So, I watched Love Island on election night. Thrilled by an exit poll, I changed the channel and sought out hung voting of a different kind. It was my first time, though like anyone I was familiar with the oeuvre. If you haven’t yet seen it with your eyes, please don’t expect an explanation here of what actually happens on Love Island.
Love Island does not explain, it does not apologise or invite scrutiny. It’s best if you let it wash over you, with the subtitles on and Radiohead playing in the background.
But for the uninitiated, here’s the skinny (in every way): TV producers have rounded up the 10 young people in the UK who have the least demonstrable body hair and left them in a Mediterranean/Asian fusion bar from 2009. It’s a competition. I think. I find it hard to focus while watching, but I’m aware things are going on that are very important that I need to understand because everyone is staring at each other a lot. It’s a bit like those scenes in Bond films where he’s been drugged and he’s only got 5 seconds to win at poker before he passes out. This is what watching Love Island is like. Obviously, I love it. I love the people on it, who are sweet and young and just trying to earn some money by potentially having sex on camera. I love Camilla, who delivers a blistering defence of feminism, and cries because Johnny doesn’t like it. Mate, we feel that. The competition appears to be about totally just being yourself, because everyone talks about that a lot. The only beds available are for two people to share, a feature which is described variously by Caroline Flack on the eviction shows as ‘saucy’, ‘frisky’ and ‘cheeky’, so that’s ok! That sounds like fun! Anyway, the contestants are contractually obligated to kiss each other at intervals and on balconies. This must be as abruptly as possible, while one person is mid-sentence. Unsettlingly, everyone is bald from the neck down, like traumatised budgies pecking at themselves in a mirror. All the women wear tight dresses with a lot of zips. Other stuff needs to happen, like having dinner, and crying. The winners get £50,000. And love.
Anyway, it’s just like on The Apprentice but it’s totally way better because all the tasks are breaches of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. As Camilla puts her hands through holes in a large wooden board to squeeze, identify and rate the body parts of Marcel on the other side, I sip my tea and wait until Kem’s hairless buttocks are no longer obscuring my line of vision.
Later, I listened to the whispers in shared beds (‘You are so much sexier when you are naked, you just look better.’ Saucy!) and tearful discussions later on the decking, (‘It just plays into my lack of confidence.’ sobs… someone in a bikini. Cheeky!). I see the men, oiled on sun loungers, anxiously discussing who likes them and who doesn’t, while the women pump iron in the background. I guess its ok if we are all made to feel shit. Equal opportunities, guys. I guess that’s fine.
I have a look at the how old the contestants are. Apart from a quivering and ancient 31 year old, who will presumably be killed and eaten by the group as an offering to the gods in order to retain their youth, everyone seems to be about 21.
I try to remember being 21. I can’t. I am 37.
Earlier that day, I sat in a pub. I was on my way home from work, the pub was by the roadside and my hair was wet because I had washed it in a sink in the toilets (it’s a long story). I was having a bowl of chips because I deserved a bowl of chips (it’s a short story – I like chips) and while I ate the barmaid chatted to the man ordering at the bar. It was her 21st birthday and she was working and it sucked. More than this – she felt old. ‘21 is so old.’ she said, tying up her hair, looking for a knife to chop the lemon with. ‘I feel like the best years of my life are behind me. My sister is 18 and she’s going to Glastonbury this year and oh my god, I wish I was her.’ The man at the bar, in his fifties maybe, laughed in exactly the way I would have done, and told her she was still… young in exactly the way that I would not. She brushed aside the comment with a well-practiced hand movement in front of her face, as if it were a cobweb. Well, I feel old, she said, and smiled. She stepped back as she handed him his drink.
I looked down at the ends of my own hair. It was dripping water onto my chest and making my top see through enough to show that I was wearing a greying maternity bra despite having stopped breastfeeding three years ago (my underwear is from a section of the store labelled ‘Plausible Deniability’. You can find it in the back of the ‘Fucking HELL’ department). I looked up – a couple were staring furtively at me over their paper and mid-week special. Without thinking, I spread my knees and leaned back in my chair, elbow on the back rest. I caught their eye, one clipped up boob thrust out. I stuck a chip in my mouth and smiled. It occurred to me how happy I was: my bowl was still full, and soon I would be home with my babies.
