Don’t you see, Mia was the fox

Life

Mia by Gorki was the first Belgian song I learned by heart. This song is on my lovers’ mixed tape, on my office playlist, on the soundtrack of my life in Belgium.

Someone once said that Luc’s lyrics couldn’t be translated into English. That confused me. I thought everything could be translated. It has taken me years to understand. You can’t translate heart. You can’t translate love.

I didn’t yet know the bones of Luc when I saw him in his gold chain and awful shell-suit. I thought it was for carnival. The truth is he was free from the weight of peoples’ opinions. Like a child with eyes lit up.
In return, people and the media did not judge him, scandalise him or put his life under the microscope.

Why? Because people loved Luc.

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It was pouring pouring pouring rain when we took this photo. Despite the dramatic weather, the festival field was packed full. A thousand drenched people passionately singing every word aloud.

Why? Because people loved Luc.

While the rest of the artists at Casa Blanca festival enjoyed the fancy backstage catering, Luc slipped out to get a burger and fries.

Luc lost himself in the love of performing and stripped off his t-shirt in enthusiasm. I heard urgent requests on the walkie-talkie from his management requesting a new t-shirt for him. A coca-cola t-shirt was located and delivered to Luc who wore it for half a song before it followed its predecessor into the crowd. It was funny to realise that the management were running around trying to take care of their Luc, while he was dancing in the rain like a happy child.

He was down to earth. He was intelligent and funny, a sharp-witted gentle soul. He had a lust for life. The world needs more people like Luc, not less. I have a short clip from a video of an interview where he says “Zot zijn doet geen pijn, baby”. I love it.

Luc’s death sent a dart through my heart. With a dark fear that I would read the word ‘suicide’, I searched frantically online for answers. ‘No no, please don’t let it have taken another one’. The loss of Robin Williams to suicide a couple of months previously still haunting me, I hoped that Luc’s heart had given up, full of love. It was not suicide and not drugs. It was not our business either, I suppose.

The tributes flowed in. Stories of how he would talk to anyone. Listen to their life stories. Spend time with young bands. Encourage them. He knew how hard it was to carve a place in the music scene. He told them they could make it if they put in the work. Gave them a chance to dodge the pitfalls. He welcomed and reassured them. He believed in everyone.

Luc leaving us is heart breaking in every way. His body failed him on the 14th birthday of his son Bruno. His advice for his son in an interview weeks previously, was: “Listen to songs that tell you how beautiful it is to be in the world”. Good advice for us all.

Mia is the caring figure. She didn’t let anyone down. She had time to help everyone. As for translating her song, I want to share a couple of lines with you. Tell me if they remind you of anyone?

“You find people like me everywhere”
“Mia saw the light, she says no one is lost”
“Give them a chance before they mess it up”
“You can eat, if you wash the dishes”
“Can you keep on dreaming?”

Lying on his back, reading a book, on the ground of an empty corridor in a deserted abbey. That is my favorite memory of Luc because it is mine alone. He seemed to be enjoying his book and the peace so I didn’t disturb him.

Pity. It would have undoubtedly been a warm, wonderful conversation.

 

First published on Charlie.

Give me a YES!

Life
This morning I cried when a very dear friend of mine told me he would leave Ireland if the Referendum did not pass this Friday. He is not the only one.

The Referendum my friend is talking about is the worlds’ first ever Marriage Equality Referendum. It is the first ever because most governments have recognised same-sex marriage as a logical and correct step and simply written it into law. In Ireland the decision has been put into the hands of the people.

It is not mandatory to vote in Ireland. People over 65 and people in rural areas are the ones who usually vote. These are also the demographics of the groups most likely to vote against same-sex marriage. Irish people living abroad do not have the right to vote. Unless the young people of Ireland get out and vote, there is a terrifying possibility that this Marriage Equality Law actually may not pass.

For most people reading this in Belgium it must seem like a ridiculous situation. Results of a study released last week showed that Belgium was second on the list of European countries in terms of human rights for LGBTI people. 83 percent of human rights are respected for non-heterosexuals in Belgium. In Ireland, this figure is just 40 percent.

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It took Ireland a 16-year long battle, and the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, to achieve the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Male homosexual acts were illegal in Ireland until 1993.

An Act passed in 2010 affording gay couples the right to Civil Partnership and to adopt children. But the law in Ireland currently states that a marriage would be invalid if both parties to a marriage are of the same sex. This referendum now proposes to add the wording “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex” to the Irish constitution.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was outlawed in 2000. However, religious organisations, medical institutions and educational institutions are exempt from the employment applications of this law. This means that if you are a doctor, nurse or teacher in Ireland today, it is not illegal for your employer to fire you because of your sexuality.

Divorce is allowed in Ireland since 1997 under the condition that the couple has been separated for four out of the five preceding years. Abortion is not allowed. Not in the case of fatal fetal abnormality. Not in the case of underage rape victims.

Until the 1970s Irish women needed their husbands’ signature to open a bank account or take out a loan. It was only in 1976 that Irish women could own their home or continue to work after they got married. The women of Ireland who smuggled (then illegal) contraceptives in the 1970s still do not have power over their own bodies and reproductive rights.

