Reasons to hate Topshop

I do not have real, human enemies. There are, however, institutions which I hate as deeply as though they had crapped in my shoe. In fact, what they do is a lot worse than crapping in any shoes.

Take, for example, Topshop. There are so, so many reasons to hate Topshop.

Firstly, I have an almost Pavlovian reflex to quickly utter the phrase “pay-your-tax” following the word Topshop. A quick history lesson for the uninitiated: Topshop is owned by a company called the Arcadia  Group. The Arcadia Group’s business is run entirely by one Sir Philip Green, who is also, coincidentally, a government advisor on which public services to cut. Despite Green’s active role in the company, Arcadia is registered in the name of Green’s wife, who happens to be a resident of Monaco. In Monaco, one does not have to pay tax on personal tax. By exploiting this loophole, Arcadia have avoided paying approximately £285 million of tax. In December, Topshop was targeted by activist group UK Uncut, who exist mostly to point out how thoroughly unnecessary any cuts to public services are, when one could just ensure that the super-rich paid all of the tax they are supposed to pay.

That Topshop do not pay their fair share–no more than anyone else, just the amount they are supposed to pay–is thoroughly unfair when vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by government policy. To put this into perspective, from £1.2 billion pounds, no tax was paid. The £285 million tax bill avoided would hardly make a difference to the Greens, and push the full dividend to slightly less than a billion pounds in one year. Despite this, they decided to grow richer. £285 million on its own is more than one could reasonably spend in a lifetime, yet it is equivalent to a year’s pay for 20, 000 NHS nurses. This money could mean the world to many.

In order to further maximise their profits and procure Philip Green yet another yacht, Topshop and the Arcadia Group use sweatshops for labour. This report suggests that workers who manufacture clothes sold by Arcadia are paid about 40p per hour. For comparison, the unpaid tax bill alone is worth more than £32, 500 per hour. This horrifying exploitation of people–human beings–in the name of allowing the already-rich to grow even richer is unjustifiably wrong.

Then there is this image, which until yesterday was featured prominently on Topshop’s website:

The model is so slim, it seems as though it has been photoshopped, like the classic botched airbrushing in which a Ralph Lauren model ended up with hips smaller than her head. I do not know whether the image has been doctored or if it is a photographic trick, or if, indeed, the model really is that thin. I am disinclined to believe the latter, as in all of the other photographs, the model does not look that unrealistically thin.

The article which managed to catch the screengrab before Topshop took it down calls for discussion over whether such images are a risk for eating disorder, but such a discussion is not necessary: science has cleared up the matter [article sadly paywalled]. A large number of studies have been conducted to understand whether exposure to “thin-ideal” pictures in the media is linked to eating disorders. Some have found that it is, while others found that it is not. In order to work out what the “true” effect is, the authors in the study above took all of the available data and put it together in the same spreadsheet. This is called a meta-analysis, and basically means turning a lot of small studies into one huge study. The authors found that exposure to images in the media like the image Topshop thought appropriate to use was linked to body dissatisfaction, internalising the thin-ideal, and effects on eating behaviours and beliefs about food. In other words, these images are dangerous. While they may not be sufficient to trigger an eating disorder on their own, they are certainly a contributing factor. For Topshop to run such a picture is therefore highly irresponsible.

Not only could this picture possibly facilitate eating disorders, it also represents some fairly tired gender stereotypes, selling women the ability to look “ladylike”. “Ladylike” is one of those unpleasant words used to regulate women’s behaviour. Being ladylike is submission, being ladylike is to accept the role prescribed for you, and, apparently, being ladylike requires buying Topshop’s products. Make sure you stay polished, ladies! That the words were run next to that picture speaks volumes: to be ladylike is to be feeble, frail, fragile. It is not enough to capitulate to docile femininity. You have to buy your own oppression. It is, frankly, fraudulent.

But perhaps you don’t care about how Topshop is a case study in the interplay between the foul side of capitalism and murky misogyny, with just a splash of dangerous body policing. Maybe you don’t care because this sort of thing doesn’t bother you much. Perhaps you don’t care because it is not like Topshop is the only company doing this. Let’s face it, they’re all at it. We just have the numbers and brazen evidence for Topshop. Even if you don’t care, there is still reason enough to hate Topshop.

Their products are really awful quality and terrible value for money. They are not built to last. They are horribly overpriced for what you get. I should know. Before I declared Topshop my nemesis, I bought clothes from there. It was always dimly disappointing.

I cannot go in there any more. I have participated in UK Uncut actions in Topshop, I have tweeted vitriol about them with my name and my face, and the last time I tried to enter a Topshop I was told politely by security to leave. By Topshop security’s standards, I understand that this was fairly lenient treatment.

