoying the benefits of the current global movement towards a more liberal understanding of sex and gender. It has already taught me to love more deeply and freely and I reckon it has done a lot of good for my sex life. It is a symbol of progress and change and those who do not want to stagnate in outdated gender roles that hold both men and women back should embrace it.

The Perks of Being an Nineenth Century Courtesan

Picture the lot of the average 19th century woman. Before the late 1800s married women had the legal status of a minor on par with children, criminals and the insane. Before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 they could not own property. Prior to the Divorce act of 1857 both wife and children were viewed as the legal property of a man and even after the Act a woman had to provide evidence of cruelty and desertion as well as adultery in order to gain a divorce. The role of the respectable woman was not only precarious but limited. As Rousseau put it, “her dignity depends on remaining unknown; her glory lies in her husband’s esteem.” In short her primary virtue was her chastity, as the infamous courtesan Harriet Wilson noted in her journal, “There are but two classes of women…she is a bad woman the moment she has committed fornication; be she generous, charitable, just, clever, domestic, affectionate…still her rank in society is with the lowest hired prostitute.” Laughably, but perhaps depressingly revealing, Acton, the Victorian moralist, seemed to count all working women as prostitutes in his survey of prostitution in London based on the assumption they were likely having consensual sex outside of marriage. Even a cartoon from the day mocked this zealous definition, showing a woman waiting on the street corner being accosted by a preacher. “Lor’ bless you sir,” she says, “I ain’t a social evil I’m just waiting for the bus.”

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Harriet Wilson 1786-1845

While it perhaps seems oxymoronic to call a woman who essentially sells sex to men a feminist the Courtesans of the eighteenth century were women who broke the limited boundaries of a woman’s world and, despite the censure of society, succeeded in achieving wealth and influence in a way their more docile sisters could not imagine. So what were the perks of becoming a courtesan and leaving the life of respectability behind?

For many women it began as a way to survive. After all prostitution is the oldest profession and at the time the only one open to women. (When Elizabeth Garrett dared to pass the exams necessary to qualify as a doctor in 1865 the members of the Society of Apothecaries immediately amended their regulations to prevent other women obtaining a licence.) Many of the most notorious courtesans were from lower class backgrounds and were essentially fighters. Cora Pearl (born Elizabeth Crouch) describes in her memoirs how she was raped on her way home from church and realised that she could never return home to her mother because of her disgrace. “I have never pardoned men” she wrote, “and could count on no one but myself…I looked the situation squarely in the face and was confident in my destiny.” Meanwhile it is thought that Elizabeth Armitage began her career in one of London’s high class brothels before graduating to the much more comfortable role of courtesan. For the upper class woman who was careless enough to ruin herself and earn the censure of her family and polite society, the demimonde, as the world of the courtesans came to be known, also proved to be both a refuge and a means to survive.

Cora Pearl 1835-1886

Cora Pearl 1835-1886

However the role of courtesan was about more than survival. These women enjoyed unprecedented freedom. Unlike “common” prostitutes and almost all other women of their time they reserved the right to choose their lovers from among the most influential, handsome and wealthy men of the land. Although the mercenary nature of taking a protector may seem unpalatable today, at a time when most marriages were sealed with dowry payments it was perhaps less remarkable. Additionally the annuities and gifts that were received through these transactions created a rare species; an independent woman. Almost all the most celebrated courtesans recognised and valued their freedom highly. Sophia Baddely wrote, “I can never submit to the control of a husband.” Harriette Wilson declared in her usual forthright fashion, “I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man” and later in her career Cora Pearl reflected, “My independence was all my fortune.”

Perhaps it was their unique status that led to their celebrity and the paradoxical censure and fascination with which society viewed them. Either way, courtesans were able to lead glamorous and fashionable lives than it many ways mirrored the lives of the wealthiest ladies in society. Catherine Walters, or ‘Skittles’ as she was affectionately known, became famous for her horsemanship. Crowds would gather at Hyde Park to watch her ride past and ladies sought to emulate her skin tight riding habit and pork pie hat. The Telegraph claimed, “that Hyde Park…had been…infested by a number of lewd women, who, being well paid by wealthy profligates for selling their miserable bodies…are enabled to dress splendidly.” Of course any publicity is good publicity and this only added to her notoriety. No doubt the average woman could not help but feel jealous of her freedom, beauty and fame. Indeed Acton expressed concern that “this actual superiority of a loose life could not have escaped the attention of the quick witted sex.”  Hardy’s poem satirises this envy rather beautifully,
“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!”
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.”

