Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Support People in Abusive Relationships #1 Trust

As with rape, I think that third parties - people who are neither victim nor perpetrator - are often neglected in the stories we tell about domestic abuse.  People outside these relationships can't stop the abuse happening, but they do have some power and that's something hardly ever spoken about. Refuge asks us to look out for signs of abuse in our (male-partnered female) kith and kin, but don't give us much advice about what to do.

Often, nobody on the outside will know that abuse is happening and of course, there are times when friends and family feel someone's partner is bad news, without any justification (or indeed, because they themselves have issues with control).  However, anything you can do to help someone who may be being abused - or is vulnerable to abuse - has the potential of changing, if not actually saving, a life.

This has become two posts, because I have a lot to say (when do I not?).  It splits roughly into two posts because there are two themes.  In order to escape and recover from abuse, a person has to learn to trust themselves and to value themselves. So, first of all:

Things you can do to encourage abuse victims to learn to trust themselves.

1. Never directly question a person's perception of their own situation.

Sometimes, friends and family can plainly see that a relationship is abusive, while an abuse victim cannot.  There can be a great temptation to point out that their whole worldview is topsy-turvy, they're in danger, their self-esteem is rock bottom and they're living with a monster. This would be a really bad idea.

Abuse victims constantly question their own perception of their situation. They have been conditioned to do so.  They have learnt to mistrust their instincts, their recall of events, their very understanding of what's going on around them. They may have been told that they misremember things, make too much of things, lie about their feelings and demand unobtainably high standards of behvaiour from their abusers.

My experience was not a particularly extreme one, but my ex constantly questioned my perception of things, my memory, my friendships, even my beliefs - one notable and regular accusation was that I secretly held religious beliefs; allowing my ex to accuse me of being delusional about something I didn't even think or feel, as well as helping to isolate me from religious friends and family.

Months after I left, he continued to speak as if he knew me better than I knew myself.  During one of his last lecturing e-mails to me, my ex wrote:
"Your perception of the present is just as distorted as your perception of the past and in time you will realise it, and when you do you will no longer feel that you have to disassociate yourself with the last 12 years, or me.  Be wary that you don't make a bed for yourself that you won't want to lie in when that realisation occurs."
I remember this because it was a moment where a penny dropped about what had been going on; you can't trust how you feel now, you can't trust how you felt before, but you will figure this out and then you'll be sorry!  Of course, I probably never will figure it out - although what if my perception of the future is just as distorted as my perceptions of the past and the present?

But this illustrates the point well; ten and a half years (I'm pretty sure it wasn't twelve) of being told that you don't have a clue what's going on or even how you feel about your life puts you in a state of constant self-doubt. In the first few months after leaving, I felt I didn't know who I was, because I had no idea about my real strengths and real weaknesses.  I second-guessed my own needs and desires and found it incredibly hard to listen to my instincts, especially when it came to other people.  But I did know that I had come from a very bad place and any amount of muddle and mess I found myself in was better than that.

Any statement along the lines of “You don't realise this, but you're being abused.” is likely to be about as useful to an abuse victim as the many other statements they have heard along the lines of  “You don't realise this, but you're broken in all kinds of ways and I'm the only one who can fix you.”

(I hope I don't have to warn anyone against the even worse mistake of questioning someone's perception about whether abuse they describe is as bad as all that. There is this just world fallacy within many of us which makes us question the idea bad things could be happening to our close friends and family. There are circumstances when this is hurtful or frustrating and there are circumstances when this is downright dangerous. If you're a member of a jury, you might have to be more objective, but when someone you love complains of abuse, it's best to assume that it's as bad, if not worse, than you're being told.)

Edit 04/01/2014: I want to add a link here to Liam's excellent post about Religious Abuse. The focus is on supporting trans people in situations of religious abuse but most of this applies to anyone who is being abused, particularly within a community or family.

2. Show you trust the person and expect them to be competent.

Abusers treat their victims as if they are not to be trusted. They are often monitored and supervised against everything from infidelity to doing the washing up the wrong way. They are often denied certain basic adult responsibilities and freedoms because, they've been told, it's not safe. This doesn't stop abusers depending heavily on their victims, but this is dependence rather than reliance; they are depended upon, but not expected to get things right. You might be expected to prepare a meal, to extraordinary tight specifications, but then be interrupted for an interrogation about whether you are doing it right, will it be late, have you remembered certain stages of the process and special requests?

After all this, it is quite a shocking experience when someone asks your help or relies on you for something important, treats you like an averagely competent adult, yet alone an adult with areas of expertise and talent.  Most people respond well to being trusted and relied upon, but it is especially useful to people who have been repeatedly told that they are useless, disaster-prone or unsuited to responsibility. Not only does this trust prove that other people value them differently, but being able to help someone or successfully complete a task (and be thanked or praised for it) proves that it isn't just a matter of opinion. 

One problem is that abuse victims often don't get relied upon because they believe that they are incompetent and fail to put themselves forward.  I used to be nervous about making a cup of tea at someone else's house for fear of spillages, broken mugs, accidental poisoning and somehow burning the kitchen down. When people never volunteer, others are often reluctant to ask.  It's worth asking.  Don't press the matter, but do ask. 

3. Take an interest in your loved ones' dreams. Expect them to succeed and celebrate with them when they do.

Abusers are generally very dismissive about and critical of their victim's work, dreams and achievements.  All of those things are threats to the abuser, because there's the potential for the victim to gain self-worth, praise from others and various life opportunities in a way that is completely out of the abuser's control.  Male abusers frequently persuade female partners to stop working altogether and discourage outside projects.  Even when abusers actually depend on their partner's career for money or status, no achievement is ever good enough. 

