Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Dear 15 Year Old Me

I’ve never met someone who looks back at their teenage years with fondness, nor have I ever met anyone who spent their teenage years thinking they were gorgeous and hilarious and utterly brilliant. I’m pretty sure being 15 is shit for everyone, at least to some extent.  But there are a few things that I wish I had known when I was 15, things I wish someone had told me, or things I had been told but that I didn’t listen to. I’ll start with the obvious ones – don’t cut your fringe yourself, it will never work out well for you no matter how many times you try and you’ll look like an idiot. You’ll be 21 before you figure out how to do make up properly, and even then sometimes you’ll end up taking it all off and starting over. 

Time spent doing something you love, something that makes you happy, is not wasted time. Sometimes, you just need to take a day or five where you do nothing but watch an entire TV series, or re-read books, or draw. And that’s ok. Self-care is hugely important, and it’s what gets you through a lot of crap. You need to put yourself first sometimes. 

Food isn't the enemy, and losing weight won't make anything any better. Not eating won't make you happier or more attractive or better at making friends or more confident. It will make you painfully aware of your body and everything you eat; it will make you constantly uncomfortable and sad; it will give you anxiety and will make you into a shell of a person. It will change the way you think about food to the extent that 6 years from now, you still feel held back by your fear of food and your body. Any feelings of accomplishment are overshadowed completely by the hell it will put you through. 

Don't love yourself because a boy tells you that you should. Because that boy will leave and you won't know how or why to love yourself anymore. You will spend an entire summer in your room trying to figure out who you are as an individual, not as part of a couple. And even though you’ll come so far, you’ll still have no clue what you’re doing with your life. 

Don't put up with shitty things people do to you because they say they love you. Don't stay with someone who treats your mental health as something that you should work on for their sake rather than your own. Don't have sex when you don't want to, even if he makes you feel like you cannot say no. Don't settle for someone who makes you feel like half a person because you're afraid nobody else would love you. They will. Even if, as I write this, that hasn't exactly happened yet. And if they don't, you always have cats and your friends. 

Do more art. Even if you don't think it's very good or if it genuinely isn't very good, keep doing it. Draw everything and don't let an art teacher tell you that you're doing it wrong. Art can't be done wrong. She's just an idiot. Fill notebooks with sketches and doodles and mini masterpieces, even if the person beside you can draw better than you. Remember that art is never finished, you can always go back and change something later, even if it's been years. Paint your emotions without feeling like you should only paint when you're happy. Art is incredibly cathartic when you're sad. 

Say no. Say no to friends, family, boyfriends, teachers, everyone when you genuinely can't or don't want to do what they're asking. You can't do everything, and you can't run on the three hours of sleep it would take to be able to do everything. Saying no doesn't make you a bitch and anyone who says so isn't worth your time. 

Nothing is sexier than confidence. You're a bamf and a babe, or at least you will be after your ugly duckling phase is over. You may not look the same as the generic media version of what beautiful or sexy is, but that doesn't matter. Don't buy into the 'everyone is beautiful' crap either - what you look like doesn't matter, at least not as much as you'll be told. Don’t be sexy for anyone else but you – you’re entitled to look like you have no more fucks to give when you want to, and then next day be all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Don’t apologise for being outspoken and passionate, particularly about issues surrounding equality. You'll be called every name under the sun, you'll be made feel unsafe at times, and people will treat you differently - some will treat you with more respect, others will say and do things that will cut you to your very core. The former are the people who will be your friends for years, the latter are the ones who you should cut out of your life that very second. 

I don’t know for sure that if I had all this advice at 15 I would have listened to it, or how different the last 6 years of my life would have been if I had taken it all in. A lot of these lessons are still being learned – I’m still going to make mistakes, but I’m slightly more comfortable with that than I was a few months ago. 