In that moment I wanted to get up from my chair, walk over and announce to the barmaid how amazing 37 is. No one told me, I wanted to say. No one has told you either. This, (and here I would gesture flamboyantly at my body, my bare face, my rucksack containing Lego cards and a plastic bag full of stinking, crumpled work clothes) this is better than you can possibly imagine right now. You cannot appreciate, at 21, how wonderful it is to be 37. And why would you? Nobody wants you to know about this. It’s a secret.
I mean, here’s what you’ve been told: your teenage years, your twenties, are the best time of your life. You need to hurry up and enjoy it and travel and study and get your career going and find love and take pictures of yourself sitting on someone’s shoulders showing your midriff at a festival because This. Is. It. You have 10 years, 15 tops. By the time you reach your late thirties, your forties, you will have disintegrated into a slightly harried mother person, who has given up on dreams, dressing well and all hopes of a rewarding inner life in exchange for dutifully perpetuating the human race and a husband who travels for work. Or into a desperate and embittered spinster, for whom every minute not spent as the CEO of her own bitch face is spent applying flattering filters to Tinder selfies and training for a Tough mudder. Or into Caroline Flack. Well (and here I would climb onto the bar and snap my fingers at the bartender to kill the music) This Is Bullshit.
All you have heard so far is that youth is everything, but even so that you are nothing. Well, it turns out that youth is like renting in Zone 2 – you don’t realise how shit it is until you’ve stopped paying two grand a month to live in a cupboard within walking distance of a Carluccio’s, a BYO beach bar, museums you never visit and a friendly dude who likes pressing his penis up against the windows of Pizza Express (true story).
You are not old enough to know that the beginning of your life is just that – the beginning. So, I’m going to tell you now about the middle.
It is (and pay attention now) your prime.
I can tell you about this, because I’m in it. We don’t talk about it much, because the first rule of being in your prime is that you don’t talk about being in your prime. The second rule of being in your prime is that you write sweary, over-long blog posts about being in your prime because young people seem to be putting up with a lot of bullshit. The third rule of being in your prime is that you beat the crap out of Brad Pitt in your spare time (true story). But anyway, here’s the skinny: when it comes, you won’t even notice it. Your transition from ‘Sorry, It’s My Fault’ to ‘Off You Fuck’ will be seamless. You will just wake up one day and realise that you are absolutely knocking it out of the park on all fronts. I mean, you’re not even trying – you can’t remember the last time you even thought about it.
So let’s say it again: your prime. It’s important, so I’ve put it in italics for you. This is a word normally reserved for steak, for real estate, for Cary Grant in North by Northwest, for George Clooney in everything even though he is now (whisper it) 83 years old. But prime is not a word you ever hear applied to grown ass women who know how to handle themselves. Here are some other words you might have heard though: Hard-nosed. Pushy. Cougar. Matronly. Shrill. Ridiculous. Pathetic. Fat. Bitch.
There are a lot of words for women in the middle of their lives. Or for any women who step out of line, have you noticed? It’s almost as if this is actually the best bit of their lives, and these women are powerful and terrifying to lots of dudes. You know the ones! They know a whole bunch of stuff, and anyway they’re often terribly cross – you can find them online at www.literallyeveryfuckingtimealadysaystuff.com. In the comments. Anyway, it’s almost as if – for these few years at least – these women are winning. Luckily for the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame, they don’t seem to have really noticed yet. Or if they have, they are keeping it secret. Instead, they are kept busy trying as hard as they can to look, from the moment they leave their teenage years, like they have a return ticket.
Well, I’m here to tell you (and at this point please note that I would be striding up and down the bar and reaching for a microphone) that you have got a one way ticket outta there, and thank God because that place was a shithole.
I’m here to tell anyone who has pouted in selfies and cried in cubicles that one day you will calmly trot across a swimming pool changing room after an escaped toddler, half in, half out of a bikini, unknowably fatter than that one time 15 years ago you worried you were too fat to wear one. You won’t know this, of course, because you never quite remember to find out and you don’t own scales. Scars and stretch marks will roll with you, one breast also escaped and swinging gently somewhere near your navel as you bend to scoop up your child. You will strut back, brand new muscles bulging as you hold an angry human under your arm. It will not occur to you to be embarrassed.
