My travel photo diary

Alice Gilderdale (with extracts from her diary)

In 2016-17, I spent a year travelling. It was an amazing year of wandering around, asking questions and a lot of the time feeling a little lost. It was the biggest adventure I’ve ever had. However, it was the little things that mattered to me: it was the conversations we had around a fire, or the people I met on a bus. These are the things that stick in my mind. This is something, I learned, that can be found wherever you are – coming home made me realise this. I wanted to write about my travels, not as a blog or as a story, but maybe as a way to put together some of these small, funny, scary, sad, innocent moments, photos and diary entries… moments where I learnt a little. A story of the moments that make me want to continue travelling, continue searching for these memories, no matter where I am.

‘A little smile shared before chin tucking into soft blankets’

A lot of my travels were defined by the landscapes I travelled in. I would spend long days on buses or walking through winding streets. Never really sure where I was heading, but knowing I would find a companion or a beautiful moment along the way.

‘Always aiming highest, as that’s where the most beautiful view is found, where the emotions will drain away like rivers flowing below you’

Every new journey was an adventure, not just a way to move from place to place. I remember sitting in a car with my best friend Rabia, and during the last two hours of an 8-hour journey we kept our spirits high by shouting out all the Taylor Swift lyrics to the songs we used to sing in year 8. It was these kinds of sugar rushes we revelled in – thrills that came from letting your hair fly as you shoved our head out of the window, singing at the top of your voice, your heart beating so fast with the biggest of smiles spread across your face.

‘Thank you for the silent evening, sat by the lighthouse. For the delighted dancing to lively music.’

It was about feeling truly unconnected from the world around me, finding happiness in tripping from stone to stone, but feeling grounded by my beautiful surroundings. I could sit and watch the clouds pass by the mountains for hours. Their smokey beauty snaking around trees and mountains, majestically reminding me of my insignificance.

‘Look up towards the mist, shrouding the shoulders of these beautiful giants, the moon’s threads tangling and resting on high rocks and streams. Don’t look only at your small grasping hands, your cold feet, but up, up towards the beautiful heights of moonshine and winking stars’

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As a female traveller, a solo traveller, I delighted in my successes (and at just generally surviving). How I could steal all the blankets for myself when my roommate continued their travels, or when I managed to eat 6 bananas for breakfast. When I swapped clothes, addresses, stories with other people I met, I realised I was happy and doing well. I met another friend and we travelled up to the mountains. We were totally unprepared and didn’t have enough clothes for the freezing temperatures. But we would smoke beedis and drink cup after cup of boiling sugary chai to keep us warm.

These were times when people and places rushed by: we would gulp down scorching hot chai to run to catch our bus, but also times when I would sit in the Mona Lisa cafe with a book for hours because it was too hot to move. Every experience would be shrouded with excitement. I remember arriving in a new city in the middle of the night, to wake up the next morning and realising I was surrounded by the most beautiful mountains and colours I’d ever seen. The next evening I spent half an hour locked in an empty hostel room because I’d crept in to use their fancy toilet (we found a scorpion in ours). The next week I would be sitting with a haphazard group of people from the UK, up early to watch the live BBC broadcast of the 2017 general election results.

‘My feet are permanently dirty. I am so happy’

But there were times when I had to stop to think. To listen and to find my centre. Too much running around would make me dizzy. I found a spot, a cafe, a room for a month and settled.

‘I have fallen in love with my candle-lit room, the white painted walls and the blue floor tiles which I scrubbed clean. The breeze blows in through the windows and makes the candles flicker… I have decorated it with plants and colourful sheets from the market’

It was here that I came to appreciate that what sustained me during my time away was the wonderful people I met. I had a friend who would carry me over his shoulders, clutching onto each other as he ran down the street. Sarah and I sat on empty beaches at midnight when she came to visit me whilst I worked as an au pair in Barcelona. We would then dash to catch the 4am bus back home. People shared and gave me energy.

‘Natasha was amazing. She walked around in her Doc Martens with her headphones blaring Russian drum and bass music. We would sit in the Mona Lisa together and drink coke. One day she came in and declared she thought she was going to die. The next day she left her boots in a boat on the other side of the Ganga. We all walked barefoot.’