Separation of church and state didn’t really work in Ireland. This has affected legislation on several issues, including abortion, contraception, divorce, euthanasia and freedom of speech. You can receive fines up to €25,000 for saying negative things about religion. But historically the blasphemy laws in Ireland only applied to Christianity. In 2009 the law was updated to cover the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” against any religion.

If you consider the number of scandals that have come to light in relation to the church in Ireland over the last few years, it is difficult to understand that they are still afforded such legal protection – and tax breaks.

Profanity is also considered to be blasphemy. This means that even though ‘Fuck’ is a commonly used word in an Irish persons’ vocabulary, they will never hear the word on the radio. Lily Allen’s “Fuck You Very Much” was cleaned up with animal noises. Cee Lo Greens’ “Fuck You” became “Forget You”.

As with all elections, the media must ensure balanced coverage of the same-sex marriage referendum campaign. In Ireland this has had strange side effects. Journalists, TV or radio presenters who are openly gay, or publicly supporting a Yes vote, have been taken off the air. The presenter of an LGBT interest radio show quit his job of 6 years. He reported feeling pressured into giving No campaigners equal representation on his show. The political editor of national channel TV3, 54-year-old Ursula Halligan, was removed from all referendum coverage within hours of coming out as being gay.

Today the courts ruled against a bakery in Northern Ireland in a court case following their refusal to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. According to the No campaigners, this is an example of infringement of freedom of speech. The bakery has positioned itself as the victim in this case and said they will appeal. The timing of this ruling could influence the outcome on Friday. The fact of the matter is, they broke the law. The provision of goods and services is covered under the law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This referendum has given homophobic people a platform to spread their hate under the banner of freedom of speech and balanced referendum publicity. Their arguments for a No vote refer to topics such as adoption, surrogacy, bestiality, incest, pedophilia and the bible. None of which are addressed in the proposed changes under this referendum.

The largely Catholic backed No side asks voters to “think of the children”, calling for a No vote because “every child deserves a mother and father”. This use of children to confuse and scare the voters is terribly dishonest.

The Catholic church in Ireland are guilty of decades of child abuse. They consider having a child out of wedlock as a sin. They took thousands of babies from their (unmarried) mothers as recently as the 1960s. These unfortunate mothers were locked up in “Mother and Baby homes”, forced to do physical work to “repay the cost of their sin”. The babies faced a fate of being sold into drug trails, illegally adopted by rich families in America, or neglected to death. To this day the church deny survivors access to their birth certificates, dashing any hope of ever finding their birth mothers.
In the 1990s, and continuing until this day, hundreds of cases of child sex abuse by members of the church have come to light. Closely followed by a huge scale cover-up operation. But now, NOW they want us to “think of the children”.

Charities concerned with the welfare of children and young people strongly back a Yes vote. Fergus Finlay, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardos, responded to the No campaigns slogan:

“What every child deserves is love, respect, safety. That can come from two parents of either sex, two parents of the same sex, or a single parent. There is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the world that says that the nature, or gender or sexual orientation of the parent is more important than the quality and commitment of their parenting.”

465,000 children called the Irish Child Help Line last year, of which 30,000 were calling due to concerns about their sexuality.

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The outcome of this referendum will change more than just the number of people who can marry. It will be a direct, personal statement to a percentage of the citizens of Ireland. A declaration of whether or not their existence is accepted by their country. An announcement of whether their country-fellows think they deserve equal human rights or not. It’s not just about making beautiful wedding memories, but who could be against that?

It is a nasty situation. A population should never have to judge if a certain minority group deserves to have equal rights. Governments should ensure that all citizens have the same rights. If the language of old laws needs to be updated to include everyone, this should just happen.

Photo’s: Steph Grant Photography
Previously published on Charlie Mag.

How Modeling Lingerie At La Fille d’O Made Me Think About Shaving, Breastfeeding, Feminism, And Vanity

Life

Something I never imagined myself doing is modeling lingerie. It’s probably because I am absolutely terrible at posing for photos. I feel fake and vain anytime someone points a camera at my face (which actually does not happen very often because I am usually the one snapping photos).

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On occasion, though, if the sun is just right and I want to remember a particular moment, I’ll ask the mister to take a photo of me, cringing inside from the vanity of asking for a photograph of myself to be taken in the first place. This question almost always takes the form of, “Can you take a photo of Lu and me?” holding my son up beside me as some sort of Vanity Distraction Shield.

If ever I should want a snap, I blame the sun or my son for my wanting it. But why is it so hard to admit that I just want to have photos of myself? Isn’t it time that I feel proud of myself and my body? In pondering all of this, I ran across a blog post by Bustle’s own body positive guru Marie Southard Ospina, who provided me with some answers:

“I think at a time when ‘vanity’ is still considered a deadly sin, taking a moment to appreciate and recognize your uniqueness becomes even more important. Reflecting on the things that make you you is an invaluable experience — it’s part of growing up and accepting all those things you’d previously struggled with. It’s part of evolving into someone truly body positive.”

So as a challenge to myself (to try to take a step closer to unconditionally loving my body), I decided to travel to the wonderful La Fille d’O shop in Gent, Belgium and volunteer to model its beautiful lingerie. The first thing that sprung to my mind post-decision, however, was that I was going to have to “tackle” my hair growth situation from head to toe. We just got through winter, people; I know you know what I mean.

