Friday, 28 March 2014

Marriage, homosexuality and the matter of choice.

Equal marriage is back in the news as tomorrow (29th March) same sex couples will be able to marry in England and Wales. Predictably those who disagree with the law are raising their voices again in what is hopefully a last gasp feeble protest.
If we ignore their suggestions that equal marriages undermine the foundation of marriage and marriage is for the procreation of children - marriages are undermined by factors like infidelity, abuse or contempt not by the institution no longer being an exclusive club for heterosexual couples, and couples who wed after the woman was fertile, who are unable to conceive and those who decide to remain child-free are also presumably wrong - we're left with the matter of choice.
Firstly the choice to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. If that's a choice then I and millions of others chose to be straight. I don't remember making that choice...because I didn't. Therefore why the assumption that people make a decision not to be heterosexual? It's clearly nonsense.
So then the assertion follows that if people don't choose to be gay they at least choose to act on it and here's where bigotry really rears its ugly head. What these people are doing is trying to deny mutually consenting gay people the same basic right we straight people have. The freedom and right to form sexual relationships. Instead they believe people should ignore their feelings and live an abstinent lie. Such arrogance (for that's what it is) is unbelievable. What gives anyone the right to take away somebody else's choice just because they don't like it?
If you are getting married soon then I wish you every happiness. The only effect equal marriage will have on my marriage is that finally I won't be in that exclusive club, I'm glad the doors are finally open to all. Now we just need to start calling it "marriage" regardless of the sex of the couple tying the knot.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I am judging children's books by their covers

This is my six year old daughter, Maggie. She likes princesses, fairies and kittens. She also likes superheroes, aeroplanes and dragons. She has a Lalaloopsy mermaid and a Playmobil pirate ship, a Rapunzel dress and a Spiderman costume. She plays with soft toys and with her remote controlled car.

She also likes books, mostly when I read to her but she's beginning to read to herself too, she recently loved The Dinosaur's Packed Lunch by Jacqueline Wilson. Her favourites are The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Fox in Socks and Zog.
As she grows older I don't want her being told that certain books aren't for her. I want her to choose a book based on whether she thinks she will find it interesting or fun, not because she's been told it's meant for girls. More importantly I don't want her rejecting books because the front cover tells her it's for boys.
Let Toys Be Toys has recently been campaigning against gendered books for children and in the light of this The Independent and The Independent on Sunday announced they will no longer be reviewing gender-specific children's books. Whilst many people have applauded the campaign not everybody agrees, with the usual cries of censorship and accusations of not accepting that girls and boys have different tastes and shouldn't be forced into books that don't interest them just to prove a point and to create a homogenised society that doesn't recognise the natural differences between the sexes.
Surely though by telling children that a book isn't for them they have less choice? Yes more boys may choose books about tractors and pirates and more girls may be drawn to fairies and butterflies (at 5 or 6 my eldest daughter would have picked the fairies every time) and that's fine but not all of them will and they deserve the right to make their own choices. There can still be books called "The Big Book of Tractor Driving Pirates" or "Pretty Fairies Fly with the Butterflies" but neither also needs a "helpful" blue or pink cover and the words "boys" or "girls" emblazoned on the front. Just imagine if well-loved children's books were marketed like this; "The Gruffalo - A Monster Book for Boys" or "Tales of Peter Rabbit - Bunny Tales for Girls". Once a young child can read they will be led by what they're told and if they see a book labelled as not for them they won't read it for fear of being wrong, even before then colour will influence their choices. Do not underestimate how quickly children start to believe that certain toys or books are gender-specific, Maggie even came home from school saying a boy in her class said her umbrella is for boys. Her umbrella is a clear dome with a green tortoise on it. All this campaign is asking is that children are allowed to be guided by their tastes and interests and not by prescriptive - and restrictive - front covers.
You can sign the Let Books be Books petition here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

