The Feminist Fiction Bookshelf

Fiction is far more than just entertainment. The right story can change your life, make you see things in a different way and teach you something about humanity you could never have imagined otherwise. Books are powerful, wonderful, dangerous things. Fiction is one of the most important things in the world to me; I wrote my bachelor’s dissertation on the ethics of fictional representations of evil, and then my master’s dissertation on emotional responses to fiction.

I firmly believe that what you read shapes who you are, and therefore I think that reading feminist fiction is absolutely essential, for our understanding of right and wrong, of who people are, and of what they can go through. Feminist articles, papers and non-fiction books are essential too, but the difference is that the author of an essay is explaining to you; with fiction, the author is showing you. With fiction, you learn through emotions, compassion, empathy. I think that it’s extremely important to learn in a multi-dimensional way, and therefore both fiction and non-fiction are vital tools. So, I’ve put together a little ‘bookshelf’ of a few novels I think every feminist should read.

There are intersectional gaps in this list, but with fiction there pretty much always will be unless you’ve read every book ever written! You certainly can’t just read all these books and then say ‘now I’m done!’. There are an infinite number of stories to tell, and this is just a tiny snapshot, but each one has something individual and important to offer.

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[Presented in alphabetical order]

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. I mean…do I really need to explain this one. If you haven’t already read it then come on?! Atwood is a phenomenal author. Her words flow off the page. The main difference between the TV show and the book is that in the book, you get far, far more insight into how June/Offred is feeling and thinking. The show introduces more characters and their different motivations, backgrounds and experiences, but with the book, you have that claustrophobic, lonely insight into one person’s experience of the dystopia. Buy it here.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë. This book is one of the first to truly present a woman’s feelings and emotions as valid, and to focus purely on a small, unimportant woman’s life and desires. You care so much about Jane’s life and her happiness. Mr Rochester, the main male character, is a means to an end in this sense, and I think that so much of this early feminist story is extremely important; for example, Jane not being manipulated into compromising her morals for a man, Mr Rochester’s punishment for his actions, her journey towards finding her own happiness… Jane makes things happen on her own terms. Plus, it’s extremely romantic, and romance CAN be feminist! I really want to read more of the Brontë sisters’ work, but this was the perfect one to start with. Buy it here.

Difficult Women, Roxane Gay. A collection of short stories about a huge variety of different women, their relationships, lives and individual situations in life. If you were trying to explain the complexity of women’s lived experiences to someone, this book would do the trick, even if it does only focus on American women! It’s an extraordinarily diverse collection of stories and every single one is compelling and moving. There are some stories that use surrealism and magical realism too, which just makes it even better in my eyes as I’m a complete sucker for magical realism. Buy it here.

Geisha of Gion (The US title is Geisha: A Life), Mineko Iwasaki. Ok, ok, this one isn’t fiction! But I have a good reason for including this. You are almost certainly familiar with the film/novel Memoirs of a Geisha, yes? Well, in the world of Geishas, secrecy is paramount. For centuries their lives were shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Before writing Memoirs of a Geisha, the man who wrote Memoirs met with one of the few Geishas to publicly quit the profession, Mineko Iwasaki, who trusted him to tell her life story responsibly. And yet… he took her story and completely bastardised it, presenting it as researched fact, when what he actually did was create an inaccurate, disrespectful and sensationalist drama. Of course, everyone ate it up, the book was a bestseller and was made into a film, whilst Iwasaki was left to deal with the fallout and humiliation. So she wrote her own book. Geisha of Gion is the real Memoirs of a Geisha. If you’ve already read Golden’s novel or seen the film, I BEG you to read this one too, but if you haven’t, just read Iwasaki’s memoir and learn about what life as a Geisha (or as you’ll learn when you read it, what life as geiko and maiko) is actually like. Buy it here.

