Nova Prospekt dress

After reflecting and considering my mistakes, it’s nice to look upon my triumphs occasionally, if only to remind myself that I do have them. This is one of those. I know it has flaws which at some point I might fix, but I wear this a lot, especially to teach, and I really like it.

Sometimes you just has it.

I was re-playing Half Life 2 when I cut this dress out, from lovely floppy chambray I’d bought at Cloth House. Specifically I was on the Nova Prospekt level where Gordon Freeman uses an army of alien antlions to storm the prison and, for those who pay attention, begins to discover what the Combine have been up to: [spoiler] taking humans and modifying them either into Overwatch soldiers or cyborg Stalker slaves. It was nice to replay HL2, just over 10 years after it was first released. I only actually played it in 2007, as part of the legendary Orange Box – I had bought it as a gift for my brother, but was so curious about Portal that I bought another copy, played Portal, which then acted as both tutorial and gateway drug to HL2.

I loved the stark look of the game, set in a Brutalist Eastern European environment, further destroyed by the alien Combine, whom Gordon had inadvertently released onto Earth during the events of Half Life. The plot is told via the gameplay rather than tedious unskippable scenes, frequently crossing the borders between game and film. Unfortunately, the world of Half Life and Portal have ruined me for playing anything else. RPGs feel like boring part time jobs, puzzle games are frustratingly pacifist and the least said about MMORPGs the better. I felt a revisit has been overdue for some time and since you can now play many games on Linux via the steam player, I didn’t even have to bother to use Windows any more.

The pattern is Simplicity 1325, bought in a binge in their last half price sale. When I’m teaching, I do have to assume the sort of positions one might use when giving birth, so there’s a lot of bending over, squatting and lying down involved. A voluminous, but not floaty, skirt does a good job of covering up the bits I’d prefer not to display whilst giving freedom of movement. When I wear trousers, there’s always a concern that when I bend over, everyone will get a nice view of either my pants or lower back, or my tummy if I lie down, so a dress of this length is ideal. The pockets are also handy for spare pens, sweets, tissues, phone and random articles.

We don't go to Ravenholm. We also don't do our zips properly on the inside. Shh.
We don’t go to Ravenholm. We also don’t do our zips properly on the inside. Shh.

I feel a dress like this would be ideal for battling malevolent and mysterious alien alliances, guided at all times by a trans dimensional entity with unclear motives. It is possibly the kind of thing Alyx Vance would wear on more formal occasions as it has pockets for her Plot Device (like a sonic screwdriver, it does whatever she requires it to do at any point) and apparently limitless ammunition.

The deep V-neck was quite tricky and the pattern instructions did not make it any easier. I reduced the stitch length to Piddly and went very slowly, reinforcing the V as much as I dared to avoid holes appearing in the future. Rather than self lining, I used some left over Liberty lawn, for a nice contrast and to reduce the weight. It is understitched but still a tad visible. I decided I didn’t mind – I think this is because the two fabrics have different levels of stretch. I’d probably trim down the lining next time in a similar situation.

 

Prepare for unforseen consequences. Visible lining for instance.
Prepare for unforeseen consequences. Visible lining for instance.

I have just finished the game – it took longer than the dress. People often clamour for sequels of things that they felt ended before their time. Firefly, for instance. I don’t usually feel like that. After Serenity I thought the characters were pretty much where I wanted them to be and I was happy to leave them there. However, after HL2 Episode 2, the characters are in the middle of something, things are still to be revealed including a tie up with Portal, and something catastrophic has just occurred. I would still like some form of conclusion, even if the actual game were rubbish. The generally agreed theory is that Valve (the game’s publishers) have either moved on, a sequel has been produced that they just weren’t happy with, Valve don’t want to be caught in a treadmill of endless crappy sequels, and they don’t need the cash, having invented a perpetual money machine (Steam).

As usual I hacked out about 2 inches from the upper back. This is my non scientific narrow shoulder adjustment and it’s usually the only thing I need to do with a pattern like this. Although I am short, I find I don’t usually need to raise the waistline and I’m fortunate enough to waver between a B and C cup – most mainstream patterns are apparently drafted to a B cup and graded up or down, and indies tend to use a C cup so I’m good either way. The fit is close, let’s say, and there isn’t a huge amount of cake room. But this is a standing up and working dress, not a sitting down eating cake dress. Honest.

The chambray was very obliging and well behaved, although it frayed like buggery. I did slipstitch the bodice lining, which I don’t usually do. Slipstitching (hack, spit!) is not my best thing. However, I think the difference in weight between the shell and lining caused some wonkoidness when I attempted to ditch stitch so I got the needle out. Bah. I also should have staystitched the skirt as this stretched out a little and the side seams do not line up exactly with the bodice.  

How much skirt? This much skirt. I challenge you not to swish this skirt.
How much skirt? This much skirt. I challenge you not to swish this skirt.

I did a lapped zipper, my first that wasn’t a complete eyesore. This is partly due I think to buying a decent zip, rather than a crap one. The creases here are due to slapdash ironing.

A moment's quiet reflection for a lapped zipper that doesn't look like a Vortigaunt's bottom.
A moment’s quiet reflection for a lapped zipper that doesn’t look like a Vortigaunt’s bottom.

The hem is currently rolled. This was a mistake of course, the fabric is much too thick, but at the time I felt I couldn’t face handstitching what is almost a full circle skirt. I am still too much in love with my rolled hem foot but I really should say goodbye to it at some point.

The pockets, swirly skirt and deep V neck make this dress practical and fun without being wacky. I would like to make this again in something lightweight. I do think I resemble a kids’ TV presenter in the ensemble especially when worn with the T-shirt included in the pattern as well, using:

Elsa print organic jersey from Spoonflower. For the uninitiated this is the rosemaling design on Elsa’s coronation gown. I managed to get the design lined up nicely front and back, and on the sleeves.

I let this go to the extent that I photographed it without ironing it first.
I let this go to the extent that I photographed it without ironing it first.

Haha! So far most people don’t get the reference. It’s very popular with the five year olds though. The T-shirt itself was great to make and the higher neckline goes well with this dress.

Learning & Revising – Laurel by Colette

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So how do people learn sewing when they aren’t really taught it at school?
Whilst my mother and grandmother attempted to teach me to sew and knit, I picked up some odd habits from them, like using tailor tacks when chalk would do just as well, and never tracing patterns, meaning that if you’d cut a size too small, you’d wasted your money. I was taught sewing at school, 1,000 years ago, by a vile sociopath called Mrs Inglis. Mrs Inglis barely concealed her horror at my wish to construct a pleated skirt in Home Economics. She would routinely remove the scissors from my hands, stating that I was too cack handed (I’ve never managed to cut myself with scissors – jabbed pins into myself repeatedly, banged fingers with hammers, yes), and openly laughed at my attempt at a screen printed blouse (with a sheep on it).

Excellent teaching practice? I don’t think so.

Fortunately my end results were good enough to prevent despondency. I wore the sheep blouse quite a lot in fact, even at university.

However, apart from the odd curtain over the years, and a dress for a May Ball that I’d rather not discuss right now, I didn’t pick up the craft again until fairly recently.

How to revise what I’d learned a whole millennium ago? A lot of books suggest starting off with cushion covers and the like. Well, stuff that. I could barely comprehend wasting time constructing something that gets sat and farted on. No, I wanted to make a dress.

I’d always wanted to make a simple dress in Liberty print cotton lawn. Lawn is a light weight, silky feeling cotton. I’d been deterred by the cost in Liberty itself – upwards of £22 a metre. However, I found 3 metres for about £30 on Ebay and when it arrived I spent a long time fondling the fabric and worrying about the expensive disaster I was about to wreak.

The pattern I chose was the achingly simple Laurel from Colette. Laurel is a simple shift dress with sleeves, darts at front and back and patch pockets. It’s finished with bias binding rather than a fiddly facing and the end result is a straightforward frock that can go anywhere.

There are only 3 main pieces to the pattern and the only part that posed a challenge was easing in the sleeves, which I did in the round. I made miles and miles of bias binding too, a dull job that paid off in the end as I was able to use it for all sorts of things and it lasted for ages.

