The terrifying truth about living with body dysmorphia

I’m having dinner with a group of friends. I’ve invited people round so I can cook. It makes me feel more in control of the situation.

I’ve spent hours preparing food, and I’ve given myself the smallest portion. I’ve got scrapings from the bottom of the pan while everyone else has a hearty meal in front of them. As I eat, I feel my body expanding out of all proportion. I am corpulent, huge, disgusting. I feel the fat on my stomach, thighs and buttocks rippling, stretching my clothes.

I know, on a logical level, that I’m not the biggest person in the room, but my brain is telling me with utter certainty that I am taking up more space than anyone else.

This is body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). It’s a mental health condition characterised by extreme preoccupation with the body. Sufferers engage in constant checking, obsessive thoughts about different parts of the body, and taking excessive time perfecting their appearance. BDD covers things like skin picking to make the skin ‘smooth’ and preoccupation with ‘flaws’ that are often unnoticeable to others.

I’ve struggled with body dysmorphia since I was 13 years old, meaning that over half of my life has been spent checking my body and seeing things that others don’t. The idea that I can’t even trust my own eyes is terrifying and makes me doubt my ability to engage in rational thought processes.

According to a study from Chemist-4-u, one in 20 people suffer from BDD. It is a serious condition that can impact on relationships and ability to work. BDD can result in depression, self-harming behaviours and suicidal thoughts.

Kate, 29, says: “My experience is that I’m obsessed with my appearance and spend far too much time in front of the mirror pulling and poking bits of my stomach, almost in a bid to make it shrink. I find it disgusting and it makes me so self-conscious and paranoid.

“And I know it’s often completely irrational because I’ll look back at photos and be like I’m so thin there but I can vividly remember that day feeling like my stomach was huge.”

Body dysmorphia often accompanies serious eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Clare, 33, suffers from anorexia, so BDD is often posed as a symptom of her disorder.

She says: “For me it’s a question of what came first as I remember struggling with my body and being told that I was seeing things that others weren’t seeing before binge eating and anorexia were diagnosed.

“BDD impacts me terribly every day. Walking past a mirror shop window or anything which I can see my reflection in is extremely anxiety provoking and leaves me in tears daily and I have many checking rituals which are also emotionally exhausting.”

Unfortunately, body dysmorphia is often taken less seriously than it should be, and even the NHS website states that it can be difficult to seek help for BDD. Symptoms are unlikely to go away without treatment and may worsen if left unchecked.

Keith McNiven, founder of Right Path Fitness, says: “While body dysmorphia doesn’t discriminate, young adults and teenagers especially suffer from it, as they’re getting used to their bodies and trying to live up to unrealistic ideals (especially with the rise of social media, where celebrities, influencers and the like are constantly posting beauty selfies of themselves – many of which are modified with filters or through retouching).”

I’m convinced that my body dysmorphia started when I saw a set of holiday pictures of myself and started comparing them to models. In the early 2000s, ultra-skinny models and the ‘heroin chic’ look were ubiquitous on catwalks, and my 13 year old eyes warped as I gazed at them.

Even with the increasing presence of body positivity Instagram accounts and more diverse bodies used by some (not nearly enough) brands, the standard of beauty that we measure ourselves against is still largely unattainable.

Whether this is the stick-thin Victoria Secret model or the surgery-enhanced body of a Kardashian, women can be left feeling inadequate, dissatisfied and worthless.

These feelings all feed into a toxic culture where body dysmorphic disorder is increasingly common, for men as well as for women. BDD can be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressants, namely selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

However, we need to see a greater cultural change to prevent new cases of BDD and allow all people to feel at peace with their own bodies.

 

How to help a friend who’s going through a shit time with their mental health

Compassion and understanding are key. Go forth, help your friends and don’t be a dick.   

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Unfortunately, mental health is still surrounded by a great deal of stigma and misinformation. Poor understanding of mental health problems leaves sufferers feeling isolated and too embarrassed or apprehensive to seek help.

Statistically, every single one of us will know someone who suffers from a mental illness. If you’ve got a friend who’s having a hard time with their mental health, it’s often difficult to know what the best thing to do is.

I’ve created this list in the hope that it could be helpful because I’ve been let down and abandoned by friends, bullied by a group of people I thought were my friends and I’ve felt completely alone with my mental illness. There are ways you can help a friend who’s struggling without putting your life on hold or inadvertently making things worse for them.