In British culture, we don't encourage one another's dreams generally.  We certainly assume that if someone does need encouragement and support in their work, it's coming from those closest to them. But the opposite may be the case. Putting faith and taking interest in someone's work and celebrating their achievements is a sure-fired way to undermine abuse. It's much more effective than just telling someone that they're wonderful; it shows them that they are capable in a way that matters to them. It teaches them to trust their own capabilities and any glimmer of self-esteem they have floating around.

As with failing to volunteer, abuse victims often fail to put themselves forward and talk about the positive things they are doing.  On the day I finished my first novel, I had lunch with my parents, aunt and two cousins. We talked about everybody's lives. We talked about the lives of various family members who weren't there. But nobody asked about what I had been up to and I didn't say, even though my news was, quite frankly, somewhat bigger than anything else we spoke about (really, it wasn't the biggest deal ever, but everyone else's life was pretty quiet at the time). I don't blame anyone else, because it was a precedent I had set. I had learnt that nothing I did was of interest or importance, so others had learnt not to bother to ask.

It is always worth it to keep asking, even when you've not dragged much information out of a person in the past.

4. Be a Trustworthy Person

This is important in two respects.  The first is that obviously, if you are a trustworthy person, your friends and family will be able to come to you for help should they need to.  The second is more subtle. Having people in one's life who are trustworthy helps a person to trust themselves, especially if they're realising that they've made a tremendous error in their judgement of character elsewhere. During the aforementioned period after I had left my husband, I had a great difficulty determining who I could trust, whether I was simply an appalling judge of character or whether I was somehow a bad influence on the people around me. To have friends who proved themselves time and again was a great salve to my sanity.

Top tips for being the right kind of trustworthy:
  • Keep confidences. I don't believe that gossip is a great evil - talking about other people has an important role in learning about the human condition - but if a friend is giving you information they could have only been told in confidence, you know your secrets are likely to be spread around.
  • Keep promises. This is probably better phrased in the negative; don't say you're going to do things that you're not going to do.  If you're unsure about what you can do and when, be honest about your uncertainty.
  • Don't make jokes about domestic abuse, violence or rape. There are many reasons not to do this, but one is that the unseen victims of abuse in your family and social circle are unlikely to consider you someone who would take their situation seriously.
  • Similarly, don't indulge in victim-blaming and the justification of abuse - any abuse. Casual remarks about all the fuss over bullying in school these days, and how it's part of growing up, may seem unrelated to your sister-in-law beating up your brother, but it's not.  It's all connected anyway, but it is certainly very easy to connect in the mind of an abuse victim, who already feels they need to man up.
  • Don't tolerate abuse in your presence. More on that in my second post.
  • Set a good example in your own relationships.  Don't mistreat people.  Don't call people names or humiliate them in front of others (or any time).  Don't manipulate people and play games with people's emotions.  Don't tell people what to do.  Don't hit anyone, for goodness sake!  Be honest and realise that whilst love can exist without respect, it will never be anything special. 

5. Abandon all hope of rescue. 

Adult abuse victims need good strong allies, not rescuers.  If you're really unlucky (because it will be a truly dire situation) you might rescue someone from a single violent situation, but adult abuse victims have to choose to leave those relationships. You may get to be Leah or Han when the abuse victim finds their inner Luke, but you don't get to destroy the Deathstar.

The concept of rescuing adults from abuse is incredibly problematic.  For one thing, abusers love these kinds of narratives and it is very common for abusers to believe that they have rescued (or are in the process of rescuing) their victim from something or other - very often themselves. Abusers think in these terms because it removes autonomy from the victim, it demands a debt of gratitude and dependence from the victim (after all I've done for you; you are nothing without me etc.) and it provides an excuse for the abuser to assume  complete control. Even during the grovelling phase, my ex referred to me as the project of which he was most proud. He thought he was Henry Higgins, forgetting where such a sense of entitlement leads.

It's easy for victims to buy into these ideas to a certain extent.  I had one friend who, years later, spoke of gratitude towards a first husband who regularly beat her up, but had rescued her from her small town provincial life and introduced her to a wider, more intellectual world.  It seemed obvious to me that my friend was wrong; she had been extremely young when she'd met this man (who by virtue of the massive age difference knew stuff she hadn't learnt yet), and she'd been thoroughly fed up with her life and immediate surroundings. Sooner or later she was going to walk into a library, catch a bus to the wider world or meet other people who would introduce her to the same things without taking all the credit - if, indeed, she wasn't already on her way. But she continued to understand her younger self in the way she'd been taught to; as a completely blank canvas, passive and unmoving, upon whom someone else had the magnanimity to paint great things. Between assaults.

This is one reason why abuse victims often manage to leave one abuser only to find themselves with another slightly different abuser, feeling indebted to the second abuser for rescuing them from the first (or the mess they were in, having escaped the first).  Meanwhile, people in abusive relationships can sometimes behave as if they are waiting for rescue, because they don't trust their own ability to make radical decisions about their lives.  And of course, it can be fairly easy to steer a person, who is very used to being controlled, towards a course of action that you think is best, even when you mean them no harm.

It's a much bigger and braver thing to trust an abuse victim and support them in finding their own way out.  If good people truly trust and value themselves, they will act in their own best interests, far more effectively than they ever would under someone else's command. It can be very hard to trust someone that much, especially when you are very worried about them, but it is a tremendously powerful act of love and respect.  It's about loving someone for who they are, as opposed to who they might become.

The only person who can end an abusive relationship is the victim.  Even if they do have matters taken out of their hands, through coercion or pressure, they will remain under the abuser's power until they decide take that power away.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When is a debate not a debate?