Sleeves duly eeeased. This is the best bit, I'm not showing the dodgy bit.
Sleeves duly eeeased. This is the best bit, I’m not showing the dodgy bit.

Initially I put in a zip but after forgetting to undo it I found I could put the dress on without, so I removed it.

I closed the escape route here - Laurel is loose enough on me not to need a zip.
I closed the escape route here – Laurel is loose enough on me not to need a zip.

So although the challenge was perhaps slightly greater than that of a cushion, I think the pay off was well worth it. Instead of a cushion, I have a dress – an actual dress, that I can wear, and which Mrs Inglis would probably snigger at but never mind that. Of course it isn’t perfect. I could have done a much better job with the sleeves, I used cheap Coats Moon thread whereas the fabric deserves something of a higher quality, and some of the bias edging is well wonky. But as a revision exercise, and one which I wear often, it was well worth it. It’s good to reflect on what one might do differently next time: French seams, better thread, neater finishing in this case. Would I recommend this to a beginner over a cushion cover? Well, it depends on how that beginner feels about cushions I suppose. The darts and sleeves do pose a challenge, but isn’t that what learning is all about? If you take your time, read the directions carefully, watch some tutorials on the tricky stuff, I see no reason why not. At the end of it, you’ll have picked up some really important basic skills in garment sewing.

She's probably dead anyway.
Yeah, get bent, Mrs Inglis. She picked on my younger brothers as well.

The other thing I learned was that people who compliment your hand sewn outfit don’t want you to point out the mistakes. They are unlikely to understand them and it devalues the compliment.

Pinafora Lepidoptera

Whilst in Old Navy, I did buy a skirt and pair of trousers as well. However, J doesn’t really have a waist and no matter how tight I winch them, they always work their way down her body. By the end of the day they are halfway down her backside. The skirt is actually a skort, with jersey shorts attached, presumably to eliminate any risk of someone glimpsing her underwear.

image

Americans are funny about modesty. While we were away, the weather was searingly hot and we kept visiting the water fountains in Central Park. Most of the play areas have some sort of watery bit. J will simply remove her clothes at the first sight of water and go dashing in, delightedly. I figured this kept her clothes dry and I wasn’t organised enough to bring along swimwear.

However, the little nudist got into trouble at the park near Union Square when an officious lady demanded to know if I was American. No, I said, revealing myself as one of those libertine Europeans. She scolded me and said the police could arrest me. I was about to suggest that I took my clothes off too, when she realised that a small interested crowd was developing and things were not going to go her way. She bustled off, but I did wrestle a pair of knickers onto Miss Bare Buttocks later on to avoid that happening again.

Anyway, I figured that until she got a bit taller and developed a waist, she could do with another pinafore. She has packed lunches and is not the world’s tidiest eater, so sometimes needs a fresh outfit daily. This time, I used organic cotton twill with a touch of Lycra from the Organic Cotton people again. They really are very good, and the delivery is fast and reliable. An obvious advantage of children’s clothes is that you can easily get at least one outfit from one metre of fabric, which makes an organic cotton twill pinafore relatively affordable – about £8.

I AM BIZNIZZ

One of the skirt panels is the wrong way round. I can’t blame anyone but myself. I would have re-done it, but figured the only person who was likely to notice is me.

Whoops. I forgot that twill has two sides. If she moves around enough and I don't tell anyone, nobody will notice.
Whoops. I forgot that twill has two sides. If she moves around enough and I don’t tell anyone, nobody will notice.

This time, the lining is butterfly print viscose. I bought the end of a roll from a small fabric shop in Acton the other week, for £2.50.

I had already made myself a Zsalya top from it, and used the rest here. I added patch pockets, lined with the same stuff.

Zsaliya Top for me...
Zsaliya Top for me…

Lining for the girl.
Lining for the girl.

Did I pleat the skirt? Er, no. I gathered it again. The twill is thick, but fairly drapey and flexible. I didn’t integrate the lining with the zip properly, because it might catch and stick, and J gets very wound up when her zips get stuck. That’s my excuse. The only real change from the first time around, pattern wise, was rounding out the back a bit more as the first version keeps puckering a bit here.

Puckering at the back of Version 1 - any attempt to steam this out makes it worse.
Puckering at the back of Version 1 – any attempt to steam this out makes it worse.
Butterflies in her pockets. To go with the crumbs, rocks and rotten leaves.
Butterflies in her pockets. To go with the crumbs, rocks and rotten leaves.

It’s survived so far. Apparently J’s teacher said “wow!” when she saw the insides. That’s good enough for me. The twill is quite sticky and accumulates cat hair and other fluff, but it is soft, stretchy, warm and comfortable. I thought maybe I should fashion a little heart or butterfly from Sugru for the zipper. I am still thinking about that..

Girl Colours

I’ve never been one of those Pink Stinks people, as I don’t believe that we help anyone by disparaging ‘girly’ things as weak, inferior or less desirable than ‘boy’ things. It’s far easier to be a boyish girl than a girlish boy. Deep down I think our resistance to the idea of a boy playing with dolls is latent homophobia, this nameless and baseless fear that playing with ‘weak’ girly things will turn young boys gay, as if that were (a) possible and (b) something one would wish to avoid. Of course I hate gender segmentation as much as the next person and ranted at some luckless temp in Hamleys who tried to sell me a pink magic kit.

However, having sweated and bled to create this duffle coat, I was furious when J declared the colours to be not ‘girl colours’ and refused to wear it.

Not girl colours apparently.
Not girl colours apparently.

I have a fabric shop fairly close by in Edgware. It’s called Jersey Vogue Fabrics, they last changed the window display about five years ago and it’s constantly rammed with fashion students and what I will call local colour.

This used the Oliver + S School Days duffle coat pattern. Again, printing and taping was a horrible job. Cutting the pieces took hours as I’d decided I’d better match the tartan. I managed to match it.. more or less.

But, undoubtedly, the very most boringest part of the make was quilting the inner gilet thingy.

I used some fleece I had floating around and quilted that, rather than use batting, because I had fleece, I don’t have batting, and that’s that. I figured they’re much the same thing. I just quilted by eye, because I started marking the material and thought I’d go mad very quickly doing that.

The floral stuff on the inside is from B&M Fabrics, a brilliant stall in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market, and it reminded me of some old wallpaper my parents had when I was little. The purply stuff on the outside is Kona again, from Plush Addict.

Quilted removable lining. I swore blind I'd never make a quilt after doing this.
Quilted removable lining. I swore blind I’d never make a quilt after doing this.

Once the quilting was done, the rest was easy – although maybe that’s just in contrast. Doing the lining was the best bit, turning it all inside out and realising that it looked like a coat! It does.

I put the sleeves in flat as is my wont these days. I find easing sleeves in the round to be quite annoying and “pinny” and doing them flat gives me a much nicer result. I am sure there is some jolly good reason why I should be doing them the fiddly annoying way, and indeed sometimes the construction of a garment demands it’s done that way, but if I can ever avoid it, I will.

Hoodie.
Hoodie.

Some of the stitching around the hems and sleeves is a bit uneven, I must admit. Currently the sleeves are so long that I have to roll them up and the uneven stitching does not show! Win.

J on the other hand was annoyed that I had not made it in “girl colours” once it was finished. WAT.

Yes, apparently I should have made it in pink and purple. She *saw* me make it, she knew it was for her, and yet she saved her objections for the finished result! Like a little drunken dictator, she ensures that her subjects can never be sure about anything. Keeps ‘em on their toes, you know. I must make sure that she never has control of a secret police force.

On the other hand, being a grown up has advantages, such as making her wear the unsatisfactory coloured coat anyway. Bwahahaha. That’s where she gets it from.

HMS Pinafore

When I was at school, I read a great many school stories, from the 1920s up to the 1950s. Since I had no friends and barely spoke to anyone, when I did, my language was peppered with things like “smashing” and “super!”. (The one fact probably is connected to the other) I really wanted one of those gymslips they wore, with a voluminous pleated skirt, apron front and, most importantly in my view, a coloured sash denoting your house.

