Who Are Urban Outfitters?

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.

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

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.

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.

A Guide to Starting Your Masters Degree

So, you’ve got a Bachelors degree under your belt and you’ve decided to commit to further study. You might be wise with undergraduate experience but don’t expect your first term of the MA or MSc to be an extension of third year.

First published in The Independent, September 2013

So, you’ve got a Bachelors degree under your belt and you’ve decided to commit to further study. You might be wise with undergraduate experience but don’t expect your first term of the MA or MSc to be an extension of third year. The Masters can be an intense and intellectually fulfilling period of academic development as long as you put the work in. And there is plenty of work to prepare for. Below are my tips for settling into your Masters year, collected with the benefit of hindsight.

Remember how you made friends in first year – If like I did, you’ve moved to a new university for your Masters, it really is a case of starting over and making friends from scratch. I was overwhelmed by the nerves of a fresher to begin with but soon learned that the best way to overcome them was to plaster a smile on my face and start striking up conversations. I had my suspicions that everyone would already know each other but it wasn’t the case and as a student new to the university, I was in the majority. The friends I made were invaluable for combatting feelings of loneliness and isolation during intense periods of private study.

 

Do as much reading as possible – If there is recommended reading to go with your modules, don’t hesitate to get stuck into it as quickly as you can. The fact that there’s an academic step up between an undergraduate and Masters degree might seem obvious, but I was definitely not as prepared for it as I could’ve been. Imagine that the books you’ve read and the critics you’ve understood are like big guns and the more you have in your arsenal, the longer you survive in the zombie apocalypse that is postgraduate study. Or something like that.

Get to know your personal tutor – They are your academic support facility and there to be utilized as much as possible. Being on good terms with them is really important and if you feel that they aren’t helpful or aren’t a good match for you, just ask to change. Your department will be perfectly happy to relocate you with another tutor.

Get familiar with the printing and photocopying facilities – It’s likely that you’ll be using these a lot so make sure you’ve got plenty of money on your card if you rely on university printers. I spent £25 on printing during my MA but many of my peers spent £30 upwards. Also, photocopiers are a godsend for when you only need one chapter or a few pages out of a massive book and don’t want to carry the whole text home.

Go slouchy – The best buy I made during my MA were a pair of fleece-lined tracksuit bottoms. Yes, really. For those long, solitary working hours at your desk, have some comfy, warm and not particularly stylish garments to live in. No one has to see them apart from your housemates!

Learn to cook – Shoddy nutrition is bad for concentration. You might have been able to get away with living off takeaways and toast during the hazy days of your undergraduate degree but the Masters year is the perfect time to embrace the concept of BRAIN FOOD!

Prepare to multi-task – Unfortunately, having a Masters usually isn’t enough to have employers fawning over your CV, so use this year as an opportunity to supplement your study with work experience and other gems to boost your chances of being singled out. There will be plenty of career-specific conferences and panel talks put on by your department, so get involved.

Remember, you don’t know it all. It’s important to approach the Masters with openness and curiosity with regard to new ideas and new critical perspectives because this facilitates real academic growth. Also, never include ‘The Beginners Guide to Foucault’ in your bibliography. Just saying.

Why is bulimia seen as ‘more disgusting’ than anorexia?

A few days ago it was widely reported that new research on a simulated “out of body experience” could be useful in the treatment of anorexia, because sufferers so often experience a disconnection between what they see and the actual shape of their bodies.

First published in The Telegraph, 2nd September 2013

A few days ago it was widely reported that new research on a simulated “out of body experience” could be useful in the treatment of anorexia, because sufferers so often experience a disconnection between what they see and the actual shape of their bodies. My first thought was that it all sounded a bit science fiction, but I soon started to wonder why the article only mentioned anorexia, when bulimia sufferers are similarly beset with frightening body dysmorphia (an anxiety disorder which causes people to spend a lot of time worrying about their physical appearance). To me, this seems illustrative of a wider problem of silence and ignorance when it comes to the discussion of bulimia.
It is extremely difficult to find reliable figures on the number of people who have an eating disorder in this country, simply because data is collected only at the most serious end of the spectrum, when patients are so unwell that they require a hospital bed. Millions more cases go undiagnosed and there is no information regarding those who are currently waiting for treatment.

However, the charity B-eat suggests that 1.6 million people in the UK currently suffer from an eating disorder, and that 40 per cent of these are bulimic. This makes bulimia four times as common as anorexia and the remaining percentage includes those with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) which covers patients who exhibit mixed symptoms of anorexia and bulimia. Why then, are we not talking more about bulimia?