Listen to them

This really is the biggest thing you can do to help. Sit down with your friend, open your ears and listen. If they want to talk about how they feel, listen without judgement or blame. Mental health is not the fault of anyone. It doesn’t matter if they make what you consider to be ‘bad choices’ or they use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. No one brings a mental illness upon themselves.

Ask them what you can do for them. This is important because they might have specific things they need help with that you may not have considered. It’s often better to ask them if they want you to offer them advice, rather than coming out with unsolicited suggestions that they might already considered.

Preaching, rehashing mistakes you think they’ve made or saying ‘I told you so’ are all very unhelpful.

Don’t leave them alone unless that’s what they’ve specifically asked you to do 

This can be a tricky one, but as a general rule of thumb, if your friend feels abandoned or like you’re punishing them for struggling with their mental health, it’s going to make the situation indescribably worse. If you don’t know what to say, just listen. If you don’t know what to do, ask them. Feeling awkward or confused or scared is totally normal, but if you end up giving someone who’s suffering the cold shoulder because you feel a bit weird about the situation, it’s not going to help anyone.

Obviously, a lot depends on how much you can personally cope with and whether you feel that being there for your friend is negatively impacting on your own mental health. This is particularly pertinent if you also suffer from mental health issues.

Boundaries are important in any healthy relationship but you should be clear about these. For example, if you can’t take a day off work to look after a friend, tell them so, tell them why and arrange to see them in the evening once work has finished. You’re still being there for them, but you can’t be available 24/7.

Suggest low-risk activities.

Whether it’s watching a happy film (a comedy or a kids film is often a good choice), getting a takeaway delivered and eating together or sitting down with a cup of tea, ask them whether any of those options take their fancy.

It’s probably a good idea to avoid crowded places and alcohol. However, some people find it easier to open up about what’s been bothering them over a drink. It really depends on the situation, your friend’s mental health history and the severity of the crisis they’re having.

Make yourself available for errands and boring household tasks

One of the most helpful things when people are struggling is to offer to do a couple of chores for them. This can be washing up and wiping their kitchen surfaces, walking their dog or going to Tesco and picking up comfort food if they’re not feeling up to leaving the house. If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, the prospect of blitzing your home or doing a shop can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

I ended up hand-washing a bath full of my friend’s clothes because her washing machine was broken and she was having a really tough couple of days. Chores and responsibilities were piling up and seemed completely overwhelming, but because I was able to get the washing out of the way for her, the other tasks she had to complete seemed more manageable.

It always helps to have a living space that’s not completely cluttered or full of takeaway boxes – for many people, a messy environment just reminds them of how they’re not coping at full capacity and reflects their headspace.

Don’t gossip about their mental health or the situation they’re in to other friends 

It’s tempting to do this if you want advice or need support. Try asking your friend first. If they’re comfortable with you seeking advice from one other person, that’s great. But if they’re not, don’t tell your mates about what they’re going through.

No one wants to feel like they’re being talked about, and if you’re really struggling, your mind can go to dark places imagining what people are saying about you.

There are lots of great online and phone resources you can access if you’re caring for someone else, including Mind, YoungMinds, the 111 number, Rethink and the Samaritans.

If the situation becomes more serious and your friend is threatening to harm themselves, has self-harmed or is planning to commit suicide, ringing an ambulance, the NHS crisis team or the 111 number is often the only thing you can do.

Encourage them to seek professional help

Most of us (myself included) are absolutely not trained in mental health support. We’re just trying to do our best in the situation that presents itself. You should always encourage a friend to access mental health services, whether that’s making an appointment with their GP, making an emergency GP appointment, going to an out-of-hours GP service, attending a therapist, ringing the Samaritans or the crisis team or, in extreme situations, going to A&E.

Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’

If it was that easy, they already would be over it! Mental health problems don’t have quick fix solutions. You don’t decide to me mentally ill and you don’t decide to not be mentally ill anymore. Directives like ‘pull yourself together’ and ‘snap out of it’ are useless and damaging. They really won’t help, as much as you might want someone to change their mindset and stop feeling so bad.

Remember that they’re still the same person

There’s nothing weak or weird about someone who’s struggling with a mental health problem. Your friend hasn’t become a different person. You still share your good times, your memories, your in-jokes and your experiences. Treat them as your friend. Don’t ‘other’ them.

By bringing normality into this situation, you show the person that you still value them as the friend they are and that their mental health problems don’t make them an outcast or a stranger to you.

Compassion and understanding are key. Go forth, help your friends and don’t be a dick.