This kind of thing. The reality of hockey is standing freezing in the snow and hoping nobody passes you the ball.
This kind of thing. The reality of hockey is standing freezing in the snow and hoping nobody passes you the ball.

I love the subtext here, the kind of passionate longing apparently prevalent in girls' boarding schools.
I love the subtext here, the kind of passionate longing apparently prevalent in girls’ boarding schools.

The fact that I went to a state secondary school in the late 1980s was the only barrier to my daydreams. In fact I did actually buy a gymslip of sorts from Hobbs a while ago. I wear it to work and I do sometimes pretend I’m bullying off in the final critical match of the season with St Dunstan’s while I’m on the way to the toilet.

Wikipedia tells me that this attire was in fact chosen because it was considered too rude for young ladies to play sports wearing shorts, and the pleated apron fronts and ample skirts were to conceal the physiques of young women. I choose to ignore this annoying and inconvenient truth!

Whilst on holiday in New York, I bought a few things from Old Navy, of all places: a pinny, skirt, trousers and a blue polo shirt. As the originals are khaki (no grey available) and they are made from cotton twill, I dyed them with Dylon and they came out almost black, not regulation grey. I figured it’d fade eventually and brazened it out. However, the zip fastening for the pinny is at the back, meaning that she can’t undo it herself and this is a problem for PE.

Finding a pattern for a front fastening pinafore is quite a challenge, and I’m stingy, so I hacked the Jump Rope dress. I left off the sleeves, lowered the front, left off the collar and added a front zip fastening.

Greasy stain on skirt is either impossible to remove or she keeps adding to it.
Business on the outside..

I guess I could have finished it with bias binding but decided on a fun lining. I used a fat quarter of quilting cotton that had unicorns on it. The fabric itself is Kona cotton in grey and both were from Plush Addict.

What's that on the inside???
What’s that on the inside???

Because I decided this was a wearable muslin, I did not spend as long as I should have ensuring that the zip lined up, or ensuring that the lining was all cut out in the same direction. I had to piece together one of the panels from careless offcuts. You may also notice that the zip is not as perfectly aligned as it could be.

Professionalism.
Professionalism.

I kept the gathered skirt from the original pattern. I am not completely sure about this and wonder whether pleating would be more sensible – but then I’d have to press pleats and I don’t want to do that.
It was a success. She can undo the zipper easily, and of course when she gets changed for PE everyone is treated to the sight of unicorns.

Technically an alicorn, I guess.
Technically an alicorn, I guess.

A Checky Dress.

I only had to start wearing uniform at secondary school (age 11+). Up to the sixth form (16-18) I wore a grey skirt, blue shirt (not a blouse), tie and acrylic V-necked jumper. We had to ask permission to take off our jumpers on hot days. At the start of the summer term, in May, boys were permitted to leave off their ties, and girls got to wear a gingham blouse with a rever collar. I loved my blouse. I wore it constantly, even on holidays. I craved the gingham and plaid dresses worn by the girls on Neighbours and Home and Away (Australian soap operas), and daydreamed about this one day becoming an option at school. Sadly it wasn’t to be and even when I started sixth form, and switched from grey to blue, the gingham blouse remained the only summer option.

So of course, J’s first handmade school frock had to be a gingham dress.

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I chose handloom gingham from The Organic Textile Company for this. I was taken by the photos of Ganesh, who weaves and grows the cotton. In particular, his family, including his children, can wander about the fields without risking long term health problems caused by the remorseless application of pesticides regular cotton requires. I chose a digital pattern – the Jump Rope Dress from Oliver + S. The worst part, without a doubt, was taping together the pattern pieces after printing.

The second worst part was the placket, or the bit that holds the buttons on. This involved a lot of fabric origami, folding and snipping and sewing. I’ve made a placket before and that time, I used disappearing fabric marker, the kind that vanishes when you iron it. Since there’s a lot of ironing involved in making a placket, I realised that this was quite a stupid idea. So for this one I marked the folds by stitching along the lines, which was much more effective but the stitching was a sod to remove and indeed, you can see that I gave up trying to.

Nameless stain: model's own.
Sparkly buttons and a reasonable stab at a placket.

The clear sparkly buttons were from John Lewis. My husband had conniptions about both the buttons and the little embroidered hearts, saying that they would not be up to regulations. I reasoned that if the school tolerated Hello Kitty appliques on uniform, they could live with sparkly buttons.

My machine has about 50 stitches I never use, it seemed rude not to.
My machine has about 50 stitches I never use, it seemed rude not to.

There are only two belt loops. The pattern asks for four, but making them was quite boring and I thought I’d chance my arm with just two. I have recently found a tutorial for simpler belt loops from Coletterie, which I’ll try next time. The sash has, so far, returned from school with the rest of the dress.

This looks a weird shape. It's not, it's just my l33t photography skills.
This looks a weird shape. It’s not, it’s just my l33t photography skills.

This is her favourite dress and she will wear it for formal occasions if not persuaded otherwise. The material is thick, but light, and has washed really well. It’s soft and comfortable. Most gingham dresses I’ve seen have a collar with facing, and this always turns out to the front without painstaking ironing. Almost nobody, not even I, can be bothered with pressing fiddly collars – the Jump Rope dress has no such annoyances. Indeed, by my standards, it doesn’t need pressing at all. J’s only real objection was that she felt the blue was too dark and the checks too big at first. She was worried she’d get into trouble. However, this is a reception class at a local state infant school and nobody is about to check her gingham with a ruler and a Pantone chart.

Non-Uniform

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I remember feeling very depressed just after I received the letter stating that my daughter had been allocated a place at our chosen school. She was getting dressed in a floral pinny that she was outgrowing, and I realised that there was no point in buying another one, as she’d be at school five days a week, and spend the majority of her time in grey pinafores and navy blue sweatshirts.

My mood was not lightened in the least by the school wear on display at my local supermarket. It’s cheap, yes, but that comes at a cost. It was also scratchy and made from unpleasant fabric. I came over all Highgate Mums at the thought of my little treasure wearing it, tempered with the knowledge that it was almost certainly made by a woman with children of her own, who was barely paid enough to feed them. Lucy Siegle in “To Die For” details many highly depressing examples of cost cutting in garment manufacture. Once a company has cut the costs of fabric to the bone, the next thing to be reduced is the wages.

Whilst sewing is increasing as a hobby, I was more interested in using the skills I’d learned from my mother for a utilitarian purpose: something beyond party frocks or scatter cushions. This is, after all, what women used to do before the industrial revolution, and outsourcing, made clothing so cheap that it can be treated as disposable. Time was when clothing was so precious that a garment was endlessly repaired and altered. Antique clothing is rare because it was worn and used until it literally disintegrated. When we look at old images of, say Victorians, we forget that just about every item of clothing they wore would have been hand stitched – often by the wearer’s mother, sister, daughter, or themselves.

Do people make their own school uniforms, I wondered. Do they?

Google informed me that the answer is “a few, not many” and most seem to be Mormon women in Utah with dozens of children. Well, if they can find the time, I probably could.

I decided that I needed to meet a few requirements. The clothes need to be:

* Normal looking (the most important factor for all concerned. I don’t want to be embarrassed, nor an embarrassment.
* Pleasant to wear
* Appropriate to the conditions (most schoolwear is quite thin and not very warm in winter, and all that non breathable polyester must be uncomfortable in the summer)
* Easy for me to take care of. I don’t mind a little light ironing but if I can get away without bothering, I will.
* Accessible. A 5 year old is wearing this stuff and she has to be able to get it on and off herself.

Is this something I think everyone should attempt? Not really. I don’t have much cash but I do have a little time, and I learned to sew a long time ago. I have all the kit, acquired over the years, and a space to do it in. Take away one of those factors, and I’d have probably found a different solution. But I hope this series of posts is informative.

A Strong Female Character

I am a role model.
 
I am attractive.
…but not too attractive.
 
I am mature.
…but not too old.
 