Here are some examples of subjects which are up for debate at the moment
  • Should we bring back capital punishment for the worst sorts of criminals?
  • Should the UK enter the European Single Currency?
  • Should the civil union between people of the same gender be called marriage?
  • Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?
  • Should it be legal to help a terminally ill person to end their life if they wish it?
Some of these subjects are more pressing than others. It is unlikely that the UK should reintroduce capital punishment, but I think it's going to be a while until people stop talking about the possibility.

Here are some examples of subjects which are not up for debate at the moment:
  • Should people be able to own other people as slaves?
  • Should we burn people who dabble in witchcraft?
  • Should people of different skin colours be treated differently under the law?
  • Should parents decide who and when their children should marry? 
  • Should we start to rebuild the British Empire by invading impoverished countries?
When I was younger, I'd often encounter an amateur philosopher who would derail a discussion by taking the whole thing back to first principles, as if it were clever to say, "Yes, but are we really here? Might I not be a figment of your imagination?"  Philosophers have to look at these questions, but then they have to move on before they can walk across the room (Is there really a room?) and make a cup of tea (What do you mean by make? What do you mean by tea? Isn't that a mug, anyway?). You have to put faith in the world as you see it in order to operate within it. Similarly, if we had to debate whether slavery is a bad thing every time we discussed workers' rights or modern day racism, we'd never get anywhere. 

This is about three very different things I've read lately, which seem connected by this issue.  The first may be - judging from what happens to other opinion pieces on the BBC News website by good and sensible writers - an example of sensationalist editing rather than the author's intention. Anyway, in Does the sex debate exclude men?, Sarah Dunant writes
[The idea men think differently about sexual ethics] will not necessarily be politically correct. Sex often isn't. It doesn't help that when men do open their mouths on the larger stage, they are firmly shot down. Both George Galloway and our now ex-Justice Secretary Ken Clarke might have been ill advised in their remarks about sexual behaviour and the law, but like it or not, they thought something needed saying, only to be met by a storm of female outrage that effectively stifled all debate.
Clarke got into trouble for blundering with words while participating in a real debate about how the criminal law is applied to rape, how to increase convictions and sentence appropriately. That discussion is ongoing, and hasn't been stifled one jot. But any questions raised by Clarke or Galloway's offensive statements take us back to first principles, a stage or two above "Should men be allowed to do whatever they like to women and their bodies?"  Not everything someone thinks needs saying ,needs saying, and certainly no everything someone says is part of a debate. Even if it is said by a man.

The idea of "female outrage" and variations on that theme (hysteria, pearl-clutching, the feminist thought police) are frequently used to discredit women with an opinion on anything. And thankfully, there has been no shortage of men feeling outraged about things said about rape in recent months (two examples from my modest blog roll and two more I happen to remember - if I actually went looking, I'm sure I'd find loads). If there really was a male/ female divide about the issue of consent, heterosexuality would be a lost cause.

Talking of which, Nick Clegg.  Like Clarke, Clegg has got into trouble for the words he (or his speech-writers) have used while talking about an actual, very current debate, when he (or his speech-writers) referred to those who oppose marriage equality as bigots. That is an example of someone stifling a debate. Let's call it male outrage!  Okay, so we won't.

Nobody who has ever been subject to actual bigotry could imagine that the plain old social conservatism which causes many people to object to marriage equality is bigotry. There are bigots about, for sure, but most people who have reservations against marriage equality aren't like that. They're wrong, of course, but the arguments are quite straight forward; they have a concern, we address that concern, they think about it and realise there's nothing to worry about. Remember all those folk who initially objected to civil partnerships but have since got completely used to the idea?  It's them. We can sort all this out together and everyone will be fine. So long as we don't call one another names!

However, as the subject of marriage equality continues to be debated, there are bigots thumping the table who wish to reduce the argument back to first principles such as "Is homosexuality a dark and dangerous force that threatens to destroy the world?"  They're not having a debate - certainly not the same debate the rest of us are having.  And I would argue that it is perfectly okay to call them bigots and duly ignore them. Or preferably just ignore them.

Which leads me to Do Marginalised People Need To Be Insulting In Order To Be Empowered? by a chap called Daniel Finke, who discusses the ethics of debate and implores marginalised people to adopt a civil tone when conversing with people they disagree with. There's a good (if rather sweary) discussion about this over at Feministe, where many people speak of the legitimate anger of marginalised people and this idea that marginalised people somehow have to win the world over, to demonstrate over and over that we are good enough for - better even - than the people who want to shut us out.

I strongly believe in being courteous and patient and trying to understand where people's prejudices come from, in order to give them the kind of information which might help them straighten that out. But honestly, there are some circumstances where anger is the only possible or useful response. But this is not a debate either. And it's okay not to have a debate.

It's okay to say "That was a horrendously offensive thing to say." without addressing any point someone made.  It's okay for Nick Clegg (or his speech-writers) to say, "There are some bigots and some reasonable people who object to equal marriage and we're not going to bother talking to the bigots." and it's okay for marginalised people to call our enemies names, safe in the knowledge that far worse names are given to us, just for existing.

But we can't call any of those things debate

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Goldfish Guide to Living With Big Breasts

Last week, there seemed to be a few young women about feeling miserable about their big breasts. Stevie at Vagenda wrote the rather disheartening On Having Big Baps and a young letter writer to Captain Awkward wrote about her mother who was using her breast size to critcise her weight, leading to a lot of discussion on big breasts in the comments, this post by Fizzy about bra-fitting and this excellent celebratory post by Elodie which all busty women should read, even if you don't have time to read my post as well:
The Cup Runneth Over: Love, Lifestyle and Clothing Tips For Large Busted Ladies
I wanted to this when I saw Elodie's post and thought, "Do I have anything further to say?" Possibly not, but I may say it differently, and this is a subject worth talking about as long as there are busty young women out there, feeling miserable about their bosoms.