Being with such happy, alive people would energise me and inspire me. And it was the people I met who taught me my most precious lessons. It was storytelling.

‘We have met in the middle. A cross-road beneath the stars’

Travelling for me was a series of heartbreaks. But sometimes you break your heart in the right way. To me, it showed that I truly cared about the people I spent my hours with, and the places I called my home. It was just as much part of me proving to myself that I could feel something, to really connect to people in ways I never thought I could. I wrote in my diary one day that …

‘life can work little tricks on your heart’

… and I guess that’s true wherever I am and whoever I am lucky enough to be with.

Being a traveller on my own, was liberating and freeing in so many ways. For me it was being generous, and hoping others would be generous in return. It strengthened my endless faith in humanity. It was throwing up all night from food poisoning and knowing someone will be there to help you out. Even if I haven’t met them yet.

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I learned how to follow the stars, I made copies of maps in my diary from old tourist guides I found in cafes. I always took the latest flights or buses and arrived tired in cold, unknown airports. There were no plans, and a total disregard of formalities. I forgot which was day or night, and would rush into the rain on warm afternoons to smell the hot pavements. But just because I’m home doesn’t mean this has to stop. I’m still travelling, with every new conversation, every new friend.

‘Tomorrow will never come if we keep inside this spiralling dance’

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‘The stars would map themselves over our thick blankets. Shining brightly through our patchwork sky. Now drops of starlit rain stain my face as I sleep’

 

On environmental feminism: Palm oil and the pursuit of beauty

Jessica Tomlinson

My college husband infamously shaved off his eyebrows for last Halloween. He was in search of the perfect costume—Naruto, if you wish to picture the scene—and decided to take this bold step (just before he dyed them yellow, of course) to achieve the desired look.

This incident illustrated two things to me: firstly, that Will should really keep his eyebrows whole, and secondly, that we, as humans, are willing to do a lot in the pursuit of what we perceive as beauty.

Of course, this is an outlandish example. We don’t all go to such extremes, and the jury is still out on whether the half-eyebrow look is a good one… however, we all care about what we look like and use make-up to express ourselves and to create, to relax and to enhance, to conceal and to define. Cosmetics today have never been such a popular, such a varied, or frankly, such an empowering way to express identity.

So, why is there still a huge issue?

The problem is this: beauty is killing the environment. Not single-handedly, of course—we still have the automotive, the petroleum, and the farming industries to thank for that. However, its contribution is significant; numerous commonly used raw ingredients directly contribute to the environment’s destruction. One of the most commonly named offenders is palm oil. The negative impact of palm oil—a basic ingredient in most lipsticks, for example—lies in its production, which capitalistically and neo-colonially necessitates the increasing destruction of native areas of unique biodiversity in favour of the widespread planting of these homogenous, non-native cash crops.

It’s easy to see the problem, then. What’s not so easy to fathom is the sheer scale of damage that has occurred in such a short amount of time. A total area of more than 27 million hectares on the earth’s surface is currently comprised of plantations of only palm oil trees. Entire pockets of the earth’s unique and diverse forested areas are being torn down, replaced by “green deserts”, areas of non-native, fast growing, and almost entirely homogenous cash crop plantations that span an area that is, according to Greenpeace, the size of New Zealand.

Borneo

(Image source – Meridian foods)

These damning statistics may beg the question of why this matters particularly to women, particularly from a feminist perspective. The cosmetics industry, while primarily aimed at a majority female demographic, has not magically broken the glass ceiling. It is not headed by solely—or even majority—female directors. So, what more makes environmental issues so pertinent to modern day feminist philosophy? The answer—at least, for me—lies in ecofeminism. Ecofeminist principles suggest that both gender and environmental issues (read: subjugation) stem from the same place (read: the patriarchy). Environmental destruction in the name of progress is headed by men, and it is our duty to fight for social equality on behalf of that which can’t: the environment.

