Don’t Criminalize Teens For Sexting: Educate Them Instead

First published by The Huffington Post, 7th May 2015

It’s tricky to be a teenager in 2015. There are increased tuition fees to think about, the unaffordable nature of housing, the lack of jobs for graduates, and the spectre of zero hour contracts looming on the horizon. There are also more immediate concerns, like navigating the unstoppable tide of online pornography, cyberbullying, and exam pressure. It’s no wonder that most young people are unaware of the fact that by taking explicit pictures of themselves, they risk facing criminal charges.

A loophole in the law means that any under-18 year old taking explicit selfies can be charged with creating and sharing indecent images of children. This is particularly nonsensical in the case of 16 and 17 year olds, who can consent to sexual acts and relationships, but are unable to take or share erotic pictures of themselves. The charge of creating images of child sexual abuse is a very serious one, and the legal definition should differentiate between pictures taken consensually by over 16s and children being photographed and groomed for sexual abuse by adults.

I’m not attempting to gloss over the very real problem of teens who have their intimate photos shared with peers and strangers without their permission, after their relationship with the intended recipient has broken down. This can be absolutely devastating, particularly in the wake of the slut shaming and disrespect from friends and classmates that inevitably follows.

Criminalizing young people, however, completely misses the point. Instead of slapping teenagers with criminal records, we should endeavour to support them and provide them with high-quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education. Young people should be educated about the essential nature of consent and respect in their relationships, so that the idea of sharing another teen’s intimate photos without permission becomes socially repugnant.

Sex education desperately needs to provide a solid foundation upon which young people can build healthy, loving relationships, and respond to the pressure to be sexually desirable, to emulate pornography, and to acquiesce to the demands of partners with strength and maturity. Schools must commit to tackling the bullying of teenage girls when private images are used to humiliate and silence them, and this shouldn’t involve the police penalizing the young women themselves.

Teenagers are doing their best to cope with their entry into a highly sexualized society, and they have grown up with technology that allows them to immortalize and disseminate every minute of their lives. Equipped with hormones and smartphones, they should not be criminalized for documenting their burgeoning sexuality, and we owe them the education that will allow them to make smart, respectful choices when it comes to technology and their bodies.

Outdated and Unreliable: Cosmetic Testing on Animals

First published by The Huffington Post 1st December 2014

I love makeup. I love it, but I can’t justify buying a product that isn’t essential to my life, that has been developed by companies responsible for the suffering and death of animals, regardless of how good the discount is or whether Kate Moss appears in the advert.

My quest for cruelty-free started with the beauty company Lush. I thought that if they could sell products that didn’t harm animals, what was stopping other companies from doing the same? The more I looked into animal testing, the more of a no-brainer the issue seemed. Animal experiments have only a 5-25% success rate for predicting harmful human side effects. Animals pass 92% of clinical tests that humans fail, meaning that the predictions from animal testing are inconclusive and often incorrect. If the tests aren’t producing meaningful results, why haven’t they been completely eradicated?

This is a question that is still relevant in the UK despite the EU banning the sale of all cosmetic products developed through animal testing in March 2013. The process of picking out truly cruelty-free products is much more complex than it needs to be because we make our purchases in an increasingly global marketplace. Countries operate under different regulatory standards and there is still no formal national regulatory acceptance process in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Russia and Canada. Big companies want to sell to as many places as possible, meaning that animal testing often sneaks into their practices despite the EU’s ban.

If you go to your local Boots or Superdrug and pick up a Rimmel mascara or a Maybelline foundation, your purchase still supports animal testing elsewhere in the world. This is because large companies like the two mentioned above sell their products to the Chinese market. In China, it is illegal to sell cosmetic products that have not been tested on animals. The products you buy in the Europe may not in themselves have been tested on animals, but the company will still conduct animal tests elsewhere in the world.

Toxicologists, chemists and pharmacists who are committed to removing animals from cosmetic testing are currently working on the ‘Three Rs’ principle. The Three Rs stand for Reduce, Refine, and Replace, and the main focus is on the complete replacement of animal subjects in testing. In the not-so-distant future, all routine toxicity testing can be conducted in human cells and cell lines. 3D models of human tissue are the way forward as they offer much more accurate predictions without relying on animal suffering.

Although I’m not specifically writing about the use of animals in testing drugs and medications, there have also been replacement developments in this area. For example, in October 2014, human brain cells were replicated for use in Alzheimer’s research. If we can replace animals in medical trials, there is no reason why they should be used for cosmetic products.