I do not feel a sense of loss. I do not feel like I am missing out on their sub-par clothing, or their Stone Age attitude towards women or the opportunity to donate to Philip Green’s yacht fund.

If anything, I am relieved. I do not have to waste my energy on a boycott.

No, Diane. Abortions are not tragedies.

I went to the pro-choice rally on Saturday, and so did Labour MP Diane Abbott. We went for broadly similar reasons: we are both pro-choice, and we are both concerned about the vague, almost imperceptible chipping away of abortion rights. Abbott’s article rumbles along quite nicely right until two paragraphs from the end, where suddenly, as if from nowhere, a heron flies right into your face. It really is that jarring.

I believe every abortion is a tragedy. And I think that the number of teenage girls seeking abortion gives rise to concern. But the answer to teenage pregnancy is: better sexual health education and addressing these young women’s low sense of self-esteem.

A tragedy?

Here, Abbott has bought wholesale into the rhetoric of the anti-choice crowd: abortions are horrible, psychologically traumatic things. They are tragedies. Like Hamlet. Bodies, bodies everywhere. It begins strewn with lilies and ends strewn with bodies.

Abbott is right when she says that it is good to provide better sex education to young people to prevent pregnancy. But what is inherently concerning about more young women seeking abortions if they do happen to get pregnant?

Surely, it is better that every child is a wanted child, and every mother a willing mother? Surely, then, it is better that more young women are seeking abortions rather than enduring pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood?

The only reason it is concerning is when it is framed in an anti-choice picture: that abortions are tragic. Yet there is nothing that is inherently tragic about abortion. As Caitlin Moran, and numerous other feminists have pointed out, one can be relieved by an abortion. Not all abortions are tragedies.

If I were to find myself pregnant at this stage in my life, I would have an abortion. My only qualm about having an abortion is that I don’t really fancy having an operation. It is not that I believe that I am killing a baby, or that I will put myself at risk of psychological trauma.

I should not even have to justify this choice. Nobody ever should. It is a right: the right to choose to govern one’s own body.

For some women, there is no doubt that an abortion is a tragedy. This is not the same as saying that all abortions are tragedies, for they are not.

An ostensibly pro-choice person buying into the classic anti-choice line? Now that’s a tragedy.

A weekend in activism

This weekend, I have been busily chipping away at the state.

On Friday, I went to a demo outside News International’s HQ to point out that we hadn’t won just yet and all of the rot needs to be cut out and purged with fire. Metaphorically speaking. I had a thoroughly enjoyable shout into a megaphone, and according to photographs have started advertising biscuits.

On Saturday, I went to a pro-choice demo. The atmosphere was lovely–women and men alike came out in support of abortion rights, pledging resistance to the imminent attacks on such basic human rights. I suspect in the next year, we will be seeing more of these as the government start to move against bodily autonomy.

Finally, on Sunday, to mourn the passing of the filthy, vile, racist, misogynistic News of the World, I went to a funeral. I am very proud of this. It was a truly collaborative effort every step of the way.

Anyway, enough about me. How did you smash the patriarchy or state this week?

Small victories: battling the Hydra

Heracles had the misfortune of being born the bastard son of a god with a terrible marriage. The scorned wife, Hera, hated the boy, and hated the man he became, and strived to make his life a special kind of suffering. Life was a losing battle for Heracles, plagued by a series of unbeatable foes.

He found himself, one day, striving to kill the unkillable. The Hydra. Many-headed, it dwelt in a foul swamp and bled poison. Heracles went for the obvious solution: he took a sickle and chopped one head off the beast. Its head landed with a satisfying thump. This will be easy, Heracles thought. One of my twelve labours over before tea-time. He kicked the head aside.

When he looked up again, he realised the magnitude of his task. Two heads had grown back where moments before there had been nothing but a bleeding, fizzing stump.

Fuck, thought Heracles.

Heracles was nothing if not persistent, though. He happened, with a little help from his nephew and wise Athene, upon a solution: kill it with fire.

Each head was hacked off, and the neck cauterised with flame.

The unkillable was slain. Heracles prevailed.

Today, we have beheaded the Hydra: the News of the World, the vile, filthy rag, has closed down. It was, as I had hoped only hours ago, slain by its own rhetoric.

It is only one head of the beast, though, and this head will grow back twofold. As the News of the World dies, another member of Murdoch’s empire will ascend. Murdoch now owns less of the UK media than before, so it becomes more likely that he will be able to finalise his purchase of BSkyB, filling our televisions with yet more of his tawdry, spiteful pap. Another Murdoch Sunday paper will spring up: the Sunday Sun, perhaps, or the Sun on Sunday, or even, given the tabloid’s love for terrible puns, simply the SUNday. It will rise up unless we cauterise the stump.