It’s essential to remember that the responsibility for eco-friendly change doesn’t lie solely on the shoulders of cosmetics giants: 61% of palm oil consumption in the EU in 2017, for example, was repurposed as biofuel, power and heat. However, I believe that the cosmetics industry is one particular piece of an environmentally destructive puzzle that we, as women, as feminists, and as consumers, can solve. A simple look at the dynamics of supply and demand suggests that the true power lies in the hands of the consumers, and that change begins the day we take a stand.

So, what are the plausible alternatives to the status quo?

The obvious alternative, for me, is organic makeup. Lush is the quintessential environmentally ethical brand: Lush has phased out its use of palm oil, and has likewise stopped the inclusion of sodium palm kernelate in its products, a chemical that is extracted from the very same rainforest trees that are often felled to make way for palm plantations. Yet even Lush aren’t entirely palm-free: whilst Lush soap-based products are currently free of palm oil, the same cannot be said of their shampoo bars and other similar products. There lie other issues with organic make-up. Lush is expensive by necessity—as stipulated by the company’s ecologically conscious business model, the cost of their products is determined by the cost of the raw ingredients rather than on what the market would determine the product to be worth—and the market has evidently determined environmentally conscious raw materials to be exponentially more expensive than damaging, destructive resources obtained from capitalist cash crop farms.

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(Image source – Wikipedia)

So, what can we do to stop contributing to a booming industry that has a hand in destroying the solidarity that should—and inherently does—exist between the subjugated groups of women and the environment?

Change in the market typically occurs slowly. A revolution sounds like a whisper, as Tracy Chapman would say. I’m not suggesting that we completely stop wearing cosmetics. This is wildly optimistic and wildly implausible; it will be a shocking day indeed when every make-up wearing woman or man puts down their makeup brushes for the final time, moving beyond a many-thousand-year history and cultural tradition of makeup to embrace their natural face at last.

I believe, though, that as more and more cosmetics wearers become aware of the extent of the problem, there will be a gradual shift away from products that damage forested areas in such a devastating way. However, the problem is becoming increasingly urgent—more and more of the planet’s rich tapestry of biodiversity is being ripped away in the name of greed, and the only way to stop it immediately lies in the hands of governing bodies. Take, for example, the total EU and UK ban on microbeads. These tiny plastic particles are helping to pollute our oceans and are having a severe impact on marine wildlife. Microbeads enter ocean food chains when they they’re eaten by marine inhabitants, and as a result they can just as easily end up in our Friday night fish ‘n’ chips.

Well, they could have done, that is. A complete ban on the sale and manufacture of microbeads in the UK came into force in June of this year. However, microbeads were affecting British marine territories, and so, perhaps for one of the first times, the reality of what we in the west are doing to our home struck a chord—a chord that focuses entirely too much on solely British interests, that is. What will Western governments do about the palm oil crisis, a tragedy taking place mainly in developing countries with rich natural resources and the correct climate for fast growing palm crops, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and South America? Well, that’s a different story, and one that is far too tied up in the complex politics of neo-liberal, neo-colonial enterprise and exploitation for me to discuss here.

So, as I said at the start: we are willing to go far in the pursuit of “beauty”. We are willing to go, with our mute compliance and acquiescence, as far as the destruction of our planet. I believe this statement could and should be adapted for the environmentally conscious feminist: we are willing to go far in the pursuit of ethical beauty. We are willing to go far in the pursuit of fair treatment for the planet which graciously allows us to call it home, and in the pursuit of solidarity in the face of the capitalist and patriarchal oppression that has allowed travesties like this to occur far too frequently, for far too long.

(Featured image source – savageonline.com)

On environmental feminism: women and natural disasters

Harriet Pinto 

It’s a known fact that natural disasters do not harm indiscriminately. A person’s socioeconomic situation plays a huge role in how well they are able to rebuild their lives after disaster strikes, and the extent to which their lives are affected in the first place. But there is a further relevant divide that determines how people are affected by natural disasters, which is gender. Studies have shown time and time again that whenever these events occur, usually in less developed parts of the world where women’s education, wealth and societal standing tends to be lower, more women are killed, and the impact on their lives is greater and more lasting.

The reasons for this are varied, but clearly the disasters themselves are not singling out women to target. It is, as ever, the structure of a society that places women at a disadvantage from the beginning, and in situations like these it has life-threatening consequences.

