Monday, 30 March 2015

Pink is not the enemy

My eldest daughter when she was about 4 and loving all things pink

It's been a few months now since Maggie's photo protesting Tesco's marketing of a superhero alarm clock as a gift for boys went viral and life has settled back down after a crazy few weeks.
I've had time since to reflect on some of the comments I received during that time. Not just the negative, I addressed most of those at the time in this blog, although just to clarify I never asked for, expected nor received any compensation from Tesco nor any remuneration from the various media outlets that covered the story. And similarly Maggie never asked for nor expected the alarm clock, this wasn't a spoilt child demanding a toy - she was annoyed at the principle because she knows children are teased or bullied for not conforming to accepted gender norms. She is aware how lucky she is and was in tears recently watching Comic Relief. She does now have the clock, it was bought for her as a Christmas present but it was a complete surprise received with genuine gratitude.
So with that off my chest I'm going to address some of the positive comments we received. It was touching to hear from people who had been on the end of mean and cruel statements, from the mother whose daughter was upset at Halloween because she was criticised for wearing a Batman costume to the young man teased for his Barbie collection. That is what Maggie and I were were making a stand against so it really meant something to hear our small protest might make some difference for people like this.
We were also both immensely grateful to receive so many compliments, I am very proud to have a daughter who is prepared to stand up for her principles and to think of others. However, while undoubtedly well meant she was also praised for not conforming to gender norms and this is where I politely disagree that she deserves plaudits any more than the little girl who wants to spend all day dressed as a princess surrounded by glitter. Being girly should never be seen as a negative character trait, our daughters should know that being feminine isn't a weakness. Pink is not the enemy, marketing pink as the only choice for girls is. Girls should no more be criticised for choosing a tiara than they are for wearing a Spiderman costume. Likewise while it's great when boys choose dolls or kitchens, that choice is not inherently better than the boy who wants a car or tool set. Parents shouldn't be apologetic when their daughter picks the soft toy or their son wants the digger.
Our children should be able to walk into any toy store and feel they can have the freedom to choose from any aisle, they should feel comfortable and confident in whatever clothes they wear. Our job is to let them know they have that choice, to accept them as they are and to teach them to accept others for who they are.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Maggie v. Tesco, our story.

Some of you may have seen this picture of my youngest daughter, Maggie recently. Much to our surprise it seems to have gone viral. I haven't actually tweeted much about it and only answered a few questions from Buzzfeed so have decided to write this blog to explain how the picture came about and to answer a few points raised.
On Saturday I was with Maggie in the Tower Park Tesco store, it's a branch I'm not that familiar with and so we were wandering up and down the aisles trying to find things. She was talking to me about The Flash and said it would be really cool if he was in the shop. I agreed and suggested I could give him my shopping list and he could get the stuff far more quickly than we were managing, "Don't be silly Mummy, The Flash is too fast for shopping!"
Soon after that she spotted the sign. I was distracted looking for something and wouldn't have noticed it if she hadn't pointed it out. Last year she started coming home from school saying some of her friends were suggesting some toys were for girls and some for boys. I explained that they were wrong, if the toy looks fun to play with then anybody should be able to play with it. She could play with knights and dragons (her thing at the time) and boys could play with dolls and kitchens if they wanted to. We agreed that "everybody can like what they want to like." So when she noticed the sign in Tesco I was pleased she'd remembered our conversation and impressed by her indignation (and a little amused by her cross face). I suggested taking a photo mostly because I thought she looked cute and I thought I'd show some friends on Facebook who share my feelings on toys. Shortly after that she went back to the car with her dad while I finished the shopping and we didn't think much more about it. Later that day I posted it on Facebook and a friend suggested I share it with Tesco and Let Toys Be Toys. I tweeted it not really expecting much of a reaction, it was a Saturday evening, I supposed social media staff were signed off for the night. I hoped it would be retweeted a few times so that Tesco noticed it and would perhaps respond. If they removed the sign then we'd feel we'd done something positive, if they didn't we would point and roll our eyes at the silliness whenever we spotted it.
Then it went viral. Tesco responded quite quickly with an apology and a promise to remove the sign in the store. They've since confirmed it will be removed from all stores. Buzzfeed asked if they could run a story and I agreed because I wanted to show Maggie that it's worth standing up for what you believe in. It's now Tuesday and her picture is still being retweeted with most people agreeing with her. Some people have disagreed though, as is their right. I am not going to get into arguments over it on Twitter but thought I'd respond to a few points here.