On 24th November, Lush held their annual conference and awards ceremony, to celebrate and reward the work done globally to end animal testing. I caught up with Mark Constantine, the founder of Lush, and Hilary Jones, the ethics director at Lush, to find out more about Lush’s cruelty-free principles and their plans for the future.

The Body Shop became part of the L’Oreal Group in 2006. L’Oreal is known for continuing to test ingredients on animals, a practice that is antithetical to the founding principles of The Body Shop. Could Lush ‘sell out’ in the same way?

Hilary Jones:
If you want to run a company to a set of values of your choosing, then it seems to us that it is essential to not take in investment from outside or go public. When others outside the company are interested only in financial returns or share dividends, this limits the scope of the decisions one can make.

Mark Constantine: We’re making sure that no one can ever sell Lush. We cannot be bought by L’Oreal. They wouldn’t have the intellectual property. Our aim is to have more staff ownership, a staff trust where people get the profits of their hard work coming down through the business. The key is to employ as many passionate people as possible, who have fierce views on how things should be run, so that whenever anyone tries to turn away from that, they will be met with strong opposition. We need to be passionate and vigorous, answering questions as they come up, and fighting battles that have been won before but need to be won again.

Is Lush doing anything to help change the regulatory laws in China?

Hilary Jones: There is almost no way to completely stop the illicit purchase and resale of our products into China, try as we will. But most important to us is the dialogue that many animal groups are having with China, to try to encourage them to harmonise their legislation with the stricter non-animal standards of Europe. Any advances in animal welfare in a country the size of China have a huge effect on vast amounts of animals. We will not trade there until there is no longer any requirement for animal testing at all stages of product development and sale.

Do you consider Lush to be an ethical employer?

Hilary Jones: Internally we never call ourselves an ethical company. We have a vision for our company that we are constantly striving towards but is always just that little bit out of reach. I am not sure that we would ever settle for where we are, because we would always want to make more improvements or implement other ideas. We know we are not perfect, but the heart and soul of the company is good and caring and there is a wish to create something different and better than the norm.

How would you respond to claims that a profitable business cannot be run on ethical principles?

Hilary Jones: Well it simply can. All too often that is just used as an excuse to do nothing. The business-as-usual idea, where anything goes in the pursuit of profit. We make sure that we judge our decisions against a set of values and objectives, with money simply being one of them. There are times when decisions have been made that dent profit – but those kind of losses can be offset by other ethical decisions, like taking more care of how one uses energy and water. We believe a healthy business model can be built that allows for the freedom to do the right thing at more cost sometimes, where necessary, without sacrificing overall profitability.

Would you consider releasing a cheaper range of make-up for shoppers on a budget (students etc.) who wish to switch their cosmetic products over to cruelty-free?

Hilary Jones: We certainly don’t regard ourselves as a high end brand by any means. But we also recognise that many families have had less disposable income over the last few years and prices need to be affordable. We try to price our products fairly, taking into account the costs of the materials used in each individual product. We don’t squander money on packaging, or advertising – which are things that hugely inflate the prices of many cosmetics brands. But it is not necessarily the cheaper products that become our best sellers – so clearly price is not the only thing that drives our customers. For us, the challenge is putting together a product made of wonderful ingredients which customers then find meets a need in their life and wants to keep buying. To invent a product that our customer love, that can be made with ingredients from our fair trade projects and that required no animal testing is for us the greatest joy and the reason we come to work each day – and if that product is also one that requires no packaging, then we feel our work here is done.

Mark Constantine: We’re doing it. The real key is to cut away the marketing and get the advice right. If I make sure that what you buy from me is appropriate for you, you won’t end up with a bathroom cabinet or dressing table full of crap that you know you’re going to throw out. So if you’re buying three for two, and you only use a tiny bit because it wasn’t right for you, then that’s what we’re fighting. We don’t want you to end up with trial and error products, where a lot of it is a waste of your money and then goes to landfill.

If you’re interested in switching over your makeup and grooming products to cruelty-free alternatives, it’s important to have accurate information at your fingertips. Don’t get confused by brands that claim to be cruelty-free, while employing other companies to carry out animal tests for them. This information changes all the time, for example, Urban Decay are no longer considered cruelty-free due to their involvement with L’Oreal.

Public health is not being protected by animal testing. These tests are not reliable and we have 21st century solutions that can guarantee consumer safety without causing suffering. What we need now is joined-up, global thinking across big brands, and a vote-with-your-feet consumer approach. If you don’t like animals getting sick and dying for your foundation or shower gel, don’t buy from brands that use animals in tests. The majority of companies are profit driven, meaning that the consumer has much more individual and collective power than you might think.