Even then, it is still a many-headed beast. There is the rest of Murdoch’s empire to take on. And beside those heads, there is that of the Daily Mail, hissing poison and hate. Next to the tabloids sit the broadsheets, chattering vitriol, appearing composed.

And it is more than just the media, this beast. What of the police, with whom money exchanged hands in the News of the World scandal? What of the government, who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the gutter press?

Most importantly, what of the system, of which these scandals are merely symptoms? Rags like the News of the World would never exist in a world without grasping, greedy capitalism, or misogyny, or racism, or rampant, intrusive voyeurism. These heads need chopping off and purging with fire.

Today we have witnessed something a tiny victory. It may not even be a victory without more of a fight.

Like Heracles, we must keep burning and hacking. He persisted. He had a happy ending. If we keep fighting, so might we.

Girls, pitchforks and media feeding frenzies

I write this piece with a tickle of glee on the inside as I watch the News of the World eat itself and the rest of the media circle to peck over its corpse.

It was not a sudden realisation by the British public that they had been fed crap–vapid crap, dangerous crap, misogynistic crap, downright boring crap–by the News of the World that sparked the fury. It all started with a teenage girl.

I am going to assume that you have read the paper at least once this week, and are aware that the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemail, interfering with a police investigation and giving false hope to her worried family. Even by tabloid standards, this was pretty low, and later revelations in the ensuing feeding frenzy showed it was even worse. It is hardly surprising, though.

It took a tragically murdered young woman to make this story interesting. It took a tragically murdered young woman to make this story front page news. It took a tragically murdered young woman to make people care.

This is not surprising in the slightest, either. We have been trained by our media to react when something bad happens to a young woman. Take, for example, newspaper reporting on drug deaths. Such reporting is horribly distorted, with deaths from “media fad” substances grossly overreported, while those from commonplace, “unsexy” substances go unreported. In particular, drug deaths of teenage girls, are hugely, disproportionately reported [article sadly paywalled]. This distortion has an effect on public opinion.

Young women are “ideal victims”. Due to benevolent sexism, when something bad happens to a young woman, it becomes much more shocking and the ensuing moral outrage will be stronger. The media know this, and use this to push their agendas. They may use it as an excuse to name and shame paedophiles, or to campaign against a drug. A bogeyman becomes infinitely worse when he has harmed a young woman.

Trained by this, it took an old story about a murdered young woman to provoke anger at a tabloid which has behaved exactly as it always has.

I feel a frission of schadenfreude as I watch the News of the World strung up by its own rhetoric. It had spent so long trying to shape our opinions by using young women, that it seems fitting that its own undoing was caused by their involvement in a tragic story.

Do I feel uncomfortable that we are playing the tabloids at their own game, sharpening our pitchforks as we, perhaps, capitalise on a tragedy? Of course.

I do, however, want to see the vile, misogynistic, hate-fuelled rag burn.  I am glad it is by the tools that they sold to us.

How To Be A Woman: in which I review a book that I read

I have just read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, a semi-autobiographical book which has been hailed as The Next Big Thing in feminism, and has received rave reviews from noted feminists such as Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson. On the back, it says that Moran “rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller”. Overall, it seems exactly like something an angry feminist such as myself should despise with all of the burning fires of hell.

The short review is that I didn’t hate it. I only hated some of it, actually quite liked some parts, and the rest only left me with a bitter tinge of disappointment.

The writing style veered from engagingly, chattily conversational to annoyingly CAPSLOCKY and RIDDLED! WITH! EXCLAMATION MARKS! It is easy to tear through, in the manner of a sunlounger bonkbusting tome, and I found myself rather liking Moran: she has a good sense of humour and an honesty about her own flaws.

Moran is absolutely spot-on about some issues, and I found myself nodding in agreement in sections on pornography and lapdancing, where Moran argues that while there is nothing inherently wrong with fucking on film or stripping, but it is a problem with the industry. I also very much liked her discussion of what to call one’s cunt (Moran favours “cunt”, but was reticent to teach it to her daughters as it is still a taboo word), and her very frank account of her abortion and her suggestion that this is something we should talk about honestly and openly, and it is all right to feel good about having had an abortion. Moran also puts across good points about society’s expectation about how women should want babies, and this is not right, and not reproducing is perfectly all right, too.

This last good point, though, is sullied by a massive clanger. Talking about childbirth, Moran says:

In short, a dose of pain that intense turns you from a girl into a woman. There are other ways of achieving the same effect–as outlined in Chapter 15 [the chapter on abortion]–but minute for minute, it’s one of the most effective ways of changing your life.

Right there, Moran has declared that use of one’s reproductive organs is the only way to truly become a woman. This line of reasoning is a minefield: it automatically writes off the experiences of infertile cis women, of trans women, of cis women who have been fortunate enough with contraception never to find themselves pregnant. It jars with the rest of the book, the “anything goes” approach, yet it says it there as clear as day. Reproduction is the only path to womanhood. Before that you’re a girl.

