Saturday, 28 April 2012


Today I have such dreadful cramps that when I get up out of my chair, I make an involuntary sound of pain. That's pretty pathetic, right? But I'm not going to talk about how pathetic I am - not today. I'm going to talk about what my body means to me.

As a confusedly-gendered person, I spend a lot of time in conflict with my body. Sometimes I hate my breasts, which no amount of binding would disguise, even if binding wasn't so preposterously uncomfortable that I never even made it out of the house whilst sporting it. Sometimes I hate my hips, which are pretty unhappy about fitting into boy-trousers. Sometimes I hate my legs, which remain uncompromisingly short, and which ensure that I have never worn a pair of trousers that I haven't had to shorten, regardless of what gender they're intended for. And yes, sometimes I have hated my periods, hated them to the point of tears. I'm not going to claim that my hatred wasn't gender-related. In a way, how could it not be? In a culture where schoolgirls are shamed for having tampons or pads in their bags, where grown men as well as schoolboys make jokes about PMS and have gross-out competitions about period-sex, where many non-period-having humans genuinely believe that menstruation makes one "crazy", how can I be sure that my resentment of my periods was divorced from that sexist nonsense? I'm sure that it affected me on some level: one can't grow up steeped in misogyny and expect to emerge unscathed.

However, for the most part, my period-hatred was to do with the inconvenience of it all. I was never the girl who belonged in a Lil-Lets advert, dancing around joyfully with nary a rusty stain in sight. I was the girl whose periods were wilfully irregular, turning up at random with no warning seemingly just to toy with me, bringing with them days of disruption, discomfort and pain. Some of that is still true today - they're still painful and annoying, and my cycle is still anything but regular. And I'm still slightly resentful of the extra planning I have to do to accommodate them. But honestly? I actually kind of love having periods. Although I don't exactly enjoy the pain and the clock-watching, I don't hate it. I like the sense of control that I get from dealing with it, even when it's so fundamentally uncontrollable. Okay, so I can't dictate (or even predict!) when my period is going to turn up, but I can predict the kind of steps I'll need to take in order to deal with it when it does happen. And that makes me feel at peace with my body in a way that has very little to do with gender.

I hear a lot of anecdotal evidence from trans-men, trans-masculine folk and the like who hate having periods, much as they hate their breasts, because for them menstruation is incontrovertible evidence of their 'female bodies', which they often don't like to be reminded of. I have a lot of sympathy for that feeling - I have felt it myself, about many aspects of my body. On the other side of the same coin, I've also heard a lot of people describing that "female bonding" thing of having periods: it's something that all women share, and men don't understand! Actually, no. Not all women have periods, for a variety of reasons, and some men do, also for a variety of reasons. I don't really subscribe to either of these views in their entirety, although I understand the drive behind both. I hope that my acceptance of my menstruation stems from a growing empathy with the idea that no biological functions are inherently male or female, meaning that my periods are not an irrefutable sign of my womanhood. They may be an indicator that I'm capable of getting pregnant, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish.

I'm getting so sick of the essentialist language that is used to describe us. Progressives often use "female-bodied" in a well-meaning attempt to show that they know that not all people who have breasts or uteri are women, and I do appreciate the intent. But it's terribly unhelpful for all sorts of people, particularly trans and genderqueer people, who often don't want or need to alter their bodies, and would rather not be put into any particular box due to their personal choices (or lack thereof). I really don't appreciate being reduced to my biology in any case, particularly when it's just yet another stick to be used to beat my supposed gender into me. On a slight tangent, could we stop referring to male-heavy spaces as "sausage-fests"? A) it's gross, and b) it's factually incorrect, disturbingly erasing and personally insulting.

I like my periods ... they don't mean I'm a woman. I don't have a cock ... that doesn't mean I'm any less of a man. I am not female-bodied, and I never have been.

Monday, 23 April 2012


This post is personal and has no great revelations about life or love. It's not even about gender! Well, I suppose gender comes into it a bit. Sneaky little thing gets everywhere! It's about unwanted intercourse, and me, and an unpleasant episode with a partner. Please be aware it gets a bit brutal, and click past this post right now if you're not up for it. If you are, read on ...