The Vegetarian, Han Kang. This is a gripping South Korean book about a woman’s descent into madness. Set in Seoul, it follows Yeong-hye’s transformation from an “entirely unremarkable” housewife into something tragically extraordinary. It’s fascinating to see how the men who expect to own, consume and control her react when they realise they cannot, and this brutal yet accurate portrait of men is one of the most important messages of the book. Her introspective protest at their anger and violence is heartbreaking and brilliant. Her ‘madness’ seems to me to be an analogy for how we all feel in the face of the society we live in. I think this book will resonate with anyone who has ever felt exhausted by the cruelty in our world of patriarchal societies. Buy it here.

Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. This follows a young girl in a wealthy post-colonial Nigerian household, growing up with an abusive father, a downtrodden but unfailingly loving mother and a quietly strong older brother. I think this story shows what it is like for the many people who grew up in a household with a man so wrapped up in himself that he is unable to love other people. I grew up in a purely loving family, and I think it is very important for people like me to read these stories. To actually ask someone who grew up in an abusive home what it was like, or what it felt like, is to demand an inappropriate amount of emotional labour from them. The story focuses primarily on Kambili’s thoughts and feelings – very few adults book feature a teenaged girl as the protagonist, and yet, as anyone who has ever been a teenaged girl will attest to, they are some of the most fascinatingly complicated people on the planet. The story is carefully optimistic, and very moving. Buy it here.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A Victorian feminist novel, Herland satirises men in a way that any exhausted feminist (man or woman) will relish. Not only that, but it inspires you to think about how you could live a more peaceful existence. It might also make you pine for a world where men don’t exist, but if you have any men in your life that you actually like, that feeling won’t last too long. Perkins Gilman does a fantastic job of removing ‘maleness’ from a society, thinking about what a world of women would be without men, and it is a fascinating thought experiment. This book was banned by men of the era because they found it so offensive and threatening, which is just another reason to seek it out! Buy it here.

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy.  This wonderful piece of work is a feminist science fiction novel written in the 70s. Through Connie the protagonist, and Luciente her friend, it depicts a socialist utopian future, starkly contrasted against the horrors of living in 1970s New York as a poverty stricken Mexican American woman. Everything from racism, sexism, womanhood, motherhood, mental health, sexual relationships, gender, political ideology and the environment are discussed in this book, at length, without you even realising because you are so swept up in the story. I’ve never read a book that could tackle so many issues and seamlessly interweave them with a compelling, moving narrative. It’s an incredibly intelligent book. It has aged, there’s no doubt, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a book from the 70s to meet the excellent language standards we feminists have today. This book will teach you that everything is interconnected, you will come away from it understanding that every facet of the way we live our lives and the choices we make have an impact on the planet and other people, and I think that’s a very good thing for every person to understand. I have a personal connection to this book too, not only because my mum gave me her edition of it, published in the year I was born, but also because it made me finally realise that I don’t fit into the gender binary, and I am so grateful to Marge Piercy for helping me to understand that. Buy it here.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath. This is one of those books that every feminist knows they should read. And you definitely should. It is an unflinching and very realistic account of a woman’s experiences with mental health. Plath, of course, was writing with first hand experience. It’s very readable and I identified with the main character in many ways. However, the book is racist. Not in a ‘depicts racism’ way, in a ‘the author is racist because they thought it was ok to write that’ way. Because of this, rather than seeing The Bell Jar as a timeless, emotionally brilliant piece of art, it left me a little cold, so really I see it as a pioneering historical piece, that we must read to ground us and give us the background needed to understand where we’ve come from. Buy it here.

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker. What. A. Book. I don’t even know what to say about it, other than it is phenomenal. It’s original, highly readable, heartbreaking, moving, fascinating, insightful and profound. I’m honestly a bit embarrassed by how utterly lost for words this emotionally brilliant work of art has left me. All I can say is: buy it here.

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WHAT IS SELF CARE?