What are big breasts for?

Breasts appear to have three biological functions.
  1. They provide milk for suckling infants. But sometimes not.
  2. They are a secondary sexual characteristic, which together with body hair and waist to hip ratio, help identify you as a sexually mature female. But sometimes not. 
  3. They are an erogenous zone which can provide you with considerable sensual pleasure. But sometimes not.
None of these things are what your breasts are for.  They are just some reasons why you might possess them. Your breasts are yours to do with as you wish.

However, it's worth noting that none of these things depend on size; a big breasted woman is not more likely to breast-feed with ease, she is not imbued with a greater degree of femaleness and she us not more likely to take pleasure from her breasts.  Alas, biological function has no answers for our big-breasted questions!

So why do I have big breasts?

Minoan Snake Goddness, lifted from
Wikipedia's page on the Minoans
Genes, hormones, nutrition and quite possibly, a pixie curse. I understand that genetics is the big one but I am the only woman in my family who has particularly big breasts (given that the average UK cup size is now a D).

The great variation in breast size and shape is one of those little mysteries, like the distribution of men's chest hair.  There are great swathes of the world's population - entire ethnic groups - where breasts are almost universally small and chests are almost universally bald. Among other ethnic groups there is massive variation in both breast size and chest hair distribution. Who knows why?  But it's obviously not natural selection across the species - if heterosexual men consistently selected larger-breasted partners, breast size would be more consistent throughout the world.

(Check out the Embarrassing Bodies Breast Gallery for mostly pale-skinned bosoms in some of their considerable variety.)

There'd also be more evidence for our own culture's particular interest in big breasts throughout the world and our own history. This just doesn't exist. In most cultures, women's breasts are not nearly so remarked upon, in some cultures, everyday clothing givens very little away and in pockets of culture (which were once very much larger and more numerous pockets, like anthropological cargo trousers to the current hot pants of this practice) women go about bare breasted.  Breasts have to be understood very differently in these cultures, next to one in which it is possible to be arrested for exposing one's breasts in public, and where despite a great deal of bare female fresh and sexual imagery in film and advertising, it is rare to see an entire naked breast outside pornography.

(Which reminds me of when as a thirteen year old on the French Exchange programme, I saw nipples on a soap advert in the middle of the afternoon.  The father of the family, whose English was about as poor as my French, noticed my discomfort and declared, "I am shocking!"  I barely managed not to say, "Your entire country is, mate." )

So are big breasts not a sexual advantage?

Internationally, probably not.  In our culture, maybe, just now and to a limited extent. A quick leaf through the history of female nudes in Western Art will reveal that many different breasts can be both beautiful and sexually attractive. A quick leaf through our modern feminine icons, the women who get to be on the most sexy lists will reveal that this has not changed.  Whilst some individuals have specific preferences (and others feel obliged to), most gynophiles will tell you that breasts are quite lovely in all their variety. What's more, people's natural breasts tend to suit their bodies - nature is kind like that, in the same way you never get eye colour that clashes with a person's hair colour.

Our culture, however, says  "Look, look, look at the big breasts! Hilarious big breasts!"

Honestly, there are only one or two comments I have ever received about my breasts which weren't a bit of a joke. I'm gorgeous, of course, and I have had sincere compliments about various aspects of my physical appearance, but most of the breast stuff - and there has been a lot of breast stuff - has been a great big dirty joke. All the unwanted touching has been in jest (though no less awful for it). And this is not just among creepy strange men.  My breasts were a joke at primary school and in my all-girls high school.  My breasts have been a joke in my family. Big boobies! Ha ha ha!

Meanwhile, women with naturally large breasts can have the truly humiliating experience of disappointing a lover who has consumed too much pornography. As an eighteen year old virgin, I was informed that my breasts were saggy. They weren't and they're still not, but natural breasts are heavier than silicone and this can come as a shock for some wankers (I mean that word figuratively and literally).

How big is too big? 

As Elodie points out, linking back to a Shapely Prose piece, it is possible - and commonplace - for people to describe breasts of almost any size in a derogatory or sensational way. Very many women around average size imagine that their breasts are particularly large or particularly small, finding themselves being offered a padded push-up bra with one hand and a minimiser with the other.

I take a GG or H cup depending on manufacturer and my breasts are not enormous. You may have seen photos and videos of me and not noticed my bosoms. Many people who know me very well would not immediately identify me as a person with particularly big breasts. It's just not necessarily the first - or the twenty first - thing that people notice about a person.

I give this personal information because I've seen many letters and numbers thrown around in these discussions and many of them are much smaller than the ones I'm working with.  I'm reminded of a time in a changing cubicle in the Marks and Spencer lingerie department, realising I would not fit into the FF bra which was the biggest they had (they now go up to a K). Suddenly, the young woman in the cubicle next to me cried out (and she really did yell), "I can't be a DD cup - I'm not some kind of freak!"

That young lady was allowed to feel as she felt about her own body, but I know for sure that if she'd noticed me walking round the store, she would not have identified me or any other woman as a freak.