I am independent.
…but just vulnerable enough so my core demographic continues to engage with my character.
 
My garments cover an agreed portion of my body.
…one which has been determined by focus groups and polls to be inoffensive to those who find my body offensive.
 
My breasts are visible but not evident.
…it was decided that I needed something to make me stand out. I suggested a handlebar moustache but that was vetoed.
 
I have fun and adventure!
…whilst still being very responsible.
I run my own successful business!
…all by myself.
I am brainy and a nerd! I love reading books!
…and yet I have plenty of time to play with the boys.
 
Because I am a strong female character.
 
Indeed sometimes I even wear glasses. To show how clever I am. Just sometimes.
 
I am skilled in the use of all weapons, real and fictional.
…but I’m also gentle and love animals.
 
I’m bisexual! I’m mixed race!
…but don’t worry, I’m a sort of safe mocha latte.
 
I have a cool disability.
…though you’ll never see me struggle to get on a bus or in and out of public lavatories.
 
My designers have a lot of boxes to tick, you see.
 
They needed a strong female character.
So they made me.
I am all things to all people.
 
Because there’s only one of me.
 
I suggested getting a couple more
…but the designers said the game/film/TV show wouldn’t be marketable to boys if they did that.
 
So there I am.
A strong female character.
Just the one.
 
It’s quite tiring really.

Page 3 – A Defence

Someone remarked that the kind of breasts on display would not be ‘normal’ and that they would be silicone enhanced.
That reminded me of something I knew about Page 3 that perhaps others did not.
I’m no fan of The Sun. I will not buy it and I do not read it. However, I am aware that the woman on Page 3 will not, apart from certain exceptions, have breast implants. The policy has been for the start of the feature, nearly 40 years ago, that the model will be ‘wholesome’ and natural looking. Indeed, when I twitched Page 1 aside, what we saw was a pleasant image of an attractive, curvy young woman with fairly large and normal looking breasts. The makeup and hair were natural and there was little evidence of airbrushing.
The much vilified ‘news in briefs’ section, to which I will return, was tiny – postage stamp sized – and down in the bottom left corner of the photo. The whole offending feature, which has received a huge amount of campaigning flak over the years, took up less than a third of the page.
We were all, I think, surprised at what we saw. We were expecting an airbrushed, plasticised glamour shot of a trussed up model, pouting provocatively at us from this newspaper. It’s interesting how ‘Lads’ Mags’ have created an aesthetic expectation in most people so that when you talk of topless photos, you have a specific image in mind.
Back home, I looked over the Sun’s Page 3 archive. The images in fact stood out as being far more normal looking than any of the other celebrity or glamour photos in the newspaper, and indeed features in other tabloids like the Daily Mail website’s Sidebar of Shame. On the Sun’s home page there was a photo shoot of some odd creature known as Amy Childs, and she *did* have hard silicone hemispheres plonked on her chest, with copious amounts of fake hair to go with her fake breasts. This shoot *did* have the harsh light and airbrushing we would expect. Except Ms Childs is not really a glamour model and the photos were not a feature in themselves. She posed for them in order to advertise her new lingerie range.
I began thinking about why the No More Page 3 campaign has got so much attention when in fact it features some of the least objectionable and ugly images of topless women I’ve seen for some time. 
The arguments are that it creates an oppressive culture of sexism; that it is in poor taste and that it encourages men to see women as sex objects. The campaign sees Page 3 as a totem of women’s poor status in the UK and feels, by a campaign of letter writing, that it will shame the Sun’s editors into removing it and then, somehow, everything will be better. Our pay will go up, sexual harassment will cease and everyone who wants it can work part time from home. Recently Murdoch has been making noises about replacing it.
Apart from the manifest idiocy of believing that getting people who do not and will not read the paper under any circumstances to write to the editor of the best selling paper in the UK and ask him/her to remove one of their longest running and popular features, there is a vast middle here that has not been distributed.
Page 3 is a symptom and not a cause of sexism. That it is sexist is up for debate. I think it’s subjective, but I will say that the fact that many men and women like looking at breasts relates to a highly primal and normal drive in humans. Breasts nurture and nourish us (or they ought to, more often than they do). They allure and seduce us (if we are that way inclined).
Those who object to Page 3 are using it as a shibboleth of all that is misogynistic, sexist and wrong.
 
But it is none of these things. Their objections are a mishmash of anti-porn activism, snobbery and prudishness.
 
The anti-porn people want to ban all porn. They are those who would impose a compulsory porn filter on the UK’s internet – a plan which has recently morphed into demanding that anyone with children must tick a box agreeing to have filters installed, with penalties to be imposed on those who simply fib in order to have their browsing unhindered.
 
I don’t care if my daughter sees porn, I really don’t. The reason is that I understand the internet, I know how it works and I know how to control it. She will know how to avoid it if she wishes.
 
I have also seen enough porn to know that it can span a massive range from high art to extreme exploitation and everything in between. Like cockroaches, those that do exploit individuals to make nasty porn hate any form of sunlight. Banning and restricting them will only allow them to flourish. This is a world in which genuine imagination, tenderness and beauty cohabit with tedious repetitive plastic humping and it is a world with value. It does not in itself corrupt.
 
It is also a world that can be entirely avoided if an individual so wishes. It is not compulsory.
 
However, at least an anti-porn activist has a stance that is logically consistent and defensible. They wish to control who has sex with whom and for what reasons. Sex for money (or other forms of material reward) is anathema. Good luck with that.
 
The snobbishness has struck me as irrational. They want the end of Page 3, but claim to be “sex positive” and pro porn. It’s as if pornography for the upper classes – tasteful monochrome Testino images of nudes, Mapplethorpe coffee table books or vintage Tom of Finland* prints are acceptable, yet accessible muck for the working classes is simply de trop. A catwalk show for a milliner featuring chilly looking models completely nude apart from the hat is applauded as high art: Sandra from Dagenham, in a pair of lacy pants, is not.
 
Tellingly, people who make this argument use derogatory terms about “Sandra from Dagenham” as if Sandra is not an agent of her own destiny. Sandra is apparently a victim and driven to this job by oppression and society. And, to cap it all, is from Dagenham! Imagine that. The hypothetical models are always from provincial towns in Essex – anyone from Essex will confirm they are as sick of these stereotypes as the models themselves. If Page 3 featured “Alexandra from Hampstead”, would that be better?
 
In fact, as a fully enfranchised member of a democratic society, Sandra can do as she wishes. Glamour modelling is a job after all: not a job for everyone certainly but a job nonetheless. Shutting down something which can be either launchpad to a decent career, or a way of getting pocket money whilst at university, is a little vindictive. Sandra may not really want to get a job as a broadsheet journalist, an academic, or a minimum wage position at a trendy third wave coffee shop. Sandra may have considered her options and decided glamour modelling offers good money with no heavy lifting.
 
It may even be that Sandra, denied the income from being a regular on Page 3, ends up feeling that she must have surgery in order to get other glamour modelling gigs and turns into another silicone clone on the pages of Nuts. They criticise the ‘news in briefs’ (a tiny callout allegedly quoting the model’s views on a newsworthy topic) as mocking the model. It isn’t – it’s mocking those who said that Page 3 was objectifying women. I have it on fairly good authority that the News in Briefs is *actually* chosen by the model – a dainty middle finger extended to those who would protect her from her own motivations.
 
Then there are the prudes. Ah, the prudes. The ones who would like the existence of the female nipple swept neatly under the carpet where it belongs.
 
But ultimately, is Page 3 sexist?
 
I would say it is *sufficiently* sexist but not *necessarily* sexist. That people like looking at attractive topless women is not a surprise and in a mature society, is not problematic. Page 3 is also not a *cause* of sexism. It merely reflects a cultural norm that it’s acceptable to show bared breasts in a newspaper but not an erect penis.
 
I also feel that were the Page 3 letter writers to be successful, they would not stop there. Next would be the lads’ mags, and next the top shelf, and then… who knows. 
 