Ever since the concept of self care became a thing that we actively talk about, people have tried to define it in lots of different ways. I have to say, I’ve found a lot of these definitions lacking, because most of the time they seem to invalidate what one person does, in order to validate another person’s self care techniques. I’ve seen people laugh at and bully a wonderful internet activist who created an app reminding people to drink enough water. I’ve seen people describe taking a bath as ‘self care for people without any problems’. I’ve seen websites promote buying £200 weighted blankets for ‘luxury’ wellbeing, while these very same blankets are desperately needed by people with ADHD who often can’t afford them. I’ve seen people implying that the only valid form of self care is basic maintenance (sleeping, eating, drinking) whilst other people claim that meditation and mindfulness are the only true ways to perform self care. Others will tell you that self care is worthless if you don’t love yourself. The concept of self care is turning out to be quite a complex one, and I wanted to spend a little time unpacking it, to shed light on what has become so unexpectedly confusing.

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I believe that the root of the problem is consumerism. Brands have had a hugely negative impact on the way people view self care. Above, I mentioned a listicle of luxury self care items, and this is where I think the problem comes from. Most people will have first heard about self care in the media, so they see it as something luxurious, an indulgence. Something they have to spend money on. This makes many people who are truly in dire need of self care reject it, because it seems frivolous. It isn’t the bubble bath that’s the problem, it’s the women’s lifestyle website telling you that you need to spend £100 on accoutrements to go with your bubble bath.

This has led to people feeling that it doesn’t reflect what they actually need, and I completely understand. Just like the trivialisation of the word ‘triggered’ affected me in therapy, where we used the word when discussing trauma, thoughtless media treatment has put people off self care because they feel silly talking about it. This is why I’ve decided to spend time earnestly talking about it; I know how important it is, and want help other people see that self care isn’t a fancy lifestyle choice, it’s a basic choice that helps you live your life.

Some people have tried to get around this trivialisation by moving the goalposts – describing self care as being only things like taking meds, drinking water, brushing your teeth. But I believe this makes some very unhelpful assumptions, and doesn’t clear things up at all. First of all, it assumes that self care is only for people who are ill. It’s also very ignorant of the fact that illness and wellness both take many, many forms. You cannot make a statement about self care being one thing but not another, because you don’t know what other people need. At the Foodbank I volunteer at, we put bodycare products like lotion or bubble bath in with our monthly menstrual parcels, we put chocolate into all of the food boxes and we put lipbalm into every homeless food box. Why? Because people need more than just baked beans and tinned vegetables. They need to feel like a human being. Many people across the world go through terrible, horrible things whether it’s due to poverty, sickness, grief or abuse. They don’t just require basic self maintenance to feel better. I truly believe that there is a gross lack of empathy in a lot of conversations around self care.

The NHS describes self care as being the different ways you can look after yourself, both mentally and physically. What we really need to understand is that this looks different for absolutely every single person on earth. And we need to accept that we can never, ever know how much another person needs their self care, how hard their journey is or what’s going on with them. Self care can also be very hard for some people. Roxane Gay makes a very good point that this concept of self care seems to her like yet another thing women are expected to be good at, and I’ve been there; I used to suck at self care too. But you cannot expect people to be able to learn how to practice self care if it doesn’t sound accessible, or attainable. The only answer is to eschew rampant consumerism and to be empathetic when others talk about their self care. We should be open about how we like to look after ourselves, both the elaborate and simple methods, and be honest about how that doesn’t always mean doing what we want to do. You can’t change what self care is – it already is what it is.

What we should be spending our time doing is discussing how to ensure we make honest choices about self care, because it doesn’t always mean doing whatever you want. Being honest with yourself about what you actually need is essential. For example, you might really want to spend four hours cooking a fancy meal to cheer yourself up, but perhaps you only want to do that to procrastinate some less fun chores? Skipping school or work might be something you do need to do once in a while, but you must be careful – why are you skipping it and what are you doing instead?

Every human being on the planet deserves to practice self care, and some people find it harder than others. The most important thing to remember is not to be negative about what one person is doing to care for themselves, because you don’t know how much they need it, why they need it or what they’re going through. But next time you see a magazine listing the “40 Best Self Care items you need”, ignore it.

