Beyonce, blackness, feminism and white discomfort #gb16

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on this here site, but today was one of those days I’ll never forget, so I wanted to share it with you.

Today I had the privilege of chairing a panel at Greenbelt 2016 on some of the topics that I love to talk about. Mainly Beyonce. I wrote recently an article called ‘Beyonce’s Psalms’ for about the theology contained within Lemonade – her latest album which was truly a work of art.

I’ve been going to Greenbelt – an annual faith, arts and justice festival – for the past five years. I’ve done a few talks, chaired some panels and done lots of interviews.

Highlights for me this year included the one and only Lem Sissay,a poet who seems to be just about everywhere these days, and US priest Broderick Greer, who I’ve been following on Twitter for a while. It was so great to have him on the panel I chaired today on ‘Beyonce, blackness, feminism and white discomfort’. He was joined by three others – performance poet Vanessa Kisuule, actor Amaka Okafor and writer and podcaster Sekai Makoni.

I’m often used to being one of only a few black faces in the room, and Greenbelt is no different, really. It’s never really bothered me. But this year particularly, I was struck by the festival organisers’ clear attempts to include more people who look a bit more like me. And there aren’t many festivals who would be brave enough to have an all-black panel discussing topics such as ‘white discomfort’ to mainly white audiences. It was at times awkward. Yet at other times so amazing, challenging, vulnerable and thought-provoking.

We were able to touch on so many different topics, from black girls’ body image to Beyonce’s Formation and how we were invited to be part of her club. We chatted about Black Lives Matter and the differences between Black British culture as distinct from African American culture. We talked about intersectionality, we talked about ‘white theology’.

And we talked about white discomfort. It really is a thing. (Take a look at this parody video which has been doing the rounds on Facebook: “White Fragility – A Workplace Training Video”)

I understand why some white people may feel just plain old awkward when they listen to black people talk about race. Centuries of oppression is awkward. But at least we’re at a place where we can feel the awkwardness and talk about it anyway. So thank you to Greenbelt for doing that.

I’ll leave you with a quote I read out at today’s panel from Martin Luther-King writing in ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ which tells us why this awkwardness, this tension, must be faced head-on:

“My citing the creation of tension may sound rather shocking, but I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’. I have earnestly opposed violent tension but there is a type of constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth. So we must create that kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood… Tension is a necessary phase.”

Photo credit: Greenbelt Festival Official Pictures




Why we need to listen when little girls tell us they feel ugly

lipstick 2“When I feel fat, I tend to either hide myself or not go out. I try and put on a lot of make-up to hide behind a mask.”

 These words from a year eight girl interviewed in research out today, which showed English children are among the unhappiest in the world, broke my heart.

This girl is not alone. Because today’s global well-being chart from The Children’s Society showed that one in five girls are unhappy with the way they look.

The study draws on a range of other international research and contains the first analysis of findings from the Children’s Worlds survey – a study involving 16,000 children aged between 10 and 30 in 11 countries around the world: Algeria, Brazil, Chile, England, Israel, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Uganda, and the US.

It’s feelings about our children’s appearance that drags England down to ninth place out of 11 diverse countries in which we perform badly when compared to some developing countries who might not have living standards as high as ours.

English girls were twice as worried about their bodies as the boys.

I am far from surprised. It’s just another reminder of how pervasive is the idea that girls and women – although increasingly men and boys – must conform to some arbitrary beauty standard in order to be deemed acceptable society. It’s a reminder too that feelings of inadequacy in this area can cause a great deal of anxiety and sadness.

It’s why every day I read articles about the beauty myth and how we need to challenge it. It’s why I’m a big supporter of things like the No More Page Three campaign which says ‘enough’. We’re tired of women being judged on their bodies and we no longer want to live in a world where women are ogled because of their vital statistics rather than valued because of their intelligence, their wit, or how they treat people. That’s why there’s a deluge of these types of articles every day and an increasing army of men and women who want things to be different.

Here’s the thing. None of this is really about how we look. It’s about stripping away the things that hold us back from being all that we’re meant to be: happy, fulfilled, confident. While writing my book Am I Beautiful?, I had a few hours of panic when I felt guilty about writing on a subject that seemed trivial when compared to some of the world’s biggest issues.

I wrote about nearly chucking it all in until I realised that this is far from trivial: “Issues of beauty, self-confidence, body image, and the feelings of inadequacy that can so often surround these issues, are ones that play some part to a lesser or a greater degree in every woman’s life. For some, it is a hurt that they live with every single day of their lives. For others, it comes and goes. Some make a conscious effort to not let it take hold of their lives. For others, that feeling of being un-beautiful is crippling. It stops them from fulfilling their potential. It makes them count themselves out. It makes them feel less than anyone else and unable to do what they should be doing.”