Catherine Walters 1839-1920

Catherine Walters 1839-1920

Finally these women, often very intelligent in their own right, consorted with the most influential figures of their time. Elizabeth Armitage’s lovers included two dukes, an earl, a viscount and the Price of Wales himself. She later found love and secretly married the politician Charles James Fox. In a time when women could not even vote, courtesans had the ears of politicians and many men of power in the palms of their hand. When Harriet Wilson wrote her memoirs she accrued £10,000 (the equivalent of half a million pounds) in blackmail from men who wished their names to be removed. Incidentally The Duke of Wellington, one of her most famous lovers, decided to weather the storm. It is impossible to know the true influence of the shadowy demimonde but one can only imagine how many passionate notes and whispered appeals changed the course of history.

Elizabeth Armistead 1750-1842

Elizabeth Armistead 1750-1842

One cannot help but feel admiration for the strength of character and determination of these women in a man’s world. It is time they left the shadowy demimonde and came into the light of day where they can be viewed, not through the censure of their own time, but through a modern lens as the extraordinary phenomenon they were. There are too few strong women in our history books and we need to celebrate the ones we have and the inevitable scandal they caused in their pursuit of freedom.

For the the full biographies of the most interesting courtesans of the nineteenth century please see ‘Courtesans’ by Katie Hickman.

Be a Rabbit not a Magpie

Rabbit Cartoon B-W

Last week I visited my grandmother.
I volunteered to help her make lunch and my lack of skills in the culinary department became immediately apparent.
“My husband does most of the cooking,” I confessed sheepishly.
Actually, my husband openly admits to using food to entice me into a relationship. When we met, I was living in a squalid little flat surviving off Weetabix. It took little more than a homemade chocolate brownie to successfully woo me.
“I didn’t believe your granddad was capable of cooking,” she confided, “Then I went away for a week and he survived against all odds.”
I decided not to comment about the fact she had abandoned my grandfather to almost certain death.
‘In my day a young woman would never have been able to travel alone,” she noted as we talked.
“Times have changed,” I replied.
“They have,” she agreed, “and I think for the better.”

Times have changed and they have given me opportunities of which I suspect she is more than a tiny bit jealous. It makes me want to personally thank all the men and women over the years who have pushed the boundaries inch by inch until they almost reach the horizon. There are so many, but perhaps my favourite is The Langham Place Group comprised of the friends Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Bessie Rayner Parkes. The story goes that one day the three girls were chatting about the limited opportunities for women and decided that they must do something about it. Emily was given the task of opening up universities to women, Elizabeth the professions and little thirteen year old Millie was commissioned to win the vote. Of course the rest is history. Emily co-founded Girton College, the first college for women at Cambridge, Elizabeth became one of the first female doctors &nMillicent led the campaign for women’s suffrage. But it’s important not to forget the role of men in women’s emancipation. After all, it was a man who invented the pill and literally changed the world forever.

My joy at my own freedom is tempered by the fact that those boundaries still restrict so many women around the world today. What is the secret recipe of empowerment that has exploded in a few parts of the world in the last hundred years of human existence? What are the ingredients of the freedom I enjoy? I’d suggest that firstly one must have education and the opportunity to study based on merit rather than money. Secondly, add some access to contraception and health education that enable a woman to understand her body and control her fertility. Then, the most important ingredient by far is the expectation that a girl can and will achieve. This recipe is guaranteed to set both men and women free from the stereotypes that restrict them. It enables men and women to work as a team. Most importantly, it frees me from the obligation of cooking which would make both me and my husband suffer.

Irise International was founded by a group of young women frustrated by the boundaries that so many girls around the world still endure. Like the Langham Place Group before us, we chose to challenge ourselves to use our privilege to change the status quo rather than propagate it. I remember the first time I told my gran about Irise’s work on menstrual hygiene and how many East African girls used dirty rags during their periods and subsequently missed vital schooling. “I wish Irise had been around when I was growing-up,” she said, thinking of her own childhood spent in poverty. The potential for change from one generation to another is massive and exciting. I believe that as part of the small minority of the world’s population who enjoys the freedoms of which humanity dreams, we have a responsibility to work towards the expansion of those freedoms. We need to be rabbits not magpies and multiply our opportunities so that others can share them rather than hoarding them away.

My Fringe Favourites

A sensible man talking about gender equity and an Asian woman with something to say who is not Malala…

My favourite thing about comedy is that you’re allowed to say those things you’re just not allowed to say in the name of being funny. It’s a clever way of challenging the ridiculous and the unjust without being mind-numbingly boring. The stand-up comedy at the fringe this year was no exception As always, I had an eye and ear out for witticisms related to women’s empowerment and I was not disappointed.