Knixwear: The Most Empowering Bras In The World! #ad

The topic of bras has always been a bit of a minefield for feminists, and it’s not hard to see why. Bras are often uncomfortable, horrendously impractical and outrageously expensive. So much focus is given to how bras (and the breasts in them) look, that most companies seem to have forgotten that the people wearing them have ribcages, plain t-shirts and active daily routines. It’s difficult to know what to do, when you know that this happens because of the objectification of women, but you also know that you need the support of a proper bra. Or it was, until an amazing brand popped up in Canada and changed everything…

Knixwear is a feminist company that makes bras, pants, loungewear and tank tops designed with actual human women in mind. Their products are extremely comfortable, flexible, and made to fit a wide variety of shapes and sizes. They move with you, instead of constraining you, which is something all clothes should do, but thanks to sexism, throughout history, women’s clothes never truly have.

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Knix very kindly sent me their signature 8-in-1 Evolution Bras to try out, and I have to say that it delivered on every single claim they make. They began with a mission to make ‘the most comfortable bra ever’ and I really do believe it is. It’s so comfortable I keep forgetting I’m wearing it! The support is effective, but subtle; it doesn’t push your cleavage up under your chin, but it keeps everything right where it should be – for me the shape it gives is like a firmer, higher version of my natural breast shape, which I really love. The bra is reversible, seamless and wireless, but because of the brilliantly engineered material, it still has ‘cups’ so you don’t get that annoying single-boob look of other non-wired, crop top bras. You can run for a bus in it, you can bend forward in it; everything stays just where it should. I even tested it out in Yoga sessions and it performed flawlessly. Wearing this bra, I do feel truly empowered because I know it was made specifically to meet my needs, as a human being with a pair of breasts.

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Not only does Knix prove itself by selling the most comfortable bra in the world, you can see their empowering ideals shine through in all the products they make. You can get a pair of thigh savers to beat the chafe, leak-proof underwear that looks exactly the same as normal underwear and super comfy looking loungewear with POCKETS!! …Everything in their range looks fantastic, is there to make women’s lives more comfortable, and to make underwear shopping a fuss-free experience.

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So there you have it, I’ve actually found a bra that makes me feel like a valued human being, and to me, that’s true empowerment. No more angry red marks around my breasts at the end of the day. No more tight shoulders. No more boob sweat. No more underwire (!!!) No more poking my ribs as soon as I sit down. Hello to comfort, real support, and never having to think about how irritating my bra is ever again. Hello Knixwear!!!

This post was very kindly sponsored by Knixwear but every opinion expressed is my own. 

A Gender Neutral Valentine’s Gift Guide For 2018

It’s that time again! Time to celebrate and express the love, companionship, mutual respect and sexual chemistry that goes along with having a significant other. I’ve thought a lot about Valentine’s Day over the years and I’ve realised that just like with weddings and engagements, my problem isn’t with the thing itself, it’s how unbearably performative and consumerist they are. How we love doesn’t have to be controlled by outside forces; and what other people think and expect should never be a part of how you express your love for each other.

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But there simply isn’t very much inspiration out there for people who don’t want to browse through ‘for her’ and ‘for him’ gift guides which rarely feature anything your wonderful, unique partner would actually like. The decision to put something in a gendered gift guide is limited by the necessity that the things are masculine or feminine, and I think that’s a terrible way to choose a gift for your lover. So I thought I would try to help by providing some ideas for you to express your love with a thoughtful, unique and gender free gift! Throughout this guide, I’ve suggested a mix of luxury brands and smaller independent brands, so you can choose what kind of ‘special’ you want your gift to be!

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© Tartan Blanket Company 2018

A cosy blanket for snuggling under. I think these Tartan Blanket Company blankets are just absolutely delightful, and you can even get ones made out of 30% recycled fabric, which is awesome! They come in every colour type imaginable too so whatever your, and/or your lover’s home looks like you can find something that will be perfect!