I had the genius idea of going to a salon and getting my first bikini wax, but then I read this article about ”6 Things To Do Before You Get A Bikini Wax“ and it basically scared the living daylights out of me. Taking into consideration that I am terribly sensitive to pain in general (I blame it on the red hair), I just couldn’t face putting myself through that. Because, seriously, why do we subject ourselves to such agony? Why do we fantasize about Ryan Gosling’s sexy, hairy legs and consider the same feature disgusting or dirty on women? How did society convince us that we cannot exist in our natural state, and why do we continue to accept that?

My thee-year-old son was very confused when he saw me shaving my legs for the first time this week. His questions were, in this order: “Does it hurt,” “Why are you doing that,” “How come you have to do that?” I laughed and told him, “Of course it doesn’t hurt. I’m doing it to make my legs beautiful.” And then I changed the subject, horrified at myself for teaching my son that legs have to be hairless to be beautiful. I couldn’t answer his last question, because I don’t know why I feel the need to conform to certain beauty norms and not others.

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Luckily, there are some cool movements at the moment of badass ladies coloring their armpit hair. And how about this hairy armpit competition in China? La fille d’O also had some stunning lingerie photos featuring pubic hair on its Instagram account, until Instagram deleted them (boooo). The thing is, I have sincere admiration for people who disregard the social constraints and do whatever they want. And Murielle Scherre is one of those people.

Scherre launched her own lingerie brand La Fille d’O in 2003, creating comfortable and beautiful locally-handmade lingerie for all shapes and sizes. Since then, she has been encouraging her customers and fans to share photos of themselves wearing her designs, and she even published a book with a collection of amateur fan photography spanning 11 years. The book is appropriately titled L’amateur and in its description, it’s said to be a book on how to become a:

“Sensualsexypornographicalromanticnakedpleasuremindfuckelectricityfemmeobjetamateurluxuriousbeautifulattractiveexhibitionistlolitafemininvoyeurrolemodel.”

These days, it is Instagram that has the pleasure of hosting the everyday customer model photos, and La Fille d’O even developed its own censoring app Obscura so you can edit your lingerie photos to cover up anything that would get them deleted from social media. That way Scherre enables the sharing of her customers’ photos modeling her creations with a cheeky nod to the nipple police.

So off I went to the very wonderful and beautiful La Fille d’O store, where I had a date with Ruth, the shop and web manager, who had agreed to take some photos for me. And I was terrified — the negative thoughts were in overdrive and the one that was shouting the loudest was, “What if Ruth thinks I’m a vain, weird, annoying idiot?” All the other ladies in the shop photos looked super cool and interesting. And, well, I’m sure you can imagine the spiral of negativity that took hold of me at that moment. Turns out, though, Ruth is really friendly and lovely, and after the initial terror wore off, she made me feel completely at ease.

One of the (hundred-thousand) doubts that crossed my mind when considering this photo shoot was whether or not I was interested in acting or posing “sexy,” as that seems to be expected in lingerie photography. Hell, not even just in lingerie photography. This is the case in most images of women in the media.

One of my aims in doing this shoot thus became to show that a woman’s body is more than a sexual object.

Feminist extraordinaire Amanda Palmer says that feminism is about allowing women to do whatever they want with their lives and their bodies, without judging them for those choices. While I would never want to imply that women should hide their bodies away or be ashamed of them, I do want to add to the growing wave of women who are shaking off sexy, as it has been traditionally defined, and embracing beauty (as it is naturally).

We don’t need to act sexy to be beautiful (although we should, of course, have the right to do so), so we should be able to pose for a lingerie shoot without feeling that we are putting our sexual side on display or being “indecent.” Women’s bodies are so much more than just sexy, after all.

It’s nothing short of delightful that as I am writing this article, Anna Kendrick is making waves by refusing to strike a sexy pose for the poster of her new movie. This perfectly illustrates what I am trying to say: Fighting the idea that “sexy” is the most appropriate or attractive image for women.

It’s quite possible that the “sexy” debate is the reason that some people get so bent out of shape about breastfeeding in public. IMO, breastfeeding is one of the most amazing, natural things the female body can do. It provides your baby with the nourishment it needs and builds an unbreakable bond between the two of you. For people to say that it is “inappropriate” to breastfeed in public means that they believe that breasts are primarily sexual, and belong only in the sexual fantasies of men.

As you can imagine, then, I am so happy with the Twitter trend #brelfie, which encourages mothers to post their breastfeeding selfies. We need to have those images in the public eye so that our kids can grow up knowing that breasts are far more than just sexy.

If you ask me, we need to take our bodies back from the industries that use sex to sell products. We need to show the world that the female form is strong, beautiful, and can do amazing things. “Sexy” should be on our own terms — a word we define as individuals in accordance to the people we are; not the people we are told we are.

In the end, I am impressed and proud of my photos from my visit to La Fille d’O. La Fille d’O does not do any photo manipulation on any of its pictures, so what you see here are my untouched, original images. I even managed to resist the urge to put a vintage filter on them — there was a special light in that room and I didn’t want to lose it.