Often it is simply a case of cultural expectations. Women are frequently cast as caregivers and homemakers, and the pressure to fulfil this role makes the likelihood of them putting themselves and their own lives first in a crisis fall significantly. Research has shown that women frequently exhibit behaviour traits like going back into dangerous areas to look for loved ones, prioritising keeping family members together, or, in some extreme cases, being reluctant to evacuate their homes until their husbands have authorised them to do so.

Other cultural barriers exist which inhibit women’s ability to save their own lives. A case study from Bangladesh found that for women, running and climbing trees was socially frowned upon, and most of the time they were never taught to swim. During the 1991 cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, of the 140,000 people who died, 90% were women.

Clearly such inhibitions, as well as the fact that in many parts of the world many women live in areas with poorer infrastructure, go a long way towards explaining why statistics overwhelmingly show that more women than men are killed by natural disasters.

But what about in their aftermath? Having less financial independence, and less opportunity for education, women struggle to a greater extent to rebuild their lives after disasters. However they are also particularly vulnerable to gender-specific violence and exploitation in aid situations. Shelters specifically designed to save lives during disasters are usually not built with women in mind – they can lack the appropriate sanitation for menstruating women to use them safely, for one thing, but there have also been reports of women being forced to avoid using them for refuge because they fear rape and sexual violence once confined in them.

It is important that we try to change the damaging narrative that perceives women as passive victims of disaster, which of course is self-perpetuating. Organisations such as the World Bank, and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery are supporting programmes which require women to be involved and included both in decision making for natural disasters, and technologies which increase resilience in the face of them. Modernising hydro-met services such as those predicting and monitoring weather and climate, and improving infrastructure, help make sure people can evacuate safely, and governments can plan and adapt for disasters more effectively. But, though a step in the right direction, this is not enough.

Policymakers have failed when the specific needs of certain groups are ignored, downplayed and underrepresented, and so they have failed women in planning and responding to natural disasters throughout the parts of the world where they are already disadvantaged.

This is why it is absolutely crucial that women be involved in every aspect of crisis planning and preparation if they are going to be empowered and enabled to save their own lives during natural disasters. Vital information about the way communities operate, and the behavioural patterns of 50% of the people living in them, is lost whenever women are sidelined and ignored in these processes.

In addition to this, it’s clear that governments need to be far more proactive in protecting women’s rights throughout the entire recovery period of natural disasters. Women are exploited when they are vulnerable and they are never more so than in these situations, which is why far more needs to be done before the narrative of victimhood can ever be significantly altered for good.

In conversation with Amika George

Julia Lasica, with cover art by Anna Curzon-Price

My period arrived during my summer holidays. I was just into my teens and remember that my greatest worries centred around the fact that I couldn’t swim in the pool for a couple of days. I also had to figure out which position was most comfortable to combat my aching tummy, settling for the hammock as the prime place to retreat to with my hot water bottle and soft blankets. When I told my mum the news, she sighed and hugged me, before sending me on my way, equipped with pads and chocolate. A lot of women around the UK have a fairly similar experience. Our list of priorities with regards to our periods is largely topped by the mental and physical discomforts that tag along with it every month – how we actually get the relevant menstrual products is something many of us take for granted.

Yet there are girls and women in the UK who are not as fortunate – Amika George was sitting at the breakfast table one day, about to rush off to school, when she read an article about girls in Leeds who were skipping school every month, for a week at a time. ‘I was eating cereal and scrolling through the news, when an article about girls who were too poor to afford menstrual products came up. They were taping newspapers, toilet paper, socks, whatever they could find, to their pants, and sitting at home, losing out on an education. I was shocked, and as I looked into it more, I saw that the government were aware, but were doing nothing about it. The Secretary of Education at the time, Justine Greening, was ignoring questions about the problem in parliament whilst girls were missing something which would affect their futures, all because of their period.’