The Fashion Blogosphere: Top Two Blogs to Watch in 2014

First published by The Huffington Post, 6th February 2014

I guess I’m feeling a little jaded when it comes to fashion mags. The shiny pages and the promise of cool stuff to cut out and stick on my outfit inspiration board just aren’t enticing me like they used to. It might have something to do with my diminishing interest in celebrity gossip or being bombarded with straight girl sex tips or because I’m at loath to support publications that continue to employ the services of an alleged sex offender (Vogue, Harpers Bazar, i-D and W magazine still hire Terry Richardson), but I’ve decided to switch from mags to blogs.

The fashion blogosphere is massive and there are so many amazing sites to search for style inspiration and DIY fashion tips, but I’ve narrowed my favourites down to two. These are Stylingo, a joint effort from Coventry girls Claire and Lauren and ELN Fashion, run by Ebony Nash, from Lancaster.

Ebony interned for ELLE magazine in 2012 and quickly realised that unpaid internships in London are only for those with serious cash. She told me that unlike fashion internships, “blogging is completely what you make of it. If you get your sh*t together and commit to your blog like it’s your job, you’re going to see benefits from it – be that new experiences or even job offers”. She cites blogging as the perfect creative outlet that allows her to write about her own interests and add cheeky celeb satire pieces if she feels that someone has behaved or dressed particularly outrageously (she’s looking at you, Miley Cyrus).

It made sense for the Stylingo girls to join forces and use their blog to recommend or slate products and mount their soap boxes to write lifestyle features. They reckon that variety is key, paring “hilarious posts alongside serious thought-provoking hard hitting pieces of journalism (i.e which lipstick lasts the longest) – so that you get something new every day”.

The most attractive thing about fashion blogs is their individuality. The world of fashion can be very homogenous and exclusive and to see this, you only need to glance at the tall, skinny white chicks who dominate catwalk from New York to Paris. Fashion blogging doesn’t have to cater for one body type or demonstrate slavish admiration for identikit models. Claire and Lauren told me that they are “one hundred percent part of the short girl brigade” and all about “embracing who you are and wearing what you want”. They add that this doesn’t include bum bags.

Ebony Nash is particularly passionate about the text content of her blog and believes that the writing of bloggers should be valued over pastel hair colour, being a size six or having a camera “that makes you look like Charlotte Free”. She says that some blogs have a “formula for success” and that viewers should “actually read blogs more, instead of flicking through heavily edited pictures”. If you have a passion for things style or beauty related, and genuinely enjoy writing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get involved as a fashion blogger. You don’t have to have the most amazing DSLR or resemble Cara Delevingne.

I asked the three bloggers what products they’re desperate to get their hands on for 2014. Ebony’s after a pale pink boyfriend coat and says that “as a lover of all things black-on-black-on-black, I’m looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone with the pastel trends of SS14”. Lauren wants everything in baby pink but if forced to choose, she’d like “a cropped fluffy jumper, the fluffier the better”. Claire’s going to be all over the holographic trend “like a rat on a biscuit”. ELN Fashion and Stylingo are definitely ones to watch in 2014.

