Thursday 28 May 2015

The curse

I find it extraordinary in this day and age that there are still so many taboos about menstruation. It's just a natural bodily function - so why all the embarrassment and squeamishness?

Women still feel obliged not to mention their periods, in some cases not even to their family or close friends. They have to hide tampons and pant-liners from work colleagues or acquaintances. Any visible sign such as blood on clothing is seen as utterly mortifying. The whole messy business has to be strictly hush-hush, as if it's something to be deeply ashamed of.

Even adverts have to be coy and euphemistic. Blood isn't red, it's blue. Periods are "the time of the month", while menstrual products become "feminine hygiene". In films and books, periods are seldom discussed - people don't want to know about about "that sort of thing".

Religions of course are even more censorious and puritanical. Menstruating women are seen as unclean and impure. They may be forbidden to pray or perform religious rituals. They may be excluded from normal daily life. They may have to refrain from sex. Otherwise they'll contaminate everyone around them.

Sometimes in the supermarket queue, I see women carefully shielding their tampon packets from view. Heaven forbid that a man might be alerted to their disgusting monthly leakage.

And from what I can gather, many men are still too sheepish to buy their girlfriend's tampons. They imagine the cashier will have them down as a screaming weirdo rather than a helpful, considerate bloke.

It's not just painful periods that are "the curse". It's all the prudishness and revulsion that turn them into something hideous.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Blind spot

When we don't understand someone's attitudes or behaviour, when they're outside our normal experience, what do we do? Do we ask them a few questions, try to understand how they see things? Or do we just lash out at them through fear of the unknown?

Personally I try to understand. If there's something about a person that makes no sense to me, I don't just hurl abuse at them or tell them they're crazy. I try to get under their skin and see things from their point of view.

If I still can't understand, I don't see it as their problem, but mine. I probably lack the insight, or empathy, or openness, to appreciate what's going through their mind. My own blinkered attitudes are maybe preventing me from understanding.

But many people's reaction to such bafflement is to go on the attack. To try and obliterate what they don't comprehend, push it away, get rid of it. And the level of abuse can be extraordinary, utterly extreme.

A friend of mine, who I've always seen as enviably liberal, open-minded, compassionate, turns out to have a surprising streak of prejudice.

Although in general she's very progressive about sexuality and sexual preference, and totally supports gay equality, when it comes to transgender men and women, she's relentlessly hostile. She absolutely doesn't get it, and doesn't want to.

Clearly a fan of Germaine Greer on this particular subject, she regards everyone transgender as self-deluded and perverse. She finds numerous ways of belittling and discrediting them - they're trapped in gender roles, they just want to dress up, there's no such thing as "feeling female" or "feeling male", they want to be castrated, they're attention-seekers. And so on.

Does she want to understand? Does she want to know their side of the story? Does she try to put herself in their shoes? No, no and no. She has her own reality-free interpretation of their behaviour, and she pursues it regardless.

I find her prejudice horrifying, shocking, perplexing, repugnant. I told her I couldn't agree with anything she said, but it had no effect. She's totally unaware of her blind spot and can't see past it. It's an odd and uncharacteristic quirk.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Unforgettable girls

The confusion over Cate Blanchett's "relation-ships" is a reminder that platonic friendships can be just as intense and rewarding as sexual couplings, even though the latter are usually seen as the real deal.

Many women say they've had female friendships just as important to them as sexual relationships - emotionally, mentally, and on every level - yet such friendships are often dismissed as trivial and superficial.

Journalist Daisy Buchanan writes "I barely remember the boys I went out with as a student, but the girls are unforgettable. They're the ones you'd have 72 hour 'dates' with and they're the times I feel nostalgia for.

"Modern female friendship - at least at the start - can be more like a love affair than an actual romance itself. Anxiety, jealousy, neediness; it's a lot like falling in love.

"It makes me wonder whether no relationship can be entirely platonic, and that you don't have to experience sexual feelings towards a person in order to feel romantic ones."