I’m here to tell anyone who is bluster and exuberance and excuse me please don’t look, that one day you and your friends will clear rooms without even raising your voices. You will nurse a flat white and detail that time you squatted to deliver a placenta. You will discuss your piles over a slice of polenta cake. You will sit in Wagamama’s discussing FGM and white privilege, the politics of the rape fantasy, and bioethics. You will not talk about who likes you. Not old enough to be invisible, not young enough to titillate, grown men will get up and leave. You will swell, flex, occupy space with your very presence. You will have heft. You won’t glance around to see who is looking. You won’t hope for or dread the eyes upon you. Ladies, know this – you won’t notice, you won’t care.
Because, you see (and listen up), whenever it arrives – whether it’s 37 or 33 or 42 or 56 – your prime number is the square root of giving no fucks. It is when you magically attain, as Simon Cowell would intone, the X factor, where x is equivalent to y r u smacking your own bottom for a living; those shorts will give you cystitis.
And (at this point I would be wearing a flag from the top of the bar, one leg up, foot resting on a beer pump) now I’m going to tell you why.
It’s because one day, your fears will be bigger than your own body and so will your hopes. When you are 21, death is a movie star. It glitters in the distance or passes nearby and makes you drop your coffee, hurry to take a picture. At 37, you know that death has no celebrity status. It’s a pain in the arse, an overfamiliar acquaintance you can’t seem to shake off. It’s leaning right in across the table and blowing on your goddamn dinner. Death is a Tuesday morning moment that bends your future like a hairpin: a hand leaving yours in a crowd, a phone call, a stupid joke, the pause of your fingers on your breast, the strip lit tiles on the floor of the waiting room. Death is boring, mundane, and coming for you. But not today. Not today, everyone. Today I am in my prime and if I time it right I can get the wind to blow the hair off my face when I take a corner in fifth and come out in second, today I am in my prime and if I aim straight I can stand on tip toe and take a run up and slide in my socks right across the dining room floor while my children applaud, arms hooked out like I’m coming in to land. Today, I am in my prime and I dance like everyone is fucking well watching.
No, please don’t apologize, I would say to the security staff now gathering around me. Really. I’m quite comfortable standing on this bar. And that reminds me: anyone who has ‘sorry’ constantly buzzing on the tip of their tongue; a hair trigger defence, constantly ready to be deployed, know this! One day you will find yourself blocking the road with your hand on the bonnet of a Range Rover, quietly explaining to the linen-clad owner that it is rude to bark demands out of the window at people who are parking in a free and unreserved space. That you should explore the term ‘entitlement’ together. You will terrify this middle aged white man to the extent that he will stand firmly behind his car door, despite being more than 6 feet tall, and he will apologise just to make you go away. You will do a version of this again, and again, and again – at work, in public, in queues – casually dishing out a home run of ‘nope’ to every sorry situation that crosses your path, with a lazy backswing and a sweet connection.
Ladies, in your prime you will no longer be hesitant, explosive bundles of elbows and knees, tops cropped and jeans ripped as though your body has turned traitor and grown in the night like magic beans. You will no longer have thumbs through sleeves to cover your wrists, or eyes that drift ceaselessly to mirrors and phones, just to check to check to check. It’s OK, I want to tell you. I’m totally OK over here – look! Ladies, check me out. I might look like a slightly bonkers middle aged lady, but youths, listen! In my mind I walk through the world like Keanu Reeves in a trench coat, knocking agents of the patriarchy out of my way with a flick of my wrist. I no longer have to pick my battles, guys, because I see the matrix.
At this point, I would pause for a chip and a swig of my drink, which I would wave around at the pub while I talk, louder now. Because I want anyone who is a swaggering, brittle Atlas, holding up their world for what seems like forever, know that one day, you will be lighter. In your prime, you will have appetites instead of apologies.
No more binge, no more purge – one day you will roll out of bed at 6am and slip into a new day where nothing is off the menu for you. Fruit and wine. Meat and two veg. Cheese whenever you please. Your lips are for licking. Your teeth are for taking a bite.