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© Bloomtown UK

A massage oil or bar. Who doesn’t love a massage from their significant other? A luxurious oil, together with the promise that you’ll both get plenty of use out of it, is the perfect gift. There are so many different choices when it comes to scents and textures, but I think Bloomtown Botanicals has to be up there with the best. Their massage oils come in a variety of scents so you can pick one you know you’ll both love. One of my personal favourite massage oils is Aesop Geranium Leaf Hydrating Body Treatment which smells floral and heady without being too ‘pink’. It also leaves the skin phenomenally soft. If you want something with less packaging though, try a massage bar instead. Lush are definitely the masters of the massage bar, so check them out!

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© Life of Spice

Fancy herbs and spices. If your lover loves to cook, this is a great gift for them. Life of Spice make the most amazing herb and spices, both single and mixes and they’re available in sets too. I love the little tins they come in as well, very practical and cool looking.

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© Thought

Some really nice socks. Everyone talks about how socks are a super boring gift but seriously, have you put new socks on recently? It’s the BEST. Especially if they’re fancy, not a multipack from H&M. I don’t know about you but I wear my socks until they resemble a string vest because for some reason, buying myself new socks is an adult chore I’ve just never gotten into. Socks are a great gift, and I love the brand Thought for their sustainable selection which includes bamboo, wool and cotton. There’s a tonne of designs to choose from too!

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© Rustic Retro Furniture

A Bath Caddy. Does your love enjoy long soaks in the bath? A bath caddy is the perfect gift for anyone who likes to read in the bath too as there’s space for a book, candle and drink. They aren’t as expensive as I expected either, and this one from Etsy is really affordable, and has amaaaaazing reviews!

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© Emina Botanic Boutique 2018

Bath Salts. If you read my blog you should know there was no way I would ever not recommend buying someone a nice bath product. And if your love doesn’t have access to a bath, or doesn’t like them, what about a gorgeous body scrub? Soothed muscles and soft skin are a great gift to give someone you love. One of the best body scrubs to give as a gift is Aesop’s Geranium Leaf Scrub which contains pumice and bamboo suspended in a thick, geranium scented gel. It’s absolutely beautiful and very luxurious. If you’re looking for a luxurious bath oil, go for Olverum – it’s one of the oldest bath products in the world and has an absolutely stunning rosemary scent. If you’d like something by a small-maker, Emina Botanic Boutique does a gorgeous range of bath salts, as well as a Grapefruit Body Scrub. Or if your lover likes to exercise, what about this post-workout relaxation kit from Golden Rooster Balms? I also love the look of these Himalayan Bath Salts, it has jasmine and green tea in it! Can you imagine how soothing that must be? I think I might just treat myself to that one…

 

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An amazing cookbook. Another one for people who love to cook, or someone who wants to cook more from scratch. I cannot recommend Anna Jones highly enough, her recipes are beyond delicious and very nutritious in a ‘taste comes first’ kind of way. She uses ingredients and combinations that may seem unfamiliar at first, but will quickly become staples in your home because of how easy to make, and utterly delicious they are. I have all three of her books, A Modern Way to Cook, A Modern Way to Eat and The Modern Cook’s Year and any of the three is a great choice.

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© James Barker Draws

A cactus, succulent or houseplant. What could be more romantic on Valentine’s Day than adopting  a baby together? Just kidding. But still, everyone needs more plants in their life (unless you’re me and you live in a literal jungle already, in which case, what about a cute little plant themed embroidery gift? Or a leaf print shopping bag?) If they live in a small flat, what about a little selection of succulents from Plant Parcel, or a pretty little Pilea from Geo-Fleur? Or if they have a bit more space, a beautiful Monstera Deliciosa?

I hope these suggestions have helped inspire you! Happy Valentine’s Day when it comes!