So, Amika decided to do something about it. That evening, she set up a petition online calling for the government to provide girls from low-income backgrounds with free menstrual products. ‘I remember I had a lot of work that evening on my laptop for school, and I kept refreshing and refreshing the petition page, watching it go up from five signatures to 15, 50, 60. I sent it around school to all my teachers, pestering to have it put on the official newsletter sent to parents and pupils.’ The number of signatures grew and grew, and Amika realised that there was a greater sense of momentum behind the campaign than she had previously expected. ‘I think that the petition came at the right time, because lots of people had read the same article and were looking for a way to channel their anger at the injustice of the situation. In a couple of weeks, it had gone up to 2,000 signatures but I still didn’t really think that anything would come of it.’

Something did happen because of it – the timeline of the ensuing #FreePeriods movement has never lacked energy and impetus. 2017 found the Lib Dems and Green Party both including the goals of #FreePeriods in their manifestos, a protest of over 2, 000 people braving the December cold outside of parliament, and Amika talking to countless big media outlets about the issue- the word ‘period’ was planted very firmly in public discourse. Around a year after Amika had first read the article, the government pledged money to a charity working to address period poverty; in late September, Amika flew to New York to receive a Goalkeepers Global Award, talking plainly about periods in front of guests like the Gates, Ed Sheeran and Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of UNICEF.

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‘When I first read the article, I remember chatting about it to friends and family, and realising that it wasn’t just that period poverty wasn’t being talked about- there was also a stigma around periods themselves’, Amika says, when I ask about how the campaign has changed with time. ‘That is something that came out of the campaign as it progressed. And I do think we are having an effect and that the mindset is shifting – the word ‘period’ is being normalised now in the media, and online too, it comes up in Instagram posts, in tweets. When I talk to people about it, not just women but men too, the overwhelming reaction is so positive; in New York, I saw people with large followings embracing social justice, embracing periods.’

As I was writing this up, I paused and looked back at the sentence I wrote about first starting my period. My mum ‘sighed’ – we didn’t actually discuss what had just happened to my body, only resigned ourselves to the change I was undergoing. Then I remembered that after complaining to my grandfather about the pain, he told me that I was the first women to ever talk about her period with him. I recall the biology and PSHE lessons; embarrassed teachers covered our periods clinically, a brief lesson in anatomy rather than an education in the nuances of the situation. I understood very clearly that women and girls are expected so much of the time to navigate something as physically, socially and emotionally complex as a period, in silence. It must have been what the Labour MP, Danielle Rowley, was thinking about when she stood up during a debate about period poverty and announced to the Commons that she was on her period.

And it is this culture of muteness, one which will affect readers of this piece, making them uncomfortable to read about the topic, or prevent them from even opening the link, which causes what Amika is campaigning against. It is because of this culture that manufacturers of sanitary products aren’t held to the same standards as other industries – women don’t actually know for certain what is in the sanitary products they use every month. Upon testing, one particular type of Always pad was found to contain residues of organochlorine pesticides and pyrethroid insecticides. It is because of this that the same manufacturers continue to use harmful plastics as other industries switch to reusable materials- on estimate, the waste one woman creates because of her period could fill two minibuses.

What would your advice be to people who feel these social injustices and wish to do something about them, I ask Amika. ‘Find your community. There will always be someone who cares about the same cause you do and there will be people who agree with you. You will find your confidence through your passion. I always go by this saying:  there is strength in our numbers.’

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Amika is now studying at Cambridge and has created a petition calling on Cambridge County Council to provide free menstrual products in all of its public facilities. You can sign the petition here:

https://www.change.org/p/cambridgeshire-county-council-should-provide-free-sanitary-products-in-all-public-facilities?fbclid=IwAR0Z_t8r_sG2dD3F55V5ZYso6BPnerRyxanb5w_OYDSf_xsQKktkckb2uQQ

Green period practice: can Mooncups save the planet?

Jess Molyneux

There are plenty of problems with traditional methods of monthly management. Whether it’s the plastic packaging (one sanitary towel contains about the same amount of plastic as a supermarket carrier bag), the cotton in the products (a resource-intensive crop), or the fact that a lot of sanitary waste ends up in the oceans when women flush rather than bin, the environmental impacts are huge. An average woman will use around 11,000 disposable products throughout her lifetime, and the sheer number of women using these things across the globe means that even negligible averages of waste per head would amount to staggering piles of landfill.