Valdenar Pustelnik claims to be a sensible man talking about the impact of women’s empowerment on masculinity while sporting a large ginger beard and a helmet. He confesses that despite his Viking heritage he would much rather cuddle and eat cake and rape and pillage. Unfortunately that will make him rather useless in the unlikely event that a bear enters his second floor flat and tries to devour his child. (This is the one scenario in which his girlfriend has granted him full parenting responsibility.) On a serious note he does fill that much needed man shaped space in the debate on gender roles. In a world where women are redefining femininity left right and centre it seems only fair that men get a go at breaking the mould. Who knows, maybe Pustelnik’s girlfriend will extend his fathering duties to include full responsibility for changing nappies and cleaning up vomit!?

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Meanwhile Sadia Azmat did make me wonder if one day Malala will think of the day she got shot in the same way Daniel Radcliffe thinks about Harry Potter. But more importantly Sadia talks about the elephant in the room…her head scarf. After all, covering your hair is like covering your boobs, it’s just a question of where you draw the line. She makes it clear that there is not a direct relationship between how much flesh you are willing to display and your emancipation. As an aside, she rocks a black glittery catsuit, exudes charisma and basically makes me wish I could pull off a headscarf. Sadia may not be Malala but if there was a weird TV show where you got to choose to spend an evening with one or the other…I’d choose Sadia.

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Finally the Generation of Z is not related to gender at all. Even I can’t sell you that one. But it is really good preparation for a Zombie Apocalypse so if you fancy being locked in an underground bunker for an hour with some half crazed soldiers and flesh eating zombies I highly recommend it. By the end you will literally be willing to trample on children to get out…in fact you probably will.

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Am I worthless because I’m not beautiful?

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The Stop the Beauty Madness Campaign is a series of twenty five adverts designed to challenge the pervasive and incorrect belief that a woman’s beauty determines her value.

The concept took me back to my teenage days when as a pretentious art student I decided to deconstruct beauty. I have often wondered what inspired me to sabotage my beloved barbie doll in the way that I did. She was an inspiring figure in my childhood, single-handedly running an orphanage while leading a group of rebels to overthrow a despotic government. Unfortunately she suffered for what she symbolised. I could not forgive her for the fact she achieved so much while maintaining an unrealistic figure.

It is only recently that I have become consciously aware of how barbie brainwashed me. I think this little exercise was my subconscious trying to warn me that I had developed impossible expectations of my body.

As a child I remember genuinely believing that at some point in my early teens I would transform into a barbie-like figure, my legs would double in length and I would somehow acquire the charm and glamour that had hitherto been in short supply. I was of course bitterly disappointed when the only gifts that puberty brought were acne and periods. I remember praying to God to give me better legs (never mind world peace and all that sh*t)! After a while I resorted to emotional blackmail and bartering my cruel creator to no avail.

Then I started dating my husband and the first time we parted to visit our respective families one Christmas he said, “I’m going to miss your beautiful legs.” I was literally dumbstruck. If I could sing I would have sang “Hallelujah” the way they do in Handel’s Messiah. I realised then that beauty is not a prescriptive value; five foot eleven, C cup with a size eight waist or whatever, it’s the way you feel on a Sunday morning when the person you love is groping you.

This was just the beginning of my husband’s campaign against my brainwashing. I will often come home and say something along the well-known lines of ‘I feel so fat,’ or ‘I’m so spotty,’ or ‘I look really gross today,’ and he would parry in his frustratingly cheerful manner, “No you don’t, you feel stressed,” or “annoyed” or “miserable.” And I realised that somewhere along the way my body had become my mood thermometer. When felt low I was automatically fat and ugly when I felt happy I automatically looked good. It’s so damned annoying. I don’t want to feel fat every time I underperform, I want to be able to say to myself, “You look pretty damn fine today but that blog you wrote wasn’t quite up to scratch.”

Now when he wittily replies, “You’re not fat, you’re just stressed you crazy woman,” or words to that effect, I acknowledge with sigh, “I’m afraid it’s my conditioning playing up again.”

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My other big barbie related breakthrough has been re-embracing the colour pink. When I was thirteen I dyed all my underwear black. I felt a visceral need to rebel against the girly girl stuff that was in fashion. So was born my fashion philosophy; if you can’t pull it off, pretend you always hated it! It was also a matter of pride. Being girly meant being silly and giggily and a bit dumb. I did not want to be dumb. I went to medical school with a girl who actually looked like a Barbie doll. I remember her telling me that she was in a school doing sex ed and the kids literally did not believe she was a doctor. I’m guilty of it myself, assuming that the girl who rocks up with a big cleavage and lovely blonde hair isn’t going to have anything intelligent to contribute and oh how I hate myself for my prejudice. After all, didn’t the parable of Legally Blonde provide us with a true role model for the modern feminist. Elle is a woman who breaks stereotypes just by being herself. She doesn’t ditch her pink suits and lipstick for a sombre masculine suit that she doesn’t like in order to be taken seriously. She takes her pink suit out into the world and says this is me, I like it, if you don’t that’s your problem.