Animal Testing: Cosmetics

First Published in The Huffington Post, 23rd October 2013

This article is NOT about testing on animals for the purpose of medical research. Instead, I want to talk about the testing of cosmetic products on animals and how to make consumer choices that are truly ‘cruelty free’. I have two guinea pigs and two hamsters. The thought of them having chemicals rubbed into their eyes, noses and mouths just so I can have some mascara and foundation, is entirely repellent. I love makeup and hair products but they are completely non-essential to human life.
The ban on testing of cosmetics on animals has been in the pipeline for quite a while. The EU introduced the first sanction in 2004 and by 2009, the testing of cosmetic ingredients on animals and the sale of the finished product were both banned. Since March 2013, it has been made illegal to market any cosmetic products in the EU that have involved animal testing, regardless of where in the world the tests were carried out. The 2009 ban still allowed companies to test for the most complex health risks on animals (including toxicity that could lead to cancer), but these are now prohibited.
So what does this mean for the cosmetics industry and for consumers? Can we now buy all cosmetic products with confidence? Unfortunately not. An eyeliner or concealer stick or bottle of perfume and its ingredients bought in the EU cannot be tested on animals, but there are lots of big companies who want to sell to the Chinese market. The legal requirement in China is currently for cosmetics to be tested on animals before they can be sold. This means that although YOUR EU product will not be tested on animals, you might still be supporting a company that tests on animals elsewhere in the world.
Cruelty Free International is an organisation that works solely to end animal testing for cosmetic purposes. Michelle Thew, the Chief Executive of Cruelty Free International says that “the EU cosmetics ban has been a huge victory for animals and we are already seeing a positive knock-on effect around the world”. It is hoped that companies will streamline their testing practices globally, and bring all their practices in line with EU regulations. Cruelty Free International is currently active in Korea, Brazil, China, the USA and Vietnam, pressing regulators to move away from animal testing. Big cosmetics companies selling to both the EU and China will now have to conduct two separate forms of testing, which isn’t particularly cost effective. There are now viable alternatives to animal testing, including the use of in vitro screens to test for irritation and corrosion, even on very sensitive skin. PETA and the Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing both endorse this method of testing.
To shop with confidence, choose products with the Leaping Bunny logo, endorsed by Cruelty Free International. These products have passed a stringent standards examination and do not sell products in China. My favourites are Lush, Barry M, Neal’s Yard and Superdrug. Neal’s Yard can be pretty pricey but the other brands certainly won’t break the bank and can be purchased on a student or low-income budget.
Lex Croucher, one of the UK’s leading female YouTubers, has previously vlogged on the subject of animal testing for cosmetic purposes. She says “if you care about ending animal testing it’s so important to check the policies of the brands you use and to contact them to let them know how you feel about the issue”. Lex adds that “it’s great to see that the law is changing and I’m hopeful that some of the more popular cosmetics companies will be forced to change their practices because of it, but until it’s been made clear that these brands have stopped all aspects of animal testing I certainly won’t be going anywhere near them”.
Companies to avoid currently include: Avon, Armani, Aussie, Benefit, Bobbi Brown, Cacherel, Chanel, Clarins, Clearasil, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, Dove, L’Oreal, Lancome, MAC Cosmetics, Michael Kors, MaxFactor, Maybelline, Neutrogena, Olay, Pantene, Ralph Lauren Fragrances, Redken, Revlon, Rimmel, YSL, and Vichy. Hopefully this will change in the near future.

Who Are Urban Outfitters?

First published in The Huffington Post 28th September 2013

I’ve always hate a love/hate relationship with Urban Outfitters, caught between my adoration for their clothes and my disapproval for the controversies they seem so adept at racking up. They might be known for their hipster beanies and shoes with crazy platforms, but who are Urban Outfitters? Who are they really selling to? And what makes them popular?

Urban Outfitters Inc. is an American company that incorporates the brands Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and BHLDN, and holds over 400 retail locations. The founder and CEO is Richard Hayne, an American guy who has thrown his considerable financial weight behind endorsing the anti-gay Republican Rick Santorum. Rick likes to compare homosexuality to bestiality and thinks that climate change was made up by the government so they can control your life. Why, one might ask, does CEO Hayne back a politician whose policy positions are ultra-conservative, when the young people who buy from Urban Outfitters are traditionally the most liberal-minded demographic? OU have also been in trouble for using the term ‘Navajo’ to sell products that are NOT made or designed by American Indians (let’s all take a lesson from Miley Cyrus and admit that cultural appropriation isn’t cool) and various t-shirt slogans, including one reading ‘Eat Less’ that was pulled from the online store in 2010. Thumbs up for the promotion of eating disorders… not.

I decided to chat to Chris Botham, manager of the York branch of Urban Outfitters, and ask some questions. York’s high street doesn’t sport as many brands as in Leeds or Manchester, despite the abundance of independent boutiques and ye olde fudge shops, and so I figured that the Topshop would be OU’s biggest competition in terms of similar pricing and demographic. However, I didn’t detect much store rivalry, mainly because Urban Outfitters are trying to do something a bit different.

Unlike Topshop, which has a few concessions but most clothing is by Topshop itself; Urban Outfitters boasts around 255 brands, 8 of which are manufactured exclusively for Urban Outfitters.
There is no single, ubiquitous ‘Urban Outfitters’ brand, but you won’t find Sparkle & Fade, Cooperative or BDG anywhere else. All stock hangs around for only 8/10 weeks before it is marked down, which makes grabbing a bargain pretty easy. The best thing about talking to someone ‘on the ground’ in the OU empire, was that Chris helped dispel the notion that Urban Outfitters is a brand solely for cool students with a bit of cash to spend and a penchant for vinyl and patterned hip flasks. Chris talked about inclusion, not exclusion, about attracting older men and women, the importance of helping out anyone who’s browsing and not alienating potential customers.