 

 

12 Things men want women to know about sex – the feminist version!

Last week I went to a brilliant panel discussion by the Scarlet Ladies – it was called ‘Grill the Guys’ and was an opportunity for an audience of women to ask 6 guys with diverse sexual backgrounds any questions they wanted to about sex and relationships. It was really interesting to hear so many men talking about sex openly. Even people who have male sexual partners only generally get to talk to a few of them in depth, so this was phenomenally informative. My own partner was really interested in the points I came back with, so I thought I would share some of the best gems of knowledge from the evening, interspersed with some ideas my partner would like to share as well.

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A quick note: I found the event to be quite cis-heteronormative, for example the term ‘sex’ was often used to describe p-in-v penetration, with other forms of sex described as ‘foreplay’. I wasn’t sure about this so I’ve edited some snippets from the talk, however I recognise that people talking in depth about the kind of sex they have do need to rely on their own terminology.  As a group, the Scarlet Ladies welcome all women, so I don’t think this reflects on them, it was simply the nature of this particular talk.

12 Things men want you to know about sex:

1. A man can be really, super, ridiculously aroused but still unable to get it up. Sometimes it just isn’t happening and it can be for hundreds of different reasons. Since men are encouraged to push their feelings away, there might be something bothering them that they aren’t aware of. Or it might be something far more benign. Talking never hurt anyone so be nice, understanding, and encourage them to share their thoughts!

2. Similarly, it’s also true that sometimes penetration just doesn’t feel good for women. Don’t feel obligated to go ahead; communicate it with your partner and have sex some other way if you still want to. Be patient obviously; some of them might not be familiar with the fact that a woman is sometimes just unable to take a dick!

3. It’s very difficult to understand exactly what something feels like when you don’t have the same sexual equipment. This is why men can have a hard time with the clitoris, even when they’re genuinely trying, and this is why communication (and demonstration) is essential.

4. However, the pleasurable feelings that men and women experience are actually very similar (after all, they’re made from exactly the same stuff). By communicating the actual sensations you’re experiencing, you might be able to understand one another’s pleasure even better.

5. It’s easier for men to be lazy about sex because of how their orgasms are achieved. Encourage your male partners to explore the different responses of both your bodies, not just yours. Once they understand how their own body responds to different things, they will be able to better understand yours as well.

6. Embrace the fact that the way they touch you feels different to the way you touch yourself, and the way you touch them is different to the way they do it too. It’s not a bad thing; you can touch each other in ways its physically impossible to touch yourself – so embrace the differences and enjoy them.

7. That being said, for a lot of men there’s nothing sexier than watching their partner touch herself.

8. Sex isn’t just penetration – some people enjoy extraordinarily satisfying sex lives without ever putting anything in anyone else. Don’t limit yourself by considering penetration as the end game, and don’t let male partners limit your sexual experience  by doing this either.

9. If you can’t orgasm with your partner and you genuinely don’t mind …explain it to him. He has absolutely no right to be fragile about it. You have every right to expect the sex you want to have. Your orgasm isn’t for his gratification.

10. Most of the time, great sex is not beautiful sex.

11. Period sex is great – you don’t deserve to feel ashamed or embarrassed. Don’t be shy about asserting your desire to have period sex.

12. Neither party should ever assume that penetration a certainty. Even if you’re naked, in bed and kissing.

Alix Fox, the host of the discussion I attended, summed it up perfectly at the end; “There’s no right or wrong way to have sex and the most important thing is that everyone involved has a good time.” I’m really grateful to her, and the panel of men including Exhibit A, Master Dominic and Paul Thomas Bell for their time and insights!

The Scarlet Ladies is a fantastic member’s club that are working to dispel the shame and silence around women’s sexuality, enabling women to open up to themselves and their partners. They hold talks twice a month and I really recommend you check them out!