Rockbox 3
The top of a bra with a mp3 player clipped to it.
Bras have so many uses.
My perception of my bust has changed dramatically over the years. There have been great lows; for years, my appearance was a source of daily criticism and mockery from my ex. It's a very obvious thing to say, but increased confidence (and I have undergone a massive increase in confidence within the last few years) diminishes the prominence of a big bust - even though my posture has changed, and (when I'm not lying down) I generally sit up straighter with my chest relatively stuck out.  I am absolutely convinced that people notice my bosoms less now than when I was hunched over with my arms folded across them.  Despite the  frustrations, I enjoy shopping for clothes.  I get much less crap about my bust, far fewer jokes and comments now, presumably because it's obvious there's no shame there, no self-consciousness to poke  at or paint over with humour. In terms of my perception and my experience, it is as if my bust has gone from being a physical flaw to becoming completely normal in the space of a few years, without my body changing in any way.

So how big is too big?

Breasts could be too big if they - the breasts and not an ill-fitting bra - are causing us pain, unhappiness or dissonance.  The smallest breasts are too big if we don't feel comfortable in a body with breasts.  But if they are comfortable - or if the pleasure they give us outweighs any pain they cause - then they are just fine exactly as they are.

So, some advice on how to come to terms with and learn to love your big breasts.

1. A sense of proportion about your proportions.

In the absence of pain or dissonance, big breasts are not among the worst ways in which a body can deviate from the fictional standard model.  They can be expensive, demoralising and have social consequences but it doesn't compare to say, being fat, trans, having certain physical impairments or one or some of the above and having big breasts. The comments on the Vagenda piece quickly descended into an argument between thin cis women, some with big breasts, some with small, about who was most disadvantaged. Ha!

This may sound obvious and like I'm minimising the issue (tee hee), but I've not always been good at this myself.  Even without everything else, when I've been miserable about the ways in which my body doesn't work, I have fixated on its external flaws. One thing I have found very helpful in coping with chronic illness generally is to focus on the things my body can do and the parts of my body that work just fine.

I strongly recommend this for anyone who feels bad about their body.  My bosoms are just fine.  They don't have any work to do, but they're not painful and they do give me pleasure. On these grounds,  they're absolutely great, exactly as they are!

2. Buying a bra

I think big-breasted women have a simple choice here: you either get yourself a good bra that fits you well, or you don't wear one at all.  Personally, I don't enjoy being braless if I'm moving about, but an ill-fitting bra is so much worse than nothing. It feels absolutely miserable and with big breasts is likely to lead to chronic posture problems, back and shoulder pain, skin problems around the breasts and ribcage etc.. Also, it can look much worse, placing your bosoms in odd positions and causing you to hunch.

Bras with big cup sizes can be very expensive, but it would be better to get just one and wash it every few days than to make do with several that are the wrong size.  Personally, I buy almost all my bras on eBay and have been able to afford quite a collection.  It takes a little time, a trawl and a bit of a gamble (although much less of a gamble as time goes on and you get to know you're preferred brands). But I can get £35 bras for around £15 and less - much less if it's one a private individual has bought in error and photographed badly!

I sometimes get curvy-lady clothes, like this ace jacket,
as Christmas/ Birthday presents from family.
(me wearing a pink/brown tartan jacket)
Something else I've done is to ask for bras as Christmas and birthday presents from family. Which sounds a little weird, but as a young woman this was an item which I couldn't normally afford, was a nice pretty thing that was a pleasure to receive, and saved better-off family members spending the same amount of money on an ugly vase that I would only hide in a cupboard (or sell on eBay so I could afford a new bra). Obviously, I usually chose the bra, but weeks in advance so I'd forget what it was like and so was able to looked surprised.

3. Getting dressed. 

The first rule of getting dressed with big bosoms is that there are no rules about getting dressed with big bosoms. Stevie felt her boyfriend had a valid point when he complained that she wasn't dressing sexily enough. They're both wrong. A trenchcoat made of incontinence pads would be plenty sexy enough if she felt so inclined. Although it would get very heavy if it rained.

As Elodie puts it
"Do you know what type of figure you have? Oh god, you probably do. There’s the Apple, the Pear, the Ruler, The Strange, the Charmed, the Snail that Overturns the Nougat… the Hourglass. Because women love identifying themselves with fruit and objects! Pick up any magazine with Clothing Tips. It’ll rhapsodize on the natural, feminine beauty of the mythical Hourglass, probably saying something like “lucky bitch!” before going back to how Rulers can make their breasts look bigger, and Apples can make their everything look smaller. Let’s get rid of those notions now – let’s throw them out the window. You are a large-breasted person, yes. You are beautiful, yes. But fuck those magazines. Fuck ‘em. They don’t know."
Big breasted women receive two messages about getting dressed:
  1. Cover them up.  Use tricks, colours, lines and layers to make your bust look smaller than it is. Wear brightly coloured knickers over your jeans to draw attention away from your bust. You are all out of balance. Establish a balance!
  2. Flaunt those bad boys, girlfriend!
Dress is a form of communication but one we have limited control over.  Lots of outfits that are worn because of their power to communicate, nevertheless convey very different messages to different people; a police uniform, for example, a nun's habit or an expensive suit. 

Women's clothing is understood to have extraordinary powers, effecting other people's behaviour, let alone their impression of us. No woman can win with this, not really, but I think it's especially tough for busty women. Dress one way and you're immodest, a tart, your clothing invites comment about your body and event assault. Dress in the other way and you're a frump, unfeminine and not making an effort. In his capacity to critcise absolutely anything, my ex variously described me as dressing like a cheap whore and a sack of washing.  But I was wrong to think that there was a magical balance between these two insults, because they are insults.  By far the biggest effect your clothing has on others is through you. If you feel good, if you're comfortable, confident and cheerful, people will react to you better. The kind of people who are going to judge you because they can or can't see the shape of your body under your clothes aren't going to treat you like an actual person, whatever you do.

A brief detour into minimising...