One of my main concerns was that OU appears to sell the complete ‘alternative’ lifestyle, a one-stop shop for your music and togs and home ware, but it’s a mass produced individuality. You want to stand out but just end up looking like all the other people who want to stand out too. Chris’ answer was that although the clothes are mass-produced, they find their way into stores on a smaller scale, the York outlet getting maybe 30 dresses in one particular style, meaning that you won’t spot as many people wearing the same outfit as you.

What struck me most was a real disparity between people like Chris, working really hard to make the brand something that feels inclusive, rather than a too-cool hipster club, and the top brass (CEO Richard Hayne) who support ultra-conservative crazies. There’s some really cool and inventive design going into the OU magazine and into the stripped-down design of the stores, plus they have great clothes. All we need is for Hayne to listen to his consumer base and stop spending their money on dubious causes… oh, and no more ‘Eat Less’ t-shirts, please.

Tattoo Shaming, Sexuality and Cheryl Cole

First published in The Huffington Post 25th September 2013

Since Cheryl Cole’s tattooist published a picture of her newly inked backside, the reaction from British tabloids has been consistent in its finger-wagging negativity. The Metro described the tattoo as a “garish new inking” and The Express mocks Cole’s twitter postings urging people to accept her choice of tattoo, snidely remarking “and let your buttocks do the talking, Cheryl?” The Mirror’s August 2013 headline screams “with a bottom most men dream about why on earth has she inked this rose garden?” Here lies the problem. The headline, irrespective of poor grammar, clearly suggests that Cole’s tattoo might impinge on her sexual desirability, which I believe is part of a wider culture of associating tattooing on women with their sexuality.

Cheryl is shamed for having ‘spoilt’ her bum with a tattoo whilst a study cited in the Daily Mail in July 2013 suggests that men are more likely to approach women with tattoos, believing them to be more sexually promiscuous. The terms ‘tramp stamp’ and ‘slag tag’ are almost exclusively attributed to women with ink, rather than men. Tattoos on women make them ‘easy’ or ‘ugly’, but both labels are sexually motivated and completely arbitrary. In its most basic form, a tattoo is writing or a picture that goes somewhere on your body and because the words or image can be and mean a myriad of different things, the idea that a tattoo makes a blanket comment on female sexuality is entirely ridiculous. Unless a tattoo is specifically erotic, like Tulisa’s ‘you should be so lucky’ situated above her crotch, we shouldn’t assume that a woman’s ink has anything to do with her sexuality at all.

Alex Blimes, published in the Daily Mail, goes further and writes: “show me a girl with a tattoo in 2008, and I’ll show you a girl who spends far too much time looking at paparazzi pictures of starlets falling out of minicabs, updating her Facebook page and voting via text message in television talent shows”. Personally, I’ve never voted via text for anything on television, I don’t have the time to follow LiLo’s drunken stumbles and prefer Twitter to Facebook, but because I have tattoos I guess I must be some kind of anomaly in this massive homogenous population of airheaded women with inked bodies. Blimes’ sweeping statement is deliberately offensive. Women with tattoos are as varied and diverse as any other group defined by a physical marker.

It’s interesting that we don’t read the same bad press or react with any surprise when Adam Levine or David Beckham or Robbie Williams or the Madden brothers add to their ink collections. Is Cheryl Cole’s tattoo garnering so much red-top disapproval because she’s been saddled with the ‘nation’s darling’ epithet? She’s permitted the dusting of small inks but anything larger is deemed unfeminine. Becky Pugh, writing for The Telegraph in April 2009, deems her own tattoo “as unfeminine as a hairy beard”. Fair enough, if she wanted her tattoo to look girly, but the language used fits in with the idea that only a specific kind of inking is appropriate for women. She explains that she got her ink on holiday in a disreputable parlour that she had not done the research on, and she did not bring a printed image with her, merely describing what she wanted to the tattooist. It’s hardly surprising that she wasn’t pleased with the end result. My argument is not that bad tattoos don’t exist, but that good, well-planned, well-designed tattooing is a form of art and should not be arbitrarily connected to female sexuality.

We’ve all heard parents’ and grandparents’ warnings about regret and saggy skin. Tattoos are no longer the preserve of sailors, lorry drivers or prison inmates. It is estimated that one fifth of Britain’s adult population sport one, making tattooing neither unusual nor newsworthy. Although this may be an unpopular opinion with more conservative commentators, I’m willing to come out and say that I believe tattooing to be a valid art form. Lucy Greville-Smith, at The Parlour Tattoos in Warwick, is responsible for my ink and her impeccable drawing skills, dexterity and real care for every project she undertakes is clearly demonstrative of the aesthetic and creative merit of tattooing.