I liked intercourse, once, but I often found it painful. Whether that's due to a physical issue or a mental one, I don't know. It was frustrating for me, of course, and some of my partners found it extremely difficult to deal with. I had a turbulent eight-month relationship with one such person, who made a good show - for the most part - of being accepting and tolerant, and generally acting as though this was reasonable behaviour on my part. He was patient and kind, taking his time with 'foreplay', as I'd told him that this was helpful for me.

Once I suggested that we focus more on the non-penetrative aspects of sex, since I found these parts pleasurable, and would be able to relax into them more if I wasn't worried about how the penetration would feel when we got to it. He wasn't terribly keen on the idea, as for him the most enjoyable part of sex was the intercourse itself, and he didn't really see the point, he told me, of sex which didn't end in intercourse. I couldn't orgasm with him - I never had - and he thought this made foreplay even more pointless. Nevertheless, he wanted to make me happy, and he genuinely wanted me to enjoy sex, so we agreed to shelve penetration for a little while and see how it went.

I was practically living with him at this point. My room on the other side of London was cold, bare and lonely, and it was much nicer to spend time with A in his cosy flat. He had to get up early in the mornings to commute to the opposite corner of London for work, so it was easy for me to go partway with him and be at college for a 9am start. We had settled quickly into a routine - mundane and domestic but cosy and comforting at the same time. We argued about the washing up, but we shopped and cooked and decorated together, and were happy. I was 19.

We 'foreplayed' for a while after that, kissing and touching and stroking and sucking. I tried to enjoy it as I'd said that I would. I tried to relax, like the books said I should. I wanted to make A happy, to let him see me enjoying myself. I wanted to enjoy myself. I started pretended to, hoping to trick myself into feeling pleasure. It didn't work on me, but it worked on A, who read in my responses only what he wanted to read, and moved to penetrate me. I was tense and confused, paralysed with shame and guilt and fear. If there was something wrong with me, this wasn't the way to fix it. What was? How could I find out? Not like this ... a problem for another time, then. I moved to accommodate him and tried to relax my muscles and my mind.

We fucked.

I moved as much as I dared, trying to tread the fine line between stillness and movement that didn't make me an inert lump of meat, but didn't hurt too much either. He pushed his face into my shoulder, kissing my collarbone, his fingers on my nipple. I closed my eyes to stop the tears. I retreated from the pain and my eyes dried, my mind emptied. I watched him from somewhere else, trying to smile at him, thinking maybe this isn't so bad. I can do this. Look how easy it is.

Lying together afterwards, damp and clammy, somewhere between relieved, resigned and resentful, I realised I had to tell him the truth about 'how it was for me'. I apologised a lot. I thanked him for trying the foreplay thing. I apologised again if I'd given him the wrong signals. I told him I hadn't enjoyed it. I asked him if he'd seen my tears. I told him it was my fault for not asking him to stop. I said sorry.

His mouth tightened then, and he pulled away, and shouted into my face that I'd made him rape me. After a while I started crying, and he held me and soothed me, murmuring into my ear and stroking my back. I quieted.

We had dinner.

Later, he cried, and held his face in his hands, and I looked at him as if he was my child, thinking I must protect him from this. 

I said at the top that gender didn't come into this one. It doesn't, really, except that as I wrote that I thought about all the ways that gender had influenced this particular incident, as well as sex more generally. Had I not been socialised as a woman, would I have been more vocal about what I wanted and didn't want, like A was? Perhaps I wouldn't have internalised so many damaging 'truths' about sex: intercourse is the only bit that matters; I should want intercourse because if I didn't I was a prude, I was broken; foreplay is something that happens before intercourse, as a warmup, and if I wanted it to last longer than it did I was selfish and immature and not doing it right; intercourse is something that I owed my partner. Perhaps if A and I had had different sex education (not just formal education but social education, a casual on-the-job learning with our peers and partners) he wouldn't have set so much store by intercourse, and nor would I, and both of us would have thought that there was value in exploring other aspects of sex. That one isn't so much about gender, but so much of it comes down to gender in the end, at a root level. A was older than I, but he probably had the same experience of being separated from 'the other' gender at school to learn about sex, to gigglingly observe condoms and bananas and cold line drawings of female anatomy. He was probably taught, as I was, that I was the possessor of untold riches and that he would get them if he only behaved in the right way, and that this was normal. He was probably taught, as I was, that if the carefully applied formula didn't work, it meant that one or other of us must be broken, and since he wasn't broken, it must be me. And he probably would have agreed with me that he needed to be protected from my brokenness. I think, in the end, he would rather not have known at all.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Best Figure

Here's something I remember from school.