Perhaps I will try to be more vain in the future. But right now I am just happy that I look strong in the photos and managed to hold my head up and believe in myself in that perfect moment. So millions and millions of thanks and hugs to Murielle, and to everyone involved in creating La Fille d’O. You are an inspiration to women everywhere.

Images: Hilary Phelan; La Fille d’OSuit Supply; Giphy; Screenshot Kazam Tornado Video; Lafilledoboutique/Instagram

First published on Bustle May 2015

A Chubby Story

Life

Two things hit the news this week (well, on a twitter level anyway) that are related in a way like you’re related to someone you bump into in the street.
The first story was the trending of #PlusSizeAppreciation on Twitter.
The second story was about a report launched by the WHO stating that Europe is heading for an obesity epidemic by 2030. The timing of these two stories led to the unfortunate occurrence of my ears hearing a comment that did not sit well with me:
“People should not be promoting such unhealthy body sizes, displaying the problem cases as ‘normal’ or ‘beautiful’ is wrong and will only make the problem worse.”

The thing that gets under my skin is the suggestion that someone who weighs in above a certain number on the scales, cannot be beautiful. The implication being that saying that fat people are beautiful is the same as saying that you’re proud of being a smoker. “You wouldn’t tweet a photo of yourself smoking with #SmokerAppreciation.” The difference being that smoking is an unhealthy addictive habit and the powers that be have done as much possible to make it uncool, expensive and forbidden in public spaces. This seems to be a good approach to changing public behaviour in relation to something that is unhealthy.

Following this logic, I fully agree that fast food and fizzy drinks should also be forced to display health warnings and should be banned from advertising their products. This along with awareness campaigns about what consuming these products does to your body should have the desired effect. (To anyone trying to kick a fast food habit, I suggest reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, you’ll never set foot in a Micky D’s again.)

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We live in a society where money talks and we are constantly being marketed processed foods laden with sugar, salt and a lot more nasty chemicals. All of the information we receive about which foods we should eat, comes from the people who are trying to sell us their ‘food’. It seems that Mother Nature needs a better marketing manager, however movies like That Sugar Film go a small way to helping her out.

Keeping in mind that Anti-Diet Day was also this week, I am not going to say we need to diet. We just need to learn how to eat well, and do that every day, forever. In my mind, fad diets are the corset of our generation, a tool to keep women quiet, meek and unsure of themselves. As I read once on an Amanda Palmer t-shirt: “All that time I save in hair removal, I devote to revolution (Jane Fraser). Women need to believe in themselves and love themselves and focus on being the best and the happiest they can be. “Riot Not Diet.”

A statistic that scared the hell out of me is that the number one wish of girls aged 11 to 17, is to be thinner. If you are so focused on losing weight, your priority is not eating healthily.

This is why our focus needs to be on eating healthily as opposed to getting skinnier, because unhealthy eaters come in all shapes and sizes. Thankfully there are some powerful ladies campaigning for being healthy and happy as priorities above measuring the size of your waist. (Including the wonderful and inspiring Marie Southard Ospina pictured above.)

A study last year proved that body shaming can lead to weight gain and damages motivation levels. “Our study clearly shows that weight discrimination is part of the obesity problem and not the solution”, said the study’s senior author. Feeling self confident and loving yourself are great motivators to take good care of yourself and this is what we need to aim towards.

My point is, people should love themselves and feel loved no matter how they look. We should all work on loving ourselves more because, you know what, life is hard enough without beating yourself up. I am sure the WHO also has some pretty staggering figures in relation to depression and suicide in young people so let’s do anything we can to make everyone feel loved and happy.

The WHO highlighted a possible future health risk so we should look at the cause of this; the cause is the crappy processed foods that make up 85% of what is sold in our supermarkets (I made up that figure but it feels about right). So the higher powers should take on the food giants the same way they took on the tobacco giants, then we have some chance of making people healthier and happier. Body shaming overweight people or making them feel they should hide themselves away under black tent-dresses, does nothing to address the issue highlighted by the WHO.

And that, my friend, is why I am a fan of the #PlusSizeAppreciation movement.

First published on Charlie.

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What It’s Like To Be “The Girl With Long Hair”

Life

For most of my life, I had really long hair. I mean really, really, really long. (In my 20s, it even went past my knees.) A long time before hashtags ever existed, I was #hilarywiththelonghair. Lucky for me, I have always had thick, healthy hair, so I never had any trouble with thinness or stringiness. My hair and I have gone through several phases and emotions together: Love, hate, pride, embarrassment, fear, experimentation, charity; you name it, we’ve done it. I have never been able to wear hats and I could tell you hundreds of hilarious stories about when my hair got caught in [other people’s] zippers, earrings, car keys and door handles. Ultimately, though, I am just really happy to say that my hair never got caught in anything dangerous enough to cause serious bald patches!

I’m guessing most people don’t know who Crystal Gayle is anymore, but I heard that name a lot growing up! I can’t say I ever felt a connection to her — I never felt like I was part of some long hair tribe or anything of the like. My hair was my hair and that was that. Whilst I don’t think that your hair defines your personality, it is entirely possible for other people to think it does. Maybe that is the reason I always felt a bit strange about being #hilarywiththelonghair — because I didn’t feel like it defined me, but other people used this one characteristic to do just that. So, you know, for the sake of self-reflection and maybe a little bit of self-indulgence, let’s take a look at my hair-history.