No bare-faced selfies here - Why I don't like Cancer Awareness Facebook games

In the last couple of days on Facebook I've noticed a few people (women) posting pictures of themselves without make-up, purportedly for "Cancer Awareness". Like most people my life has been affected by cancer, I've lost my mum, two grandparents, two aunts and an uncle to the disease. However, although I appreciate the goodwill behind the act I won't be joining in.
Firstly I'm not sure what it really achieves. Nobody woke up this morning, logged into Facebook to see an unmade up friend and thought, "Oh yes! I'd forgotten that cancer exists!" Yet that's all several of these photos are doing, mentioning the word "cancer". Not enough seem to have any point to them beyond that, with no links to fundraising or symptom guides. There is the argument that people like me (and I've noticed several of my friends) rant about these supposed awareness posts with specific links therefore raising true awareness and that's true but I'd still prefer to see less of the vague and more of the actual.
Secondly so often these posts or games are female-centric, particularly those that involve secrets, "Post your bra size" or "State where you keep your handbag" but "Don't tell the men." Why? Are men not affected by cancer too? Even if we're just talking breast cancer it's not a women only cancer, men get it as well. And of course plenty of men see their loved ones with the disease, it's not just us women who suffer that.
There is also something a bit unsettling about the notion that a cosmetic free face is somehow shameful, that it's brave for women to post bare-faced photos. I did see a suggestion on Facebook that women don't buy make-up for a month and donate the money saved to a cancer charity instead and that makes more sense to me (although personally I can go several months without visiting the cosmetics counter!) Likewise being sponsored to go make-up free for a certain amount of time is more proactive.
I don't want to be critical of the people who do take part in these viral games, I do believe they join in with the best intentions. I'm just not convinced it's the best use of their time, "for Cancer Awareness" is just too vague.

Know your body, recognise the signs and symptoms of cancer and visit your GP early.

Donate to Macmillan Cancer Support

Update 20th March 2014
Since I posted this blog something wonderful has happened and over one million pounds has been donated to cancer charities. So I've been forced to reconsider my stance on what these Facebook games achieve and I'm happy to concede that in this case I got it partly wrong. I stand by my opinion that just posting a photo isn't really enough and I saw several instances where that is all people appeared to do. Perhaps they did donate but I'm still of the opinion that if you're going to post something regarding "cancer awareness" you need to make it more proactive or it just looks to be empty words.
I wrote my post early in the day when it just appeared to be yet another game, it turned out I was wrong, it became much more and if I caused any upset I apologise. I hope this will mark a permanent change and people will realise the vague statuses about bra sizes or handbags really aren't enough.

In memory of my mum, Mollie Adlem 1952-1994

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

But what if one life is saved...?

Last Wednesday I wrote about The Sun's Check 'Em Tuesday campaign, No More Page 3 retweeted the link and posted it on their Facebook wall. The response was phenomenonal, to date it's had over 14,100 views and I've been touched by the many kind words I've received, clearly this is an issue that has affected many people.
Naturally I've been reading other people's responses too, both for and against the campaign. One thing that has struck me is the view that it's somehow churlish of those of us who have been angered or upset to complain because if one life is saved it will have been worth it. I don't believe for one moment that anybody will be hoping that no lives are saved nor do I believe that they won't be as pleased as the next person should there be an early diagnosis. However, I don't think that this means The Sun should be free from criticism, that we shouldn't question their motives and discuss whether they could achieve more success by handling the issue differently. To use a clumsy analogy, when the Titanic sank the response wasn't "well at least some people were saved." Lessons were learned resulting in a complete overhaul of maritime safety laws around the world.
I am not against The Sun joining forces with Coppafeel to run a breast cancer campaign aimed at young women and I'm not naive enough to believe that newspapers align themselves with charities for purely philanthropic reasons. I realise they do it to sell more copies. Nevertheless I still think there is an important distinction between hoping increased goodwill leads to more sales and using a campaign to justify an increasingly criticised feature within the paper. The former can be overlooked as nobody is harmed, the latter has led to people affected by cancer, either directly or through loved ones to be hurt and outraged. And this isn't an empty manufactured outrage. When I first saw the front page of The Sun last week I was momentarily stunned. Losing my mother has shaped my life, the day she died is burned into my memory. The woman who I was closest to in the world, who could laugh until she shook, who despite being only 5 feet and half an inch could make men who towered over her meekly apologise when she was angry, didn't recognise us any more. Dosed up on morphine in a hospital bed we didn't get to share any meaningful last words, we sat and we watched until her breathing slowed and then stopped. One of my brothers killed himself in 2012, his depression quite possibly originally triggered due to her death when he was only nineteen. The Sun has cruelly and blatantly trampled on people like me and the many women and men who have ever been diagnosed with breast cancer and for that I am furious. Regardless of whether a life is saved The Sun still deserves to be criticised for what is an unforgivable decision. They could have made it The Sun v. Breast Cancer, foregone any Page Three involvement and featured ordinary women. After all they managed it later in the week with their feature on men's cancer for the far less publicised Going Commando campaign.