When we finished our GCSEs, my friends and I had a party. Some of us were staying on for sixth form and A-levels, some of us were moving to other places for A-levels and NVQs and the like, and some of us were heading out into the grown-up world of work. (On a side note, I can't believe that it's nearly ten years later and I still haven't headed out into the grown-up world of work. Those guys overtook me years ago. They have jobs and husbands and babies. I am still living in halls. These are the things I worry about when I can't sleep at night, at the ripe old age of 25.)

Anyway, back to the party. It was because we were all going in different directions, and everything was changing and oh my God we'll never see each other again ... it was a very grown-up affair. We had party food and party games and plenty of alcopops. I'm pretty sure someone's parents had gone out for the evening, giving us a house to ourselves. One of the girls had organised a kind of awards thing in advance. There were categories, and we all voted (secretly of course) for a winner of each category. It sounds a bit like what they (you?) do in American high schools - 'most likely to graduate top of the class', 'most likely to go to prison', etc.

The only category I remember was a kind of 'open' one, I think, where we wrote down the thing that we liked most about each member of our group and submitted it to S, who was organising the whole thing. I'm not sure if there were different categories for physical quality and non-physical quality. I'm not sure whether the results were collated and the top one chosen, or whether we all saw all of them in the end. I do remember that I had a little laminated bit of paper afterwards which said Best Listener on it. It still gives me a warm glow to this day, but I guess that must have been something slightly different, because I also remember the disbelief on J's face and her disparaging laugh when she read what I'd written for her. I'd said that her best physical feature was her figure.

Now, in my defence, my intention had been pure. We were a ragtag bunch of teenagers, comprising for the most part all the flotsam that had been rejected from other, cooler groups of kids. I hope that wouldn't insult anyone in our group. I am pretty happy with that definition for myself, but maybe the others wouldn't be. To be fair, some of them were cool in the sense that they had friends outside of our group, fitted in at parties and weren't bullied by the other kids. Most of us weren't that kid. We were the other kid, the one who came to our group for refuge from normality, which had in general been pretty rotten to us. None of us sailed blithely through secondary school unscathed. J, now that I come to think of it, may have been the closest we had to a cool kid. She was brash and confident and sensual, full-bodied, loud-voiced. She was the polar opposite of me, and I thought she was absolutely marvellous. I have a photo of us together at one of our sleepovers. I'm shy, in a vastly oversized t-shirt. J is wearing nothing but a hot-pink bra.

Her scornful dismissal of my clumsy accolade made my heart hurt. I had meant, as I stumblingly tried to explain in front of our whole group of friends, that I loved how comfortable she was in her body - how unselfconscious, how carefree. I did love her figure, all the lovely rolls and curves of it, but I also loved how much she inhabited that figure. How present she was in her beautiful body. That didn't seem radical, back then.

It still upsets me to think of the way she received my words. I think she genuinely couldn't believe that I found her figure attractive. Perhaps she was only embarrassed that I'd mentioned her figure at all, thinking that maybe I was making fun, or that even if I wasn't, my comment would open her up to judgement from everyone else - that our friends would be thinking "great figure? J?" and be looking at her to see if they concurred, appraising her.

It obviously wasn't my first exposure to the ugly, complicated relationship that many women have with their bodies. If it had been, I probably would never have been driven to make that comment in the first place, because J's apparently comfortable habitation of her non-thin body would not have been radical. I wouldn't have noticed it, because it would have been normal. I might even have been comfortably inhabiting my own non-thin body. Instead I was hiding myself in vastly oversized t-shirts, and I thought J's seemingly thoughtless exhibition of her own body meant that she knew that she was beautiful, and thought nothing of having the eyes of others on her flesh. It wasn't just the bra, of course. It wasn't like she was roaming the school halls in her bikini - she wore uniform like the rest of us. But that was just it. She didn't make a big deal of what she wore or didn't wear. To my frightened mind, it was just that easy for J. She had somehow magically escaped the widely-cast net of body shame that so many of us floundered around in, and despite her decidedly non-socially-condoned curves, she was comfortable in her skin.

