Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Like many, I treat my smartphone as an extension of my brain.

thM0Q8PE6R

But how intelligent are you? It’s a question that is often best left unasked.

 

Luckily, it turns out that feeling smart without necessarily being so is simple – all you need is an internet connection. Because, apparently, Googling things can make us feel more intelligent.

 

Knowledge has always been, partly, an illusion. Consider the popularity, a few years ago, of a book called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Its French author, Pierre Bayard, points out that culture is “a theatre charged with concealing individual ignorance”. That’s something most arts undergraduates work out pretty quickly. I’ll never forget, the night before an important seminar, finally settling down to read the text we were discussing the next morning – it was Moby-Dick. Yes, I did realise it was futile, and no, I don’t think the professor was fooled by Google research.

 

This also rings horribly true. I recently played Trivial Pursuit for the first time in many years. It was terrifying. But I won. It was luck, not intelligence. I had a run of literature questions (none of them concerning Moby-Dick, which I still have not completed) and then I fluked the correct answer to the final question because Seve Ballesteros was the only golfer whose name I could remember.

 

But luck or not, I felt intelligent. And without recourse to the internet. It’s a rare occurrence. I, like many, treat my smartphone as an extension of my brain. Can’t remember something? Google it. Want to know something that in the past you would have simply been content to ponder for a bit, then let go? Look it up. It gives us the illusion that we are learning, adding to the sum total of our knowledge, and, this, we are given to understand is a good thing. Even if the bulk of my Google inquiries are about celebrity plastic surgeries and variations on the theme of “who’s that guy off the telly I recognise and what has he been in before?”

 

I don’t know what the take-home lesson from all of this is – knowledge is an illusion, yes, and we must be wary of this fact. But it always has been thus – blaggers and generalists existed long before Google. And perhaps, with regard to the second study, the more we think we’re right, the smugger we become; the more secure in our own opinions. We’re only human, after all. I think this is OK. But I’m going to Google it anyway, just to be sure.

Advertisements

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Summer dresses. They allow you to dream, to slow down – to be girlish, even.

summerdress

I used to own the perfect summer dress. It was navy blue silk with small white flowers, little capped sleeves, a fitted bodice and it swirled narrowly rather than frumpily around my mid calves. The general fashion of the day was skewed towards short skirts, but this vintage dress by Edina Ronay made me feel wonderful whenever I wore it.

Therein lies the mysterious power of the summer dress. If you, like me, are a “dress” person you will know what it is that a dress, quite unlike trousers, skirts, shorts, blouses and jackets brings to the way you feel. It offers the promise of a life that is deliciously removed from the pressures of every day, the repetitiveness of routine, the need to be somewhere, do something, that makes up so much of our time, and transports you instead to something far more enjoyable and gracious. It allows you to dream, to slow down – to be girlish, even.

As a child, longing to get out of scratchy and confining winter clothes, I seemed always to be told, “N’er shed a clout till May is out”, or was it June? Every year I can never quite remember, as I dither about whether it is too early to pack up the winter clobber and unwrap summer, which is how it feels when one replaces the winter woollies in the drawer with T-shirts and sarongs.

As soon as the clocks change I crave those dresses, bundled up in polythene bags at the top of the cupboard, that will emerge crumpled and smelling faintly of the suntan lotion that has permeated my holiday wardrobe stuffed up there with them.

Summer dresses are completely different from winter dresses, which, although they should offer the same one-stop ease when you are thinking about what to put on in the morning, somehow seem to bring with them more problems. What tights to wear? Should it be boots or shoes? Will you need a jacket and a coat? You just slither into the ideal summer dress and that’s it.

At the optimum summer-dress occasion last year, my friend’s annual croquet match, most of the women were in dresses. Because surely that is one of the things a dress allows you to do, in prints that ranged from ditsy florals to brash brushstrokes, hair piled up in dishevelled nests, arms uncovered.