Everyone! Yoghurt is not a TREAT. Neither, if you were wondering, is a handful of almonds, kale in any form or a packet of chocolate scented air that you can smell when you are hungry, which, behold ladies, is a real thing so let’s all pause and think about a system that tells women that smelling something is a luxury. I came of age in the 90’s, a more innocent age in the advertising of snack products, when at least Cadbury’s had the decency to imply that a treat is, in fact, a bar of chocolate, a hot bath and a wank.
I am here to tell anyone who skips, who fasts, who fives and twos, whose sweet nothings are sugar free, who can’t believe it’s not butter (spoiler: I fucking can), that one day, you will accept no substitutes. If Kirsty Young were to cast me away on a desert island, I would without a second thought demand the things without which life would not be worth living: 8 absolute belters to listen to, a picture of my beautiful family, and a life time’s supply of hot crusty white bread with real, actual butter, without which I would run weeping into the sea and the sweet release of death within 48 hours. So, stop counting! It’s fucking exhausting. And, it’s boring. It makes you boring. Listen: if you feel like you must buy botox but you are not allowed bread, then tell me who hurt you. We will hit them with baguettes, while frowning.
So. Despite what the advertisers tell you, eating is not ‘naughty’. Sharing a bag of Malteasers in your lunch break with Sarah from marketing is not ‘naughty’. At 37, you will know that ‘naughty’ is stealing that bag of Malteasers from a broken vending machine, on your way home with a kebab from the pub after 5 pints and a waz behind a parked car. Naughty is getting arrested for lying down in the middle of the goddamn road. Naughty is more please and no thanks. Naughty is laughing only when it’s funny. If you think rebellion is smoky eyeshadow (get the London look!) and putting needles in your own skin – think again. Try just consistently, unapologetically liking yourself, and see how that goes. If you think it doesn’t make anyone angry, then think again.
When did this begin? When were our desires and transgressions defined, diminished and sold back to us in tiny chunks, labelled fun sized? At 37, I know that anything labelled ‘fun’ needs to involve laughing, or at the very least, being out of breath. I’m talking waking up in Vegas next to a trapeze artist called Jose, and a handbag containing 60 grand in cash and a gun. A miniature bounty bar is just not cutting it guys.
Hear me: I have best friends and no diamonds. My goal weight is Fuck You. I don’t ever really think about this unless I am writing it down for you like I am right here. I am happy.
So, to anyone who wants, with all the hollowness of a closed fist, for somebody to love them back. Anyone that thinks that you can change, that you can change them – I’m going to tell you what love is. Love is a person who, every single day, stops mid-sentence to tell you how beautiful you are because after 19 years of days together, it still makes them stop mid-sentence. Love is the person who gets up at 3am again when you simply, simply cannot. Love is the supermarket shop with both kids. It is the eyes that find yours across a room full of doctors, the fibres that fold you together across the continents when you are apart. Love has nothing to do with the length of your skirt, the height of your heels or (ridiculous notion!) the flatness of your stomach. If you think sexy can only be a tight dress with a lot of zips, you have misunderstood.
Anyone who has run full tilt downhill into the wind or grown a human being with their guts knows what it is to love their body. This is not an empty phrase used to sell you a cream to cover your face. It is measuring your worth in lungs and legs and muscles formed. It is counting the tiny pulses under your outstretched palm at night, each one a short-long-pause that says alive, alive, alive. An archipelago of heartbeats. An ocean of holding your breath. Love Islands.
But I didn’t say any of this. I had no mic to drop at the end of my speech, I didn’t have to climb down from the bar and exit the building to a smattering of applause. What I actually did was pay for my chips, tip the barmaid heavily (she was on the phone by then) and drive home a little too fast with the wind drying my hair. On the way, I listened to the glorious, amazing Guilty Feminist podcast and laughed my head off. I flew past billboards in wheat fields that said ‘Vote Conservative’ and saw ‘Nooooo’ and ‘Tories Out’ graffiti’d across them and I had an inkling that things were changing. I washed the smell of austerity and neglect and open wounds and human shit out of my clothes. I walked my daughters to the polling booth to vote for a different future. I saw the results come in, and hoped.
I watched, I listened and I wrote this. I wrote this one thing for my daughters and all those young people who are trying so very hard to issue a nope to their sorry situation right now. It is about hope – and knowing that things are going to get better. This is my manifesto. I promise – another world is possible. For soon, you will be in your prime, guys, you will be changing the script. And I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.