That was the quality that I tried to capture in my unfortunate tribute. I saw that J's body wasn't the conventionally-attractive type, and I thought she was happy with it, and I loved both her body and her happiness. I wanted her to know that I thought she was beautiful, too. But I hadn't counted on the insidious, ubiquitous nature of body shame, which can turn even the most innocent or well-meaning remark into a barb. Perhaps J's dismissive laugh was to deflect attention from something that she couldn't believe was true, and didn't want anyone else to consider. Perhaps she was simply embarrassed. Or perhaps she was secretly flattered, but didn't want to appear arrogant in front of our friends. Either way, I doubt that J has a little laminated bit of paper in an old box somewhere which says Best Figure. I kind of hope that she does, though.

Monday, 16 April 2012


The purpose of this post is for me to practise putting pretty pictures on my blogs. If you like photos of beautiful skies, taken on a crappy camera out of the window of my room, read on! If you don't, or if you'd rather look at something a little less self-indulgent today, skip this one :-)

30th March 2012

1st April 2012

I have always been a bit in love with the sky. Apparently it's a very adolescent taste, much like sweet wine rather than dry, and chocolate rather than olives. My parents in particular make fun of me for my sentimental leanings. But seriously, who isn't in love with a sky that looks like this?

8th March 2012, 20:02

The next few were all taken on the same evening. I took dozens of photographs that night, because every time I looked out of the window, the sky had changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, and I felt ( please excuse this pretentiousness) privileged to see it.

8th March 2012, 20:11

Only 9 minutes later than the previous image, but the light seems to be coming from a totally different place and this, coupled with a bit of a zoom out, changes things from fairly turbulent to more serene.

8th March 2012, 20:23

This is the penultimate photograph I took, and it may not be a great image, but it's an amazing foreshadow of the final picture of the night. The clouds are lowering and the uplight is quite evenly spread, and you can just see the beginnings of the pinkish tinge which is so spectacular in the final photograph, taken 24 minutes later ...

8th March 2012, 20:47
And there it is. Gorgeous. I am lucky enough to be living in a place with this view out of my window. It is pretty high up on my list of pros for the place. My list of cons includes dodgy internet connection, an extremely temperamental shower, expensive laundry facilities, an electric hob (never got to grips with those) and badly fitted windows which mean that when I'm in bed, my head is in a draft. But honestly? This view makes all those pale into insignificance. Sentimental it may be, but it's good enough for me.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Pirates! In an Adventure with Gender!

I was linked to this review of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! at the F-word from a blog round-up at the fabulous Lashings of Ginger Beer blog, which I have recently discovered and am rather in love with. I happened to see Pirates myself last week, when I was in a filthy mood and wanted something to cheer me up. I knew Hunger Games would be out for a while longer, and I thought Pirates would probably do a better job of lifting my spirits anyway. Obviously I can't speak (yet) for what Hunger Games would do for my spirits, but Pirates certainly worked for me. Here's why I'm on a different page of the same book as Laura when it comes to gender in the film.

Pirates is not a progressive film in terms of gender. There are just three female characters (plus three 'ladies' who faint at the 'Scientist of the Year' competition, when a particularly exciting exhibit reaches the 'Ladies Fainting' section of the clap-o-meter, and some scantily-clad island beauties, about whom more later). One of these is a member of Pirate Captain's crew, disguised as a man. One is Cutlass Liz, a borderline racist characterisation of a sexy Barbadian pirate. And one is Queen Victoria, who is a badass villain whose beef with pirates is that they are so old-fashioned.

Cutlass Liz doesn't get to feature in the story - she is pretty much a token character. The crew member, who is addressed as "Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate" by Pirate Captain in the opening scene, isn't exactly foregrounded either. I could have done without her love-sick swoon in the same scene, where she sighs "I'd take a jellyfish in the face for [Pirate Captain]", but at least she doesn't end up marrying him, and her crush isn't a plot point. Queen Victoria is the best female character by a mile - she is mean, single-minded and deadly. Her diminutive stature and waddling plumpness do not hinder her in the slightest in setting aside her restrictive costume and waging war on Pirate Captain.

Three women in a film is pretty poor, especially when one of them only makes one appearance in 80 minutes. I suppose it's the old excuse, "well, there just weren't any women pirates!" Aardman, you've made a great argument that there probably were female pirates, perhaps disguised as men, and you could have done much more with that than give your token the most boring motivation in the history of female characters - that she's in love with a male character. You could even have had some women scientists. But I guess that would just be too unrealistic ...

