Day of the Girl – a feminist Love revolution

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Looking East as we rose on the London Eye, #DayoftheGirl October 11

In December 2011 the UN decided to create the International Day of the Girl, which is October 11 each year. The day is to raise awareness of the many inequalities faced by girls around the world, and to celebrate their achievements. Women of the World (WOW) at Southbank Centre, London, mark the occasion by a day filled with activities for girls, including speed mentoring early in the morning with successful women in a diverse range of fields, on the London Eye. I took part as a mentor on Tuesday and found it very rewarding. I remember how much I could have done with some good advice on real life matters when I was a young teenager. At that age the adults you mostly get to speak to may be family or teachers, and may not touch on all your areas of interest. I was very moved and this is what I wrote.

Caitlin Moran said, this country has been run by men who went to boarding schools for far too long. These schools are like businesses that people pay to send their children to. They are not like the real world where people care about each other.

She said, she’s met these men, and they are not more clever or special than many of us. They were just brought up to feel entitled to lead, but they do not understand most of us. She said, no one will ever just hand you power, you have to go and get it. Don’t worry that you don’t look like the others who have power, it’s ok to look different. She said it’s an exciting time because we have the possibility to change things in massive ways.

She had a message for the teenage girls, to be kind to themselves, and to learn how to accept compliments, because many find that very difficult and struggle with low self esteem. She advised them about their future – to follow their passion and make something of their own, a project or career. Because in the end the satisfaction you get from those achievements of what is within you to succeed, will be far more rewarding than what you get from a marriage or from having children. My heart sang. It is so important that girls are told this, that they (we) are reconditioned.

She said Love yourselves, and be nice. Be kind to each other and support other women.

This Day of the Girl had already moved me so much. It was afternoon now in the Royal Festival Hall, but breakfast had brought me to tears.

I had been so hard on myself the day before, so angry because I thought I had failed. I had performed Girl in Suitcase at the weekend and was looking back with unflinchingly self-critical eyes. I knew I must do much better, and told myself sternly what needed to change in future.

Still I went to bed early and though it took a while to quiet my mind for sleep, I was woken by the alarm when it played at 5:30am. Deliberately getting up at that hour is usually reserved for journeys to foreign lands. This, however was to take a different sort of flight. I showered, dressed, grabbed a bite and then cycled to Southbank Centre. I went in the building and was given a name badge and told I was in Capsule U. I got a cup of tea and waited; I was in good time. To my surprise when the voice on the tannoy announced the first groups to make their way to the London Eye, U was one of them. As we gathered, I recognised one of the women. I was unsure if she was facilitating, or mentoring like me, as I had seen her working at Southbank Centre before, as well as giving a talk at this year’s WOW. It was about her experience of the criminal justice system – serving time in prison and coming clean off drugs after many years’ addiction. I introduced myself and told her I had seen her powerful talk. She said it had been an important moment for her as since then she had gone on to give many talks in prisons and to the NHS for example. By telling her story she could destigmatise people with addictions to help health and legal professionals understand that treating them like patients is far more positive than as criminals. Her name was Nina, and she was also mentoring. It was her first time, my second. I had taken part in this 3 years ago, but had since doubted how helpful I could be to school girls. This year however I had regained confidence and felt that this would be a very good thing for me to do. Meeting Nina before we even started really reassured me. I was not alone with my dodgy past and unconventional pathway. I was in brilliant company! I settled into my group with ease, feeling absolutely certain that I had very valuable contributions to give to the girls we would be mentoring. Whatever they wanted to know, I had real life experience, and I had come a long way. I knew things they for sure were not taught in school. What a privilege and wonderful opportunity for me too.

We were on the Eye for an hour, in each capsule a group of 8 mentors and 8 mentees, and each mentor spoke with 3 different girls for 15 minutes each, answering their questions, having a dialogue. Two of the girls I connected with were considering futures in the arts, one with singing, the other in musical theatre, so I was at least partially in the right ballpark. I know how tough it can be in the arts as a performer, but also how important to follow your calling. I have been through drama school, a bit of university and chanced my way as a jobbing actor before deciding I preferred to create my own work and perform it. Mostly the girls’ questions and conditioned attitudes reminded me (remarkably after 25 years difference! – they were 14 years old) of how school and middle class norms taught me to think when I was their age. How little has changed! It’s not all bad, but it’s not necessarily realistic, or helpful. Mostly the prevailing attitude talks up the importance of financial security, so anyone considering a career in the arts is advised to have at least one back-up plan in case it doesn’t work. That’s all well and good, but starting out with that in mind is a bit like sabotaging your truest desires. Thinking you have failed before you begin. No one wants to prepare young people for the possibility of being out of work for a while, taking low level jobs so you have the headspace to be creative, and definitely not that you might end up doing a more dodgy job like I did. But it happens, quite a lot. My pathway is unique, but so many women try similar things to get by and maintain their independence. The reality is, for most of us if we want to make it as an artist, it will take a while to find our niche. There will be struggles, but that doesn’t mean the moment there isn’t a stable income (!) we should give up and become an accountant. Unless that works for you, and, some people are better at managing several jobs at once, so again you have to find how it is for you. How many of the older people I model for say they wanted to be an artist, but needed a proper income, so after going to art school decided to train in something else. They then got caught up in a mortgage and raising a family until much later in life when freed up, they decided to enrol in art classes. This generation might not have such options – perhaps it’s better to follow dreams in the present instead of deferring.