 

 

 

A Feminist Engagement

A quick note: In this blog post I will talk about how my partner and I got engaged. This is in no way intended to criticise any one else’s proposal – ESPECIALLY LGBTQ+ couples who have had to fight for their right to just to have access to the traditional, patriarchal symbolism of marriage and engagement. The story is in essence heteronormative because we are a middle class cis man and woman, but the actual message is intended to be highly inclusive. I am not going to compromise when sharing my opinions on engagement traditions, because if I can’t share them here, where can I? But I don’t mean for you to feel hurt or judged if these formed part of your (or your dream) proposal. I believe that we have a responsibility as feminists to challenge the way things are done. It’s not a personal attack on you or your relationship, I know that there are many factors to take into account when considering how to get engaged and married, and I respect your right to choose your own path. Just as I don’t know your backstory, you do not know ours. 

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A year and a half ago, walking down Tottenham Court Road at the weekend, my partner James and I were talking about the future. We’d spoken about it many, many times before, about love, marriage, relationships, children. But this time, the conversation bent a little and we drew ourselves into a discussion about when. We stopped outside Boots, with half of London pushing past us unnoticed, and hesitantly, emotionally landed on 2017 as the year we wanted to get married. A consensual agreement, whatever form it takes, is essential to any feminist engagement. Springing a marriage proposal on someone out of nowhere has been widely misrepresented as romantic because of the misogynistic, heteronormative assumption that women are always ready to get married. These surprise proposals can range anywhere from a bit misguided to emotionally manipulative, and there’s just no need for it.

Over the next few months we frequently discussed the idea of a ‘proposal’, and whether or not we wanted it to be a part of our love story. James asked me about rings, saying he didn’t want to get me a diamond because not only are they horrifically unethical, their value came purely from a marketing campaign by De Beers in the early 20th Century (and also, as a geologist he has serious opinions about rocks). But I was adamant that I didn’t want a ring, and his response was relief. We both think that ethically sourced wedding rings are a beautiful way to symbolise your dedication to your partner. But engagement rings are yet another example of imbalanced, gendered expectations between women and men. ‘Marking’ a woman as yours when you have no such mark yourself. ‘Buying’ her. I’m not saying I think they’re inherently bad, especially since it’s becoming more mainstream for non-heteronormative couples to have them too, but for us it just seemed like pointless consumerism. There was absolutely no way that one of us was wearing an engagement ring while the other wasn’t, but we also didn’t see the appeal in both of us wearing one.

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However, the idea of proposing just seemed so lovely. A declaration of love, a statement of intent and a memory that we could share. Plus, neither of us had cried over the sheer weight of our feelings for each other since we first said ‘I love you’, and it’s nice to do that occasionally. We were immediately in mutual agreement that I would be the one to do it. Much of this was from a desire to challenge the status quo of course – engagements have a very sexist history, there’s no denying it. But also, I am bisexual, so until I met James I never knew who I’d end up with. I never really imagined being proposed to, but often thought about myself doing it, because that’s just who I am – it’s the kind of gesture I live for.

If you’re wondering how James, ‘as a man’ felt about the subject – he simply didn’t. As a feminist the idea of anything being a ‘threat to his masculinity’ is laughable to him. I’m not sure what else to say on the subject, other than by him being strong enough to free himself from oppressive, fragile ideas about how to ‘be a man’, he was able to experience the joy and excitement that comes with the person he loves making a grandly romantic gesture of love towards him.

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So with that decided, the task fell to me to decide how and when I was going to do it.  I had a vague idea in mind but it didn’t fully form until we decided to go on holiday to Paris. James’ birthday fell in the week we planned to go away and I thought to myself that it would be the perfect opportunity to ask him. But Paris didn’t seem like a particularly personal choice, so I suggested we spend a few days there and then travel south to explore the Calanques National Park on his birthday (a beautiful national pack on the coast near Marseille that consists of incredible rocky cliffs leading into little beaches, the perfect holiday spot for a geologist). He enthusiastically agreed to this, because one of our favourite things to do as a couple is hike. I think it must have been pretty obvious what I was planning at this point, and he tells me he was pretty sure after I suggested a ‘birthday hike through a beautiful outcrop of rocky cliffs’, haha.