Because I was tall, I usually had to play the male roles in school plays.  For this, girls like me had to have our breasts bound to us with bandages.  This was very uncomfortable and made us into rather strange new shapes (it's not like you can make the flesh go away, you can merely flatten it - to a limited extent - against your rib-cage).  It was also kind of weird and unpleasant to see it happening to others.

At some point in my teens, I got to the stage where minimisers were the only bras I could find in the shops which would fit me. I felt like I was being told that my breasts were simply too big, and I had to squish them down as I had for the school plays, only now it was just to play a woman. I didn't want to draw attention to my breasts, but then, I don't want to draw attention to my arse but I refuse to wear those horrible rubbery tube things that make your bottom smaller (or at least, redistribute your bottom over a larger area).

I hate the idea of trying to disguise a part of my body out of shame about it. If minimisers are more comfortable for you and allow you to wear nicer or more appropriate clothes, that makes perfect sense.  But don't feel obliged to hide something away because you feel your body is somehow offensive or inappropriate.

Back to Getting Dressed...

Wear what you like, but everyone should
have a dino hoody in their wardrobe.
Some clothes won't look so good on you as they do other women with different proportions. Some clothes will look better on you than they do on other women. This is the case for everyone. Have a look at photographs from fashion shows, where you have tall and thin young women wearing clothes by the world's top designers. Some of those clothes do not look good on those body shapes (of course, some of them don't look good at all, but some would look much better on, say, a short woman with a big bottom).

Of course, looking good is subjective and looking good is not necessary your top priority when getting dressed.  That's up to you.

Some clothes will not fit you properly, no matter what you do.  This can be tough - buying clothes for a special occasion in the summer, where everything is straps, halternecks or low backs, is very tricky. There's only one place I know where I could buy button-up shirts or blouses. When I was a bridesmaid, it took attempts by three different experienced dressmakers to make the dress design fit around my bust.  As well as making and dramatically adjusting clothes, I have taken some extraordinary measures to wear the clothes I like. In one case, I actually painted an area of a camisole the right colour to match the top I was wearing it under so that my vest looked like part of the top.

Elodie's post provides some excellent practical advice on this stuff, but you read all that already, didn't you?

4. Appreciating female beauty.
In her article, Living With Breasts That Can Be Seen From Orbit, Lindsay Miller says
I've found that nothing helps my breast-related self-image quite so much as sleeping with women. If you're not queer, sorry about that, but for the girl-on-girl crowd: When was the last time you thought “Wow, I wish her breasts were smaller/bigger/perkier/farther apart/a different shape”? Probably never. Probably you usually think something along the lines of “Hell yes, naked girl!” Seeing other women's bodies in a context where you're enjoying, not critiquing, can help you reframe your relationship with your own body in the same way.
I have an eye for the ladies but I'm not sure you need to be turned on by, let alone sleeping with a person, to notice their physical beauty. The trouble is that women are so often being asked to compare themselves to other women, as if there are a handful of standard beautiful women against whom all women's beauty might be measured.  You can look through a women's magazine and see a great number of beautiful women who look very much alike and nearly nothing like you.

But you can't do the same looking through a book on art, typing a girl's name into a search on Flickr or just looking at the various women you love.  Even if you can't find any physical feature that you find beautiful and which you also possess, you will at least see that beauty looks like very many different things, and so the chances are that others can see beauty in you.  Also, if you go for the Flickr route, you will encounter at least one cute animal who shares your name (here's mine).

( I recommend the same for men and people of other genders (see Genderfork) who struggle to accept their physical appearance, with or without big breasts. )

On a slightly negative note... I know that nobody who reads my blog would ever be involved in this sort of thing, but I've seen the posts going around comparing some thin modern celebrity to Marilyn Monroe with slogans such as "When did beautiful stop being this and start being this?"  I've seen people refer to curvy women as "real women" and lament the shallowness of men who date stick-thin beauties who have nothing between their ears or underarms (which is a lot like this infamous article, only in reverse).

This is not on.  Not only because it is sexist and sometimes outright misogynist, but because it can't possibly make such people feel better. If any aspect of one's self-esteem relies on the inadequacy of others, one is destined to be repeatedly indignant when those others get the luck, praise and love one feels entitled to. Not because really they're actually hotter than people who do this, but because they're nicer than people who do this. So there.

5. Accepting what your breasts are and are not.

Your breasts are part of your body which you are probably going to have to live with.  You may lose weight and your breasts will get smaller, but they will still be large in proportion to the rest of you (in fact, if the back size of your bra goes down with weight loss, your cup size may go up).  Surgical breast reduction is an option for some, but a radical and very expensive one.

Your breasts aren't part of your sexuality or even your femininity. They are just part of your body. They may be involved with both your sexuality and your femininity or they may not. You can be butch and big breasted. You can be another gender and big breasted. You can be asexual and big breasted.

Your breasts do not cause other people to behave in a certain way.  Together with other mammals which have mastered the art of not staring at others, human beings are not compelled to stare at your breasts, however big they are. When I am using my wheelchair, nearly nobody stares at my breasts, and they haven't gone anywhere (in fact, being sat down all the time, they're easier to look at).  The kind of creeps who stare at people's breasts are usually the same kind of people who can't look at disabled people at all.  A win for me, but the point is that this is a problem with other people, not your anatomy.

The same goes for comments and unwanted touching (including touching by a gay man making a television programme - honestly, I daresay some women enjoy being fondled by Gok Wan, but he never asks. Even people who have had to handle my bosoms for medical reasons have asked every step of the way).

Your breasts are not there for pleasing other people, whether suckling infants, adult lovers or the people you meet in your daily life. You are free to keep your breasts entirely to yourself, whether covered up or on display (to the extent the law allows). It's entirely up to you.