I also disliked the closing joke of the film, in which Pirate Captain's deputy makes an emotional speech about the lessons they've all learnt. Pirate Captain asks him, sotto voce, whether he's sure he isn't a woman disguised as a man, quipping "apparently there's a lot of it about!" This is just boring gender-essentialism. I suppose it isn't necessarily all bad, because Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate is never suspected of being a woman, which turns the joke back onto Pirate Captain. But this does sail dangerously close to "exceptional woman" territory, in which one woman can escape the defining characteristics of her gender to prove her worth at the expense of other women. But I'm also slightly worried by the character description for the deputy that I found in what looks like an official Tumblr for the film: 
If the Pirate Captain is the crew’s flashy but unreliable dad, the Pirate with a Scarf is their slightly put-upon mum. [...] [He is s]mart, resourceful, and perhaps just a little TOO loyal ...
Now that's definitely a "he's a girl" joke, but is it also a "he's gay" joke? Perhaps I'm reading too much into it (this accusation has been levelled at me from time to time) but those sentences together make me pretty suspicious that the deputy's "loyalty" might be crush-based.

So much for the women. What about the men of Pirates? To my mind, the film is just as hard on men as it is on women. Women are largely invisible, which is problematic. But men are very visible, and most of them are muppets. Pirates are loveable but ineffectual or swaggering macho-men; scientists are lonely unlovable nerds. The motivation of a high number of characters is to see scantily-clad women or get a girlfriend. I actually laughed at the introduction to Charles Darwin, when I thought that his journal entry documenting his discoveries and ending with "I will never get a girlfriend. I am so unhappy" was a throwaway joke, and not the basis for his entire narrative arc. Really, the film is incredibly unkind to scientists, who are without exception socially-inept, mind-numbingly boring, terminally unattractive and childishly obsessed with women. As Laura points out in her list of things Pirates taught her about women,
It's fun to perve on women. During a presentation to the Royal Society of Scientists, the inventor of a hydrogen-powered flying device points out that one of its main advantages is that it lets you look down women's tops. [...] Finally: scantily clad women exist to cheer men up. When Pirate Captain's crew are down in the dumps, he suggests setting off on an adventure to an island where the women don't wear many clothes. Lucky old Darwin ends up on this wonderful island after having his heart broken by Queen Vic - get in there son!
Now, those things are reprehensible. But what they teach us about men is just as nasty as what they teach us about women - possibly even nastier. Women do indeed often need to fulfill certain narrow criteria to be in a feature film, and that is highly problematic. However, when there are only three women in a film, at least you can argue that there might be other women in existence who aren't like that. That's not much of a recommendation, but when your cast is populated by huge numbers of grown men acting without exception like horny teenagers whose sole motivation is to impress, perv on or 'get' women, it sends an equally damaging message: that all men are like that.

It's not much of a choice. Women are mostly invisible except when they're lust-objects, whilst men are invariably "pervs". I'm not saying that Pirates isn't sexist, because it most certainly is. But it cuts both ways, and it's not only offensive to women. I agree with every word of the F-word review - except I actually rather enjoyed the film, despite its issues - but I think it's important not to frame this particular sexism (or indeed any sexism) as damaging solely to women.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Casual Honesty

During a casual date a few weeks ago, I screwed up my courage for an awkward conversation. I knew it needed to be said, and I knew I had to be the one to start the conversation, so I did. I told T that I really liked her and enjoyed spending time together, but that I wasn't sure that I was attracted to her. I said that didn't mean that I wouldn't be in the future (since I'm a slow-burning lad and my romantic/sexual feelings tend to develop over a long period of knowing someone (and yes, that has caused all sorts of problems in my life!)), but that right now I wasn't feeling it and didn't know if I would at all. I told her that I wanted to make my feelings clear, so that we would both know where we stood if we decided to meet again.

Now, my motivations were clear in my head. I like T, I think she's huge fun, great company, right on my wave length politically, and hilarious with it. I want to see her again. But we had met originally through OKCupid, where we were both looking for, amongst other things, romantic dates and casual sex. And something she said after the first time we met had made me think that she liked me 'in that way'. So I wanted, for both our sakes, to be totally honest about how I felt, so that if we decided to meet again, she wouldn't be disappointed if we didn't get romantic or sexual, and I wouldn't be worried that she'd be disappointed if we didn't get romantic or sexual!