Most dress-buying nowadays is accompanied for many women by “top” buying as well for when there’s a chill in the evening air, to compensate for the lack of dresses with sleeves. Boleros, shrunken cardigans, Chanel-style jackets, short coats – all of these are on offer as accompaniments. But the very fact of needing or wanting them destroys some of the unique appeal of summer dresses. You should not have to wear them with anything else.

Sleeves, on the other hand, need not compromise the summeriness of a dress. Sleeves are many women’s security blankets, soothing and protective. There is something cosseting about a soft, billowing sleeve after a day in the sun or on the beach. There is an elegance about the bracelet-length sleeve, which delightfully throws the emphasis on the thinnest part of the arm – the wrist – while covering the fleshy upper arms so many women hate. One of my own favourite dresses is a decade-old black one from Ghost that has elbow-length sleeves and which, I like to think, has a touch of the glamorous Italian widow about it – Coco would be a nice reference point.

I have a number of dresses by Legacy, an American brand stocked in the UK. For several years they were perfect. With slightly capped sleeves, a bias cut, a low neck and in a variety of feminine but not sickly silk prints, they ticked a huge number of boxes.

But whatever the shape, colour, fabric, or length or your summer dress, the main point is that it is so much more than the sum of it and your parts. When you find the right one it is like a new lover – the world just seems a better place.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Barbie is 58 this year, but when will we girls grow up?

th8A5GRQA3

A Barbie is sold every three seconds somewhere in the world. Or so the story goes. A fixture now in girls’ bedrooms for decades, the doll has also, almost since first coming on to the market, provoked criticism for its fanciful body shape. It had boobs.

Now, Mattel Inc has reworked the traditional long-legged, malnourished, big-busted, “grown-up” doll, to offer “a broader view of beauty” so that Barbie now comes in a variety of sizes: petite, tall and curvy (plus the original version) with 24 hairstyles.

Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice-president and Barbie’s global general manager, said: “We are excited to be changing the face of the brand… these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them.” Ms Mazzocco, ironically, inadvertently and eloquently, precisely summed up the argument of the movement for the liberation of Barbie and a different set of options for little girls everywhere.

As the novelist John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing in 1972: “Men act, women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”

Body shapes and sizes matter, but that is to miss another vital point. What is to be done about Barbie’s face or, more accurately, faces? Her vacuous, open-eyed perfectionism was, is and always will be a bane to active, engaged, diverse and sometimes ugly as sin womanhood.

In her day, Barbie, to be fair, tried to become action woman. We’ve had Barbie the astronaut, the doctor and, in 2014, the computer engineer. Unfortunately, the latter career choice was short lived because while Barbie liked to draw pictures of robot puppies, she squeakily explained: “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Only big boys code.

One truth, however, cannot be avoided. More than a billion Barbies have been sold in 150 countries. Somebody likes her. So what harm can she really do? The probable answer is, all alone, very little. But since her “birth” in 1959, she has been the spearhead of a huge marketing exercise to reinforce lucrative gender stereotypes that has been conducted in every corner of the mass media. That onslaught is only now facing a real challenge, in part because more and more of the public are adopting a fluid stance on what we define as male and female. In that spirit, last week Mattel should perhaps have launched a “non-binary” Barbie, complete with unisex wardrobe and a set of tools.

But then in ‘59, as now, mammaries make money, and girls then liked Barbie because she was a grown-up who looked utterly unlike their own postwar mothers. Barbie was a “chick”. The consumerist obsession for defining exaggerated codes of masculinity and femininity that first became rampant in the 1950s had found its queen.

Between 1946 and 1951, 22 million children were born in the US. In 1960, 11.7 million girls were aged 12-18, the teenager had been discovered and she had money, or at least access to it. What she didn’t have was choice.

Barbie’s horizons have always been limited to preening, nurturing and fashion. In 2014, the results of a study of a group of girls ran counter to the Barbie slogan, “You can be anything”. In the study, girls who played with Barbie, irrespective of whether she was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor, imagined themselves in fewer occupations than boys.