- B xx

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

On the Rising Trend of Elective Cosmetic Labiaplasties

First post in a loooong time - who knew a MA would keep me so busy! This piece is for one of my MA classes and on the rising trend of labiaplasties as a gender equality issue.

Vulvae and labia are possibly one of the only parts of a cis-gendered woman’s body that we see more frequently in media than in real life. Yet they are body parts which receive an incredible amount of scrutiny and are the cause of a great deal of distress for many young people who worry that their labia aren’t ‘normal’. This paper will examine the rising trend of labiaplasties and look at why this is a gender equality issue. It will also explore what, if anything, is being done to promote labia of all shapes and sizes as being ‘normal’.
Why are people going under the knife to alter their labia?

It is important to differentiate between elective cosmetic labiaplasties (and other cosmetic gynaecological surgery) and reconstructive gynaecological surgery which takes place to reduce pain and discomfort after female genital mutilation (FGM). O’Regan states that “labiaplasty is a procedure which trims the labia minora (the inner lips of the vulva) to fit neatly within the outer lips”, which is predominantly done for aesthetic reasons.  

The rising trend in elective, cosmetic labiapasties can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably the presentation of labia in the media. Labia and vulvae are considered ‘crude’ in a way that penises and testes aren’t, and so are rarely portrayed in mainstream media or ‘shown off’ among friends. As such, many young people will have a very limited pool of vulvae to compare their own vulvae to. Therefore, if the source is misleading or not representative of all types of vulvae, insecurity may arise among young people in particular as to whether or not their labia are ‘normal’, or they may be led to believe that there is only one type of ‘normal’ vulva. 
One of the most common sources of depictions of labia is soft porn magazines, or ‘lad mags’. According to Drysdale , Australian soft porn magazines digitally alter the vulvae and labia of models in order to make their genitals look ‘healed to a single crease’ – that is, so that the labia minora are almost completely, if not fully, covered or enclosed by the labia majora. These digital labiaplasties are routinely carried out because Australia’s classifications guidelines state that “realistic depictions [of genitalia] may contain discreet genital detail but there should be no genital emphasis”. While this seems vague, Drysdale notes that as far as the classification board is concerned, inner labia are “too rude for soft porn”. This practice of digital labiaplasty isn’t unique to Australia – Calabrese et al’s study found that in US Playboy magazines, over 80% of vulvae pictured had no visible labia minora, with a further 15% showing very small and ‘neat’ labia minora, largely hidden by labia majora. Only 7% of photos actually showed visible inner labia. Calabrese notes that the models’ genital areas “emulate those of a Barbie Doll”. 
If soft porn magazines are to be believed, this is what most vulvae look like

The rising rate at which people are seeking labiaplasties “may reflect a narrow social definition of normal, or a confusion of what is normal and what is idealised”. As such, we can see that this is an issue of gender inequality due to lack of representation of the diverse range of ‘normal’ vulvae and labia. This happens not only in the soft porn industry, which is targeted for the most part at men, but also in more mainstream media and society. There is a fear that a lot of people are being “duped by the media and by unethical doctors who are preying on their insecurities”, that the sexual objectification of their bodies is leading them to have concerns over the way their genitalia look. 
Vulvae and labia are simply not something that are seen as appropriate topics of conversation – the stigma and shame associated with having a vagina remains a barrier to communicating worries or uncertainties people have with the way their labia look. As such, finding out what is ‘normal’ is considerably difficult, particularly in comparison to the range of dialogue which surrounds what is ‘normal’ in terms of penises and testes. 