T's response was unexpected but pleasing: she told me that she felt the same; that she wasn't sure if she was romantically or sexually interested in me, but enjoyed hanging out just the same. So the awkward conversation wasn't awkward after all - I was quite happy to believe that I had misread the situation and that T and I were cool to keep seeing each other, with no pressure on either side, and nobody would be disappointed if we remained non-romantic or -sexual. I think we're both happy with that - I met her earlier this week, as a matter of fact, and we had a lovely time chilling in the sun on the South Bank.

However, this situation has made me think about the generalities of casual dating, and the thin ice of 'honest' conversations in these contexts. I thought I was doing the responsible thing by making my intentions (such as they are) clear - I don't like stringing anyone along, and I hate the idea of unintentionally hurting someone by doing it by mistake. So, what's the solution? Tell people what you're thinking. Guilt-free dating, and nobody gets hurt. But flip that coin over, and what have you got? A selfish desire to have your cake and eat it too.

Bear with me. How can honesty be selfish? Here's how: by telling T that I like her, but don't like her, I am giving her a bald choice. I am laying down the law. "We can still see each other, but don't cross the line. The line is here - if you want to see me again, this is what you do." To me this sounds like pressure - pressure of the kind that I was, ironically, trying to avoid by being honest. Because, really, if T is interested, how can she respond to that? "I do fancy you, actually, but I guess we'll continue meeting up as friends and I'll keep my fingers crossed that you develop sexy feelings for me." Not such an easy thing to say, is it? Not if you're interested in keeping that casual vibe, or if you in turn don't want to put pressure on your date. Plus, come on, there's probably some embarrassment here. We're all very cool, very grown-up, and look at us talking about our feelings! - but there's a nervous kid in all of us, scared to put ourselves out there too much in case we're smacked down. Really, T would have to be super brave to respond to my 'I'm not interested' with 'I am interested'. So what I've done is force from T the only possible response to my declaration, regardless of how she actually feels. If she truly isn't interested, or isn't yet interested but thinks she might be in the future - great. If, on the other hand, she thinks she's interested, what I've done by making her aware of my lack of interest is ensured that she can't be honest about it. By telling her the truth, I can retain my 'casual, relaxed date' approach with impunity, having eased my conscience by 'being honest', but not actually risked hearing anything that I don't want to hear. See? Selfish.

The merit of demystification is a subject deeply entangled in progressive dating. I am in favour of honesty - all honesty all the time. But, alongside the various ethical questions that surround this approach (should I tell my friend I think their beard isn't doing them any favours, should I tell my boyfriend that I fancy his friend, should I tell my partner the details of my sex with other people etc) there is also a question about the romance of it. This comes up a lot in consent debates, too - is taking a 'plain speech' approach to consent sexy? (my answer: it can be, it depends on how you do it, and it sure beats the alternative whether it's sexy or not!) When it comes to casual dating, perhaps there's an optimum level of honesty, somewhere between coy glances, mind games and putting your hand in a strategic position hoping that they will take it, and "I fancy you, some sex would be great, can I put a date in my diary for our first kiss?"

In all seriousness, though, I don't know how casual this casual dating thing can be. I do like a bit of mystery - do they like me? what did they mean by that text? are they going to kiss me? - but at the same time, I feel we owe it to each other to be as gentle as possible, and sometimes that's going to mean making clear your feelings before somebody gets hurt.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Selling Stuff to Men

In a nearby communal shower room, there is a corner unit where each person who uses the shower has an individual shelf. On these shelves, gender segregation rules.

Some shelves are filled with products like these:

1) "Gingerbread" by Pink Cow: "A Very Warm Bath & Shower Gel. 1. A scent filled to the brim with bear hugs, and sweet memories. 2. Be dreamsome ... paint a unicorn in pink and lime. 3. Say hurrah for 'NO PARABENS'. (Recycle me and I may come back as a blanket)" Text on the back reads "Massage over skin whilst in the bath or shower and let the cheeky bubbles kiss your skin with softness."

2) "Body Wash" by Sanctuary Spa, Covent Garden: "Gently cleanse, invigorate and soften your skin with moisturising sesame oil, smoothing essential oils and fragrant spices"

3) "nourish Shower Therapy" by Radox: "be nice to your skin, with shea butter & ginger shower cream"

Other shelves sport bottles more like this:

1) Alpecin "Caffeine Shampoo" Hair Energizer: "Stimulates hair roots during washing. With patented skin activator - Reduces hair loss."