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Location decided, my plan for how to actually go about it came to me almost immediately. We briefly discussed the idea of gifts like watches and bracelets instead of a ring, but we were both totally disinterested and a bit uncomfortable with the whole ‘here is a gift, will you marry me’ thing. We definitely felt like there was something missing from the whole thing, and I realised that it was the idea that our love should benefit only us. I decided to spend the money I would have spent on a ring on charity donations. I worked out that if I were to save up to buy a ring in my current financial situation, I could afford to spend £500 on it (another thing that we really need to stop doing? Selling the idea that a proposal has to be extravagant. Not everyone has disposable income and people shouldn’t feel the need to empty their bank account for love) so I set that as my donation budget, and that’s when the full idea came to me:

I chose five charities that reminded me of something I love about James. They were things that are external to our relationship, aspects of his personality that I deeply admire but have nothing to do with me. I donated £100 to each charity, and asked them if they would be able to send me a ‘thank you’ letter (all but one said they do this anyway so I wasn’t putting them out, the other emailed it to me so I printed it and put it in an envelope). On the back of each of the envelopes, I wrote the reason why I’d donated to that particular charity.

5 reasons2.jpgThe charities chose were WaterAid, Women’s Aid, Woman Kind, Amnesty International and Mind.

After spending a magical few days in Paris, we travelled down on the TGV to Marseilles, and the next day was his birthday. I packed us a picnic in our backpack, hid the five letters in different places in there and put a note on the top saying ‘five reasons’. I wouldn’t let him go in the backpack until we had hiked to our picnic spot – one of the hundreds of secluded beaches dotted along the Calanques coastline.

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After we had settled on the beautiful stony beach, I told James he could finally look in the backpack. He drew each letter out and read the notes on the backs (I told him not to open them until he found them all) and was completely confused, but touched by whatever I was doing. After he had found them all and had opened a couple, I took his hands and said that these charities all worked on areas that are related to things I admire about who he is as a person, and then started telling him all of the things I love about the way he is with me. The way I love how safe he makes me feel, how patient he is with me, how he makes me laugh so much and how he is so open, so kind, so affectionate. Obviously we were both crying at this point, and through my tears I managed to say ‘I want to marry you’, to which he responded ‘Of course’ and kissed me. Then we both realised I hadn’t actually said what I meant to say, so I pulled away and said ‘Will you marry me’ to which he again responded ‘Of course’, and we kissed. So yeah, I messed that part up lmao.

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We cried a bit more as he read all the letters. We had our lunch (brie and tomatoes on still-warm bread from the patisserie next to our AirBnB), and splashed in the freezing water for a bit. It was absolutely perfect, and I was so happy and proud that I was able to make my partner feel so loved and wanted.

Everything about our proposal was intensely unique to both of us, but at the same time it also helped other people. Me being the one to do it ended up being the least important part. Our proposal’s unique, personal nature, combined with a concerted effort to help make other people’s lives better is what made it feminist. And we will always be proud of that. I hope that weddings and engagements don’t go away, because they are a wonderful way to express dedication and love. But they are steeped in years of oppression, negativity, consumerism and selfishness. I’m absolutely not saying people should do what we did and I’m definitely not saying that I created the perfect proposal. Rather, I just want to share this and use it to communicate the idea that we all need to work hard emotionally, creatively and intelligently to make these gestures as beautiful and inclusive as they have the potential to be.

Tips for a happier period

Like anyone with a uterus, I’ve had my fair share of period disasters, stresses and excruciating pain. From clenching my thighs on the Victoria Line because I’ve been caught out, to panicking wildly about an early (or worse: late) period, it’s easy to have a pretty negative feelings about that time of the month. And that’s without even broaching the subject of dysphoria – I cannot imagine how hard it must be to experience gender dysphoria and still get your period. You guys are badasses. I don’t know if any of these tips will be helpful for trans/agender people but they have been written with the intention of being inclusive! Of course these tips also aren’t intended for people who have health problems – endo, pcos etc. I’m not a stranger to these illnesses but I would never presume to be able to help another person with them, I’m not a healthcare professional.

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