The Children’s Society research found that unhappiness about their appearance only grows as they get older. Little girls who have body image issues grow up to be women with those same issues. The small voices in our heads that tell us we are inadequate, that we’re ugly, or that we don’t fit in or conform to beauty standards, only get louder as the years go by.

Unless something is done about it.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “Childhood is a happy time for the vast majority in this country. But we can’t shut our eyes and ears to the half a million children who say they are unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives.

“Children are telling us that they’re unhappy about their future and how they look, as well as the things that make them happier, like being active, having strong friendships and going online. It’s crucial that all of us – from policymakers to parents and teachers – listen very closely to what they have to say.”

I’m not a parent, but I have a lot of women – young and old – in my life. And, though I occasionally slip up, I want to make sure I build up rather than knock them down. That I tell them they are beautiful, but don’t focus on this as the only reason why I value them.

Because beauty should only be part of our story.

At last, a pop star brave enough to be un-Photoshopped

I’d never heard of Colbie Caillat before today, but I think I’m a fan. Not necessarily because of her music, but because of the brilliant message behind her new video – ‘Try’.

Tired of the constant Photoshopping, airbrushing, make-upping, fake-lashing, hair-extensioning that she and other stars have to undergo and fed up with the dangerous messages all of this stuff sends to women, she has bared all.

Check out her refreshing video:

Also, have a read of her interview with Elle magazine in which she shares some of the thinking behind it.

When asked by the magazine what she thinks is the hardest part about being a female in today’s society, she answers: “Trying to live up to other people’s expectations. When we do get dolled up, we get more compliments. It’s just what happens. When you have a cute outfit on and your makeup looks amazing, the first thing people comment on is your image. When you don’t wear make-up, you hear things like, “Oh wow, you look tired or you’re so brave for not wearing make-up!”

Find out more about Barefaced Breakfasts. 

5 things to do after you’ve posted your #nomakeupselfie

nomakeupselfieSo I did it. I joined the thousands of people up and down the country who have taken over your newsfeeds with their barenaked faces – all in the name of beating cancer. I knew the nominations from my friends would come eventually – especially since the ‘body image/beauty thing’ is what I spend most of my time talking about these days.

But as I watched more and more friends being ‘brave’ and bearing all on social media, a million thoughts and questions rattled through my head. Ordinarily I would have been one of the first to jump on the bandwagon and succumb to the peer pressure. I’m also a sucker for feeling involved in a ‘movement’ that’s doing good – like raising over £1 million for Cancer Research, for example.

But my questions included: what’s not wearing make-up got to do with beating cancer? Why is showing our mask-free faces seen as bravery? Why is it the norm that women should paint themselves in their attempts to chase that ever-elusive beauty standard? Why was I even hesitating when – regardless of the arbitrary links between beauty and cancer – it was doing good and could go a long way towards curing cancer for generations to come?

And then came the insecure thoughts. What if people think my face sans make-up is… well, minging? What if no one ‘likes’ it? That overwhelming need for affirmation in the beauty stakes. The crippling need that so many women feel to be seen as beautiful: loved, of value, of worth.

I’ve written in my book and blogged previously about my relationship with make-up. It’s a security blanket I’ve worn since I was 16 years old. When writing the book, I deliberately went without make-up to work on one occasion and also posted a barefaced pic of myself for an Adios Barbie campaign. I wrote about the internal struggle that preceded both of these things and the sheer fear of being seen in public bare-faced. I also wrote about that time when I arrived in Israel and realised I had forgotten my foundation. Night. Mare.

So here’s why I did a #nomakeupselfie: because – regardless of the questions, the insecurity, and not wanting to clog up people’s newsfeeds – there is good coming from it. If by doing this we become more ok with our natural bodies and faces, then that’s a good thing. If we happen to raise a lot of money towards eradicating cancer then, that’s even better.

But there is more we could do. The world’s a bit rubbish sometimes. There’s a lot of brokenness. There are causes we can support – and in so doing – we can grow as individuals and learn more about what it is to be human.

So here are just a few thoughts on what you can do after you’ve posted your #nomakeupselfie:

1)    Sign up for Race for Life

I’ve done this Cancer Research fundraising event a few times – most recently running 10k on Blackheath with lots of other women. Most of us were running in memory of loved ones who had died from cancer. It’s a spine-tinglingly amazing event to be part of. What’s running got to do with beating cancer? Not a lot – but if you have to get fit and join in solidarity with many other women to raise money towards funding research to beat it, then so be it.

Find out more about Race for Life here.