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FOR STARTERS, A REALLY QUICK ROUNDUP OF LONG HAIR STORIES IN HISTORY

I’m guessing you’ll have heard the story of Biblical figures Samson and Delilah: When Delilah found out that Samson’s strength came from his hair, she chopped it off and everyone died. Rapunzel will not be new to you either, considering she’s the hairiest princess of them all! But there are many more stories, traditions and beliefs based around long hair, so I’ve collected a couple of the most interesting ones.

If you like a good conspiracy theory, you’re going to love this one: The story goes that during the Vietnam War, Native Americans were recruited for their outstanding — almost supernatural — tracking abilities. However, when provided with a military haircut, their tracking abilities mysteriously vanished, only for the Native Americans to explain that without their long hair, they could no longer sense the enemy.

And how about the Vril Society, who believed that their twisted hair acted as antennas to facilitate contact with extraterrestrials? The theory of connection to nature or higher beings via your hair is touched upon in a couple of films, with this being the explanation as to why soldiers, navy seals and prison inmates have their hair shaved short. You know, so that they have no individual connection to nature and can be manipulated as one large, obedient group.

Then there are, of course, the Rastafarians who grow their hair long in dreads as a symbol of the Rasta Lion of Judah — which stands for living a life that is clean and free of medications, cigarettes, meat, negative thinking, and negative deeds. (Um, what now?) Never mind, back to me!

I NEVER HAD SHORT HAIR

I’m not sure whether my mom was communicating with aliens when I was born, but she adamantly decided that I would have long hair.

By the time I was six years old, my hair was past my elbows. I don’t remember much about it to be honest, but I do remember hiding under the kitchen table to avoid the hairbrush before school in the morning. Around this time, my mother took me to the hairdressers for the first time (until then, my father had been my live-in hairdresser, cutting my bangs with the help of a strip of sticky tape across my forehead). So my mom dropped little me off at the hairdressers, left instructions to trim my hair and went off to do her shopping. Upon her return and realizing that Mandy the hairdresser had cut off a lot more than intended, my mother was very expressive in communicating her displeasure. It must have been pretty harsh because 12 years later I went to Mandy once more to get an up-do for my high school graduation ball: She was still pretty traumatized about it proceeded to triple check with my mom before any trimming could be done! I guess these are the experiences that build strong relationships, because 25 years later, my mother is still good friends with Mandy.

One of my fondest memories of this time in the life of my hair was when I was about 10 years old and in the swimming pool. We went swimming every week with our school class and while the after-swimming hair care was a pain in the backside, I really loved swimming. Our pool had a rather strict swimming cap rule, which meant that I had to swim with a self-designed creation on my head consisting of two swimming caps and several hairbands to keep my meter-long hair under control. One day after the swimming class, I was helping the teacher by collecting the weigh balls from the bottom of the pool, (YES, I was the kind of kid who helped the teacher after class). And then the teacher and the lifeguard (both looking very excited) asked me if I would swim up and down without my swimming cap on so they could see my hair in the water. I was delighted with myself — firstly for being allowed to do something against the rules; secondly for being able to make the teacher happy (yeah, yeah I know); and thirdly, for having the whole pool to myself while doing my best mermaid impression ever. It was fantastic!

THE HIGH SCHOOL DREAM

So of course there came a phase in my life when I wasn’t down with the Rapunzel look, and unsurprisingly this era coincided with puberty related rebellion. I wanted to cut is all off after becoming exasperated with the knots and hours of brushing. My mother’s simple and final reply to this was that I didn’t own my hair until I was 18 and was therefore not allowed to cut it until then. Sounds a bit mad in retrospect, and I don’t think many parents would get away with it these days. But it didn’t cross my mind to question her ruling (I was an obedient nerd, remember?). The rules were, however, not so strict for my younger sisters (they never are!), and so my middle sister was allowed to get her long hair cut when she was 11 years old. She cried for weeks from the trauma of her lost hair, and that made me lose interest in cutting my own for the next 15 years.

High school was not the “funnest time ever” for me: I lived abroad for a year, and upon my return I joined the local school for local people as the new girl. Believe me, this was nothing like the life of New Girl’s Jess. So the odds were already against me, and having freakishly long hair didn’t make it any easier for the local teens to accept me. Whilst I didn’t exactly do my best to fit in, and I wore my hair in crazy styles, it was around this time that I colored my hair for the first and only time in my life: A typical teenage dark maroon/wine color. And I always had a smart ass reply for the bullies. In fact, writing this now reminds me of an essay I wrote and read aloud in my English class about why people should learn to accept those who are different to them, and why they had no logical reason to treat me so badly. My poor English teacher didn’t quite know how to react.

Don’t get me wrong, I made some good friends who I am still in touch with to this day, but you know what they say, empty vessels make the most noise. The empty vessels in my school were indeed loud, and the most laughable was the daily, “Is your hair brown ‘cause you wipe your ass with it,” moving to spitting and snotting in my hair, all the way up to the top prize of setting my hair on fire — which was significantly less funny. On that particular day, I was getting my books from my locker when I heard a weird hissing noise followed by my friend thumping me on the back. Before I had the chance to ask, “WTF,” the burnt hair smell told me all I needed to know. At the time, I just thought, “What losers,” but it is only now that I realize how insane and dangerous this experience really was. You read awful news stories about people whose whole faces get burned following their hair getting caught alight, so I understand how lucky I was that my friend acted so quickly.