MADE IN MANCHESTER: An Interview With Mystery Artist Mancsy

Mancsy’s art reads as a love letter to the city of Manchester and its people. Every screen print and mosaic celebrates the industrial roots of the city, and the contemporary creativity that makes it such a unique and exciting place to live.

Mancsy’s art reads as a love letter to the city of Manchester and its people. Every screen print and mosaic celebrates the industrial roots of the city, and the contemporary creativity that makes it such a unique and exciting place to live.

The brand new Mancsy Visits Victoria Warehouse exhibition will run from Thurs 23 April to Sun 10 May, and features twelve new designs, plus well-loved favourites from Mancsy’s online catalogue.
I chatted to Mancsy to find out more.

Harriet Williamson: Let’s start with the big questions! What inspired you to become Mancsy?

Mancsy: It was an idea I had while hanging about Stevenson Square one day, thinking about the hazard stripes on the back of Dry Bar, looking at the double yellow lines crumbling on the road and thinking about Manchester. I’d been looking at the coat of arms around this time, so the bee graphic emerged. I thought about spray painting it as a tag but felt that it was meaningless. I decided to make a set of limited edition screen prints and give them away using the streets as a gallery. I started in January 2012. My concept was really to get folk to look about them and see the beauty in the streets of our great city.

 

H: Talk me through some of the symbolism in your screen prints…

M: The bee is the symbol of the people of Manchester, Greater Manchester as well. The bee comes from the coat of arms representing the hive of industry in the industrial revolution. My bee has a hazard stripe referring to our cultural development. Today I believe we are a capital of creativity. Manchester has a history of firsts and it stands to reason that creative people make things happen. In other pieces my ideas emerge. Sometimes I’m just making something for me. In my second year of prints I supported a cause, unbeknown to the organisers, like The Feral Pigeon Project or Dogs in Salford Facebook page. It went down well.

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H: Has every piece of art you’ve left in public been found and appreciated?

M: In the early days I made 20-25. I always keep number 1 of each edition. Some got rained on. One recently got tore up by a teenager in Ancoats who was gutted when someone told him he could have sold it for £25!

H: The prices on your website are really, really reasonable. Is this deliberate? Are you trying to make your art accessible rather than charging top dollar for it?

M: Until September 2014, other than ones sold in the Kosmonaut exhibition, I’d given all my work away on the streets or posted prints out to people. It was getting to a point where I could no longer afford to keep Mancsy going. Mrs Mancsy calculated I’d given away £28,000 worth of art at my website prices. I felt that was a good thing.

It was crunch point, so I had to do something. I set up the online shop and revamped my website so people could check what they had. It was a success. In effect, the site’s there not to make me rich but to sustain the street giveaways. Each month a new design can be found, if you don’t find one you can now buy one.

H: In your opinion, what makes Manchester a unique city?

M: The people are brilliant, they shape a place. I love the city’s atmosphere, its architecture, its reinvention. It’s my home.

H: Do you have a team helping you or is Mancsy a lone wolf?

M: I was a loner with a big ball of blu tack, now I’ve a small team. I trust them explicitly, plus they all signed a non-disclosure agreement!

H: Any exciting plans for 2015 that aren’t top secret?

M: I’ve an upcoming exhibition with Manchester Mosaics, she’s turning some of my most popular designs into A1 mosaics. I’m always exploring new ideas.

www.mancsy.co.uk
Made in Manchester

 

Coachella: Cultural Appropriation, Rape T-Shirts and Why We Should Care

Ah, Coachella. The most glamorous and star-studded of all the festivals, always enshrined in sunlight and bedecked with flower crowns.

Ah, Coachella. The most glamorous and star-studded of all the festivals, always enshrined in sunlight and bedecked with flower crowns. We don’t have an equivalent in soggy Britain, not even in the form of our hallowed Glastonbury with its miles of mud and ageing hippies complaining that the whole things has become too commercial.

Coachella is for beautiful young things, dressed in Free People and suspiciously clean for music festival attendees, primed to celeb-spot Bieber or the Jenner sisters. It’s also a hotbed of ignorant sartorial choices, ranging from the Native American headdress to the jewelled bindi. However, this year Coachella has really outdone itself, causing mass offence in the form of one man wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’.

This incredibly clever and nuanced reworking of ‘eat sleep rave repeat’ from the 2013 Fatboy Slim and Riva Starr track manages to perfectly epitomize rape culture in the form of a single, probably home-made, festival shirt.