In contrast, those who played with Mrs Potato Head, my kind of girl, reported nearly as many career options as boys. So, it didn’t matter whether Barbie was dressed as a model or a paediatrician, suggesting that the doll’s sexualised shape and appearance might trump whatever accessories are packaged with her.

The acute aura of pinkness that surrounds Barbie, whatever her girth or hue of complexion, is replicated across the segregated toy industry (think My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Care Bears). Does it bear any relation to the recent survey that revealed that only 1% of parents with daughters see engineering as a future profession and that less than 10% of engineers in the UK are female?

It might well be true that nature triumphs over nurture. That, as Barbie used to say before she was censored, “maths is hard” and girls are “naturally” more disposed to touchy-feely, arty subjects. The point is that in Barbiedom, the alternatives aren’t available.

Girls’ toys are typically liable to lead to passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.” Giving Barbie, or for that matter, her punchier rival Bratz, a hard hat and a high-vis jacket isn’t going to do the trick.

The excellent campaign Let Toys Be Toys, which has persuaded a number of major retailers, including Boots and Toys R Us, to end the stereotyping of toys, has collated evidence of the pigeonholing of boys and girls. It creates twin ghettos in which a child who isn’t interested in girly activities has to have a special name – tomboy – while a boy who might like dressing up and dolls is deemed a worry.

The news, however, is not all bad. “Barbie syndrome”, in which women take their favourite Barbie to a cosmetic surgeon so that they can emulate the look is still an oddity. The belief that two-thirds of the adult population is regularly resculpturing its face and torso is a myth. In 2016, breast augmentations were 23% down to 8,619; possibly a deflating statistic for the still well-endowed new model Barbie.

More alarmingly, for Mattel, a few years ago researchers at the University of Bath unearthed a new ritual among tomorrow’s teenagers – they microwaved their Barbies. Seven- to 11-year-olds also decapitate and maim the dolls. “It’s as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.

Barbie has had worse blows. In 2004, she and Ken decided they needed time apart. Two years later, they were together again, with Ken described as “hot”, wearing a tropical Hawaiian shirt. While Barbie may be described as “fit”, she has yet to be given a six-pack, presumably because femininity is still the main name of the game, despite the latest incarnations that have added a little weight.

So, in her sixth decade, as the world has changed around her, Barbara Millicent Roberts, to give her full name, from Willows, Wisconsin, has diversified a tad, but the message remains unaltered – cute features; passive perfection; beauty is all really matters.

Will Petite, Tall and Curvy halt Barbie’s decline in sales? Or will they, too, end up in the microwave? The Barbie Liberation Front reports that it is afire with hope.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Books that helped with my sexuality.

thMNJE17IO

I’d just left school. I knew that I was queer (a lot of us used that word as an umbrella term, back then) and that I wanted to write. But lesbian fiction as a genre – in as much as I’d been able to find any, by scouring the “women’s literature” sections of more progressive bookshops – seemed a dud. Most of it was lowbrow, meant to reassure or bond or amuse or arouse its readers; it scratched my itch, but I didn’t want to write it. Then into my lap like manna fell Jeanette Winterson’s stylish, oblique, brilliantly intelligent The Passion. A slim novel set in Venice (a city she’d never visited) in the early 19th century, written in prose as powerful as a Keats sonnet or the King James Bible, it rocked me. Narrated by a young man (Napoleon’s chicken cook), it was full of the complexities of unreliable passion and unstable gender. Same-sex desire shook off all its earnestness and looked both playful and dangerous: Eros at its most fascinating.

Suddenly, then writing about relationships between women –  seemed like high literary endeavour, and I was on my way.

Then; Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)

I lay down by the Cam one evening to mull over the book that first spoke strongly to me of my sexuality. There were plenty of teenaged contenders, nocturnal smut such as Anaïs Nin, The Story of O or The Passionflower Hotel (the source of much hilarity on a French camping holiday with my friend Sophie). But none of these could exactly be described as the first. And then I remembered a quartet of fantasy novels I was obsessed with at the age of nine, 10, 11.