The first reason is that we like to have tangible, physical evidence of an illness before we take it seriously, which is why unhelpful attitudes still exist around mental health issues including depression. Anorexia manifests itself in evident weight-loss while bulimia sufferers can often be at a normal weight. The idea that if you’re not unhealthily thin, you can’t possibly have an eating disorder is hopelessly outdated but still widespread.

Kate, a 22 year-old make-up artist, describes her bulimia as something that the people around her found it “easy to close the door on and pretend wasn’t happening” because the physical symptoms were not always immediate. However, the damage that bulimia does is very real and side effects include anaemia, swollen cheeks, depression, dizziness, fatigue, dry skin, abrasions on knuckles, tearing of the oesophagus, blood in vomit, ulcers, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and electrolyte imbalance.

There is a greater stigma undeservedly attached to bulimia due to its characterisation by a cycle of bingeing and purging. Purging does not only refer to vomiting to compensate for a binge but includes the abuse of laxatives, compulsive exercising and fasting. I spent seven years struggling with an eating disorder and was diagnosed with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) because while at low weight that was part of the ‘anorexic range’, I would make myself sick after eating.

The anorexic part of my illness was treated by some friends as praiseworthy and I was repeatedly given positive reinforcement in the form of comments like “oh wow you’re so skinny” and “you’re so lucky, you can wear anything you want”. However, when the impulse to eat (and then binge) became too strong and bulimic behaviours began to surface, the negative and unkind responses were overwhelming. What I was doing was ‘disgusting’ and ‘wasteful’ and ‘selfish’. The iron-willed control and denial of anorexia was fine, but bulimia was seen as dirty and shameful, to be hidden at all costs.There is an obvious discrepancy between the number of people needing treatment and the services available, and appointments with specialist clinics can regularly take more than six months to materialize. GPs often do not have the specialist knowledge required to be helpful to those with eating disorders and during my undergraduate year at university I was told by a GP that all I really needed to do was “eat more baked potatoes”.

Kate is similarly candid and disappointed about her experience of healthcare professionals not taking the illness seriously. She says: “I was diagnosed with bi polar, when really if they had taken the time to discuss the bulimia with me they would have found that it was the cause, not a symptom of my mental health issues.”

The sense of shame felt by bulimics often prevents them from seeking treatment and this is completely unacceptable. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and misconceptions, social stigma and genuine lack of coordination on the part of health services must be recognised and challenged. When it comes to bulimia, we need to start talking because it is through honest discussion that social understanding and more meaningful support from family and friends is generated.

The Middle Class Bias at the Heart of Our Education System is Devastating

With another year’s A-Level results received and university places accepted, the idea that higher education is meant for all bright pupils, not simply those who can afford it, should not be a contentious one.

First published in The Independent 20th August 2013

With another year’s A-Level results received and university places accepted, the idea that higher education is meant for all bright pupils, not simply those who can afford it, should not be a contentious one. However, Professor Les Ebon, head of the Office of Fair Access, suggests that the undeniable middle-class bias in higher education is partly due to it being in the financial interest of universities to take on more students from middle-class backgrounds, because they have parents able to support them if they fall into financial difficulties and are therefore less likely to drop out. To me, this seems a potent illustration of the inequalities present in our education system and yet another disheartening obstruction to the educational attainment of pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

It is no secret that students who have attended schools in more deprived areas or who come from families without a tradition of higher education are at a disadvantage before they set foot upon a university campus. The number of students achieving As and A*s fell slightly this year from 26.6% to 26.3% but the proportion gaining top grades has been similarly high in recent years, suggesting that A-Level students must differentiate themselves in other ways when applying for competitive university places. The extra accomplishments that allow candidates to distinguish themselves tend to be the privilege of more middle-class students. If you come from a middle-class family, your parents are more likely to be able to afford music lessons or private tuition. If you go to a private or grammar school, or a high-performing comprehensive in a middle-class area, that school is more likely to be rich in resources and able to provide students with sporting opportunities and other extra-curricular activities.

Schools with a tradition of sending pupils to top universities will also be in the habit of offering greater support in the form of interview preparation and information about the kind of subject choices favoured by leading institutions. In 2010-11, a third of pupils from private schools went on to top universities and 2010 findings by the Sutton Trust indicate that private school pupils are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge than their state school counterparts. I refuse to believe that it is because students from poorly-performing comprehensive schools or cash-strapped backgrounds are ‘not as clever’. This is a case of financial segregation, occurring long before personal statements are penned.