THE COLLEGE YEARS

Transitioning from a small town’s local school to art college in the big city was a dream come true for me. Suddenly I was the least weird of the weirdos, and no amount of crazy clothes or hairstyles turned heads on campus. To quote the fabulous, beautiful and inspirational Yolandi Visser: “I fink u freeky and I like u a lot.” Every day was a fancy dress party: Rapunzel? Pippi Longstockings? Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezey, and everyone played along. We talked about feelings and ideas, theories and innovations, and maybe I am donning the rose-tinted glasses, but I don’t remember anyone beng bullied, put down or laughed at. Sure there were cliques, but most of the creative people were far too interested in themselves to bitch about others (and I mean that in a positive way, of course, because #selfexploration and all that!).
Random people stopped me on the street all the time to ask me the same questions over and over again: How long had I been growing it? How often did I wash it? Did I get split ends? How long did it take to dry? How did I keep it so healthy looking? How did I go to the toilet? So many #rolleyes moments. One afternoon, I was in a bar where my (then) boyfriend was setting up the sound installation for a gig that evening, when from an old guy propping up the bar came the all too familiar question: Can I ask you something about your hair? Feeling tired of hearing the same old questions, I told him that he could ask but I would only answer it if I had never heard the question before. And then I indeed heard a question that I had never heard before: If you bend backwards, does it touch the ground? I smiled and tilted my head back enough to do a quick whoosh of the floor with my hair, and everyone was happy!
I never knew how to react to compliments I received about my hair, always having the feeling that they came with a freaky subtext — like people thought it was nice, special, amazing and pretty, but also a bit bizarre. Of course, there was that one time when an old guy started shouting at me on the street that my hair was disgusting and that I should cut it off and not be so dirty, but you know, I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion(?!). Getting shouted at on the street is something I got used to with my long hair, and I dealt with it by laughing and wondering if my hair was really the most interesting part of their day. This one time, I was cycling through Dublin and heard someone shouting something about my hair, their tone of voice a bit more panicked than the usual shouts of “Rapunzel” or “Pippi Longstockings.” So I stopped cycling to find out what he was trying to tell me: Turns out he was worried about me because my hair was touching the spokes of the back wheel of my bike!

Oh, and then there was that one time with the snake who happily explored my hair: I can’t leave that out! I thought it was cool at the time, but I did have an Indiana Jones type nightmare about it afterwards! And yes, as you can see, it was during my rebellious braless phase, because everyone does that in college, right?

THE FIRST MAJOR CHOP

In December of 2009, I decided to get my hair cut. At the time, it seemed like a big, big deal but if I look at the photos and consider how short it is now, the cut wasn’t really that dramatic. It was, however, a first step! I had heard about a charity that collects donated hair to make wigs for cancer victims who can’t afford to have a wig made, so I signed up and headed off to the hairdressers. My hair felt fantastic coming out of there (it also just felt fantastic to leave the salon in general, considering I had been in there for four hours). I couldn’t stop touching my hair in the days and weeks that followed. And a friend of a friend even told me that he thought I looked like someone out of a shampoo advertisement!

What I did not anticipate was that compliments could hurt my feelings. “Your hair looks much better now, it really was too long before!” I politely smiled and shuffled off to cry in the bathroom when I heard what translated in my head as, “I think your hair looked rubbish for your whole entire life.” Being someone who is generally very careful with other people’s feelings, I just couldn’t fathom how others could be so hurtful — and the fact that it was unintentional made it even worse.

ONE LAST GOODBYE TO MY LONG HAIR

I never thought I would still have really long hair if I were to have a baby. When I thought about my future/imaginary children, I no longer had long hair in those visions. I don’t know where this feeling came from — maybe a subconscious idea that if I had a baby, I would have other priorities in life other than being known for my long hair. This feeling seemed to be cosmically confirmed when my son was born. During the seven hours of his birth, my hair tangled itself into one big knot-ball unlike any knot-ball I had previously experienced in my entire life. I ignored it for two days, distracted by a hell of a lot of pain, but also a beautiful little baby who had my face! On the third day, I found myself alone with my little boy sleeping peacefully beside me. In a dream-like, silent hospital room with soft orange lighting — high from overwhelming feelings of love — I decided it was time to do something about the dreaded knot-ball attached to my head. It took me four hours to get the knots out, sitting in my hospital bed, in the middle of the night, crying silently from the agony of it. And at that moment I knew that my life with long hair was behind me.

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

In the five years since that first major hair cut, I have donated a total of 6.5 feet of my hair to the wig-making charity. For the first time in my life, I am experiencing the joy of going to the hairdressers and of trying out new styles with my locks. It is a nice feeling to do my hair up, and to actually feel like it looks great without the voice in my head whispering, “People think you look like a freak.” I enjoyed having long hair, and I am sure it contributed to my sense of self and my strength to walk my own path — but now I am ready for something new!