I am with Orwell on this. Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell [or show] people what they don’t want to hear [or see]. To me censorship is far more offensive and dangerous than any pornography I have ever seen. And my word I have seen a lot – all legal, I must add.
 
And finally, on the Sun itself, I would be quite happy if every page of that rag were replaced with a topless image of a woman rather than the objectionable rubbish it usually publishes.
 

Dear Feminism

Dear Feminism

This is a difficult letter to write. It’s been great, it really has, but I think we need to spend some time away from each other.

Remember in the beginning, those heady days when we’d just discovered each other? We’d spend hours in the university library reading Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, as if we were the first in the world. It was very special. We battled together over FGM and domestic violence, and I thought we were a brilliant team.

But in the last few years, I don’t know, I think we’ve both changed a great deal. And we’ve grown apart.

I think it started back when I had a baby and you started telling me how to give birth and how I should feed and look after that baby. You began to sound confused. I *shouldn’t* have had a c-section and I *should* have bottle fed, because that was more feminist? It sounded a bit strange at the time that buying formula milk from a multinational company was more liberating to me than feeding the baby with my own milk. Anyway, I put that down to the upheaval that any major life change causes. We were still happy together.

Then you started pulling me in different directions again. I *should* go back to work, I shouldn’t. I should nurture ambitions to run a merchant bank, and to own a small cupcake and bunting shop as a “mumterpreneur”, all at once? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Things crystallised a little during the slut shaming furore of a couple of years ago. Women, annoyed at being called sluts because of how they dressed marched in protest at the suggestion that by their dress and behaviour they invited sexual assault. Fair enough. I think we agreed that anyone who claims such a thing has a very limited understanding of the nature of most sexual assaults.

Recently, though… I don’t know.

You tell me I’m strong and that I can fight for myself. But when someone threatens me with assault online your reaction is that the forum used should be banned, or heavily restricted. My instinct is that toxic comments will die out when women in public life reach a critical mass and it simply isn’t possible to tweet rape threats to them all without getting RSI, but you say I’m too delicate and your responses deter other women from putting their heads over the parapet.

You tell me that I constantly have the risk of sexual assault hanging over my head. You regularly assume that this has happened to me – that I’ve been groped or propositioned on the Tube and it’s part of a woman’s experience. Well, I haven’t. You alienated me then. You said it was so ubiquitous, I found myself wondering why not me? Am I too ugly even for an anonymous grope? Too unapproachable to pester on public transport?

You tell me I can dress as provocatively as I wish, and I’m cool with that. But at the same time, feminism, you tell me that if I dress provocatively, have photographs taken for money and get those published in a magazine, I am responsible for “pornification”? That this “pornification” has caused an increase in sexual assaults, is destroying the futures of young girls and boys and sending this country to hell in a handjob? So instead you’ve suggested extreme, swingeing censorship, the like of which we’ve only seen before in repellent dictatorships like Iran or China: it’s for my own good, you say. Men can’t control themselves. That made me wonder if you’d listened to yourself during the slut shaming.

You say I can have sex with whomever I wish. But I am not permitted willingly to have sex with people in return for money. God forbid I should film this sort of business and sell these movies on, independently, to interested third parties. In fact, it’s best that such behaviour is utterly, utterly forbidden under any circumstances because, again, some men are slime and can’t control themselves. In absolutely no way whatsoever would this ban lead to anyone being maltreated or exploited, you tell me. No, you say, it’ll prevent that from happening in the first place – but I know you are ignoring the evidence to the contrary.

So, feminism, you’ve done a lot for me, but we are going to go our separate ways for a bit. I know it’s going to be sad for a while, but you have some growing up and some thinking to do. You need to focus on what’s important. You need to stop ignoring the revolting treatment of women in countries like Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. You need to understand that what makes women free is allowing us to have sex with whom we want, when we want – to dress how we want and have children when we want. That’s not a menu. You can’t pick and choose from it. We need all of it. You may not like some of it, but tough.

See you soon.

Dignity and breastfeeding

I was too annoyed with the pulling of government funding, and my own volunteer training, to pay too much attention to National Breastfeeding Week. I was also in Norway (breastfeeding rates of 90% up to six months) at the time.

However, on my return I was greeted with a toxic article by Sarah Vine in the Times. The paywall dictates that I can’t link to it, cheers Rupert.

There’s always somebody who would like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that bottle feeding a baby with formula milk is OK and a perfectly valid lifestyle choice or whatever. Vine, however, claimed that mixing bottle with breast feeding gave her back her “dignity.”

Which got me thinking about dignity, and what truly is or is not dignified.

I know what she means: that she felt that she couldn’t conform to expectations of how a new mother should be. She was tired, sleep deprived and had a baby constantly attached to her breasts. There are solutions to these problems that do not come in a tin, which are available to anyone who cares to find them. (www.kellymom.com)

But I feel her problems were not simply practical. She said she wanted her dignity back.

Her use of this word is interesting. Schopenhauer defined it as the “opinion of others about our worth and the subjective definition of dignity is our fear from this opinion of others.” The latin root is “dignus”, meaning “worthy.” So breastfeeding made her concerned about what other people might think of her: specifically that she was worthless.

It seems odd that using the same body that grew a child to nourish it could be considered worthless. Indeed, it’s even odder to try and claw back that worth by feeding the child formula milk, which after all originates from the milk of a farm animal. Is a cow more worthy to feed a human baby than a human?

Mixing up a formula feed and giving that to a baby in a bottle is something which was sold to us as being modern and, indeed, dignified. It does not seem that way to me. A woman having to pay money for a tin of powder rather than using her own milk is quite the opposite. She has delegated the ability to feed her baby over to a manufacturer, whose interests lie in their profit margin rather than the welfare of a child.

Worth in this case is entirely fiscal: the cost of the tin or carton; the cost of the bottles and teats; sterilisers and the energy needed to boil water and refrigerate.

I see no dignity in the Bangladeshi woman whose baby suffers constant bouts of diarrhea because she was duped into using formula milk she can barely afford and which she must mix up with dirty water. I see no dignity in the woman who was given the brush off by her health visitor or doctor when she came with breastfeeding problems, and told to give “top ups” rather than decent help. I also see no dignity in the celebrity who decreed that breastfeeding was icky in a magazine after being given a crate of designer bottles (thus easily allowing her worth to be calculated).

Perhaps, therefore, breastfeeding is considered undignified because it does not come with a price tag. However, I know exactly what my milk is worth in cash. £20 a scoop.

*a word about mixed feeding. A lot of women do this. Some manage to do it for a long period. However, it usually leads to a dwindling supply and the end of breastfeeding. If that’s what’s intended, fine. But it stretches the definition of “breastfeeding” and, to me anyway, seems like an awful lot of work.

Le Manoir (for Mary W, Mrs H and Dave)

This post was written for Ms Mary W.

I recently bought a Trunki in the form of a Gruffalo. A Trunki is a small wheeled suitcase with handles and a long strap designed so that small children can use it as a seat, or be pulled along by a willing parent.

The Trunki is so roomy that I decided to pack it for our night away at LMQS. When we arrived I realised that this may have been a mistake because someone came to greet us in the car park and help us with our luggage. I honestly believe that he had never, ever taken a Gruffalo Trunki upstairs and placed it on a luggage stand before.

This gentleman was a good example of the staff at LMQS. He did not look down his nose at the Gruffalo Trunki. He would have been a heel to do so, the Gruffalo Trunki is adorable. I’ve stayed in nice hotels before and been on some cushy cruises, but I’ve often been left with the impression that the staff are being nice mainly to garnish tips. They would not have found the Gruffalo Trunki to be charming. Certainly some cruise lines present passengers with a sort of munged American notion of “posh”, high class service and seem to think that it involves a certain level of toadying. LMQS does not toad. It’s confident that it’s good enough at what it does not to require any toads.

Our Hydrangea room was beautiful, decorated with its namesake flowers, and greeted us with Madeira wine, a goody bag and pink champagne. Warned ahead of my nut allergy, the staff had reorganised our treats to include nut free fudge and fresh fruit.