So dear poor sabotaged barbie of my youth you’re not worthless because you’re not beautiful. I’m wiser now. I understand now that I am a more beautiful person for seeing a world of people filled with potential rather than bodies waiting to be dissected. It is society’s obsession with my body that is ugly and I don’t want any part of it. I hope that the Stop the Beauty Madness Campaign will help save the next generation of girls a hell of a lot of time and stress by combatting some of the subliminal messaging that equates a woman’s physical beauty with her worth. Maybe they won’t have to burn their Barbies to understand that beauty is more than skin deep.

Ms Ruby May Standing

Leena McCall’s painting of her friend entitled Portrait of Ms Ruby May Standing was recently removed from a London art exhibition because it was deemed, “too pornographic and disgusting.”

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Those who have seen porn will be able testify that this is categorically not porn.
Some claim it is the glimpse of a woman’s pubic hair that has caused so much outrage.
Whilst it is true that female pubic hair has recently become bizarrely taboo I am pretty sure the art world has seen a vagina before, even a hairy one. Egon Schiele’s work heavily features hairy vaginas and Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Goya’s La Maja Desnuda show a similar amount of pubic hair to Ms May. Then there is Courbet’s The Origin of the World which is literally nothing but an enormous vagina.

courbert the origin of the world

The Origins of the World, Courbet, 1866

So I just don’t believe that the sliver of pubic hair is what has led to the declaration that this painting is pornographic.
As the real Ruby May suggested, it is the face attached to the vagina that has caused so much offence; “I don’t think people realize how threatening a sexually empowered woman is to a paradigm that is still patriarchal at its roots. Thankfully, the world is evolving, this outdated paradigm is crumbling.”

Ms May meets our eye with a worldly wise, sexually charged gaze. She is the antithesis of the traditional feminine. Her almost military attire and pipe are traditionally masculine but she manages to maintain the allure and goddess-like appeal of a Botticelli. She is a new masculine feminine, a merging of the traditional gender constructs, that literally gives me the goosebumps (in a good way). It is the demonstration that gender and sexuality is a spectrum not a tickbox exercise which is at the heart of the painting’s impact.

 

the birth of venus botticelli

The Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1486

The female nude has been a favourite of many, predominantly male, artists throughout history and inevitably their subject’s bodies have been interpreted through the painter’s eyes. The female body is either placed on a pedestal as paragon of virtue and purity (Botticelli, Titian) or it becomes a sexualised object like Schiele’s beautifully erotic, often almost faceless sketches. Alternatively there is Courbert and Georgio’Keefe’s work, where the vagina is amputated from the female body and stands alone as a sort of symbol of fertility that transcends the individual.

titian venus of urbinoSchiele 1914

Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538                                                       Nude, Schiele, 1914

But Ms May is no artist’s subject, interpreted and objectified like a butterfly specimen pinned to a board. Instead McCall has captured the essence of her model. Her vagina is firmly attached to the body and a face of a real woman who displays the sexuality that goes with it. In many ways it is the Goya of our times. La Maja Desnuda was controversial in its day partly due to the portrayal of pubic hair so contrary to the Titian’s and Michelangelo’s that had gone before it. But as with Ruby May, this was just a symptom of the deeper challenge of the painting. Unlike Titain’s Venus who looks down modestly, Goya’s nude looks straight at the viewer. She is not a pale, pure angel willing to endure the advances of a man, she welcomes her lover. She even promises that she will enjoy it. Ms May goes a step further, she will not be doing the welcoming, she will be extending the invitation and the recipient of her appraising gaze may not even be a man. If he is I doubt he will be a traditionally masculine one.

la maja desnuda

La Maja Desnuda, Goya, 1797-1800

What is also remarkably refreshing is that Leena McCall has managed to shock. So much of modern art seems to exist for the soul purpose of shocking the viewer. It so often fails, not because we are immune to images of violence and sex, but because it fails to challenge our existing paradigm. Sexualised images of women’s bodies are everywhere, that is not new or interesting. The portrait of Ruby May is interesting because it offers an alternative to a male dominated interpretation of sexuality. Like La Maja Desnuda before her, she embodies a paradigm shift in our understanding of female sexuality. With an erotically charged gaze and a slither of pubic hair she manages to personify the issues with which our society currently grapples. Her shameless, empowered attitude to her body and sexuality has touched a raw nerve. It is a nerve that needs to touched and prodded, and maybe even stroked…