Go forth and enjoy your breasts! 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Alpacas on my Mind

A very smiley white woman holding a pink baby who
probably looks a month or so older than she is.
I dreamt about my new niece a few weeks before she was born and in that dream, she was called Victory. When she finally got here, she was named Sophie Elizabeth Taylor and just for you mass fans, she weighed eight and a half pounds! She shares a birthday with Jeff Capes, so our hope is that, one day, she will be the strongest woman in the world!  I can't stop thinking of her as Victory, so that'll probably be her stage name.

This week, Stephen, Mike and I travelled like the three magi to meet the baby. She is very thoughtful and spends her time sleeping, thinking, looking around and sucking very hard on whatever passes close enough.

We were also able to deliver nephew Alex's birthday present (here he is six, years ago, looking a lot like his sister).  Inspired by the stage production of Warhorse, which Stephen got to see, we set about making a puppet that would be so life-like and subtle in movement that it would both embody the physical essence of an animal, as well as almost human depths of emotional range.  The animal we chose was an alpaca. Alex has called his new friend Woolly. Here it is in action.

242. Love Spoon (30.08.2012)
A fairly simple hand-carve love spoon in
pale wood (lime, in fact).
Being in Wales towards the end of Rosie's pregnancy, Stephen carved Sophie a beautiful love spoon. She was mightily impressed and commented, "Aaiiiee!" which may in fact be Welsh. Sophie may have been the first baby Stephen got to hold and he was both anxious and smitten.

Alex was climbing about in the background, helped me to get up onto climbing frame (well, a high platform built around a tree) and pushed me off again. He has promoted me from being Auntie Bum Bum to Agent Bum Bum.  He even provided me with a theme tune, the lyric to which goes

"Agent Bum Bum, Agent Bum Bum
Agent Bum Bum, Agent Bum Bum
Agent Bum Bum, Agent Bum Bum
Agent Bum Bum Bum."

I am so proud.  I was put in mind of a song my sister wrote for me when we were children.  The piano accompaniment was something of a Chaz & Dave homage, and the lyric went:
Alex The Monkey #3
A blond monkey boy hangs upside down
from a rope net. 
"Deborah is a zebra, Deborah is a zebra, Deborah is a zebra and she's my sister too-oo-oo!" 
I have decided to make a cartoon strip about Agent Bum Bum and her trusty sidekick, Tinker Taylor (Alex). His favourite toy at the moment is a Super Soaker (they're not nearly as powerful as they were when we were kids and they require batteries) so whatever happens, the villain has to get wet at the end.

But first we have to make a second Alpaca - as if anything could match the first - and I have a wedding dress to make. And we've got a wedding to plan. And I have a book to finish writing and another to keep pushing on agents and publishers (the latest rejection described it as a "near miss" which was far more encouraging than perhaps it sounds).  Plus it's that time of year when I work out what I'm going to make everyone for Christmas.

Life is busy, but very good and all the better for having little Victory in it. I mean Sophie.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Olympics, The Paralympics and My Body Image

I didn't expect the Olympics to have anything to do with me.  I was certainly fed up of hearing about it, long before it started.  Every BBC London News bulletin I've seen for the last eighteen months has mention the Olympics in some tenuous context or other;
"A business has laid off a thousand workers, leading to a bump in the city's unemployment figures and fears that none of those thousand people will be able to afford Olympic tickets."  
"A gas leak in the city has lead to homes being evacuated and concerns that the smell might not have quite gone away in time for London 2012."
"A rising tide of gang violence has claimed its latest victim.  The man was shot dead as he waited for a bus and will now completely miss the London Olympics."
I was, however, equally tired of hearing people complain about the Olympics.  Okay, so maybe the timing was bad, given what's happened to the economy, but we could hardly back out once London got the games.  And there have been genuine scandals; the Dow Chemical's sponsorship deal, the problems of security staff, the empty seats, memorabilia made with slave labour and the almost limitless remit of the "brand police".  But there were plenty of people moaning about just because they don't like sport.  I'm generally not keen on sport, but to complain about the Olympics on the grounds that sport is dull is no better people objecting to government funding to the arts because they don't like made-up things.

I didn't expect to watch any of the Olympics, but the family had to see the opening ceremony.  It was directed by Danny Boyle, after all.  He usually does films, made-up things - far more up my street than people running about everywhere (although he has known to open and close films with people running about).  Even so, I expected to cringe and yawn throughout.  I didn't.  The Opening Ceremony was flawed, as it had to be.  We spent the next few days discussing the omissions, especially from the run-through of British music of the last forty years (where was Brit Pop and Trip Hop? Where was the soundtrack to my youth?).  However, the show reminded me of day-long train journeys I used to take, where you'd see some of the true beauty of the countryside but always end up in Didcot Parkway at some point. Nobody has any idea where Didcot Parkway is and there's nothing to see from the station - you hear of people wandering from the platform never to be seen again - but you sometimes have to stop there in order to get from one significant place to another.  The Opening Ceremony visited Didcot Parkway, but sometimes you have to in order to cross this great nation of ours.

So the next day, Stephen and his folks were watching the men's cycling, which was happening around the landmarks of Surrey.  It was very dull and the commentators didn't seem to recover from the shock of Team GB falling behind.  I duly dozed off.  The next day, Stephen and his folks were watching the women's cycling.  Wow. That was terrific! I learnt all sorts about the aerodynamics of long distance cycling, the necessity for teamwork between members of opposing teams, and after the last few miles into the centre of London with the crowds cheering on, the rain beating down (it was sunny in Wales) and a silver medal for our lass Lizzie Armistead, well!  I spent the rest of the day sleeping off the excitement.