We walked around the grounds and had a stab at playing croquet before our afternoon tea. Over 12 acres of land is being cultivated, not as tennis courts, a spa, car parks and swimming pools, but kitchen gardens and orchards. Nothing is anally manicured; it’s clear that these grounds work for a living. There’s clover, daisies and bald patches on the lawns and the topiary is not symmetrical. But the clover and daisies are speckled with many different species of bees and the hedges look tidily organic, not prissily trimmed.

Our afternoon tea was taken on the lawn with sandwiches, cake and cream scones. One of the cakes had nuts in and was swiftly replaced with an equivalent… and another scone to make up for the inconvenience. We were getting increasingly glad that we’d opted to have dinner at 8.30 for 9.

After tea we had a bath in a bath so enormous it was bigger than our bathroom, entertained by readings from a book of the Buddha’s teachings and pink champagne.

We then went down for dinner, and had a G&T on the lawn beforehand. We then moved to the lounge as it was getting a bit cold and had olives and popcorn. A couple opposite us scorned the popcorn, which was their loss as Nicholas took it after they’d gone in for dinner.

Dinner was simply lovely, an exercise in focused flavours, astoundingly good ingredients and simple presentation. LMQS is all about food and service, nothing else. I could tell that each individual item in each dish had been worked on and fine tuned for ages to ensure that it worked perfectly with its fellows. We had gazpacho in a shot glass with a tomato, basil and olive foccacia, crab ravioli with artichokes and a lemongrass bisque (veggie option for N), sea bass with salsify and wasabi buerre blanc, assiette of lamb with peas and broad beans, and a theme on strawberries: a layered dessert of frozen strawberry puree, strawberry jelly, strawberry ice cream, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries. I had Old Harbour beer to wash it down, followed by mint tea made with fresh mint from the garden.

We collapsed at about midnight.

The next morning we had breakfast in the conservatory: a dozen types of fresh fruit, cheeses, meats, pastries and cereals if desired. It seemed designed for the slightly hung over.

We checked out with our flowers, goody bag and the rest of our champagne. Although the hotel must have been nearly full, we saw only 5 or 6 other guests at the most at any one time. The service and layout has been designed so that you never feel that you’re staying in a busy, bustling hotel: rather that you’re at the relaxed country house of a fabulously wealthy uncle.

I smelt amazing after washing with the Marseilles soap in the shower but all that unfortunately dissipated in the swimming pool later on with baby J. That particular soap is now in my bathroom, fragrancing the whole house.

Adventures in Churnalism

Churnalism is defined as the art of rehashing a press release and disguising it as a news story. It serves as a relatively cheap (compared with conventional advertising) way of getting your product/brand/shop/whatever publicity and is usually mediated by a PR agency.

My own adventure led me to “selling” some breast milk, being interviewed on the radio and having my breasts, appearance and HIV status discussed on blogs, forums and online comment sections throughout the English speaking world.

It all began when I saw a job advert on Mumsnet. Normally I wouldn’t even look there but it was a particularly active thread: “Mum wanted to donate milk for ice cream” or some such. It was from an ice cream parlour who were last active nearly a year ago when they had a pop up shop in Selfridges. The tossy Flash-only website annoyed me so I replied, speculating that it wasn’t real but that I was game if it were. As requested I submitted a photo.

To my surprise I received an email from one of the owners assuring me that it wasn’t a hoax, and when could he meet me?

I met him in a Starbucks on Moorgate and was reassured that he wasn’t a pervert and indeed, after I discussed breast milk fetishes and Top Gear slash fiction, began to think that I sounded far, far more seedy than he. I agreed to have a blood test to rule out the few infections that are transmitted through breast milk (HIV, hepatitis, syphilis (active) and HTLV I and II), give some milk over and do a couple of press interviews. In return I would get some cash.

So I agreed, basically.

I handed the milk over on Monday, and did a photo shoot and a couple of interviews for the PR agency on Tuesday. At the end of the session, the PR waved a sheet of paper under my nose.

This was the press release. I only really had a chance to glance at it. A quote from me about “using my assets for a bit of extra cash” was included. I observed that I hadn’t said such a thing and wouldn’t but by that point I knew I wasn’t really going to be able to change anything. I shrugged, said that I wasn’t going to tell him how to do his job, finished my icecream and left.
The next day texts started to arrive from colleagues who were reading that morning’s Metro. I checked the online version. Not a word from my actual interview was there but the tacky made up quote was.

Throughout the day more stories popped up. My photo from the shoot started to appear, and that quote, with my name attached, started moving up the list in Google News.
Comments started to pop up, and this is where the churnalism really bites. I was revolting, I had AIDS and was going to infect everyone, people would like to drink from the source… my breasts and the milk they produce was appraised and discussed. Amongst the “yuk” comments and suggestions that semen should be used next, my mother in law valiantly defended my honour, getting the Huffington Post to revise the story to state, clearly, that I had been thoroughly screened.

I was scolded for not donating milk (as the mother of a toddler, I couldn’t start now anyway and could not donate milk due to being out of the country when she was young enough) and was told to keep my fluids to myself.

It was suggested that semen or urine were comparable fluids.

I was interviewed on the radio several times. I decided in advance to just have one point and make it over and over again: that we drink cow milk without a second thought. This I did. I admittedly did not listen to the callers afterwards, deciding that it would be nearly as bad as the online comments.

Zoe Williams, an avowed hater of breastfeeding, tried the icecream and declared it horrible. Hardly surprising.

So, overall, now that the fuss has died down, what do I make of it? The ice cream parlour itself has a burlesque ethos, in the traditional sense: that of slightly satirical, tongue in cheek humour with a sexy edge. I think in that context breast milk ice cream fits in perfectly.

The only thing I would change is that damn fake quote. To see that going twice round the world before breakfast and having no control over it is fascinating, and alarming if I let myself think that way. Perhaps one or two people will have heard me on the radio and will give breastfeeding a try.

Mumsnet: a long way since Gina Ford.

It was brought to my attention last night that internet parenting behemoth, Mumsnet, had put its weight behind Ed Vaisey’s recent suggestion that the UK’s ISPs should block all porn at source, so that anyone who wants to look at it will have to opt in.

The reason is ostensibly to protect children from seeing anything untoward. However, as well as being technically unworkable, this proposal is a major curtailment of our privacy, our rights as individuals and a Trojan horse to allow commercial interests to control what we do online.

However, the outcry from more technically savvy members led the site admins firstly to pull the campaign page proper, then all reference to it. This, however, only happened late last night after some vociferous objections. The admins claimed that they are “rethinking” the campaign wording.

The site has come a long way since they were sued in 2007 by unqualified “baby expert” Gina Ford when some posters criticised her peculiar and frequently somewhat cruel, unfounded “advice.”

The power of Mumsnet, just 4 years on, to alter things that are not to its liking was recently highlighted when EastEnders, in a typical New Year Grand Guignol storyline, followed a cot death with a King Solomon style baby abduction. Quite understandably some people found this plotline upsetting.

However, Mumsnet (as a gestalt entity) decided that the storyline was so very offensive that it should be changed. The gradual increase in calls for the plot to be firstly ditched completely, then curtailed, led the BBC to actually cut the plotline short: it was due to run for most of this year. Two of the actresses involved have since resigned citing the controversy as a factor.

Meanwhile, the BBC enjoyed high ratings as the press coverage promoted the show and, presumably, some bereaved mothers had the plotline shoved in their faces when they might otherwise have simply avoided it as too upsetting.

They have over 50,000 regular visitors and they are a vocal lot. One poster, “Riven”, had tea with David Cameron prior to the election. A few weeks ago, she was driven to a crisis because poor respite care for her severely disabled daughter. She posted that she felt she had to put her daughter into residential care. No less than 5 hours later, Riven was all over the place. All the major TV news channels and all the major daily newspapers featured her plight.

So it’s in this context that I found Mumsnet’s new pet issue alarming. It genuinely does wield some power.

At first glance the proposal seems reasonable. After all, we have age ratings for DVDs and a 9pm watershed on the TV, so how is an opt-in porn filter any different?