"There are worse things happening in the world." Absolutely right, I never suggested otherwise. It was only a small moment in our day. I'm well aware far more shocking things are happening across the world right now. It's not a huge thing in my life either, my other blog about my brother's suicide should demonstrate I've dealt with far more than an annoying sign.
However, just because there are terrible things happening doesn't mean we can't point out the smaller things. I think part of the reason this has gone viral is because people often feel helpless and yet in a very small way seeing a little girl change something has made people realise now and again you can make a bit of difference.

"You're turning her into a man-hating feminist." Rubbish! My own heroes are my grandfather who passed away in 2012 and my brother who does vital work supporting homeless and vulnerable young people. Why would I want her to hate men? However, I do want her to grow up believing people are equal, regardless of their sex, skin colour, race or sexuality, and I want her to feel empowered to stand up for her beliefs.

"It's just a sign, not an instruction. Buy the toy if you want to." Yes, I'm aware of that but I'm an adult. Small children on the other hand often believe what they're told and if they're constantly seeing signs telling them something is "for boys" or "for girls" they may start to believe it, particularly when their peers are also seeing these labels and parroting them at school. Remember the eleven year old boy who attempted suicide earlier this year because he was bullied for liking My Little Pony?  That's why these signs and labels are damaging, not because my daughter was annoyed but because children are being teased and bullied for not conforming to the perceived gender norms. I know most boys like superheroes and most girls like princesses, some though don't - or like both. This is for them.

Yesterday I received a tweet from somebody who said "Your little girl, makes it easier for my little girl to be herself. Thanks."

That's what makes all this worth it.

Friday, 10 October 2014

World Mental Health Day 2014 - Schizophrenia Awareness

It's World Mental Health Day today and after the loss of my brother to suicide, a day I'm always keen to support. This year the focus is on raising awareness of schizophrenia. It is a condition I know little about, as far as I know I don't know anybody with it (although of course the stigma surrounding the illness may mean I do know people affected but they haven't disclosed it). So it's not a condition that directly affects me nor am I a carer, family member or friend of somebody living with schizophrenia. So why am I writing about it today?
My brother's death was a thunderbolt for me, not just in losing him but also the sudden and stark reminder that mental illness can affect us all, either directly or through the suffering of those close to us. We need to accept that mental illness is just that, illness and we are all susceptible. Therefore just because I don't currently know anybody with schizophrenia it shouldn't mean I don't educate myself about the condition and days like World Mental Health Day mean I can learn more and add my voice to those asking for better understanding, more money to be spent on treatment and support, improving access to care and  ensuring people in need receive the benefits they are entitled to without stigma and discrimination. I believe we have a moral duty as fellow human beings to offer solidarity and advocacy, being a part of society means recognising our obligation to help even if we are not directly affected because ultimately being in that society means we are all affected.
Schizophrenia affects approximately 26 million people globally, people with the condition live 15 - 20 years less than the general population, they are 6 - 7 times more likely to be unemployed, are more often homeless and in contact with the criminal justice system and 5 - 10% more likely to take their own life. Yet treatment and recovery is possible. Around 25% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover fully and a further 25 - 35% show considerable improvement and lead relatively independent lives. It is therefore a major health inequality that so many people with schizophrenia die at a younger age than average. People with schizophrenia are often in poor physical health due to side-effects from anti-psychotic medication, the Mental Health Foundation wants that addressed by requiring that GP's carry out regular health checks for all people with severe mental health problems. It also wants NICE guidelines for the treatment and management of schizophrenia and psychosis to be correctly adhered to, to ensure that people diagnosed with the condition have full access to a range of treatment and support, with the best care possible to help them manage their condition and recover. People also need high quality, safe and rapid access to help when they are having a mental health crisis, that means hospitals should provide comprehensive liaison psychiatry services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A typical misleading and scaremongering headline
We need as a society to demand these rights for people living with mental illness, in the same way we demand the best treatment possible for people suffering physical illnesses. Many people believe mental health and physical health shouldn't be considered separately, the brain after all is a part of the body and people with mental health issues often have physical symptoms too. Indeed the World Health Organisation definition of health is as follows, " Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Recognising mental illness as a physical health issue could go some way to reducing stigma. We need therefore to learn to look beyond the scaremongering headlines, schizophrenia isn't a Care in the Community failure with hordes of dangerous psychotics roaming the streets, 99.7% of people suffering with schizophrenia will not be convicted of a violent crime in a given year, in fact sufferers are 14 times more likely to be a victim of violence. We need to revise old prejudices and realise that one way or another we are all living with schizophrenia and we all have an obligation to educate ourselves, to stop discriminating and to work with sufferers and advocates to ensure those diagnosed receive the full help and support that should be their right.
Statistics and facts taken from the Mental Health Foundation website, please click the link for more information on what schizophrenia is, living with the condition and what needs to be done to help.