If Cheryl Cole wants to have some roses tattooed on her ass, that’s entirely her business. Tabloid judgements of female bodies and body choices are symptomatic of a culture in which criticism of the physical appearance of ourselves and other women has become so commonplace that we too rarely pause to examine it. To shame women for their ink is at best, hopelessly old fashioned and at worst, downright sexist.

Depression at University

First published in The Huffington Post 13th August 2013

I was depressed at university. I have friends who were depressed at university. Depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK, occurring in a fifth of adults, according to research by the Office of National Statistics. So why still is this admission accompanied by a sense of shame? I’m almost curling my toes in embarrassment as I write this, wanting to add some amusing disclaimer, like ‘I’m not nuts really’, as though I need to make up for the fact that I’ve suffered from a mental illness. Ideally however, shame and silence should have no place in a discussion about depression.Starting university can be a stressful time for everyone, regardless of whether or not your serotonin receptors are doing what they’re supposed to. Between high academic expectations, a daunting workload, living away from home for the first time and various financial worries exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees, it’s easy to feel adrift and unprepared. Worse still though, is the nagging sensation that it is weak or stupid to feel depressed during a time of freedom, fun and new friends. However, belittling the illness does nothing to improve the situation and can actually discourage people from seeking treatment. You wouldn’t expect someone with a broken bone or a viral infection to ‘just cheer up’ or ‘pull themselves together’, and depression shouldn’t be taken any less seriously.I’ve detailed a couple of ways to feel better while studying that were relevant to my own experiences, and perhaps the most important of these involves refusing to isolate yourself. Making connections with others and getting involved in social activities, even if you just feel like hibernating beneath your duvet for the next year, is a good way to combat chronic low mood. Sometimes it’s a real struggle, and you might feel like you’re trapped behind a wall of glass, watching the people around you have an amazing time, but don’t get disheartened. The prevalence of depression means that more of your university peers will have experience of the illness than you might expect. Give your friends the benefit of the doubt when wondering whether or not to share your feelings.

During my first year, I experienced a lot of academic doubt when I realised that I was on a course with lots and lots of other people who were much better at my subject than I was. I was used to consistently gaining top marks, but in the more expansive world of higher education, this was not always the case. Initially, I felt hopeless and wanted to give up, but by reaching out to course mates and vocalizing my worries I quickly found out that I was by no means the only one having this difficulty. I began to see university not as a tooth-and-nail struggle to be the best, but more as an opportunity to learn from others around me. Feelings of inadequacy are common, particularly when there is a great deal of pressure to succeed. Your personal tutor is responsible for your pastoral care and is a good first port of call here. They genuinely don’t want you to feel academically insecure!

I found that the student lifestyle itself was actually pretty good for creating conditions in which depression can flourish, particularly in terms of alcohol. Students are notorious for their high levels of alcohol consumption and lots of society activities revolve around drinking, particularly in sports clubs. Alcohol is a well-known depressant and can have a significant impact on your mood. My point here is not that you shouldn’t drink at university or that going teetotal cures depression, but that a more balanced lifestyle is helpful in terms of regulating mood. When I reduced my drinking, I definitely noticed a change. A balanced approach to food and sleep, factors that can become pretty disrupted as a student, is also helpful. A friend on my MA course candidly describes his poor diet, vitamin D deficiency and ‘numbing routine’ involving alcohol as contributing to his depression in an obvious way.

All universities have support services that cater for a variety of different needs, including Nightlines and campus counselling services. Utilize them! It can be helpful to try several mediums of support before you choose the one that is the ‘best fit’ for you. Services do vary between universities, as one of my course mates describes his experience as ‘farcial’ due to very long waiting lists and others are very positive about their interactions with campus counsellors and GPs at university practices. It may seem like the biggest and most obvious cliché out there, but don’t feel like you’re alone. Depression is an illness that feeds on loneliness and silence. Don’t give it the satisfaction of either.

Skinny and Boring

First published in The Huffington Post 8th July 2013

I’ve just read the July 2013 edition of British Vogue and I’m seriously underwhelmed. Not because I don’t enjoy the pages of glossy advertisements (as much a part of the magazine’s content as the actual copy itself), the pictures of lavish clothes and jewellery that I can’t afford, or the interview with the ever-thrilling Helena Bonham Carter. It’s the models. I’m bored of them.