Well, firstly, and the reason Mumsnet’s “geek” posters (who offer assistance to members with technical problems whether site related or not) were up in arms and have since been on strike, is that the system is unworkable. How would such a filter distinguish between Page 3, an instructional photograph of breastfeeding, and hardcore porn? According to Justine, the filter

Wah! we are not for a minute suggesting that we would back something that censored breasts

The truth is that it cannot, and will most likely block the lot.

Under the proposal, ISPs would take responsibility for filtering content, so much of the enormous cost would be passed to customers. Smaller ISPs would probably go to the wall. It should in any event not be an ISP’s responsibility to stop customers looking at boobies, any more than it is a newsagent’s responsibility to ensure that children don’t accidentally look up at the top shelf magazines.

The point was made on Mumsnet that sites like, well, Mumsnet would be banned. A regular feature on the forums is “bumsex Fridays” where posters get tipsy and discuss, well, bumsex. Other threads have included “Never Google Dragon Butter” and “What’s Lemonparty?”

The discussions on Mumsnet which followed the geeks’ strike focused almost entirely on the technical problems and prompted the site’s admins to pull the campaign page (although the link and details still remain on the Campaigns front page).

However, few posters focused on the main issue: the moral one.

It is not and should not be the government’s responsibility to make sure that children do not see inappropriate material. It is the child’s parents or carers’. That some parents or carers do not have the wherewithal or the necessary level of concern so to do is not my problem, nor is it anyone else’s problem. If a mother is not technically capable enough to install web filters or just to move a computer out of a child’s room and into the living room, that is her problem alone.

Mumsnet is demanding that we all take on this burden.

To take the DVD and game age ratings as an example again, there are 18 rated films and games. That some parents happily buy Call of Duty Black Ops for their 11 year old is not my problem. The age rating is clearly marked. Either they don’t understand or they don’t care. Either way, I don’t feel that I should be affected. Perhaps they could be made to understand or encouraged to care: fine. Stretching the analogy, Mumsnet’s proposal would suggest that such games and films be sold only in officially mandated shops accessible only by adults who have previously applied for a special permit.

And what would happen then? Well, determined children would get their parents to buy the game anyway. Or they would get the unconcerned parent of their mate to buy it.

Similarly, determined children could very easily continue to look at Tubgirl. Their older brother would opt in: their dad would opt in.

In discussions, Justine Roberts, one of Mumsnet’s founders, was dismissive of any suggestion that the proposal would affect civil liberties:

I think there have been some really valid points about workability raised here but the “this is the thin end of the wedge on censorship” one doesn’t make sense to me. We already censor loads of things in the name of child protection on the internet and elsewhere. Of course there are valid concerns about where you draw the line but you can’t deny that we do draw the line already all over the place – we censor illegal images, we rate dvds, we have a tv watershed.

She also stated, rather patronisingly (and mistakenly, as the IWF only filter sites that others have flagged as suspect):

Right now there’s an organisation called the Internet Watch Foundation which sifts through everything on the net (not a jolly job) and slaps a label on a lot of very horrible illegal stuff which the ISPs then filter out.

It is to Mumsnet’s credit that they have taken the objections on board and have, for the moment, put the campaign on hold and instead focused on important things, like trying to ban the sale of bikinis to the under 9s.

What this proposal would in fact enable is full scale control over what everyone in the UK can and cannot access. There are big commercial interests involved: News International or Sony would love to prevent any infringements of their copyright by taking the UK’s ISPs in a stranglehold and demanding that they deliver up all offenders. By permitting a universal porn filter, the UK would be taking the first steps.

The UK, unlike China (where apparently 30,000 people are employed to police the internet), subscribes to the philosophy that its citizens are allowed to do whatever is not illegal: one of the tenets of the rule of law. This would start to change.

Even if our currently very pliant government dug its heels in and resisted Rupert, we would still have our rights curtailed.

Why stop at porn? We don’t want children to look at terrorist sites, do we? Let’s ban those too, using the same blunt tools so Wikipedia pages are also blocked. Sites like Harry’s Place often post links to Youtube videos of Islamist hate preachers: those would be blocked too.

Racist sites? Of course: but naturally sites like Searchlight would also be caught in the net, as well as (at a tangent) sites for tattoo enthusiasts (there are online catalogues of neo-Nazi tattoos to aid identification). Never mind. Wikileaks? Well, obviously Wikileaks would be blocked…

Finally and most importantly, my main objection is this. The Internet is the most fantastic invention of the 20th century. The very thought that, even 20 years ago, one would have to go to the library and look in an encyclopaedia to find something out is faintly absurd.

We have the library of Alexandria at our fingertips. Yes, the library has dark corners and odd people lurking behind neglected shelves. It has places that I do not want my children to see.

I do not want a turnstile installed to prevent my free and easy access. I am an adult and I am responsible for what my daughter sees. It is for me to stop her going into those corners.

I do not want the library to be refurbished as a bright and airy “information centre” where I can look at officially mandated things and would never stumble across anything I might possibly find troubling. I want to be able to go where I please and say what I please in the library, including being permitted to stand on a table and flash my bum at somebody.

A guide…

I was reading this article regarding how you can scupper your chances of success in a new project if you worry too much about making mistakes. It seems that if you approach a new task as a way of learning a skill rather than proving your ability, you are far more likely to succeed.

This made me think about why so many women don’t manage to breastfeed despite starting out with the best of intentions: they want to prove that they *can* do it rather than approach it as learning a new skill, accepting that along the way, mistakes may be made.

I quote the following:

The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when things get hard. We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety. Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does – it is the goal-killer.

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Few times are more anxious than the first few days at home with a new baby, especially a first baby. Everyone is breathing down your neck and it seems that at every opportunity, someone is waiting with a set of scales or a bottle of SMA, waiting for you to cock it up.

The truth is that few women pick it up straight away and most need some help, whether that be in latch and positioning or in chasing away badly trained Health Visitors and Midwives. You know when they suggest a formula top up?

They are NOT SUPPOSED to do that. Nor, to be fair, are they trained in breastfeeding. Report them and seek further advice from a breastfeeding professional.

In that vein, I was going to set down what will mainly be a bald list of the things and people that helped me learn the new skill of breastfeeding.

First of all, learning before the baby was born that I would be spending about 6 weeks doing pretty much nothing else but feed was a revelation. I prepared in advance, lining up DVDs to watch, trashy books to read, frozen meals and plenty of cake. The rest of the family also knew what to expect. Newborns feed frequently: every 2 hours is completely normal but can come as a surprise if you were expecting every 4. And that’s day and night I’m afraid unless you have birthed a magical sleepy pixie. Lucky you.

You should not arbitrarily limit time at the breast: 20 minutes a side, 10 minutes a side, empty one side before the other… all hogwash. Feed on one side until the baby comes off itself, offer the other and so on. Breasts do not need to “refill” as milk is made on demand.

Knowing the red flag problems was extremely useful too. A newborn should be peeing and pooing frequently throughout the day. If they are not, seek help.

Agonisingly painful nipples are NOT normal and don’t put up with it. Whilst (this is my personal view) they might need some running in, like a new pair of shoes, you should not need to bite down on your finger at every feed. Problems like thrush or mastitis need urgent medical attention.

Get comfy before starting a feed. Ensure remote controls and cake are at arm’s reach, make sure you have had a wee, etc.

If you do have problems make sure that you have phone numbers and contact names ready. Whoever you get to help you, make sure they watch a whole feed rather than just natter at you and give you a leaflet.

Relatives may offer advice. Some is probably helpful, some is going to be poppycock. It is important that you accept the good and reject the bad as politely as possible.

Sod the obsession with pumping until you feel you’ve got feeding nailed. Granny may be chewing her arm off to give the baby a bottle, but she can be usefully deployed changing nappies or hoovering instead.

Talking of nappies, if you’re planning to use cloth nappies (and I do), be prepared to let them slide until you have the feeding sorted. Nothing is more important.

Dad needs to know all this stuff too: he is often going to be a slightly saner voice and is good at remembering stuff and shit, which you are not going to be quite so good at for a while.