Jemayel Khawaja, managing editor of Vice’s EDM site THUMP, was the first to tweet a picture of the t-shirt wearer. Khawaja told THUMP that “he seemed really stoked about it when I asked to take a picture, thus the cheeseball smile”. Not only did the t-shirt guy think there was nothing wrong with wearing the offending article of clothing, but he was proud to pose for a snap to showcase his totally edgy choice of attire.

One of the most pervasive elements of rape culture is how rape and sexual assault are normalized to the point that they become amusing. Rape is a monstrous crime. It causes immense suffering, and often leaves survivors battling serious mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder. It should not be used as a fun t-shirt slogan, a way to show others how irreverent and daring your brand of humour is. There’s nothing daring about using humour to punch downwards. You risk nothing by reinforcing the status quo: that rape isn’t a big deal, that people just need to ‘lighten up’ about it, and having to consider the fact that 1 in 5 In the UK have suffered sexual violence is a huge threat to your freedom of speech.

It’s not just the ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’ wearer who should think more carefully about his fashion choices. Music festivals have largely become synonymous with cultural appropriation, and none more so than Coachella. Celebrity attendees continue to set a bad example, with Vanessa Hudgens, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner emerging year-on-year as appropriation queens.

By adopting sacred symbols of another culture, you reduce them to cheap fashion choices and disregard the history behind them. White, half-naked festival goers wearing versions of the Native warbonnet is incredibly offensive, and has been likened to wearing blackface or a medal of honour that you didn’t earn.

The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is not always completely clear cut, but as a good rule of thumb, if you’re wearing a bindi or a warbonnet because it looks cool or pretty or on trend, you’re falling into the appropriation category. It’s not ok to pick and choose bits of another culture to make up your festival wardrobe or to help you up your Instagram follower count.

Donning a bindi or a feathered headdress might not be as immediately shocking as wearing the vile ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’ shirt, but both are ignorant expressions of privilege. To even mention privilege might make me a hand-wringing liberal leftie, but to fail to recognise privilege smacks of a wider lack of humanity and compassion.

If you’d experienced racist harassment and bullying, or cultural invisibility, it might stick in your throat when symbols of your culture are misused and made into accessories for people with no understanding of your heritage. If you’d ever experienced sexual violence, you might not be amused when your experience is packaged as a hilarious t-shirt slogan.

Come on, Coachella party people. Do better.

‘Devo Fever’ and what it will mean for Greater Manchester

Devolutionary fever is gripping the UK. After the failure (or triumph, depending on your perspective) of the Scottish Referendum, the conversation about centralized power is far from over, and Manchester seems to be the new focus of Britain’s devolutionary zeal.

Devolutionary fever is gripping the UK. After the failure (or triumph, depending on your perspective) of the Scottish Referendum, the conversation about centralized power is far from over, and Manchester seems to be the new focus of Britain’s devolutionary zeal. The prospect of getting our very own Boris Johnson is intensely exciting, but only if our mayor has nothing in common with bumbling Boris.

As part of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plans, announced in a speech in June, Manchester will be awarded a democratically elected mayor and devolutionary powers worth £1bn. The initiative, named ‘Devo Manc’ will see the post of police and crime commissioner for the Greater Manchester police scrapped and the elected mayor taking over this role.

The devolved powers that Manchester will enjoy include transport, and an Oyster-style card will be introduced for travelling across the city. With a population of 2.55 million people and as home to the busiest bus route in Europe, it’s only surprising that Manchester hasn’t already got a smart ticketing system that can be used across public transport. The GMCA will have more control over planning and policing, and complete control of the health and social care budget. Osborne has also promised to give Manchester a new housing investment fund of over £300m and a budget of £100m to help 50,000 people get back into work. As kind as it is for the Chancellor to give us £300m for housing, he might want to look at the insane crisis happening in the capital and build some homes that non-millionaires can afford to live in.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is keen to see full devolution for the £22bn of public spending in the city, an aspiration that doesn’t seem unreasonable when you consider that Manchester has previously led the way in terms of showing how local authorities can work together. In 1986, 10 councils in Greater Manchester (Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Oldham, Manchester, Trafford, Tameside, Salford, Rochdale and Stockport) banded together to form the Association of Greater Manchester (this later turned into the GMCA).

Although the ‘Devo Manc’ plans don’t include the £1bn spent across Greater Manchester on education, they theoretically mean that the new mayor will have more power than the Mayor of London. They will be directly accountable to the public after a 2017 election, although a temporary mayor will be appointed in January of next year to control the GMCA before the election takes place. Hopefully, the influx of cash and the new confidence given to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will see the north-south pay gap dwindle, as the last figures from 2010 showed that the gross disposable household income per head was £13,026 in Greater Manchester, while London enjoyed disposable income of £19,038.