My other mentee wanted a career in games concept design. Not so much my area but I do model for quite a few animation studios and games design students at university, as well as having dated the odd geek, so I knew a wee bit.

After our Eye revolution, I caught up with Nina a bit more over a coffee, before the talks in the Clore Ballroom led by Jude Kelly. I filled her in more about my past; Soho and the drugs. She asked if I, like her, had told my story. I said I’d been inspired by Jude’s rape survivor talks at WOW, as I had largely buried some of my own experiences, or classified them as insignificant, not worthy of note. A misappropriation, since rape was being opened up for discussion now in the 21st century, and the definition considered more widely without fear of shame. I told Nina I have been writing about some of my experiences, and performing them. Some of it is quite recent. She has a few years on me, and she looked at me wisely and said, “You’ve just begun to tell your story”. I could tell she meant that I would need to tell it and tell it and keep telling it before I was properly healed, and empowered by it. I knew in my blood that this was true, I felt it. I shed tears, and welled up some more as Jude got started with some very stirring speakers.

There was Fatima Manji, the news reader who wore a hijab whilst reporting on the recent Nice attack, and was subsequently criticised for doing so by a Sun journalist. She had spoken up bravely to make it known that it is not ok to discredit someone because of what they choose to wear. There was Frances Morris who is the new artistic director of the Tate Modern – and the first woman to have the job. There was Chi-chi Nwanoku who founded Europe’s first BME classical orchestra, and Luisa Omielan, an award winning comedian. There was also an inspirational 6th form prefect. Two other teenage girls were given the mic too, later in the day on stage with Caitlin reading excerpts from her ‘Moranifesto’, and I think it was important to include them. To show we are not just listening to the mostly white “successful” women in our society, but are also aware of younger women of colour (as it happened) who may be lesser known now, but are already making their mark. One was a spoken word poet leading a collective of performers in her school, and the other, June Eric-Udorie. The very articulate June successfully campaigned a year ago to keep feminism on the Politics A Level syllabus (it was going to be removed), and as well have more female thinkers added, as there was only one (Mary Wolstencraft) out of 16, included. Whilst doing her A Levels, she also writes for the Guardian among other publications.

By the time we went upstairs to listen to Jo Brand and Jude chatting, I was beyond speaking during the networking periods before and after. Nina had gone to a meeting, and I had spoken all that I needed to for the morning. Something had moved inside me, in my heart something was healing but still tender. I was very happy to sit on the floor and just enjoy Jo Brand’s deadpan wit combined with reassuringly human nature. I am quite used to listening to Jude, so it is a more familiar pleasure watching her in conversation with many amazing women.

The strong warm glow and buzz that I left Day of the Girl with, was the same feeling I get at WOW, but I think it’s growing. I really felt that the intelligent women in this country and beyond who have achieved some power, have gotten together and decided that they want all girls and women to share that, to have the same and more. They want to change the world and they are inspiring all of us. They wanted to support us all, in a really loving way, to big us up and encourage all our aspirations. It is a political movement, but there is spirit in it too. It is full of heart and Matriarchal Love. I felt like I belong, and I never want to lose that feeling. I noticed afterwards that some of my usual default thought patterns of comparing myself with others negatively especially when tired, had evaporated. I could overide them now, I was on a higher level. There were more important things to connect with, and bigger aims were possible. I ceased to self criticise as well, as I felt in my heart that there was a reason my weekend performance hadn’t been polished. A superficial shine hadn’t been important for this show – it was all about the content. I was delivering some very personal lines for the first time, live. Revealing sensitive material about my past, to both friends and strangers in my own city. That was what counted, Nina had reminded me without realising. That was what I had to prioritise. Not the blood and glitter, nor interacting with the audience like a cliched hooker, nor allowing them to body paint me – albeit this created a beautiful connection. My focus must be the lines of truth concerning delicate intimate secrets of my past. That’s all. My performance, my therapy.