However, there is a growing awareness surrounding the different types and sizes of vulvae and labia, and projects like the Great Wall of Vagina are creating an environment in which discourse surrounding labia and vulvae is becoming more socially acceptable. Projects like this, as well as simply having open conversations about the way our bodies look, challenge our perceptions of normality.
A panel from the Great Wall of Vagina, showing the variation in labia shapes and sizes

However, as the documentary The Perfect Vagina (2008) shows, there are still, and will possibly always be, people who are still deciding that that a labiaplasty is a procedure they want or need. It is important to note that controlling other people’s bodies would be problematic in itself. We cannot deny people the ability to alter their bodies, particularly if their mental health is being affected by the way they look, even though these feelings may stem from false representation of how their bodies ‘should’ look in the media. Goodman et al come to the conclusion that while a person definitely has the right to choose a labiaplasty, it should be an informed and counselled choice, and the NHS advises that young people in particular should be advised on solutions other than surgery in response to concerns about their genitalia.

While the reasons people choose to undergo elective cosmetic labiaplasties may vary, one of the core factors is a feeling of non-conformance, of being somehow different. This is often brought on by the narrow, if even present at all, representation of vulvae and labia in the media, and the lack of discourse surrounding the wide range of ‘normal’ labia due to stigma and shame. However, although labiaplasties themselves are a gender equality issue, to deny someone their right to bodily autonomy should they make an informed choice to have the surgery would also be a gender equality issue. As such, we need to promote a greater range of ideas surrounding ‘normalcy’ when it comes to vulvae and encourage positive discourse about labia and vulvae in order to both reduce the rate at which people are having labiaplasties, and ensure that those who continue to have them are making an informed, and therefore empowered, choice. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Women of Ireland - Your Saviour is Here!

I've been a fan of Geoff's blog for about a year now, ever since he started looking into the links between Youth Defence and American support (using some sort of technological magic to suss out their twitter followers and the like).
He offered to write a guest post for my blog, and here it is - an insightful exposé into the American man who will save us Irish from our biggest enemy - ourselves (with free-thought coming in at a close second).
So, enjoy and don't forget to check out his blog and follow him on twitter.
Few can have escaped the focus gained by the abortion debate in Ireland over the past year. Caught at the intersection of old colonial laws, the softening of the Roman Catholic hierarchy's grip on Irish society and worries that we might be losing our cultural identity, efforts to provide the legal clarity required to allow doctors to save women's lives has caused widespread debate.
Newspaper columns, radio waves, TV shows and coffee break discussions have been overwhelmed by those wishing to tease out how greatly we should value the lives of women and what caveats we should place on any desire they might have to avoid death while reproducing. But fear not. A Man has come to save us from ourselves. His name is Victor Bermudez:
We are supremely blessed to have him. Not only is he a man, he is a Californian man, and having reached the age of 21 he has decided to fly all the way to Ireland (sponsored by a group that expresses their commitment to defending life by opposing vaccination in Ireland) to save Irish women from that sinister opposing group hellbent on their destruction - Irish women.
Victor Bermudez, Man, Californian, Thinker, Hero,
Saving Irish Women From Themselves
I'm sure, like me, you are amazed that this man of admittedly tender years has found the time to fully brief himself on the Irish legal system, the decades long struggle for access to contraception, the niceties of the Irish constitution and existing legislation before coming to a firm conclusion that the Irish people are wrong and must be saved from themselves. Yet we find that Ireland is not the only country that has benefited from his generosity - he also knows what's best for Spanish and Australian women too, and has tried to help them see the error of their ways by marching across their countries and blockading family planning services.
You can find his biography amidst those of his fellow Americans on Crossroads Walk Ireland's page here, with a more extensive biography here. Elsewhere he shares his thoughts on saving same sex couples from their desire to wed.
How do they help us poor Irish see the error of their ways? Unfortunately we lack the intellectual capacity to fully understand the issue on the same level they do. Thankfully they have a simple solution. In much the same way one might place a fence in front of a stairs to prevent an errant child from entering, they simply stand in front of any premises with which they disagree and block entry:
Champions of the Irish people, these fine folk save us from ourselves by blocking entrances to buildings we shouldn't be in.