The Song of the Lioness series was about the adventures of an impetuous red-headed girl called Alanna, who cross-dresses as a boy in order to train as a knight. Eventually Alanna/Alan hooks up with Prince Jonathan, in a stirringly lovely scene of mutual vulnerability and homoerotic intensity. Words like trans or gender-fluid were hardly current in the early 1980s, but there it all was, right down to the chest-binders. Hardly any wonder I remained so devoted to those battered paperbacks. You know before you know, and those early sparks of sexuality light the road ahead.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. The secret to studying porn. Do your homework. Do well and good sex will follow.

thPAZLU3SD

It is almost impossible to study pornography without wading into a swamp of controversy. Facts are not neutral, the politics are contradictory and, if you suspend judgment altogether, it often reads as silently taking a side. And still, we try. Good old us.

Let’s start with Goop who ran a Sex Issue. If you browsed through pieces on the ethics of porn and one titled “Reality Check: Anal Sex” you found yourself in Gwyneth’s “Get It On Shop” where you could spend $885 on a pair of silver “benwa balls” to “strengthen your kegels and have a better orgasm all at once”, and $20 on individual sachets of “sex dust”. Goop sex is mindful, artisanal, aspirational and typically expensive. If US shipping costs put you off I have a good recipe for sex dust you can make at home that simply requires a swab from the underside of the far booth from an All Bar One, and some finely ground turmeric.

Rowan Pelling (ex-editor of the Erotic Review) launched the Amorist, which she describes as “an erotic version of Woman’s Hour”, a phrase that will undoubtedly be swimming in your head the next time you’re woken at dawn with a start. It’s “a general interest magazine for those who are generally interested in sex and desire – and an antidote to Brexit”. It seeks to “counter the excesses of online pornography and the tendency to see sex through a functional prism”.

Elsewhere, porn is being investigated in a Netflix series of documentaries called Hot Girls Wanted, produced by a team led by Rashida Jones. In their first film, we meet female filmmakers in the porn business; in the last, a teenager in Ohio facing 20 years in prison and a lifetime on the sex offenders’ register for livestreaming the rape of her friend on Periscope. Jones “wanted to show where there was dark, there was also light”. In particular, she said she was interested in “self-empowerment versus self-objectification”.

We snap the word porn on to images of excess. We understand the meaning of phrases like food porn, property porn, plant porn, travel porn, cocktail porn, not because these are sexy things, but because we associate the word “porn” with the feelings we have when we look at them – a combination of desire and guilt, and fantasy, and disappointment at the celibate reality of our real lunch, our real home.

But while we know what porn means, what it stands for, to judge by the ever-growing number of takes on the subject, the lure of learning about it seems almost as powerful as porn itself. That’s how we excuse our obsession: porn stops being something private and dirty, and becomes instead something you can discuss with your partner’s boss at dinner parties over cheese and wine.

The cycles of thought have rolled between empowering to dangerous and back again, with new incendiary debates on whether it’s right to call porn “work”. What the commentaries have in common though, is that they’re all deeply enervating.

Porn has proved as slippery and ungovernable as sexuality itself. However, much people attempt to pick away at it with words, porn remains, this mountain looming above us, its shadow falling over everybody’s private lives. Ironically the act of intellectualising porn, drilling into the stone of it, is the one thing that threatens it, in that it makes pornography a chore and not sex, and therefore much harder for a person to enjoy during their “me time”. Despite featuring nudity and lust, debating pornography is the opposite of talking dirty.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. I’m lucky I’m living in a world where there’s Gay Pride.

Untitledp

I’m lucky I’m living in a world where there’s Gay Pride and a National Coming Out Day! That was instigated by a Human Rights Campaign group in America.

The history of the day goes back to 1987 when half a million-people participated in the march on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and each year there is a different theme but at the heart of it appears to be encouragement for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people to feel happy and safe about living their lives openly.