Thursday, 8 May 2014


Yesterday on Facebook I posted a comment about how every day I see so many anti UKIP statuses and links on my timeline and that I've chosen my friends well. One of my friends replied, "Now if only I could say the same about links to bloody Frozen..."
Being the good friend I am (!) I could only respond one way - so with sincere apologies to the writers of Let It Go from Frozen, I give you...

Farage grins wide on the TV tonight
"No immigrants to be seen
A kingdom for the English
And it looks like I can win

The EU is letting all these foreigners inside
Couldn’t keep them out, heaven knows I tried

Don't let them in, don't let them breed,
Be the English you always want to be
They'll take our jobs and claim the dole
Well I say no"

UKIP go, UKIP go
Can't hold it back any more
UKIP go, UKIP go
Go away and slam the door

I don't care
What you're going to say
Let the bigots rage on
Your lies never bothered me anyway

It's funny how your policies
Cannot be found at all
And the fears you try to pass on
Don't get to me at all

It's time to see what I can do
To stop you racists coming through
I'm right, you're wrong, no lies for me
For I can see

UKIP go, UKIP go
You don't speak for me, don't try
UKIP go, UKIP go
We all know that you lie

Here I stand
And here I'll stay
Let you just rage on

UKIP will run the NHS into the ground
Pregnant women, sick and disabled rights will not be found
And so we need to keep this resolution fast
UKIP can't win, let's consign them to the past

UKIP go, UKIP go
This country won't be torn
UKIP go, UKIP go
I won't rest till you're gone

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let you just rage on
Your lies never bothered me anyway.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Peaches Geldof's death; tragic, not selfish

Yesterday we learned that "Recent use of heroin and the levels identified were likely to have played a role" in Peaches Geldof's tragic death. As well as the many thoughtful comments I read yesterday I saw several which were quick to condemn her actions as those of a junkie mother who deserves no sympathy. Rather than being so quick to start pointing the finger we need to think about what demons drove her to drugs. She was clearly a mother who adored her children, so to be at a point where she would need to take heroin in their presence (if reports are true she had one of her children in the house with her when she died) then that doesn't say selfishness to me, it suggests an overpowering desperation. Addiction is not enjoyable, it's an illness that controls and destroys lives. There is so much stigma around mental health and addiction possibly gets the worst of it. Heroin use can be a destructive vicious circle; the short term high may relieve physical and emotional pain but the long term effects of taking it are dependency and depression relieved only briefly by another hit. We can't know why Peaches turned to the drug that killed her own mother, what dark place she may have been in. Instead of being so quick to judge why people become addicted to something maybe we should accept we don't know their lives and what led them to their drug of choice? Even if elements of our lives are similar we are not them, we've not lived the same lives, not felt the same emotions,  not experienced the same pain and the desperate need to end that pain.
My brother was a heroin addict. He killed himself in 2012. Not with heroin, he gassed himself in his car but his postmortem showed he had drugs in his body at the time of his death. The last thing we as his family needed to hear after he died was that he had been selfish (and we did hear it a few times). When your world has been tilted from its axis, when your head is so full of every emotion imaginable you fear it might explode, when it feels as though part of you has been violently ripped out you do not need to hear that the person you loved chose to leave you through selfishness. The note he left showed we were in his thoughts, he had been thinking of us but he believed the pain he was feeling had become such that dying was his only option, he couldn't bear it any more.
Peaches deserves compassion; none of us know what she was feeling in her last few moments, but so too do her family, they need the time and space to grieve the woman they loved. What they don't need is strangers making cruel judgements on a situation they know next to nothing about. They will be experiencing  overwhelming emotions right now and anger will probably be one of them. That is normal and is their right, it is not our right to feel sanctimonious anger on their behalf. Their anger is not likely to last, it's just one feeling amongst the horrible confusion of feelings that come with a sudden and unexpected death. They don't need an uninformed public being angry and critical on their behalf. Her children in particular don't need to grow up in the glare of publicity as "the poor children left by the selfish and tragic Peaches Geldof." They need to know their mother loved them totally, that she didn't choose to leave them but she needed the unbearable pain that engulfed her to end and that is what led to her tragic loss of life (the same holds true for whether she hoped for a temporary respite from hurting or wanted it to end permanently). It wasn't selfishness nor recklessness, she was driven by the sort of anguish that most of us should count our lucky stars we can't even really imagine.
If you can't accept that then perhaps just consider this is one of those times where "if you can't say something nice..." should come into play.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Marriage, homosexuality and the matter of choice.

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

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I am judging children's books by their covers

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

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