I realize it sounds highly over dramatic to be talking about a haircut in such a life-changing tone when there are so many dramatic, life-changing things happening in the world much more worthy of your attention. However, I always felt a bit misunderstood when it came to my hair. And to be honest, I’m not sure I understood it myself. I never had a satisfactory answer to the condescending question: “Why would you want to have such long hair?” I never understood why I had to justify the existence of my hair to other people — or why they felt it was OK to make me listen to their opinions.

I recently read that some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health, and I completely agree. So thank you for the free therapy session. Same time next week?

First published on Bustle Jan 2015

Images: Hilary Phelan; Giphy; Twitter/@laurajlaura

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

Life

I am not usually one to be scared of things, I think spiders are cute, can handle heights reasonably well, no sign of a boogeyman in the darkness under my bed. There is only one thing that scares the living daylights out of me and that is gigantic huge human-operated machines, such as trucks and diggers. I will cycle a whole block out of my way to avoid having to pass road works, I physically cower down while overtaking trucks in my tiny car. I think it’s pretty logical, people make mistakes, even people who operate huge machinery, one bad day, one hangover, one text message and they could just chop your head off. Even thinking about it now makes me feel like there is a cement block on my chest so I’m gonna change the topic if that’s OK with you.

The reason I bring it up is because today I feel genuinely scared for the first time in a long time. Later today I will go to the University Hospital of Antwerp to get four injections of painkillers in my back. Again, I’m normally fine with all kinds of medical situations, it’s always a bit exciting to be the center of attention and to be surrounded by people who you know are doing their best to make you feel better. Before you start pointing out my chronic need for attention, don’t worry, I am well aware, it is highlighted daily by my significant other! But that is a story for another day.

To fill in the background a bit, don’t worry I’ll be quick… I have had pain in my lower back on and off for years now, ranging from weeks of not being able to stand straight to slight discomfort with certain movements. I have always attributed it to the damage caused by sitting all day and went on with my life, ignoring it. Following a minor traffic collision incident a few months ago my back issues flared up worse than ever so I decided to do something about it.

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An MRI, kinesiologist, osteopath and a neurosurgeon later here I am with an appointment for The Pain Clinic this afternoon. (Sounds lovely doesn’t it?) The recurring theme in their feedback seemed to be that this kind of problem is very common but they had never seen it in someone my age. I always knew I was wise beyond my years! One of the doctors mentioned that the damage to my back could only have been caused by a serious fall or impact, for example if someone pulled a chair out from under me and I landed on my arse on the ground. So I started to search my awfully failing memory to try to pinpoint the moment is all started. I already had back problems when I sat my final exams in high-school, I know that because my GP at the time misdiagnosed it as a kidney infection. #eyeroll If I go back further I remember commenting to a friend that I couldn’t understand how the cool guys at the time sat slouched with their back bent in the sofa. I psychically couldn’t sit like that because my lower back didn’t bend and hurt when I tried. So I guess I already had the issue then, and that was 20 years ago (being able to say that I remember something from 20 years ago makes me feel very very old). Going back to the summer before that, the only thing I can think of that could have caused it and was as dramatic as the doc suggested was one time my butt collided with a tap. I was at the pool with my sisters and some friends and when getting ready to go home, I was in the shower with my sister and another girlfriend, all with our swimming togs still on of course, we were brought up in Ireland you know! The shower had a tap lower down to wash your feet, so when my friend jokingly pulled my swimsuit down, I hunched quickly to cover myself and butt met tap in a very sudden encounter. The wind was knocked out of me and I couldn’t breathe or move for several minutes. Could that have been it? Could that be the reason? Of course it’s just an exercise in curiosity, I’m not looking for anyone to blame, it also has a lot to do with genetics according to the docs, and if I look at my family history of back issues this is certainly true.

So here I am, feeling scared half to death and I don’t really understand why. Maybe because everyone always says that the back is such a delicate and dangerous thing, maybe because the procedure is not a treatment, it is just something that will ‘possibly’ provide some pain relief. Maybe because I managed to get through the hell of giving birth without an epidural three years ago and now I’m ending up getting one anyway. Maybe because a friend who had her baby a month ago is still suffering from one non-functioning leg due to her epidural.

On the other hand, I can no longer imagine how it feels to be pain-free, to sleep a whole night without waking several times in agony, to lift my son in my arms when he runs to me, to go back to my wonderful yoga class, to be able to concentrate on my job without being distracted by trying to find any position that is a bit less painful than the previous one.

So here I go, wish me luck…

Update from later in the day: It really hurt and I cried like a little baby.

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Why to Love Walter Van Beirendonck’s Designs

Life, Painting, Sewing

The one and only designer dress I own is a 2009 Walter Van Beirendonck, and the reason I could afford (or pretend to afford) this particular dress has a lot to do with the ideals surrounding the Belgian fashion designer’s work. There are three main reasons I am attracted to his clothes: Firstly, it is fashion with a moral message — his apparel resonates statements that are anti-violence, anti-racism, pro-environment, pro-hope, pro-love; so what’s not to swoon over? Secondly, he releases ranges that actually are affordable because he wants his designs to be accessible to a young audience. And thirdly, he loves colors as much as I do! Unfortunately for me though, he hardly ever designs for women — all the more reason to jump for joy when I heard he had designed a dress that would cost just $70.

