Hellosie, it’s Maisie. As a woman is it true you don’t believe how much you can do? This is how the world is changing.

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“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and founder of LeanIn.org famously said. A sentiment reflected by Cindy Gallop, founder of creative agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who claimed: “One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it.”

Their argument is that imagery works on an unconscious level to reinforce our conceptions around identity. When it comes to presenting a realistic depiction of women – their lives, experiences and ambitions – visuals have a paramount role to play.

Over the last three years we have seen a monumental spike in searches for ‘female business executives’

The definition of modern gender roles and how these are reflected in advertising has changed dramatically in the last two decades. No longer do we see the popular images of the 1980s, featuring working women wearing power suits and holding briefcases.

Instead we have campaigns such as the highly commended LikeAGirl by Always that tackles issues of confidence in young girls, and Sport England’s thisgirlcan campaign that celebrated active women who are doing their thing, irrespective of how they look.

At long last, there is now a more conscious effort from brands and businesses to reflect women as they truly are, changing the way we visually represent women to embrace female diversity in all its forms.

Getty Images launched a collection of images in partnership with LeanIn.org, the women’s empowerment platform set up by Sheryl Sandberg. The collection is devoted to the powerful depiction of women and girls in contemporary work and life, with the idea being that in order for modern women to be portrayed realistically, this type of imagery needs to be accessible and readily available to use.

The good news is, perception is changing. Demand for this collection grow significantly, with images licensed in more than 65 countries and across multiple industries. Some of the biggest demand has come from financial and tech organisations – industries which are actively trying to attract more women.

However, while we are part the way there, simply offering pictures of a gender-balanced executive meeting doesn’t solely tackle such a complex issue. Imagery instead needs to address the full spectrum of women’s experience from working mothers, to ambitious young women and their relationships with each other, to a young girl building a robot. One of the images in the Lean In collection features a mother pouring milk into her child’s cereal, with a laptop under her arm. Such images capture the experiences of modern women and working mothers.

To fully capture a nuanced view of women’s lives today, we also need to consider how the role of men has changed too. Often depicted as the breadwinner or businessman, we have seen notions of masculinity changing too. The depiction of dads has seen a dramatic shift in the last five years. In 2007, the most downloaded image of a father was a dad playing football with his son – a stereotypically masculine interaction. But in 2015, the most downloaded image showed a dad reading a tablet with his daughter.

By changing the representation of not just women but men too, we build a more balanced perception of both genders; the dads who enjoy great relationships with their children and in turn, the working mothers of the world.

Imagery is the driving force that is shaping the way we view the world. It’s therefore important that visuals continue evolving to portray all of life’s choices and to celebrate diversity so that there is no stereotypical stock image. Images have the power to shape and move the world – let’s ensure we are moving our world in the right direction.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. A woman should be who and want she wants. This is what you should know about global brands and your sanitary protection.

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Female empowerment sells products. We know that. Some years ago, Dove launched its Real Beauty Campaign, telling us we’re beautiful the way we are and it became one of the most talked-about successes in modern marketing. And, Pantene’s clever Whipit campaign focusing on the double-standards women can experience at work went viral.

Then from Always. Advertising to do with periods has come a long way from women in lycra being pulled along the seafront on roller skates by a pack of dogs – a tricky manoeuvre at the best of times, let alone when you’ve got menstrual cramps and a towel with wings stuffed down your knickers.

As part of a digital and social media campaign, a video was shot by Lauren Greenfield (who won the Sundance Film Festival’s Directing award for The Queen of Versailles) and it is, well, inspiring. It brought a lump to my throat, even though I know it’s exploiting my emotions in an attempt to flog me sanitary protection.

The video opens with adult men and women and a young boy being asked to act out what it means to throw, run and fight “like a girl”. Cue pathetic, flappy-handed attempts at the tasks. Greenfield then asks preteen girls to do the same. They sprint as fast as they can, punch hard and throw with all their might. The contrast clearly makes the point that girls lose confidence and self-esteem as they grow up, perhaps in part because they hear people berating others for behaving “like a girl”.