Public opinion on Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ push is divided. I took to the streets to ask Manchester residents what they thought about the prospect of getting a shiny new Mayor. Helen, a journalist, said that “it makes sense of have an accountable representative. Manchester having a mayor was always part of the deal since his first ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech in June. Osborne has been clear that he won’t relinquish the power and money until there is an elected figurehead.”

Anthony, a company director, said he’d like to see a mayor of Manchester, because “there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed, including litter, traffic, road works, and ugly tower blocks being built that will look like council tenements in a few years”. He added that he’d like to have a say in these matters. Matt, who manages a bar, felt that substantial changes had to be made in order for the initiative to be worthwhile. He said “if one person wants to take the responsibility to actually make transport and welfare better, then it’s a good idea. I will want to see big changes as a result though.”

Others were less positive about the plans. Alex, who works in media production, said “I have no real opinion. So they may or may not bring in some decrepit, old freemason to rinse money out of the local economy so he can buy another Bentley. It wouldn’t surprise me.” Mark, a postal worker, felt that the powers of the new mayor might be too far reaching. “I don’t think it’s a good idea because 10 councils shouldn’t be controlled by one person.” There are legitimate concerns about a single mayor representing a city as diverse as Manchester, but if London can do it, so can we.

The north of England has too long been ignored and discounted by the gang in Westminster. In July last year, the Tory peer Lord Howell of Guildford remarked that fracking should be carried out in ‘desolate’ areas of the north east, demonstrating his disdain for the bits of Britain that aren’t the south or London. Media coverage in the UK focuses on London at the expense of all other regions, and The Guardian’s Manchester office boasts just one reporter with the responsibility for covering the entirety of England’s midlands and north. London is where the largest businesses are gathered, where the arts and culture flourish and are funded, and where the majority of the national press holds court. The bulk of my university peers moved to London after graduation, drawn by the employment opportunities and the sense that London is where power and success are centralized.

Dare I say it? I’m bored of London. I’m tired of reading about it and hearing about it and being told that to make good in any field, I need to move into a room smaller than Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, in a flat where my rent is twice as high as in my current Manchester residence. Enough of this London-centric bias. Manchester deserves this investment and the chance to take control of its spending and, ultimately, its direction.

Jamie, a furniture buyer, raised an interesting point about the Chancellor’s motives. He said “I’m all for devolution of power and an elected councillor controlling the region’s money, but I’m always suspicious when a Conservative government offers a northern city power”. He added that “I see it as a cynical vote-grabbing exercise in a city where they remain unpopular and Manchester City Council holds one Tory out of 96 councillors”.

 

Sam Pepper and Why Street Harassment Isn’t Funny

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It seems painfully obvious to state that sexually assaulting women is not ‘funny’ or a ‘prank’. It should also go without saying that you can’t smooth things over when you’ve done something unpleasant to women, by doing the same unpleasant thing to men.

Sam Pepper, a popular YouTuber and former Big Brother contestant, uploaded a video over the weekend that shows him approaching various women in the street, and groping their bums without their consent. The ‘Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank’ gathered more than a million views before it was removed from YouTube for violating their Terms of Service.

Viewers were angry, partially because what Pepper did was vile, but also because the majority of women have at some point experienced sexual harassment in a public place and the video’s content was all too familiar. The widespread nature of street harassment means that it forms an ugly canvas, against which our interactions on public transport and in public spaces are painted. It includes catcalls, whistling, sexual comments, groping, flashing and masturbation. It is so prolific that the Everyday Sexism campaign, founded by Laura Bates, receives thousands of tweets every week from men and women sharing their experiences of harassment, and currently has 172,000 followers.

We recognise street harassment because we’re so used to it, and this is why Pepper’s video was not welcomed by the online community. It doesn’t matter who is grabbing your boobs or bum without your permission, whether it’s a ‘creepy old man’ or a young, famous YouTuber. The effect is the same. It compromises bodily autonomy – meaning that your body is no longer yours when in public. It becomes common property, of men who feel able to touch you without resistance or consequence. The same anger and fear and shame is present, along with the weary sense that as a woman in public, you’re forced to put up with this shit.

Sam Pepper has more than 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube, and the majority are young girls. They should not be shown that sexual harassment is a funny or profitable prank that garners viewers while leaving the person being groped without consent as the butt of the joke.