Now it seems that other countries have adopted the idea, a bit like Halloween, an American custom has crept across the Atlantic. It is now celebrated in Switzerland, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK.

Of course, the premise of the day is laudable. I have always been a supporter of Gay Pride and any event that brings issues for the LGBT community to a wider audience. However, I am not sure that what impact a National Coming Out Day might have.

People come out or don’t come out for so many different reasons. One must be careful not to judge. I have known people who are scared to come out because their family has strong religious beliefs and they suspect strongly that they would be rejected by their relatives.

Many fear the consequences of being open about their sexuality. I have read about teachers (mainly women) who fear the homophobia they may experience, not, I hasten to add, from the children that they teach, but from the parents who have some strange idea that having a gay teacher may influence the sexuality of their child. As far as I know my teachers were mostly straight and they didn’t influence my sexuality it any way whatsoever.

I don’t think I have ever been surprised when someone has told me they are gay. Nine times out of 10 I quietly say to myself, “yes I thought you probably were and so did everyone else”. The challenge is for people to accept themselves for who they are and to be proud of it.

So, do we need a National Coming Out Day as well as Gay Pride? Well in the sense that it celebrates diversity perhaps we do but I would rather that we tackle the larger issue of homophobia. I would never put pressure on someone to come out, it is their personal and private decision but I would be lying if I said that their reluctance didn’t hurt me. It is hard to deal with someone’s shame for being exactly like me.

As for choosing a day to come out? I’m not sure. It could also be Sausage Pizza Day, International Day of the Girl and World Egg Day…so many days to deal with I think I may just come out as an egg.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. I love my vagina. So, do I want cosmetic surgery? That’s my decision, but some girls don’t have the freedom to choose what happens to their vaginas.

thVZNONUL9

I love my vagina. So, do I want gynaecological cosmetic surgery?

It’s not just about the pornography-influenced obsession with removing pubic hair. It’s also about the sort of surgery that makes you cross your legs. Typical procedures include labiaplasty (trimming or removing the labia) and vaginal rejuvenation (tightening – usually referred to by “designer vagina”).

In the US, this industry is worth $6.8m (£4.4m).

And the risks of labiaplasty is high: permanent scarring, infections, bleeding and irritation.

I recently read of a woman GP in London very concerned by the number of girls in their mid-teens coming to her worried about what their genitals looked like: she thought it was becoming an issue largely because of the fashion for shaving off pubic hair, which made them more self-conscious. Of course, there are rare cases where there is an underlying medical reason for this surgery, but they are just that, extremely rare.

Is this a new form of body dysmorphic disorder? Or is it a logical extension of the pornification of our culture. As it becomes more acceptable for young people to watch porn (where a “standardised” genital appearance is encouraged and many of the women have no pubic hair), so young women having their first sexual experiences are being measuring – and measuring themselves – against this weird porn “norm”. I look at porn sites let me be open and transparent about that. And some girls seem to have very small or almost no labia. In a world where not even your labia can ever be pretty enough, it’s time to fight back and just love your vagina.

That’s female gynaecological cosmetic surgery for you. However, that brings me conveniently onto female genital mutilation which definitely has no benefits and surgery is sometimes required in later life to open-up or seal the vagina again.

Female genital mutilation involves the removal of the clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruate – depending on the type. Typically, FGM is performed with a razor blade on girls between the ages of 4 and 12, traditionally without anaesthetic.

Type one FGM would be like removing a male’s testes, type three is equivalent to removing both the testes and the penis. There is no way that can be deemed acceptable.

FGM can lead to severe bleeding, pain, complete loss of sensitivity, complications during childbirth, infertility, severe pain during sex, recurring infections and urine retention. And in some cases, it is lethal. Unlike male circumcision, female genital mutilation also inhibits sexual pleasure.

FGM can be performed in different ways, with the main three: clitoridectomy, excision and infibulation. Now that’s the sort of surgery that will make you cross your legs.

I support campaigns against FGM. Please join me.