There’s been a nagging sense that all is not well in fashion, vocalised particularly in the last ten years and crystalised by instances such as the 2006 deaths of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston and Uruguayan model Luisa Ramos, and Alexandra Shuman’s tight-lipped refusal to comment on the eating habits of models. I’ve always been aware that the models are a bit too thin and that makes me sad, but I think I’m ready to throw my hat in the ring and state that I’ve had quite enough of this homogenous clothes-hanger culture. The models might have different hair and eye colours and be wearing different couture creations, but they’re really tall, bone-bag skinny and essentially, they all look the same. The same angular face stares back at me from every luxury brand advertisement I look at, be it Moss, Delevingne, or someone not quite so well-paid.

They don’t look like anyone I know. I’m perfectly aware of the theory that high fashion is an escape, as a beautiful, ethereal, other-worldly playground where one does not have to be grounded in reality, but hanging these clothes on extra-terrestrial models instils more than just dull envy. It creates a situation where women are forced to compare themselves with an unrealistic body ideal. Why are pro-anorexic websites crammed with pictures of catwalk models whose legs look incapable of supporting a rice cracker, never mind a human being? The answer is obvious. Because models look really thin, and thin, ill girls like to hold them up as good examples and as physical goals to strive for.
One of the best things about being alive and a human, on a planet of six billion others, is that we’re all different. The variety inherent in our humanity extends to style, taste, appearance and many, many other things. Why should high fashion be exempt from recognising, and celebrating this?

We all need clothes (even if you’re a committed nudist because everyone has to pop out to get milk and fags now and then), which suggests that clothes should be made for lots of different heights and weights. Sure, H&M might stock size XL and I can find things that look good on someone as miniature as me (5ft 2in if you were wondering) but the big fashion houses is where the high-end creativity happens. The fact that designers send out sample size 6 for someone of 5ft 9 and above sends out a very clear message: that this is the body type that they favour, the one they want to put their clothes on, the most valuable kind of body to have.

This buck-passing attitude, the ‘oh but the top agencies send us these skeletal models’ and the ‘oh but the designers only make the clothes in tiny sample sizes’ circular evasion has to stop. Someone needs to take responsibility and step up to the table on this one. My own eating disorder featured a real obsession with the size of models, their bodies were a kind of sick Holy Grail, and even at five and a half stone I didn’t feel thin enough (read: good enough) to belong to the model-girl club. I don’t want Vogue to be accompanied by a mental trigger warning but until some real change occurs, my love of high fashion will be tainted by unease and, for want of a better word, boredom.

Company Magazine’s Faux Pas

First published in The Huffington Post 31st May 2013

Reprinted with permission in ISSUES (A Level textbook)

The fashion industry is constantly under fire for its perceived permissiveness with regard to the promotion of unhealthily thin female bodies, both on the catwalks and in the pages of fashion publications. In April 2013, the head doctor at Sweden’s largest eating disorder treatment centre spoke out about modelling scouts accosting her patients, an example of the dark underside of fashion’s reputation for worshiping the super-skinny.

Research from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence states that 1.6 million people in the UK currently suffer from an eating disorder, which provides a good indication of why fashion publications (among other media sources) should do all they can to place emphasis on varied bodies, not just the thin ones.

As a devoted Company reader, it was with a mixture of disappointment and disgust that I read ‘This Is Skinny Club’, an anonymous opinion piece in their June issue. ‘Anon’ describes how she lies to close friends about what she has eaten to avoid their concern, forces herself to exercise even when watching TV, and spends 90% of her life denying herself food. T

hese behaviours are worryingly familiar to those who have experience of eating disorders, whether as sufferers or as friends and family of someone suffering. Of course, the views of the anonymous contributor do not automatically reflect that of Company itself, but the irony of their decision to print this article in the so-called ‘Feminism Issue 2013’ was not lost on readers.

Lancaster student and beauty blogger Ebony L Nash remarks that “to be so blasé about something so potentially devastating is just terrible journalism.” Her blog post can be found at Eating disordered behaviour is not a ‘club’ and should not be championed in a widely-read magazine with impunity. Anon’s justification for her regimented lifestyle, that she can “parade around in a denim mini-dress with Alexa-worthy pins” serves to normalize and make desirable the kind of behaviour that those who have suffered with anorexia must spend painful years unlearning.