Van Beirendonck lives in the same city as me, and in the 9 years that I’ve lived in Antwerp, there is one day that has a special place in my memory: The day he and I were walking on the same street at the same time. I know I sound like a silly fangirl, but there was something special and mesmerizing about his presence. The day he passed me in the street (he passed me because I was frozen to the spot in awe) he was wearing a mint colored quilted suit and there was a wonderful cloud of fragrance trailing after him. It was like a dream smell of flowers and baby powder. I did a bit of research into this suit, and I guess it was a relative of this seafoam quilted jacket. In any case, it was a spellbinding appearance in my otherwise humdrum day. And solidified the many reasons Van Beirendonck is worthy of my adoration.

1. POSITIVE DEPICTIONS OF GENITALIA

I need to be very careful about when I choose to wear my fabulous Van Beirendonck as it is made of paper! So it’s definitely not an option if there is any chance of rain, or if I’m planning to cycle, or if there is any danger of anyone spilling drinks in my vicinity (that means no children or drunk people — possibly just no drinks at all). The last time I wore it was to the opening of an art exhibition at which I showed a few paintings. There was a little wine involved, but visiting an art gallery is usually a pretty civilized affair, so not much danger of spillage!

So let me tell you a little more about this fabulous dress. First of all, it is decorated with penises — lots of them! It is a wonderful feeling to walk around wearing a dress covered in genitalia that people only notice if they look really closely at the design. Van Bierendonck is a bear of a man, both in physical appearance and in name, and I love that he uses the image of the animal in his work. There’s a feeling of fun freedom to someone who is doing what they want to do and saying what they want to say. Even though the dress does depict naked male parts, I do not at all experience it as being as offensive or x-rated as some might. It is just a body part, much like any other body part — and according to psychologists we should be teaching our children to talk openly about sexuality, not hiding it or keeping it a secret.

2. ACCESSIBLE AND AFFORDABLE DESIGNER WEAR

Van Beirendonck designs for young people, and is aware that his target audience does not always have the kind of funds usually needed to bag designer threads. He cuts out the middlemen from the production and distribution process, and has his clothes made on a large scale. This enables him to keep the prices down without resorting to manufacturing in low wage countries.One of these large scale projects is his children’s collections for JBC. For prices that are a little above average but not crazy ridiculous, your kids can wear beautiful Van Beirendonck clothes. His latest children’s collection ZulupaPUWA came with a lightbulb character and the message, “ZULU says Lights OFF.” You’ll find smiling lightbulbs popping up all over this range, hanging from strings or in the pockets — all the while asking kids to think about the environment and turn off the lights when they leave a room. His previous children’s collection featured the message “It’s OK to be different,” a message I applaud wholeheartedly!

3. THE MESSAGE

Humor plays a huge part in Van Beirendonck’s work. I mean, you can’t help but childishly giggle at a penis dress, right? However he uses this humor to get across important messages — he strives to demolish gender constructions, to promote safe sex and to comment on world happenings. In an interview with Style.com, he said:

In my fantasy world, I see this as soldiers fighting for a kind of freedom. The helmets are not really referring to an army. It’s more about a freedom warrior, people demonstrating in the street. I always loved the idea of people standing up for diversity, for their right to be different.

A recent project gained Van Beirendonck the title Fashion’s Freedom Warrior, and he has earned it. He is not afraid to use his work to communicate a strong message. His Stop Racism headdresses were inspired by the street protests and demonstrations going on around the world.

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In the 1990s, Van Beirendonck’s work gravitated heavily around the promotion of safe sex and the fight against the spread of AIDS. Brooke McCord of DAZED wrote about his work, saying:

You have entered the sex zone, a rubber induced realm, where men clad head-to-toe in muscle tight latex peacock their way down the catwalk, boasting acid bright marabou headwear. Women are dressed in figure-form fetish-wear emblazoned with Bowie lightening bolts, with zips running from the back of the head right under the crotch, leaving the wandering imagination to run wild. Despite bondage style visuals, immortalised by Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s blow-up sex doll meets model images, and a theme of fetishism the latex is in fact representative of a second skin, promoting safe sex, AIDS awareness and Van Beirendonck’s fun, open approach to sex.

4. BEARDS AND RUBBISH

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For those of you who are loving the beard trend, Van Beirendonck did the beard before anyone did the beard. He is the beard.
You don’t need to look far on the streets of Antwerp to see Van Beirendonck’s work, as he even designed the uniforms for the Antwerp City garbage collectors. I love that he would take on a project like that — it makes me feel like he must be a nice guy! He also designed outfits for U2, but does not limit himself to working with big stars. He is a great supporter of the arts and he loves music: You can see some of his beautiful outfits in this Black Box Revelation music video. That tasseled coat looks really cosy and warm, right? (I have issues with the cold, so I judge everything according to warmness level.)

And let’s not forget that the Vogue Mix & Match trend for 2015 is something he has been doing for years. Van Beirendonck does not allow boundaries of clothing to restrict his designs — they occupy any space he feels they should.

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First published on Bustle Jan 2015

Images: jbc.be, Author, Twitter/@GH_Malephoto, Twitter/@IcaTanzi, Twitter/@Tracykonwar,