So what can women to do be friendly to the environment at the same time as recognising the needs of our bodies? Recently, plenty of women have been thinking about this and innovating. The menstrual cup is probably the best-known option: the brand Mooncup offers one made from medical-grade silicone, which is reusable and lasts for years. Or there are ‘period pants’, which work like an all-day sanitary towel and can be washed and reused. And there are also ways to make going disposable more eco-friendly. To navigate the problem of tampon disposal, one female innovator has developed the Fablittlebag, a tiny biodegradable pouch which can be opened with one hand and is more discreet to dispose of. Menstrual discs, too, are essentially more absorbent tampons, which produce 60% less waste.

Yet when pricing up some of these options, it becomes evident that many of them are only available, at present, to those who can afford to be eco-warriors. Fablittlebags cost £2.99 each. At between £10 and £30 a pair, reusable period pants require a pretty big initial outlay if you’re buying enough to get you through one cycle. Neither of these is a feasible alternative for the one in ten women who are already struggling to afford monthly supplies.

Hope for the planet, then, seems to rest on the menstrual cup, which, at £20 or under, ends up paying for itself within the year, and is relatively easy to get hold of. But I still think we need to probe a little further. Thinking about how we can make our womanhood and feminism agreeable to the planet can only be productively done after a number of hurdles have already been leaped – namely, making our womanhood and feminism digestible and unproblematic to the society around us.

Even living in one of the world’s most liberated societies, we suffer from period shaming. It is one of the reasons why period waste is such a big environmental problem: women are more likely to flush because it doesn’t leave an obvious and embarrassing reminder sticking out of the bin. But more than that, shame and concealment surrounding menstruation means that even the Mooncup isn’t a viable option for some women.

When the brand urges its users to ‘own your period’, it demands an environment and intimate knowledge of your body that some girls just don’t have. Besides needing a secure and private space in which to change the cup every six hours or so, a space where you don’t have to worry about spilling blood on the floor the first few times, and a living environment where you’re happy and able to sterilise your ‘device’ in the kitchen, a woman using a Mooncup has to understand terms like ‘labia’ and ‘vagina’ and be comfortable with those areas of her body.

When we use language like “It’s time for women to step up and do what we can to help preserve our environment”, we don’t help the women who already have the worst experience of menstruation, and are just trying to get by – we only add to the guilt which they face in a society that puts a taboo around one of the defining experiences of being a woman.

Only once we’ve broken down the secrecy and shame which is entrenched in the way that so many cultures think about periods can we begin to think about tackling period poverty and delivering aid to women in need in environmentally-friendly terms, because those options cannot yet be used comfortably and unashamedly by all.

If we want to broaden sustainable period practice, if we want to make these innovative options accessible and affordable to all women, the only solution is to open up the discussion around menstruation and women’s experience of it, to improve education and break down the taboo, and recast the way we think about managing ‘monthlies’ in real and honest terms.

Hopefully we’ll be able to help save our planet by flagging up to those who oppress us that it doesn’t pay to keep hushing up the basic biology of 50% of the population.

(featured image source: vitals.lifehacker.com)

“We row for the women in front of us, the ones behind us, the ones who came before us and the ones who will come after us.”

Julia Lasica in conversation with Lata Persson

The title above comes from something Lata tells me at the end of our conversation. We met in the arc café for a coffee, both yawning from an early morning. Lata is trialling for the women’s lightweights – the quote came from the previous team’s mission statement, something they would read before the Boat Race. ‘The women’s side of the university boat club go out of their way to make each female triallist feel empowered, and when I first read it, I got goose bumps!,” Lata says. She emphasises how it was the women in the team who came up with the mission statement, ‘it was the girls who thought of it together, which just shows what a supportive environment we train in- we go through such an intense experience together, we’re always there for each other.’