A redefinition of the expression is obviously long overdue. The campaign LikeAGirl aimed to make it “a phrase that represents the strength, talent, character and downright amazingness of every girl”. Viewers were invited to share pictures and videos of “amazing” girl moments via its Facebook page and Twitter feed. The response was phenomenal. The YouTube video was watched by more than 20m people.

But some companies do get it spectacularly wrong. Samsung’s Women of Steel competition was lambasted on Twitter for announcing it was looking for women whose “superhuman strengths make them inspirational role models” and promising the winner a new kitchen. Ouch! Talk about perpetuating the gender stereotype.

Some have also criticised the Always campaign, saying that brands are exploiting the fact that women want to see intelligent portrayals of themselves on screen. It’s sad that what lies behind these videos are the sale of sanitary pads or shampoo, they say, while there is still a woeful lack of strong female characters and female directors in feature films. Others say the commercial’s self-righteous tone is irritating because the worthy message has nothing to do with the product.

Yet does that matter? Surely anything which kickstarts the right conversation and shifts social norms is a good thing – even if it is a global brand using its platform to do so.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Selfie or not to selfie that is the question.

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In the beginning was the selfie. Then came the belfie (bottom selfie), the relfie (relationship selfie), the helfie (hair selfie), the welfie (workout selfie) and the felfie (farmer selfie) – no, really. The explosion of the selfie has triggered a deluge of products, from the selfie stick to the belfie stick; launched a thousand lazy headlines; and even cost some people the ultimate price; as dozens of people have been injured and killed in while taking selfies.

People of all genders are seen to be keen selfie-takers (special mention must go to the creators of “nutscaping”; the artful combination of a single testicle hovering over a beautiful landscape), but the phenomenon is particularly associated with young women. Research has found that 68% of millennial women had posted a selfie, compared to 42% of millennial men, and only 24% of members of Generation X. And a survey last year claimed that the average 16-25-year-old woman spends more than five hours a week taking selfies.

Many young women are harnessing the power of the selfie for particular causes or campaigns. Artist Molly Soda leaked her own nude snaps in a statement about regaining power and control from nude picture hackers, while others continue to share selfie snaps in a plethora of inspiring and uplifting body-positive blogs and hashtags.

But is posting selfies an empowering and uplifting activity, or does it reinforce the notion that a woman’s value lies solely in her looks?

The statistics don’t have a clear answer. A body image survey by AOL found that 65% of teenage girls said seeing their selfies on social media boosted their confidence. However, 55% said social media made them more self-conscious about their appearance and 58% agreed that “seeing pictures of other people living glamorous-looking lives on social media makes me feel bad about myself”.

“Selfie campaigns” arouse similarly mixed responses: the “no makeup selfie” – started to raise money for breast cancer charities – was both praised as brave and uplifting and criticised for suggesting it was scary or daring for women to be pictured without makeup.

The issue is complex, not least because the online reception of the images can have as much of an impact as the intent of the creator. When teenager Maisie Beech posted a “half makeup selfie” online she thought she was doing something fun and empowering. But after the pictures went viral, strangers commented to say she was sick or ugly and some even threatened physical violence, leaving her shocked at people’s cruelty.

Many teenage girls find themselves subject to sexist pressures when it comes to selfies – both expected to present a beautiful, confident image, and navigating extreme criticism or even abuse if they are perceived as too sexy, “slutty” or posed.

There is a tendency to derisively dismiss selfies as narcissistic, but it’s no coincidence that so many of the young women who have hit the headlines for using them are doing so in response to sexist societal norms or abuse – from damaging, unattainable beauty ideals, to the hacking of women’s private photographs. While female celebrities are accused of being self-obsessed and oversharing, one could equally see their selfie habits as a clever means of taking back control of their own image from the male-dominated media and paparazzi. It’s also worth noting the palpable sneering and contempt for selfies (which most people would hesitate to regard as an art form) may well be influenced by the fact that society views them as a predominantly young, female creation.