The current government’s reforms will leave today’s graduates paying off around a crippling £60,000 in debts. With figures suggesting that one in ten graduates are jobless six months after leaving university and there are 4% fewer graduate jobs this year than in 2012, it is not as though employment is guaranteed for those with an increasingly expensive degree. These factors alone can discourage those from families in less financially advantageous positions from choosing a university education, despite being bright and able. Owen Jones, author of Chavs, goes on to describe the advantages middle-class graduates gain from their parents’ networks and contacts and how it is these graduates who can afford to work as unpaid interns when attempting to break into fields including journalism and politics.

Chancellor George Osborne has this year cut 10% from the student opportunity fund as part of his financial onslaught against the higher education sector, and this is simply not acceptable. This fund allows universities to meet some of the costs of attracting more students from diverse backgrounds, including what is spent on outreach programmes, and must be protected. The idea of Britain being a meritocracy where those who work hard are rewarded is questionable at best, as we all start from different places and under different circumstances. However, it is further undermined by the hike in tuition fees, universities’ view of middle-class students as a ‘safer bet’ and the subsequent bias against those from poorer backgrounds. Higher education should be available for every intelligent and aspirational student and I firmly believe that crude financial divisions should not prevent this from becoming a reality.

Depression at University

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.

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.

Why is Graduation So Expensive?

After three years of (hopefully) hard work, graduation day will be upon you. It’s nice to leave on a high note, with a day of celebration and moments shared with family and friends while dressed like you’ve stepped out of Goodbye, Mr Chips.

First published in The Independent 29th July 2013

After three years of (hopefully) hard work, graduation day will be upon you. It’s nice to leave on a high note, with a day of celebration and moments shared with family and friends while dressed like you’ve stepped out of Goodbye, Mr Chips. However, the reality is that graduation turns out to be just another university expense that doesn’t take into account the fact that graduates will at this time be struggling to pay off overdrafts, saving for postgraduate qualifications or attempting to break into the job market. The hike in tuition fees makes these added expenses seem increasingly unmanageable, particularly for students from less privileged backgrounds.

At Warwick, our gown and mortarboard suppliers were Ede and Ravenscroft, a suitably archaic company who do very brisk business in graduation season. Gown hire for 2013 is £45 for Bachelors degrees and climbs steadily for those graduating with Masters, dEDs, DPhils and higher Doctorates. Hiring costs £5 more if you do so over the phone. Why is hiring a black cape so pricey? It’s not like anyone wants to steal something that looks suspiciously like a shroud. You’ll wear the thing for a couple of hours and then hand it back with a certain sense of relief if the weather is particularly warm. A July graduation can often make you wish you’d never bothered with that new dress or suit underneath the gown. Buying the gown isn’t a particularly practical option either because if you go on to do a Masters or Doctorate at another university, you have to wear their robes and colours. How much wear are you actually going to get out of the gown? Unless of course, you go as Professor Snape for every fancy dress party henceforth.

Ede and Ravenscroft also provide official graduation photographs, because your grandparents don’t want to hang a snap taken on your dad’s phone on their living room wall. A ‘standard pack’ alone costs £40, which seems pretty excessive for an awkward shot against the standard backdrop that you probably had for school photos. The charges are also higher on the day of the ceremony.

The other thing to consider about graduation is the cost to your family, who will inevitably want to be there on the day and tweak your cap straight at every possible opportunity. Think of the petrol money or train fares (which won’t be cheap) plus the celebratory drinks that will be bought or the meal you’ll probably want to go out for, and you’ve got an expensive day out. The Williamson clan, including my grandparents, brought their own sandwiches. I was so scared that we would look out of place next to my posh university friends’ parents that I nagged everyone rotten about their outfits and being on ‘best behaviour’. Unfortunately, it ended up being me who lowered the tone by falling over during my walk out of the hall where graduation was held, and badly grazing both knees. Note to self: six inch Kurt Geigers are not appropriate for graduation and the added expensive of buying new shoes was completely unnecessary.

My graduation passed in a sweaty, stressful blur. The graduates were shunted about from queue to queue in a surprisingly regimented manner. Although I loved the traditional drama of the gown and the ‘don’t worry that you’re not an Oxbridge graduate’ speech from the university’s Chancellor, the day seemed like a huge cash-in on the part of the academic outfitters. Even though I hadn’t shelled out for the graduation ball (£69 for a glorified version of Year 13 prom), graduation day itself left me with a hole in my pocket. My friend Alex’s dad decided to total up the money they both would’ve spent on graduation and send her to Denmark instead…perhaps an option worth considering!