First picking up the sport at LEH, her single-sex secondary school, Lata trialled last year as well as this year. We have varied experiences of the rowing world – whilst I only started coxing last year and stayed almost exclusively on the men’s side of my college club, Lata has been rowing for a long time, training predominantly in a female environment. I’m interested in whether the fact that I have encountered rowing in an all-male environment differs to Lata’s experience, which has always found her surrounded by women. ‘I would say that at school and university level, there has always been a strong sorority spirit. A couple of weeks ago, a boy walked past whilst we were lifting weights, and teased us, “lifting big today, are we?” Obviously, we all shouted him down – I have never encountered any explicit sexism during all my time as a rower, but even with little things like that, we know that we always have each other’s back.’

I do feel a bit jealous listening to Lata. Of course, I would never say that my experience of coxing in an exclusively male environment has been negative. But the way she describes the women’s side uniting to compete together, as a tight knit team and unit sounds very comforting. Coming from an all-girls school where I had never partaken in any competitive team sports and preferred to lie about a clarinet lesson in order to skip netball, I felt very much like an outsider on the men’s side of the boat club for a while, not least because of the obvious mis-match in gender. I found that they possessed a confidence I had never really encountered before, this attitude of ‘knowing that they’re amazing before they’ve even proved anything’, as Lata describes it. This odd, almost patriotic attitude to college, intimidated me at first, and Lata agrees – she’s seen it before. ‘When I went back to college last year for Mays, I was shocked by the lack of confidence the women’s side had. It felt at times like we’d go down three on the river, when in fact we eventually went up three! I had been so used to all the girls backing themselves, at school and university level, that I found it hard to adjust to the female college rowers being shyer, especially in comparison to the men’s side,” she says. Of course, we both agreed that the confidence was something to emulate, but perhaps the lack of confidence the women displayed was a knock-off effect from the intense bravado that the men’s side showed, ‘maybe they felt overpowered by the men, as if there wasn’t enough space for them.” Lata says.

Female confidence is a difficult issue – a couple of months ago, the TIMES published an article exploring the question, in collaboration with a polling firm called Ypulse. Surveying over 1,300 American teenagers between the ages of 8-18, they found that female confidence dropped by 30% by the time those girls had reached 14. At that point, boys’ confidence is still 27% higher, and ‘for most women, once opened, this confidence gap fails to close’, the TIMES article reads. It is obviously something which affects wider society and does not exclusively exist within the rowing world. But how can we address this potential gap when it opens up? Lata decided to go to the men’s side of her college club, and stresses how supportive the boys were. ‘We talked about it, and they listened really well – this year, they’ve started to train the novice men and women together.’ Bringing the two sides of the club together is something which is occurring on a university level as well – this was the first year that the University Rugby Club merged the women’s and men’s sides for training, and the University Lightweight Men’s now also share coaches and training programmes with both the University Women’s Heavyweights and Lightweights Rowing Club.

I have also worked on my own confidence as a cox, getting over my initial nervousness. Perhaps the moment that really happened was in the lead up to the May Bumps campaign. In previous terms, I had always relied on the presence of a close friend in the boat I was coxing, questioning him after the session was over as to all the things I had done wrong, and whether I’d made too much a fool of myself. That Easter term he had left the boat, and I was aware of how important the upcoming races were to the crew – I was terrified that they had picked the wrong person to cox them, and that I would make a disastrous mistake, and it would all go wrong. But then at some point, it clicked that I was as much a part of the team as all the boys. I began to trust my ability as a cox more, and as Lata says, ‘backed myself’- I didn’t feel as much an outsider anymore, but like a part of a team, one who felt confident in what it could achieve together.

Lots of things affect our experiences and by no means are these general or ‘normal’- a cox is slightly more isolated from the rest of the team by nature and I am generally quite a shy person. But Lata and I agree that female confidence is an important issue which both sides of any sports club should be aware of. Talking about it later after our initial meeting, we wonder together as to how to round off this piece. Should we end it on a note of optimism, drawing on the female empowerment we have seen occur through rowing? Of course this has been an essential part of our journeys, however much they differ. But it is also important to find a way to bridge the gap between the two sides of the boat club – they do after all sit under the same roof and row in the same name. The men should be aware of the issues the women face, whether it is the small, snide comments or more threatening experiences which occur in the world of rowing and sports, often reaching our ears as played back accounts of things said when the women weren’t present. Constant dialogue and support has to flow both ways. As I said to Lata at the end of our talk – we thrive best as sportswomen when we feel just as valuable and less like outsiders to our team and club.