If you’re worried about feeding in public, practice in front of a mirror first.

Some baby clothes make feeding quite difficult: dungarees and pinafores with lots of buttons and straps can get in the way when a baby is small.

Helplines are great but having a named person is even better.

Nestle New Year Boycott

I begin the new year with a resolution fully to boycott Nestle. I’ve eaten the last Quality Street and had my last bowl of Cheerios. The cats, fortunately, never really liked Go-Cat and I’ve never been one for drinking bottled water. However, giving up condensed milk, KitKats and After Eights was not done without a wrench. It’s hardly Rowntrees’ fault that they were bought out by Nestle a few years ago, but even the Fair Trade KitKat was not enough (it represents a tiny fraction of the cocoa bought by Nestle each year).

I am NOT doing it because I disagree with the sale of formula milk. A safe substitute for breast milk is a vital product.

Why am I doing it? It’s because although Nestle are not the only company to engage in unethical marketing of breast milk substitutes, they are the biggest and have committed the most egregious offences.

What I would like to see is formula milk being sold at a reasonable price (instead of the massive mark ups we currently see) with no outlandish claims for its benefits made either in the advertising or the packaging. I would like to see formula milk sold with clear instructions on how to make it, printed in visible lettering in the languages most commonly spoken and read in the country in which it is sold. I would like to see an end to free samples and “prescription pads” being handed out to healthcare professionals in developing countries where clean water, fuel and the money to buy formula is in short supply. I would like to see an end to coffee creamer being sold as a cheap alternative to proper formula milk.

I would like mothers in countries without access to safe water to be protected from aggressive marketing of formula milk. In Bangladesh, there are specialist hospitals dedicated to children with diarrhoea, caused almost exclusively by being fed formula milk made with unsafe water.

I would like Nestle to stop dumping “donations” of formula on disaster areas. Well meaning aid workers distribute this stuff, which is contrary to UNICEF’s guidelines on the matter. Trying to ensure infants get breast milk either from their mother, a lactating relative, encouraging relactation or a volunteer wet nurse is the first thing that should be tried. To start giving a baby formula milk in a country like Haiti can well be a death sentence, to say nothing of the recent floods in Pakistan which have polluted water supplies and spread disease.

It’s in developing countries that the headline offences take place but this is not to say that Nestle engages in unethical practices on my doorstep, although the methods are a little more subtle. For all that it may be claimed that the boycott has no teeth, Nestle does not sell formula milk in the UK and has no plans to re-launch it. What it does sell here, in a network of independent shops in areas with a mix of nationalities (like my own) are powdered milk products aimed at older children which are much cheaper than formula, are popular in some countries as a result, and are stocked with the formula milk. Whilst HCPs in the UK will no doubt “mop up” children fed this stuff, Nestle can and should make it clear on both the retail and wholesale packaging that it should not be displayed with formula milk products.

I would like to see “breastfeeding advice” removed from formula milk companies’ websites. Large companies are obliged to act in the interests of their shareholders. If a formula milk company truly offered correct and helpful information about breastfeeding, the shareholders would rightly be up in arms! They would be telling consumers how to avoid buying their product!

I would like formula packaging to simply include the brand name, type of formula (whey/casein based, dairy free, lactose free etc.) and instructions. No more cuddly bears or fluffy ducks, pseudo-scientific shields and logos slyly implying that this stuff will turn your baby into Einstein.

I would dearly love to never again see the sort of adverts Nestle run in countries which do not ban the advertising of infant formula: in the Philippines, there is a commercial featuring a little girl who grows up to be a piano playing prodigy, all thanks, apparently, to her formula milk.

And that is why. Even George Clooney cannot persuade me to purchase a Nespresso machine now.

Oh, and one more reason:

Nestle Nurses

What I think about when I think about breastfeeding

The second instalment in what is no doubt a sporadic and fitful reflective diary.

My opinion is this. Breast is not “best.” Breast is *normal*. Breast milk is made by a mother’s body for the benefit of a baby. It is why we are called mammals. The vast majority of UK women are physiologically and psychologically capable of breastfeeding, equally the vast majority of UK babies are able to do so. Artificial milks are fine, but they are not equivalents. They are an imperfect industrial product, which, when prepared correctly, babies usually do fine on. They are also aggressively marketed and promoted in various ways, both subtle and overt. But in the majority of cases, they are not *necessary* for the health and welfare of either mother or baby, any more than a baby wipe warmer might be.

What I have stated above is true. However you ended up feeding your baby is irrelevant to the facts.

If you chose to use artificial milk, I pass no judgment. Perhaps you made a conscious choice. Perhaps you are physically or psychologically incapable of doing so.

Perhaps you were influenced by celebrities or advertising, or perhaps you were not.

If you wanted to breastfeed and ended up using artificial milk, I conclude that you were failed: either by your body, your baby, your family, your midwife, doctor, health visitor or a combination of the above. I don’t want to make you feel bad about it.

The fact is, I chose to train as a breastfeeding supporter to try and help women like you, in whatever small way I can.

Many women who use artificial milk get upset and het up about terms like “artificial milk” and what they perceive as a hectoring tone. I must admit that I’ve never come across a breastfeeding enthusiast who was rude or cruel to a bottle feeding mother.

Perhaps the judgment and harshness exists in their heads – certainly there are some women I have come across who would accept no criticism of their feeding method at all, and would immediately use terms like “nazi” and “propaganda.” Or perhaps nasty breastfeeders do exist, but I keep on missing them.

The term “propaganda” is interesting. It suggests dishonest promotion, and with its overtones of totalitarianism, implies that pregnant women encounter glassy eyed midwives chanting slogans and handing out pamphlets with the message that formula milk is poison.

Fact is that there’s no propaganda, merely frequent mention that, if you could, if you possibly might want to, it might be nice to, you know, breastfeed? A bit? It’s not as bad as everyone says. And then that’s it. After the birth of a baby you are cast adrift in a patchy sea of vague advice, shrugs and the inevitable suggestion of a “top up”.

Top ups should not be the first remedy for breastfeeding problems, but they usually are, and lead to the slow, sad death of breastfeeding. We have so little faith in our own ability to feed our babies that we tend to reach for a commercial, industrial product for reassurance.

So, yes, I successfully breastfed my first and so far only child, for over a year. I am one of an almost negligible minority of UK women to do so: around 2%, depending on your criteria and whom you ask. I did not have an easy ride of it by any means. I had thrush, mastitis and nipples that looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to them, all within the first 2 months. I had weight gain scares and my daughter’s poo was the subject of much speculation for quite some time.

I was thinking about why I succeeded when so many women I know did not. I was the only one in my NCT class of 9 who managed it – sadly as a result I never really felt part of the group when they talked about bottles and teats and I was worried they thought I was judging them – we had nothing in common.

There are various reasons, I will try to list them.

* I have a family history of dairy allergies and was damaged myself by being given artificial milk at birth. I still suffer from various things including asthma and eczema.
* My mother breastfed my two younger brothers and I remember seeing her do this.
* This motivated me to find out why so many women set out to breastfeed but don’t manage it. Two things informed me the most: the Mumsnet breast and bottle feeding forum, and The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer.
* I observed that making up bottles of formula seems to be expensive, and a tremendous faff.
* I asked successful breastfeeders IRL for advice.
* Knowing what to expect helped me prepare for 6 weeks or so of doing nothing but feeding. I began to look forward to it.
* I had a doula when I had my baby, who breastfed her own children.
* I threw my weight around immediately after my c-section. I demanded to be given my baby to feed as soon as possible. I insisted that my drip be removed at the first opportunity. Rather than panic when she spent her first 2 nights in hospital wakeful and feeding, I took her for nocturnal adventures around the maternity wing. I know now that had I asked for help, I would have been offered formula. I know this because I found the formula storeroom one one of these expeditions.
* I reported the midwife who suggested topping up. And ignored her.
* I made contacts whilst pregnant and spoke to named individuals when I encountered problems.
* I co-slept.

A commonplace book on the internet.