I expected the article to be accompanied by a message about maintaining positive body image, an encouragement to eat in a balanced and healthy manner, or at least some information on what constitutes an eating disorder and how to get help. Company provided no trigger warning or disclaimer, only a space for comment at, encouraging readers to state whether they found the piece ‘offensive’ or ‘refreshingly honest’.

Their response, published on their Facebook page ‘The Company Collective’ after strong reactions from many readers, does little to redeem the situation. The assertion that “the girl in the story is not anorexic she is simply always watching what she eats” is small comfort when her article, filled with positive messages about eating disordered behaviour, has already reached a substantial readership.

I firmly believe that one can appreciate fashion and still take a stand against the shameless promotion of unrealistic and damaging body expectations. After struggling with a mixture of anorexia and bulimia for seven years, I am finally able to celebrate my love of clothing and style without extending that affection to the size of those who march the catwalks. In the world of fashion things are changing, H&M’s use of size 12 model Jennie Runk in their 2013 beachwear campaign and refusal to label the collection as ‘plus size’ providing a good example of this.

I remain disappointed with Company’s decision to print such an immensely triggering article, but hopeful that they will balance this out with a future feature on body confidence or the kind of support available for eating disorders. ‘Anon’ may believe that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” but she’s obviously never had my mum’s coffee and walnut cake.

Why are French Horror Films so Good?

First published in The Huffington Post 30th April 2013

Out of the seething mass of horror films I have both endured and absorbed over the last four years, it is the French titles that stand out most in my mind. They refuse to be ignored. They are visceral, shocking and innovative and they stay with me long after the final credits are over.

This is not to suggest that other countries don’t make excellent horror films or that there are no poor French horror flicks in circulation, but that the French have hit on something that makes their offering so unlike the lazy and repetitive gore of standard horror fare. The best examples of the New French Extremity movement in horror are Haute Tension (2003, dir. Alexandre Aja), Inside (2007, dir. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo) and Martyrs (2008, dir. Pascal Laugier).All three films come with my recommendation, but perhaps not on a night when you’re feeling a bit emotionally fragile or are in need of a pleasant ending. The New French Extremity movement is associated with a diverse group of directors who represent a reworking of the horror genre, infusing transgressive content (sexual decadence, psychosis and eye-watering violence) with social and political themes. Academic Tim Palmer describes the New French Extremity movement as offering incisive social critiques, and “portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening”.

Disappointing performances and indolent stereotyping do not occur in these films. They seem to grab the viewer by the throat whilst still retaining a kind of artistry rarely seen in the horror genre. The aforementioned three films, while bloody enough to satisfy fans of exploitation horror, don’t excite a level of bland disgust in the way that something like The Human Centipede: Full Sequence (2011, dir. Tom Six) does. I wanted to scrub my eyes with bleach after seeing Mr Six’s latest film, as it provided little in the way or plot or script, lacked both tension and basic innovation, and was not even partially redeemed by the censor-driven move to monochrome.

In contrast, the originality of Martyrs forces the viewer to consider the purpose of pain and the transcendence of it, from within a cocoon of emotional rawness and liberal sprayings of blood. The film defies genre pigeon-holing as the storyline continually jackknifes back upon itself, leaving the audience vulnerable and disorientated, much like Lucie and Anna in the ugly world of manufactured martyrdom. Inside provides the most genuinely frightening and unrelenting take on the home-invasion subgenre I’ve seen to date and exploits a very human terror of childbirth and the changes that occur to the body during pregnancy, most famously exposed in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). Every shot is beautifully constructed, great attention is paid to detail, seen in the patterns of blood spatter that characterize the bathroom scenes and directorial focus on the female body and point of view at no point descends into tits and arse voyeurism or dull helplessness.

These French productions are also particularly valuable because they are not afraid to address the socio-political origins of our fears, to raise fundamental questions and to prompt real ‘body responses’ during viewing. Threatened pregnancy, psychological displacement and the torture of young women are not new concepts within horror, but they are presented in such a way that emotional distance or disinterest is hardly possible. Horror films should not exclude creativity and beauty as characteristics in their pursuit of the cold sweat of an audience. Martyrs, Haute Tension and Inside embrace these qualities and it very much pays off.

The British and American horror markets could be refreshed by a move away from lazy characterization and unfocussed plot and scripting, because providing an audience with 90 minutes of banal blonde in bloodbath (usually with a lot of screaming and a masked killer) insults the intelligence. Directors Laugier, Aja, Maury and Bustillo appear to have hit upon a winning formula, keeping it graphic, bloody, tense, well-constructed and pretty damn clever.

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