2) "Ice Dive Shower Gel" by Adidas: "Developed with athletes". Text on the back reads "adidas Ice Dive PRO ENERGY shower gel for men: Unique energising fragrance, enriched with marine salts, pH respect/Dermo-tested formula."

3) Dove "Men+care Body and Face Wash": FRESH AWAKE energising scent (micro moisture)

4) Dove "Men+care Body and Face Wash": CLEAN COMFORT mild formula - micro moisture technology.

There are some pretty obvious differences between the first set of products and the second set. The first set focuses on sensation: scent, kiss, softness, gently, smoothing, fragrant; the second set seems to be more about action: stimulates, activator, athletes, energising, technology. The most verbose of the first set is committed to whimsy: bear hugs, sweet memories, dreamsome, unicorn; the most verbose of the second set is dedicated to improvement: developed, energising, enriched. The first is "filled to the brim" whilst the second is "enriched". The first is quirky; the second scientific. The first espouses gentleness; the second espouses aggression.

I think we all know how products are marketed towards 'men' and 'women'. These bathroom products are fairly typical examples. What is interesting in this case is the response they provoked in me. I am used to products being marketed as "normal" and "girl version" - (see car gadgets, work tools, kids' toys*). It's easy to interpret, in many cases, that "normal" is, well, normal, and "girl version" is kinda ridiculous. The girl version of any "normal" product will often be pink or purple in colour, appeal to whimsy, lightheartedness, romance, flowers or the like. Now, there's nothing wrong with pink, purple, whimsy, lightheartedness, romance or flowers. The problem is how those differences are made to look like that - like differences - by their positioning against the "normal" version of these products. Because the "normal" version lacks these distinctions, the things that are added to make something "girl version" are additions to normal, and thus are produced as excessive, which can also be read as frivolous, trivial, decorative, etc. (See how all these words are code for "feminine"?) The point is that the normal version is basic, and the girl version is excessive. So far, so Gender Binary 101.

What's interesting about these bathroom products is how excessive the men's version looks to me. There is something laughable about those appeals to what seems to be extreme masculinity. Scientific formulas! Athletic prowess! Magic hair regrowth! And yet the appeals to what seems to be extreme femininity are no less laughable ("paint a unicorn in pink and lime" ... ?!). But I am acclimatised to extreme femininity in bathroom products. When it comes to body cleaning products, it is the "girl version" which is normal, and the men's version which is produced as excessive. Note that 3 out of 4 men's products explicitly state that they are for men, while none of the women's products mention gender. Body cleaning products are implicitly coded as feminine from the get-go, meaning that products that want to appeal to a different target market need to explicitly identify that market. Thus we get square gun-metal grey bottles and clean straight lines like this as opposed to curved shapes, flowing lines and soft images like this.

Bathroom products are not the only area where the girl-version is the norm from which boy-version deviates (see also recipe books, pregnancy books and home cleaning products). However, cooking, child-rearing and housework are things that are constructed, however wrongheadedly, as 'women's business', and so the normalising of femininity in products associated with these topics is understandable (if annoying and ridiculous). One would think of bodily hygiene, on the other hand, as being non-gendered - we all need to keep clean. But no, it has to be produced as girly, because women care about being clean (and soft and scented, of course) whereas men only wash because they absolutely have to. I'm not saying that this is true, of course - only that for some reason, advertising companies seem to think that these are the narratives they must promote in order to sell stuff to 'men' and 'women'. (What does one buy if one isn't a man or a woman ... ?) We should all be insulted by this, no matter what gender we are.

* I am aware that by providing only 'normal' and 'girl' links here, I am ignoring the 'boy' versions of the same pages. However, in all of these examples, it is remarkable how closely the 'boy' versions resemble the 'normal' versions, which is precisely my point. See my search for boys' toys, girls' toys and children's toys. In terms of the range of colours and items the non-gendered search is similar to the boys' search (although it's interesting that the 'boys' toys' search also turns up what looks like soft porn aimed at both men and women, as well as products aimed at adult men, whilst the other two searches return only 'children's' items). On the 'girls' toys' search, the range of products is smaller (mostly dolls, dolls' accessories and miniature household products like ironing boards and ovens) and there is not a single item that doesn't include the colour pink. My point is that the boys' version, whilst different from the non-gendered version, is not as different from that version as the girls' version is.