But it is encouraging to see the considerable number who are pulling the rug out from under the traditional criticisms of selfies by harnessing the medium to send their own powerful, often feminist messages.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Sunday morning is being free of my hair and make-up routine.

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I’m beginning to have a problem with the concept of “perfect”. I love the purry sound of it; I admire it as an aspiration – the perfect frock, the perfect day, etc – but it’s become a buzzword in the beauty industry and as a result I think it’s being devalued. There are more skin and hair “perfectors” around than there are skin and hair types to go with them. Everywhere you look there are Skin Perfection (L’Oreal), Perfect Skin™ (advertised by massed ranks of Kardashians), Miracle Skin Perfector (Garnier), Perfect Look Skin Miracle (This Works), Shimmering Skin Perfector (Becca) and then there are all the attendant primers, lash builders, hair boosters, lip plumpers and whatnot. Is anyone else a bit fatigued by all this perfect-ness?

All these little pots, tubes and bottles of promised perfection are the cosmetic equivalent of airbrushing and I can’t say that I’m really a fan. I’ll grudgingly concede it’s OK, but no more than that, on young people – but I don’t like and don’t want to see any more characterless waxy faces. We’ve gone from “natural” through “enhanced natural” to “weird natural” (which isn’t natural at all). OK, everyone knows that ‘natural’ takes more skill and effort than it should.

I don’t need so much stuff on my face and what’s more I don’t want so much stuff on my face. If I start aiming for a flawless porcelain complexion on my face what do I do about the rest of me? Do I “prime” and “perfect” my whole upper body? Who are you trying to kid when you smooth out, fill in and “pixellate” (another buzzword) your face unless you extend whatever you’re doing down your neck and décolletage.

It’s part of a trend that supersizes everything – perfect isn’t perfect unless it’s super-perfect – so I worry too about haberdashery-sized false eyelashes and that they seem to have become a required part of everyday grooming. It’s quite common to see some poor thing blinking asymmetrically under a massive pair of eye merkins. And then there’s the hair – huge Disney hair, straggly hip-length hair that used to belong to someone else. Barbie hair. Barbie has got form in this respect, having her dabs all over a number of earlier anti-feminist body trends.

So why have current trends brought out such an insane degree of feminisation, doll-ification and perfectionism among young women? Aside from the obvious wider issues of objectification, lads’ mags and sexualisation it bafflingly seems to mark a return to some of the less healthy and more restrictive ‘beauty’ activities practiced by women centuries ago. Hairpieces and wigs (itchy and lice ridden), smooth complexions (a veneer of toxic white lead), features and expression painted back onto a blank canvas (mouse skin eyebrows anyone?). The wearers of today’s tattooed eyebrows and permanent makeup, who are perma-tanned, acrylic nailed and hairless everywhere except for yards of pretend stuff glued to their heads have been persuaded to turn themselves into superficially perfect, characterless, wax faced mannequins and they are, quite frankly, outrageously dull.

The whole point of genuine, heart-stopping beauty is that it’s not perfect. There is always something that’s slightly out of kilter that catches the eye of the casual observer – something arresting, imperfect and gorgeous: Georgia May Jagger, Lara Stone, and Lauren Hutton with their wonky teeth, Karen Black with her slight squint, Sophia Loren with her “too big” mouth and nose, the elegant, lovely facial planes of Katharine Hepburn.

The new “perfect” is insipid and anodyne and far too easily achieved with a nip here, a tuck there and the occasional shot of dermal filler. There has to be, must be, something more – What a fembot lacks we have by the barrowload – humanity, character, personality and wit and I’ll take that, over this so-called “perfection” any day.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. There are more important things to think about than one’s dresses. What a stupid thing to say!