I'm not sure men could say the same about male friendships though. From what I know, they seldom have that intensity and richness. I've certainly never had a male friendship like that myself, either at school or in adult life.

As for sexual relationships being superior, quite often sex is the only thing that keeps them going, and the friendship aspect is minimal. Or conversely, there may be minimal sex and it's more like a tight and complex friendship.

But there's a general assumption that sex somehow enriches a relationship in a way that's lacking in an "ordinary" friendship. The logic is never quite explained but the cliché persists.

A curious cliché considering the high divorce rate and all the sexual relationships that collapse just as often as the platonic variety. Clearly they're going sour as much as they're being enriched.

Let's hear it for the infinite possibilities of friendship, in or out of bed.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Nooks and corners

I think it's about time I dredged up a few more random facts about myself. All those fascinating little quirks you're dying to hear about. All the obscure nooks and corners of my tangled personality.

1) I hate tomato ketchup, HP Sauce, mayonnaise and chutney. And most concocted sauces and condiments except for pesto, soy sauce and marmite.
2) Dogs are usually all over me, while cats tend to look wary and run away. But I like cats more than dogs.
3) I loathe boxer shorts, beards, comb-overs, hairy chests and crotch-hugging male cycle pants.
4) I never wear pyjamas - they're uncomfortable if I'm tossing and turning. I prefer nightshirts or sleeping naked.
5) I have virtually every birthday card Jenny has given me.
6) I never get jet lag, only tiredness after long journeys. I adjust very quickly to different time zones.
7) I can't sit for long on a stool, it gives me severe back ache.
8) I've worn glasses since I was 17, but I've never been called Four Eyes.
9) I've never had a nickname.
10) I've never heckled anyone.
11) My shoulder bag contains a filofax, a purse, a notebook, a Belfast streetfinder, an umbrella, some biros, door keys, car keys, an office key and some plastic bags.
12) I have some crooked teeth but I've never worn a brace.
13) I have a very poor sense of smell.
14) I love thunderstorms.
15) I'd absolutely hate to be bald.
16) I find shoelaces fiddly and annoying. Why not velcro?
17) I've never lost my voice.
18) I was once so drunk an entire evening was wiped from my memory. But I've only had four hangovers in my whole life.
19) I like watching gymnasts, but ballet leaves me cold.
20) I think kissing is way more fun than sex.

Pic: Melissa Ibbitson, from Lincoln, who is so addicted to tomato ketchup she gets through nearly 70 kilos a year.

Wednesday 6 May 2015


It must be really hard for a parent whose child develops views they simply can't understand or sympathise with, and who gradually severs all contact and wants nothing more to do with them.

Every parent must assume a life-long bond with their child, one that grows increasingly close and rewarding, and when instead that bond disintegrates, it must be immensely painful. Even more so if the child dies.

I thought of that when I was reading about Christianne Boudreau, the Canadian woman whose son Damian became a Muslim, joined Islamic State and died in Syria at the age of 22.

How does she come to terms with what became of him? How does she cope with such a profound loss?

One thing she does is to remember him as he used to be, before his conversion, before the estrangement. "To me he was a young man who was compassionate, caring, loving and protective. That was the boy I knew. I'll always remember him as that. Not for what everyone makes him out to be."

She also supports organisations that are working with families to stop a loved one embracing fundamentalism.

But it's a common dilemma for parents. I've read of wealthy couples whose child disowns them, scornful of their affluent lifestyles and shallow values. Or stiff and starchy, penny-pinching couples shunned by a child who prefers a more spontaneous, freewheeling way of life. Or a new step-parent rejected by a child who's loyal to their original parent and sees the newcomer as an unworthy chancer.

Once a gulf like that develops, it's very hard to bridge it again. Too often, both sides become set in their ways and the stand-off continues indefinitely. They say blood is thicker than water, but that's nonsense. Families can break as easily as friendships. And the fracture can cause unbelievable pain.

Pic: Christianne Boudreau