And so the Olympics proceeded and I wound up watching a lot of it. Charlie Brooker describes what I imagine happened to a lot of us.  My personal and very unexpected highlight was the women's boxing - I began watching it grudgingly and between my fingers and ended jumping up and down and doing this sort of thing in English, but for Nicola Adams as well as the legendary Katie Taylor.  I mean, wow.  The men's boxing wasn't nearly so good; they're generally heavier, not so fast and graceful and look like they can seriously hurt each other.  They certainly don't look like they can do this.  And sometimes they do.

As well as learning a lot and enjoying unexpected things, the Olympics had a surprisingly positive effect on my body image. It's rare to see such a diversity of bodies - especially female bodies - on the television in any given week, and all of those bodies are reasonably healthy, some very healthy (I comment on health because we're often sold this idea that healthy is one size and shape). There were skinny women, muscly women, women who were well-padded, women with and without sizable bosoms, short women and very tall women. There were women who looked a little bit like me.

There was also much more of an age range than I expected.  I have no issues about my age, but I imagined that at thirty one, I would be older than almost everyone competing. It was heartening to see a thirty-nine year old performing a complex tangle of sommersaults several metres above a trampoline and no-one comment that she was getting a bit old for bouncing about like that). It was also extremely obvious that someone who excelled at one thing would probably be no good at another however hard they tried.  Sprinters are not built for weight-lifting, cyclists are not built for Tai Kwondo and so on; even the most elite bodies on the planet have very clear and obvious physical limitations.

All this made me feel good about my body.  I can't sprint, lift weights, cycle or do Tai Kwondo (although I can do a brief physical impression of how a crow moves on the ground, which strikes me as half the battle). But hey, isn't it great to have a body?  And my body is okay, because it's a little bit like these other fantastic bodies that can do really cool things.  Even my body can do a few cool things.  I was reminded of a rather evangelical doctor who once compared my attempts to build up my strength only to be a foiled by a fresh infection or other random event, to an athlete who gave it her all but kept getting bronze.  I gave a somewhat bitter laugh at the time, but watching the Olympics, I thought, I do know about working hard with my body, I know about the care and discipline that requires and the misery of set-backs.  It's just a matter of scale really.  And thus, in a way, the Olympics did have a little something to do with me.

Last week was a rough one and I wasn't well enough to watch the Paralympic Opening Ceremony on Wednesday.  Even if I'd stayed awake long enough, I wasn't going to cope with even a fraction of the unending rhythm and chaotic spectacle of the Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies.  But I had also watched the local London news earlier that evening, and in that half hour, I'd had my fill of hearing that anything is possible, that anyone, no matter what their impairment, can do anything.  At one point, a piece on a scheme to train disabled pilots (who were flying over the stadium during the ceremony) concluded, “No matter what a person's disability, even the sky is not the limit.” and my brain ran through the list of fairly minor impairments that would bar someone from pilot training – some degrees of colour-blindness can still keep you grounded and I've never met anyone who considered themselves disabled because they were colour-blind.

A lot has been written about the inspiration porn aspect of the Paralympic coverage, and this ridiculous idea that the fact a double amputee can play sit-down volley ball at an international level is proof that anyone can do anything if they really try. (I did laugh when I first saw sit-down volley ball. Like many disabled people, I have mastered many stand-up activities from a sitting or lying position, but I never imagined it could be taken to such lengths.)

There's also been a lot of protest over Atos (both in the press and in person), the henchmen of warped government tests for disability benefit, being a major sponsor of a games in which many benefit claimants compete, leading the Daily Mash to report that disability benefits are to be replaced by medals.

But I wanted to add something about body image.  There are Paralympians who also have bodies that look a bit like mine, but naturally, they work a lot like those of the Olympians.  On a spectrum of physical ability, with your common or garden Olympians at one end, many if not most Paralympians are just a notch down from there – Oscar Pistorius, to give an obvious example, runs beside with the best bipedal athletes in the world.  Paralympians are still disabled*, because they have the same kind of problems I have getting around on public transport, or accessing literature, but their fitness, strength and the cool things they can do with their bodies are completely beyond most of us. They are at the other end of the spectrum from mine.

This isn't a problem - of course not.  I'm not upset by people who have skills, aptitude and function abilities I do not (jealous, maybe).  Nor am I upset by people sympathising with other kinds of injuries and impairments - I certainly do, although I also know there are limits to how much sympathy and individual is likely to find bearable.  But when I hear that people with these bodies are massively disadvantaged, that their lives are tragic because of their bodies' limitations, well, what does that say about me and my body? Is it so very awful to inhabit?  When I saw Olympic athletes with bodies a bit like mine, their deviance from the most common images of women's bodies we see around us were not even mentioned, let alone repeatedly focused upon.

That all elite athletes are remarkable and admirable, there's no doubt; anyone who gets to the top of the thing they do deserves our praise (well, you know, with some obvious exceptions like politics or organised crime).  But it is ironic that the Paralympic coverage should threaten to take back a positive message the Olympic Games gave me about my body.

* Of course, some Olympians are also disabled.  The Paralympic games isn't for disabled sportspeople, but for sportspeople with certain highly-policed physical impairments.  There were probably all manner of physical, cognitive and mental health conditions among the Olympian athletes, just as there were people who had faced all manner of major social, political, financial and psychological challenges, as well as the physical stuff, among the athletes attending either games.  Meanwhile, some athletes from either games will have faced massive obstacles of discrimination, political disapproval, financial hardship and personal tragedy which make their impairments pale in comparison.