2)    Do something that seems impossible

Last night, I watched the amazing Davina McCall’s story of running, cycling and swimming from Edinburgh to London in just seven days in aid of Sport Relief. That’s 500 miles. She was following in the footsteps of celebrities including Eddie Izzard who once ran 43 marathons in 51 days, and comedian David Walliams’ 140-mile swim down the Thames for the charity. “There is not one piece of me that had ever thought I wanted to do some crazy endurance challenge,” Davina told The Guardian. “Not one… But you just say yes.” It was heartbreaking and joyous viewing. It makes you realise how much humans can achieve if they just set their minds on it.

Find out more about Sport Relief.

3)    Challenge the Beauty Myth  

This is a biggie. But increasingly there is a groundswell of rebellion against this idea that women should be judged on what they look like in a way that men have not been (although men are increasingly being objectified and we need to challenge that too). And that a woman’s highest calling in life is to be hot. Germaine Greer writes in The Whole Woman: “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.” Once you start to notice how much the beauty myth pervades our society, it becomes overwhelming. But there are small changes we can make, like watching the words we say to little girls and our grown-up female friends. Sometimes talking about weight loss, make-up and beauty issues is a way in which women bond with each other. But let’s talk about changing the world too.

Here’s my list of Beauty Myth Fighters on Twitter that you might want to follow.

4)    Rethink that manicure

When we hear about human trafficking, we think: that’s awful. And then we get on with our day. But what if you come face-to-face with a woman who’s been trafficked every time you get your nails done? To think that the woman beautifying your nails could be living in a desperate situation brings it all home and reminds us of the need to fight this. In the past five years, at least 90 nail bars have employed 150 illegal immigrants and been fined almost £700,000. The government is cracking down on this through the Modern Slavery Bill currently going through parliament.

Read more about manicures and human trafficking here.

5)    Sign the No More Page 3 petition

So let’s say that in the future we’ve bared our faces, we’ve done the impossible, we’ve killed the beauty myth, we’ve ended modern slavery, we’ve raised millions for the fight against cancer… And then we pick up The Sun and see a naked young woman on page three. Really? Enough of that please. Boobs aren’t news.

Sign the No More Page 3 petition.

PS: Also, check out this hilarious parody of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’ – “I woke up like this. I got morning face.”

To all the bossy girls

ImageYou just don’t hear the word bossy used to describe men. It’s a word most often used as a negative trait describing a woman; a woman who might be being assertive or trying to lead. She might be being decisive or strong-willed; she might be saying: this is how things should be done.

I’ve been called bossy all my life. The so-called bossyness has got me into positions of leadership – from that time when (aged seven) I started a girls’ football club at school because the boys wouldn’t let us play (I made posters and everything(!) and had to make an announcement in assembly*). My so-called bossyness saw me picked as the first form captain in year seven, captain of various sports teams throughout school, become a senior prefect, homework club supervisor, to being faculty rep at uni, news editor of the uni paper, to leading teams at work and sitting on boards as a full-grown adult.

Thinking back at the times when I was called bossy when I was younger – there was a part of me that liked it. To me, it meant people could see I clearly liked to lead things.

But somewhere along the line, I started to pick up a different meaning. As I started to realise that the term was only used to describe me because I was a girl. Because women were bossy while men were the bosses. Somewhere along the line, bossy started to mean: unattractive. It reeked of a masculine arrogance that had hints of the grotesque when seen in a woman. It suggested that a woman was acting above her station; that women should be seen – looked at, adored – but not heard leading the charge from the front.

Over the past few months I’ve been honing in on the B word – challenging men when they use it – watching the look of realisation on their faces when I ask if they would have described a man in the same way. And then I find myself using it too. Thirty years of social conditioning means the B word slips out – when I refer to some of my strong-willed female friends; when I apologise in male company for being ‘bossy’. When I deliberately keep my mouth shut and act helplessly for fear of being seen as bossy.

Sometimes women (and men) can be bossy. They can be domineering, oppressive, dictatorial, aggravating. Sometimes I can be those things. These negative traits absolutely should be called out. But they should be called out for what they are; not confused with leadership behaviour mistakenly seen as negative just because it is being found in a female.

Because when you tell a girl she’s bossy, it makes her second guess herself. It makes her hesitate. It makes her think twice about putting herself forward. It makes her wonder whether she’s supposed to lead. It makes her count herself out of changing the world.

In the past two weeks I’ve loved being in the audience to see two of the most powerful women in the world: Beyoncé at the O2 and Malala Yousafzai at the Southbank Centre as part of last week’s Women of the World festival.

Amazingly talented pop star Beyoncé – one of the leading women behind the new Ban Bossy campaign (check out the video) – is more than just a pop star, but an icon of our time – a woman not afraid to raise her voice and dare to set the agenda rather than follow it.