Do read more from Rachel Mary about their success in blocking access to the IFPA on August 13th.
Some cynics might say that it's inappropriate for those from another country to take such sterling efforts to correct our foolish ambitions at self determination. That folk who have not spent any appreciable time in Ireland are not best equipped to decide for its citizens. Without fully understanding the depth of research performed by Victor and his friends some Irish might say that they do not have the right to fix the boundary to the march of this nation. To those I say: read their blog. You will see nuanced distinction and profound understanding of every aspect of Irish culture. Take this post, where a contributor too modest to be named discovers that 'chips' are the Irish way of saying fries. Or read how Angie correctly identifies that we Irish refer to jelly as 'jam'. And I challenge you to read Caitlin's realisation that Independence day is 'just another day' in Ireland without both misty eyes and a profound respect at their unparalleled cultural research.
Pro life, pro lats - this strapping chap on Grafton Street displays Crossroads All Ireland Pro Life Walk and Family and Life on his fine, strapping back.

Ladies, gentlemen - for too long we have been fooling ourselves with these notions of self determination. These fine folk have come all the way from America to tell us that they know better. Who are we to tell them they're wrong?

Friday, 12 July 2013

On Irish Abortion Legislation and ‘Lapgate'

(kinda shitty post, but the heat melts my brain and I wanted to write something)

Last night, after a 21 year long wait, X-case legislation was passed in the Dáil at 127 to 31. However, it’s not law yet – it still has to go through the Seanad and the President’s office. While this is a momentous occasion in Irish history, and a step in the right direction for women*’s reproductive freedom, it is not without its issues.

The legislation brings clarity to doctors – a pregnant person can now undergo any treatment to save their life, even if that treatment will result in a miscarriage or involves ending the pregnancy. It takes one doctor to decide if the woman* is literally at death’s door, and two if she’s only a little bit dying. However, to force a woman* who is suicidal as a result of her pregnancy to plead for her life in front of a panel of doctors (one of which has to be an OB despite the fact that it’s a mental health issue, not a pre-natal issue) is cruel. If they do not unanimously agree, she must go to another panel, and they could take 5 to 7 days to come to a decision. They could take a week to decide whether or not to help, when a person contemplates suicide waiting for their verdict.

Mental health is real health, and this is something the legislators seem to not fully understand. If someone has gotten to the point where they would subject themselves to this kind of backwards and patronising system because their pregnancy is not something they can handle, they need help. They don’t need to be submitted to this trial where they are not even certain that the outcome will be to save their life and end the pregnancy. This legislation will do nothing for people who are suicidal as a result of their pregnancies. However, some women* may go through this panel. These are the women* who are too poor to travel for a termination and migrant women* who are unsure of their immigration status. These are some of our most vulnerable women, yet we will subject them to this cruel, humiliating process to beg for their lives.

The legislation also contains a jail sentence for those who terminate in Ireland, or those who help them terminate in Ireland. Under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, which made abortion completely illegal in Ireland, this crime warrants life of penal servitude. In the new legislation this has become an undisclosed fine and up to 14 years imprisonment. No one has ever been prosecuted for self-inducing in Ireland under the old legislation, and we have been assured that this will continue with the new legislation. Why then, was it included at all? Why even make the threat to criminalise women who self-induce with pills in their own country? Why add to the stigma surrounding abortion? While this threat may only apply to doctors who perform abortions ‘illegally’ (i.e. when the pregnant person is not actually dying), there is a worry that it could also be used to prosecute those who provide abortifants, or collect them from the North, as they are supplying the means to carry out an abortion. Whether anyone is ever prosecuted for self-inducing, only time will tell.

This is the bare minimum. This basically tells Irish women* - 'if you're pregnant, and will die if you remain pregnant, we'll end your pregnancy'. It isn't bringing in abortion on request, and it also isn't abortion up to 9 months. After the point of viability, if the pregnancy needs to be ended to save the life of the pregnant person, a c-section or early induced delivery will be performed, not an abortion. While that seems painfully obvious, the anti-choice crowd have been using that as a means by which to 'kill the bill'. They would rather women* die than have a termination. That's not 'pro-life'.