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If I said to you “wrap dress”, what would be the first thing that sprang to mind? Would you think “sleek and versatile”, or would you think “sack of spuds”? Whichever it is, the name Diane von Furstenberg probably also popped up, or DVF if you prefer the shorter, catchier version.

The dress that suits any woman of any shape and size, allegedly. I say allegedly because I have never really found it suited me except very fleetingly when I was toned and muscular from training and I was body-confident enough to wear a dress that felt as though modesty was only third on its priority list.

Personally, I find that the fluid jersey construction – “it made every woman look like a feline” – is the very thing that turns me into Grizabella the Glamour Cat. I clutch, I fidget, I pin and I tape; I substitute a substantial leather belt for the skinny tie; and on one occasion I have actually sewn myself into one. You can’t say I haven’t tried. A tailored wrap dress in a fabric with structure is an entirely different proposition, neatening my outline and feeling secure.

A-Line

I’ve worn the A-line since I was about five. This, to my mind, really is a shape that can be worn by any woman, although I think it suffers a bit from being thought of as slightly dull. That said, there are several A-line dresses in my cupboards. As long as the fabric has some structure to it, an A-line dress fits neatly over the bust but then skims everything else, because it’s A-shaped, and it’s very flattering.

Empire line

Empire line is another one that has been a good do-er. The difference between empire and A-line is that the empire line is seamed under the bust and then falls to a flared, gathered but always a fuller skirt. I’m not keen on much gathering, which only adds bulk.

Full skirts

Vintage or retro styling of the 50s sort has always been a thing for me, and given that one of my earliest memories is of my mum’s swishy skirts, I suppose that’s hardly surprising. Of course, this means full skirts and full skirts make the waist look smaller (tiny even) and cover hippier hips.

A couple of summers ago I took to wearing a black linen, full-skirted shirt waister with my own layers of petticoats underneath and, as is often the case with favourites, I wore it until it finally disintegrated, but I always felt good in that dress. I need a (wider) belt to help define my waist. Femininity is something I’m keen to hang on to but I would rather do it without frilliness (which isn’t the same thing at all), although I do permit the “right” sort of frills in my wardrobe in moderate quantities.

The “right sort of frills” sounds like a topic for another conversation, which might be a good place to leave this one and ask what dress shapes have always worked for you?

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. I’m proud of my body. I love my body for me. And not for some advertising standard.

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We all know that “fat-shaming” is wrong. No one should be disadvantaged or ridiculed for their weight. But what about the flipside: why is skinny-shaming OK, if fat-shaming is not?

A few years ago, I gathered for a weekly meeting. There would be platters of pastries along the table. A senior colleague – a lovely woman in her 50s – would always urge me, loudly, to have a croissant. She would prod me in the side, in a friendly manner, and say: “Look, she’s nothing but skin and bone!”

The fact that I was too skinny in those days and that she was overweight is irrelevant. She was drawing attention to my size in a way that would have been unacceptable had I done the same to her. I’m aware I’m skating on thin ice: what could be more irritating than a thin person describing another person as fat? And yet – for a moment – think about how we describe thinness: skinny, angular, emaciated, bony, skeletal, lollipop-head. These terms are batted about in the media quite casually, without the caution we must now use in our references to fat. I happen to find the term “skinny” offensive, but of course that’s foolish. You’re lucky to be thin, you think, rolling your eyes.

I’ve never been teased, or excluded, or called greedy. I’m not a “big girl” but I have curves.

Well, I know the experience of feeling that one’s private pain is on display on one’s body, of being stared at, and feeling horribly conspicuous. I see clear parallels between fatness and thinness. I believe that out-of-control eating may work in the same way as out-of-control starving, as a defence mechanism against the world, a place to retreat when it all gets too much.