When I read that paragraph, I considered rethinking my embargo on burning literature and setting fire to that book there and then. I decided to plough on. Perhaps Moran did not mean what I thought she had meant. Indeed, this is never mentioned again. I still cannot think of another way to interpret that sentence, though.

No other individual part of the book is quite so starkly, shockingly problematic: much of the rest of my issues with it lie in the tone. It smacks of privilege: an amusing point-and-laugh at the working classes here, a throwaway usage of ableist language (“retard”, “thalidomide pasties”) and fat-hating (Moran draws the distinction between “fat” and “human-shaped”) there, and a sort of vaguely patronising view of gay men as nothing more than arbiters of excellent taste in music bars. I prickled in rage each time I saw these.

This privilege also fans out into what is part of the central thesis of the book: that perhaps everything would be improved if we treated humankind as “The Guys” and sexism as “just bad manners”. For a woman in Moran’s position, perhaps this is possible. For many, it is not, and sexism is not dead, and is unlikely to be killed without confronting it head on. I take umbrage to her phrasing viewing everyone as “the Guys”, too, particularly as it jarringly occurs pages after I had been smiling in agreement at Moran’s acknowledgement that men are viewed as “normal” with women as the other. This hypocrisy goes unmentioned, perhaps unnoticed by the author.

The thing is, for much of the book, I was not angry. I was just disappointed. Firstly, Moran seems to have a confused relationship with feminism and feminists. She identifies as such, and, indeed, encourages her readers to identify as feminist as it is not a dirty word. This is laudable. Unfortunately, Moran seems to have a rather dated view of feminist writing, falling back frequently on Germaine Greer as though this is the only feminist she has ever read, and beginning statements with “feminists think”, then falling back on to a straw feminist trope. While Moran wishes fervently for more women to identify as “strident feminists”, the book itself is not particularly stridently feminist.

Most of the issues discussed in the book were very trivial concerns. An inordinate amount of space was dedicated to clothes and shoes and bras and knickers. Rape is given a cursory mention in one sentence somewhere. At no point in the discussion of whether marriage is necessary was it acknowledged that perhaps romantic relationships or traditional monogamous relationships may not be necessary either. The truth is, it all feels a little superficial: talk about handbags is favoured over broader feminist issues. For many women, after all, there are a lot of things more worrying than pubes or ill-fitting knickers.

Take, for example, a point where Moran recounts the story of having met Jordan and being struck by how obsessed Jordan was with selling things and selling herself as a brand. At this juncture, it seems like a fairly obvious place to segue into discussion of the relationship between capitalism and feminism. Instead, Moran just tells the story, then contrasts it with meeting someone whom she considers to be a genuine feminist icon: Lady GaGa.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps Moran knew she could have done this. Much of the book seems to be driving at good points which are never made. Perhaps the editor of the book cut all of the good bits out? Certainly, the editing of the book was poor; I noted numerous typos and the editor was very lenient about allowing all of the CAPITALS and ENHUSIASTIC! PUNCTUATION! to stay in. As I said earlier, I rather like Moran, and I wanted this book to be better than it was.

In the conclusion to the book, though, it becomes abundantly clear that Moran’s feminism–at least, as presented– is shallow, bourgeois feminism, concerned with consumerism: just don’t buy the things you think might be oppressive, is her message. I was thoroughly disappointed by this message. I had hoped for much better, much more. I had hoped for depth.

If this book is our generation’s The Female Eunuch, as it says on the back cover, we are well and truly fucked. The good news, is, I do not think we are. This book is not harmful, it is simply trivial, inconsequential fluff. It is something to read on holiday, and then forget about once the tan has all peeled off. Had the book ended with a list of other (better) feminist books and resources to check out, I would probably see it as a decent, readable, primer to feminism for those who had never thought about the issue before and may be inclined to learn more. It may have also been improved vastly by shaving out the patronising bits and replacing them with something vastly more substantial.

As it stands, though, it is just fluff. This book will not change the world, for better or worse. For that, I am thoroughly disappointed.

Happy birthday, NHS

Without the NHS, I would probably be dead of broken, murderous brain. Today, I wish the NHS a happy 63rd year, and think with pride and gratitude about all of the lives it has saved, all of the people it has mended and all of the highly-trained professionals it has taught to save lives and mend people. It is a beautiful, special thing, the one thing that makes this country great.

To quote Aneurin Bevan, a great person from the days when politicians cared about the people:

The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith left to fight for it.

I think it is apparent that there are. I certainly am.

Our precious NHS is under attack from the Tories. Nye saw this coming over sixty years ago:

That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.

As a present to the NHS, talk about it to everyone. Express your pride and vow to protect it. It needs our help.