Malala too is not afraid to raise her voice in the face of criticism. “Words have power,” she said on Saturday. “If we don’t speak and we don’t raise our voices we can’t see change. When we speak, we make our dreams come true.”

Words do have power. Even simple words like ‘bossy’ can stop a girl in her tracks – whether she realises it or not.

And anything that limits girls from reaching their full potential – from leading – is a barrier to making the world better. Because according to the Girl Effect: “Girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet.”

Because in a world where girls are married off as children, where a third of all women in the European Union have been affected by sexual violence, where girls are victims of female genital mutilation – do we really need something else to hold women back?

So let’s stop using it. Let’s make an effort to ban bossy.

Let’s give girls examples of strong women who aren’t ‘bossy’, but are the boss. Women like Beyoncé, girls like Malala, and women like this amazing one in Proverbs 31:

She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant;
    she brings her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is yet night
    and provides food for her household
    and portions for her maidens.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She dresses herself[e] with strength
    and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of snow for her household,
    for all her household are clothed in scarlet.[f]
22 She makes bed coverings for herself;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates
    when he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she delivers sashes to the merchant.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the gates.

*The club lasted three weeks. 

Violence against women: will it ever end?

Sarah by Gareth Barton for Flame International

Today I’m wearing black because black is the colour of protest.

I’m at the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, South Korea. And with many other delegates here today – both male and female – I am ditching my usual preferred brightly-coloured attire to don black to protest in solidarity with the many victims of gender-based violence around the world.

Violence against women is a scourge on all societies. In times of conflict, the rape of women is used as a weapon of war.

The beauty myth – in which women are told they must look a certain way – addressed in my book Am I Beautiful? is just one symptom of a society which sees a woman’s body as its property. Gender-based violence, primarily against women, says it is ok for a woman’s body to be controlled, manipulated and violated.

I’m wearing black today because I say it is not.

Hundreds of the 5,000 gathered at the World Council of Churches assembly today are wearing black as a symbol of the Church’s commitment to ending violence against women across the globe.

As the assembly focuses on the theme “God of life, lead us to justice and peace”, the WCC is reviving its Thursdays in Black campaign.

Thursdays in Black began in the 1980s as a form of peaceful protest against rape and violence often exacerbated during times of war and conflict including in countries such as Syria, Palestine and Israel, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt.

Several ecumenical and church initiatives have been influenced by the Thursdays in Black campaign including the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women and the Women in Black campaign which was started during the Balkan war in the 1990s. There, Serbian women called for solidarity in speaking out against rape as a weapon in war.

Earlier this week, I was at a pre-meeting of the assembly with hundreds of other women from around the world to explore how we can make the world a more just place for all women.

I heard stories of women from villages in the Congo raped and pillaged. I heard the story of a blind woman from India gang raped by five men. I heard a woman from Latin America who brought us all to tears with her gut-wrenching lament to God for victims and the children of victims around the world.

I spoke to Dr Fulata Mbano-Moyo, WCC programme executive for women in church and society, who said: “Thursdays in Black is a united global expression of the desire for safe communities where we can all walk safely without fear of being raped, shot at, beaten up, verbally abused and discriminated against due to one’s gender or sexual orientation.”

“Through this campaign we want to accompany our sisters, who bear the scars of violence, invisible and visible, in Syria, Palestine and Israel, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and the whole world, where women’s bodies remain a battlefield, whether in armed conflict or so-called ‘peaceful’ situations.”

I’m wearing black today because … it’s something. I feel helpless. I wonder whether wearing black and blogging about it will make any difference at all. The problem is huge. The statistics are heart-wrenching. Figures from the World Health Organization reveal that 35 per cent of women around the world have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. This is not just a problem for women in those places.

Just a few months ago, I did a heartbreaking interview with a British woman as part of an article which showed that violence against women also takes place among Christians.

It takes place everywhere. And the frustrating thing is that it has taken place throughout the centuries. Every WCC assembly since it began has talked about the issue of gender-based violence. And still it seems that nothing has changed.

Women continue to be broken at the hands of cruel men. Will it ever end?

The amazing photo I’ve used to illustrate the blog is by Gareth Barton of Flame International, who won the Look Again competition by anti-violence against women charity Restored. The image is of Sarah, who was abducted from her village in South Sudan by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She was later rejected by the rebel group and has returned to her family, where she is slowly recovering from the horrors she witnessed and the fear that stays with her.

I can’t end violence against women by wearing black today. I can’t end the pain or heal the memories of those whose bodies have been used as weapons of war by wearing black today. I can’t protect any of the vulnerable by wearing black today.

But if it’s all I can do today to show them I care, then that’s what I’ll do.