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The beautiful game is the beautiful game, no matter who is playing it

Lili Donlon-Mansbridge

As a child, I answered any boy who questioned my sporting credentials with the offer of a scrap. For a long time, this answer proved to be quite sufficient. I was tall for my age, pretty strong ‘for a girl’ and had established myself in the playground sponge-ball football league. Plus, I had a cousin in Year 6.

It was not long, however, before wrestling someone to the ground was no longer an appropriate negotiating strategy. Soon, I realised that the fights I could pick (and win) in the playground were part of a battle bigger than I could handle. Because although I could take out Charlie at break after he told me that girls can’t play football because ‘their boobs get in the way’, I just had to grit my teeth when his dad shouted from the side-line, ‘Son, what you doing, you can’t get beat by a girl’.

This trend continued throughout my life. Playing sport with boys meant I had to prove myself a million times over. I couldn’t just be okay or average or steady. I had to be the best. Because most girls don’t play football. And, therefore, football is not a ‘girly’ thing. For me, it felt like I had to make a choice; sparkly pink pumps or football studs, presented as binary opposites. Once I made that choice, there was no going back; I spent far too much time of my first years at secondary school navigating the label of ‘Tomboy’.

At the beginning of this term, a friend and I were running the fresher’s fair stall for our women and non-binary college football team. I lost count of the number of times I was told ‘I can’t do sports’ or ‘You wouldn’t want me’. Or heard stories about being unable to find a school or local team. It was really sad. Somewhere along the line, the people I was talking to had started believe that they couldn’t just ‘give it a go’. I couldn’t help but think that the way our society constructs and elicits gendered behaviours was not entirely unrelated to our conversations at the fair – after all, it is pretty hard to pull off a lunchtime rainbow flick in an expected uniform of dainty shoes and a pleated skirt. What makes it even more sad is that for many, football is one of the few sports that is largely accessible – most of us have never been given the chance to hold a supposedly ‘ladylike’ lacrosse stick.

The discovery of girls and women’s teams for me was significant. It gave me a space in which I, for the first time, could play without a uniquely gendered kind of pressure. If I missed, it didn’t mean anything more than that I missed – even now, as a 19-year-old, I still have to remind myself that I am not representing all women every time I kick a ball. Remembering this, in an environment where women’s events only make up 7% of all sports media coverage, and where puberty represents a cliff edge in girls’ sports participation, can be difficult. Surrounding girls, then, with role models and mentors in teams where they are simply players as worthy as any other, is essential – it is only then that they can start to forget the narrative of female sports so often repeated to them.

It sometimes feels like, at our weekly college football sessions at Barty, we are doing something really special. Together, we work on undermining what we so often have been taught, asserting ourselves and our bodies in a vocal and physical way. We fight these tendencies to self-deprecate, to over-apologise for making a mistake. Our team creates a space where we can counteract what we’ve been told. Where we can shout loudly ‘I can do sports’ and ‘You do want me’.

These spaces, away from gendered pressure, were as crucial for me as a child as they are now. They allow me to play unapologetically and unreservedly. They gave me county teams to aspire to, and players to idolise. They help fight the bigger battle. Give us a space to rant when the Sunday league referee doesn’t bring his cards because ‘it’s a women’s game’. Or friends to giggle with when the offside rule is explained to us for the 100th time, using the thoughtful analogy of shopping bags and shoes. They are the first step in challenging the norm, opening a space for playing for those who wouldn’t typically try.

So, although I do now try to avoid using violence, my experience of playing male dominated sports still can feel like fighting a battle. But now I have an army. And with them, with their encouragement, strength and laughter, it can begin to feel like we are winning the war. That gradually, through both liberating all children and deconstructing our current ideas of gender, sports will become for accessible for everyone. And, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, it feels like soon even Charlie’s dad will have to realise that that there is no more shame in him being skilled by a girl, then there is by a boy. That slowly we are shaping an environment in which we can see the beautiful game as the beautiful game, no matter who is playing it.

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