It seems we can’t have a rational debate about the reasons for, and the experience of, obesity – fat is still a feminist issue, and a fraught one at that. But I’m fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for watching what I eat, and for exercising several times a week. Other things a thin woman is not allowed to say: “it takes willpower to stay slim”; “of course it would be easier just to eat anything I wanted but I don’t”; “yes, I’m often hungry mid-morning but I wait until lunchtime”. Above all, a slim woman must never say: “I prefer being slim.”

I spoke to a woman on this subject who would be diagnosis as obese. She was friendly, open and happy to discuss her size. We got on like a house on fire, and I found her positivity refreshing, but her weight is an unsafe weight. I admire her ability to withstand societal pressures to look a certain way, but there is a level of self-deception here too: physical extremes, from very underweight to very overweight, are stressful for the body, and often mask mental turmoil too.

For me, facing up to the health consequences really helped. I wasted several years struggling with the mental twists and turns of anorexia. If we reframed the debate around fat and accepted that it can be a form of disordered eating with physical consequences, we might start to get somewhere.

Hellosie, it’s Maisie. Men can’t stop online abuse. Women can. (Part two)

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Google like other tech companies, including Twitter and Reddit, have taken a stand against the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, otherwise known as “revenge porn”. These companies are honouring requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent.

While the policy will not remove the images themselves from the internet, it will go a long way towards mitigating the devastating damage that such images can wreak on victims. The policy is reflective of a growing awareness that revenge pornography is a serious social wrong that must be addressed. In fact, laws prohibiting revenge porn are already on the books in England and Wales, parts of Australia and 23 US States to date.

For many, revenge pornography is deeply linked to broader issues of gender inequality and misogyny online. Predictably, however, there are concerns about what effect these new user policies might have on the sacred zeitgeist of the internet age – freedom of speech.

Despite evidence to the contrary, we’re sold a utopian view of the internet that heralds the digital age as one in which new spaces allow people to transcend their offline identities, where free movement of self and speech are potentially limitless. But importantly, the internet is a social product, grounded in societies that exist online and offline, and therefore replicates deep offline social inequalities, including the marginalisation of women.

In this environment, revenge pornography and other abusive behaviour, like trolling, constitute a kind of gendered hate speech – designed to silence women and other gender, sexual and racial minorities. Much of this hate occurs in a new digital commons, promising anonymity and “self-regulating” authority. But this promise is naive.

Taking exception to this victim blaming, the writer and activist Clementine Ford composed an impassioned Facebook statement accompanied by a semi-naked photograph with “Hey #Sunrise Get Fucked” written across her bare chest. In the post, she highlights the key distinction between consensual intimate photo-sharing and revenge pornography: Consent is what happens when you give permission. Theft and assault is what happens when people take it from you despite you saying no.

Much of the commentary that flourished around the post was not just negative, but hateful abuse – vile and graphic, misogynistic and homophobic. She tweeted that in the 48-hour period after the Facebook post, she received over 1,000 messages asking her for nudes or calling her a slut, a whore or a cunt.

Ford responded to the abuse by retweeting and reposting the attacks. This, ironically, resulted in a temporary suspension of Ford’s Facebook account for breaching Facebook’s community standards.

Revenge porn is fundamentally used to shame, extort and harm women. Perpetrators of domestic violence and trafficking employ it to control women, to keep them captive, to keep them quiet. Trolling tells women (and others) that the digital space, a communal space, is not for their voices. Gendered hate speech online actively restricts the free speech of women. It sends the message, as one of Ford’s trollers told her, to “get back in the kitchen then ya dumb slag”.

In a world where offline power-hierarchies infiltrate the online world, “instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety.’”

Not only does this silencing have profound democratic repercussions, but it brings the toxic challenge of workplace harassment into the online sphere, where many women are now making a living. Years ago, specific anti-discrimination laws were introduced to combat the prevalence of everyday abuse in the workplace precisely because we realised that without this protection, women’s full participation in the labour market would be illusory. In the digital age, to disregard the deleterious effects of harassment online is to deny women their right to speak in a venue that has become an indispensable political, social and economic arena.