A telling comparison of the images used by The Sun last week.

Lives may be saved but what if more lives could have been saved had they done it differently? Page Three after all exists for men, will that many women really respond to a sexualised image of a perfect body or would they be better reached by less salacious means? Will this campaign really lead to a permanent change in the habits of young women or will this see a short-lived increase in self-examinations that will be forgotten once The Sun moves on to another headline grabbing stunt?
I grew up in a council house, my dad worked in a factory and read The Sun. Twenty years ago I was one of the women allegedly targeted by this campaign. Twenty years ago I was on the verge of losing my mum to breast cancer. Any life saved by Check 'Em Tuesday is a success but let's not pretend this is anything other than cynical exploitation. Does the end justify the means? Perhaps...but that doesn't mean we shouldn't shout loudly when the means could have been done differently and better.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Breast cancer awareness should be much more than tits out for the lads.

In 1992 when I was 20 my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her own mother died in 1986 and her mother was also killed by it. For two years I watched her fight, after she had a double mastectomy we soon learned that her cancer was terminal and treatment would be palliative only but she was determined to live as long as she could and as well as she could. We went through some dark times, when she was hunched over the toilet bowl after another round of chemotherapy, when she reacted badly to the antiemetic drugs, when she cried at the thought of leaving us. It wasn't all awful though, she had a wicked sense of humour and we laughed a lot during those two years, people who knew her will remember somebody who was a positive force and an inspiration and comfort to other cancer sufferers.
She died in 1994 aged just 42 years. I am now 41 and so have lived most of my adult life without a mother. With my family history I've always been aware of my own risk and last year had my first mammogram which was thankfully clear but I've been told I should have them yearly.
So breast cancer awareness is something that is very close to my heart and I would love to be able to applaud The Sun for their latest campaign but when I saw the front page of their paper yesterday I was upset and angry. How dare they use the disease that killed my mum to justify Page 3? How could they be so insensitive as to show a model cheekily posing in just her knickers as the face of breast cancer awareness when there are women who have undergone mastectomies? How dare they patronise and demean the young women of this country by suggesting this is the best way to raise awareness of the disease in the under thirties? I do think that people need to be reminded that breast cancer isn't just a disease of older women, it affects young women and men too but how is a Page 3 model the best choice for that? Why not feature a young woman with breast cancer on their front page? Why not feature a man? Male breast cancer is rarely discussed.
Some people have said that if the campaign saves one life it will be worth it and despite my own opposition to their tawdry and cynical attempt to make Page 3 respectable I hope that they do succeed. However, let's not pretend this is anything but self-serving. An early diagnosis to The Sun will mean an opportunity for a gloating headline, nothing more than that. If they want to change the minds of those of us who feel this is exploitative publicity grabbing for all the wrong reasons then they need to stop linking the disease to sexuality. They need to show us front page pictures of the women who have been affected by cancer. People like my friend Tigs Barnes who had had a double mastectomy eight years ago. Several attempts at implant reconstruction failed and in 2008 she had a  successful bilateral diep reconstruction -  the gold-standard method - which uses skin, blood vessels and fat from the patient's abdomen.  After I took to Facebook to rant about The Sun yesterday Tigs bravely made the decision to post photos of herself showing her scars.

 This is what women who have fought breast cancer look like. They may not be the media's idea of perfection but they are beautiful and strong. Most importantly they are still here, so when I discuss breast cancer and the importance of checking your breasts to my daughters I won't be showing them a tacky picture from The Sun, I'll be showing them Tigs and telling them that breast cancer doesn't need to be a killer. Not always as I know only too well but early diagnosis can be the difference. Isn't that a better message for young women?

I have published Tigs' pictures here with her full knowledge and consent.

 Jessica Dean of Brighton has set up a petition at suggesting that if The Sun really wants to prove it cares about raising awareness of breast cancer and not publicity for Page Three then it should feature this image on its front page.