YouTuber Laci Green, who broadcasts a popular sex education series, has released an articulate open letter, addressed to Pepper and signed by several internet stars, including Hank and John Green, Meghan Tonjes, Tyler Oakley and Wil Wheaton. Sam Pepper has released two new videos, explaining his intentions. One shows a female actor pinching the behinds of unsuspecting men, as though by reversing the roles Pepper has made a point with his sad little stunt. Someone should let him know that harassing men doesn’t make up for harassing women.

If the women in the first video are, as Pepper now claims, were actors who were fully aware of the situation, the question of why he turned assault or staged-assault into a prank remains pertinent. Would he have revealed that the women were in on the ‘joke’ had the backlash not been so strong? I suspect not, and kindly request that Pepper keeps his ill-conceived ‘social experiments’ and hands to himself in future. Where’s the unsubscribe button?

What Are MPs Doing About Street Harassment?

First published by The Backbencher, 22nd May 2014

If you’re female and reading this article, you’ve probably experienced some form of street harassment. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing or how much of a hurry you seem to be in. Street harassment is thoroughly ingrained in the existence of millions of women and girls across the UK. Both myself and my younger sister experience street harassment at least once a week.

If you’re not convinced about the widespread nature of the problem, log on to Twitter and peruse Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project. It currently has 144,000 followers and receives thousands of tweets every week, from men and women who want to share their daily experiences of sexual harassment and abuse.
One woman describes returning to her building after grocery shopping and being told by two men that they would help her carry her bags if she ‘showed them her tits’. Another woman was shouted at from a van: ‘I’d fuck you!’. When walking home with her young son, a woman was confronted by a man who told her that he was ‘going to get inside her’. From girls in their school uniforms, to lesbians, disabled women and cancer suffers, the stories of harassment and assault abound. Women do not ‘invite’ these comments with their attire, as there are as many stories of women being harassed in running gear, business suits and baggy jeans as there are of women experiencing the same behaviour in party dresses or clubwear.
Street harassment doesn’t just include catcalls, whistles and sexual comments. It also encompasses being grabbed, groped and otherwise touched inappropriately in the street. An official report in 2013 showed than one in five women over the age of 16 has been the victim of a sexual offence. The hashtag #grabbed is currently providing a space for women to recount their experiences of being physically molested in public spaces.
The idea that street harassment should be ‘taken as a compliment’ or experienced as ‘flattering’ has gone on too long. This concept has been encouraged by men who have never experienced sexual harassment, men who wish to normalize their actions, and the misguided comments of Vice columnist Paris Lees. Any woman who has refused to respond or spoken back when faced with a comment or catcall knows that the intention of the harasser is not to flatter. All too often, the whistles turn quickly into abusive and aggressive remarks. Laura Bates describes an incident where two men stared at her breasts and one turned to the other to remark ‘I’d take a knife to that’.
One of the most disturbing things about the prevalence of catcalls and sexualized comments is that it helps to create a culture where women’s bodies are ‘fair game’, objects in a public arena that can be judged and remarked upon in an aggressive sexual manner. If men feel as if they have the right to make sexualized judgements ‘I’d do her’ in public, the bodily autonomy of the woman in question is compromised. Sexual offences including grabbing, groping and serious assault are more likely to occur, and women are in turn less likely to report them, as they simply become part of an ugly tapestry of harassment that unfolds on a daily basis. Laura Bates describes the ‘background noise of harassment and disrespect’ as inextricably linked to ‘the assertion of power that is violence and rape’.
What are our current MPs doing about the prevalence of street harassment? The answer to this question appears to be ‘very little’. Maria Miller, the former minister for Women and Equalities hardly made a ripple when it came to women’s issues and voted to reduce the upper limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks. The current Minister for Women is Nicky Morgan, who voted against the legalization of gay marriage and is described as being ‘moderately against’ gay legislation by the website TheyWorkForYou which records the voting records of politicians. I don’t believe that we can expect any meaningful discussion on the issue of street harassment from Morgan, who only appears to represent heterosexual women. It’s worth remembering that members of the LGBTQ+ community report higher levels of harassment in public spaces, according to research from stopstreetharassment.com.
Let’s hope that Stella Creasy, the outspoken and highly articulate Labour MP for Warmslow will be encouraged to spearhead the discussion about street harassment. Creasy has received her share of death and rape threats via Twitter for raising her voice on issues like the inclusion of a famous woman on Britain’s banknotes. Until then, we must keep #ShoutingBack about our experiences of harassment without shame, and educate the men in our lives about the importance of respect. A catcall is not a compliment.