Various amendments to the bill were proposed while it was being debated in the Dáil over the last few days. All amendments to broaden the bill were defeated. Terminations in cases of rape or incest were defeated because they don’t fit into the tiny box that is the Supreme Court interpretation of the law – that terminations are only allowed when there is a real and substantial risk to the woman*’s life, including through suicide. Interestingly enough, though not surprising, amendments trying to remove the suicide claus from the bill were also tabled. One has to wonder how the government could legislate for X (as we are required to do by the European Court of Human Rights), if we leave out suicide. The X-case is the reason the interpretation included suicide as a real and substantial risk to the woman*’s life. We have two referenda (1992 and 2002) where the people could have opted to remove ‘in case of suicide’ from the law; we chose not to.

Terminations for medical reasons, when the fetus has a fatal abnormality and will not survive outside the womb, were also left out, despite the argument that the fetus will never live outside the womb, and so their right to life cannot be seen as the same as the right to life of the pregnant person. These are generally much wanted pregnancies, and yet we export these grieving families to the UK and elsewhere if they chose to end the pregnancy.

The defeated amendment which baffled me the most was to allow for terminations during an inevitable miscarriage. Currently in Ireland, if you miscarry, you’re told we can’t help you, just go home and wait. Depending how far along the pregnancy is, this waiting could take three or four days. This was the only amendment which could have saved Savita Halapanavar had this legislation been in place a year ago. In countries where abortion legislation is broader, you can chose to end the miscarriage via a D&C. This results in the cervix being open for a considerably shorter amount of time, thus reducing the risk of infection, and can also reduce the mental anguish of the person miscarrying.

One distinction that anti-choicers repeatedly used was the misinformed idea that abortions are different from necessary medical interventions which end a pregnancy. Soz, nope. In cases of ectopic pregnancies, the zygote is pretty much directly targeted and removed. Obviously, if an ectopic pregnancy is left untreated for long enough, the damage to the fallopian tube can be so great that it must be removed. This is often done in very Catholic hospitals – patients must wait until their tube is so damaged before they can receive treatment, because then you can say that it’s not really abortion. This misguided argument has also been used when discussing this bill, despite the fact that the word ‘abortion’ isn’t used once, it’s always called a medical procedure or medical intervention. Sarah Malone deals amazingly with both these points in a recentinterview (also note how it’s two middle aged, British men arguing against a young, Irish woman about abortion in Ireland…)

It was not only the legislation which caused controversy over the lst few days at the Dáil. During the first sitting, which went on til 5am, Tom Barry TD pulled Áine Collins onto his lap and held her there while she was clearly uncomfortable, only releasing her after a pat on her very lower back. A number of male TDs around them are seemingly unbothered by this behaviour. During a debate about women’s reproductive rights, a female TD is sexually harassed. Because what happened was sexual harassment. Collins later accepted Barry’s apology, but that doesn’t mean it was OK. It shows the way in which the Dáil is still very much set in a Mad Men era. Excuses have been made, ranging from the fact that the heating wasn’t on (it was a 27 degree day), the few drinks he’d had (why our politicians are allowed drink while debating life and death legislation is for another day) or simply that it was ‘silly’ and a bit of ‘horseplay’.

We haven’t exactly come a long way in the last 21 years regarding abortion legislation in Ireland. This legislation is not yet law, and odds are it will face many more hurdles set up by the anti-choicers and misogynist politicians, but I’m confident that it will pass, and Ireland will be a slightly safer country for pregnant women*.

But it’s important not to get complacent. We shouldn’t wait another 21 years, or for another tragic death, before we get the 8th Amendment repealed. We need a referendum to remove this out-dated, religious-based, misogynist article from our constitution. Then, we can make real progress with reproductive rights in Ireland. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Monday, 8 July 2013