Caitlin said, we don’t yet know what the world looks like and feels like when women have equality, it hasn’t been created yet. It’s up to us to make it, to have a revolution. Everything could be different; we might invent new economic systems since capitalism doesn’t work. We might create new political systems as the current one is definitely corrupt. Family, social, religious and geo-political structures may completely change. If each of us chooses to live our lives as fully as possible, to make the world better for everyone.

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My view from the London Eye on the morning of October 11, 2016.

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Shadows & Light; photograms, rope bondage and mentoring girls

Yesterday I was asked to mentor teenage girls about body image in a pod on the London Eye on International Day of the Girl (October 11th which is also my Mother’s birthday). Today I told teenage girls who were continually whispering in the 6th form class I was modelling for, to shut up. I could not discern their words but there was a constant low level conversation in their huddle, and when I was looking their way I was not imagining the cheeky ‘OMG she’s looking at us’ looks directed at me. 3 poses into this nonsense I thought of saying something. I had a few ideas in my head but knew that whetever came out would be more effective unrehearsed. It needed to come from my heart in the moment. As I changed pose I glanced their way decrying “It would be better if you shut up.” Then realising that might have sounded unduly strong – I am more than twice their age and also about 10 years older than the teacher, I added, “I mean I can hear that you are whispering, and it IS off-putting.” I was calm and I’d said what I needed to say, what a relief! I automatically assumed the next pose facing another direction (I was in the round) and where I had been counting 300 seconds (5 minutes) for each pose in my head, I now just let time be. I felt myself turn a little pink at the surprise of my outspokenness, crossing an unspoken line in terms of my position in relation to the teacher (who was turned away at a computer on the other side of the room) and the class, then returned to my usual shade and gathered a growing smile on my chops. I had taken control just for a minute and the dynamic of the class had shifted. Now there was silence; and a sense of it being possible for anything to happen now. No one knew what would happen next. Well of course it was pretty straight forward; tension had been released and I had more smiles than before. Reminded of the time I told patrons at The National Theatre who were rude to me when trying to buy a programme from me (I worked front of house), to fuck off, got a warning from the manager, left early and had a fantastic evening at an art event I would otherwise have missed, I remembered that sometimes my anger pushes me forward. It’s good to cross lines to maintain strength, make a point. It’s worth risking your poorly paid job to stand up for truth and self-expression, being real and not waiting for someone else to champion your cause.

I will add here that the tutor here had been very supportive and given me such a fantastic introduction to the class as she raved about Spirited Bodies. I certainly felt welcomed (my first time there) and trusted, and in good hands. Dealing with the pair of girls was an isolated, individual case and everything else was fine. I even got a round of applaus at the end of the session; I wonder if I will be booked again.

On the same day that I received an email asking me to mentor teenage girls on the London Eye, earlier in the morning I had been going through old papers and found this section of diary from a few years ago that drew my attention: –

“It’s such a shame I think, that I haven’t known really, what I want to do, since those crucial years as a teenager. It’s as if someone took all the aspirations I had been having, and said, ‘Whoa! You’re not going anywhere with those! Forget that shit, and get some real experience…’

And I bought it, and all the little packets of speed I could get my hands on.

I look back and sometimes wish better guidance had been available to me. There was a sense from within me that I really wanted to go off the rails, to shock, lose control, and completely change from the girl I’d been. Any obviously sensible advice would have been most likely unheeded. It would have taken a very special person to penetrate my closed-in, bent-on-being-fucked-up world. Someone who’d been through something similar, but already come out the other end.

And I could have done with someone being really tough on me, hardline about certain issues, to give me a sense of discipline, and where it was that I was Really fucking up. But for me to accept that, that woman would have to have known what she was talking about. And be kind. I needed all that…….

A little gentle guidance would have been so good. Like, ‘Yeah try those needles, undeniably fun that injecting… but don’t let it take over! And don’t lose sight of artistic interests and your education…..’

She would have told me which things I was doing to make money that really fuck with your head; to live on less, and not worry about pleasing men who expect you to look, act and fuck a certain way….

I hear her voice, ‘Keep reading, watching, alert for what’s going on out there. It’s easy to get lost in that enclosed world, but there’s so much more going on which will be much more important later. Be informed and find your creative path.’

Nothing like learning the hard way.”

It’s a funny idea I have of some sassy role model having words with my troubled youth. Not realistic. The whole point is that you have to find out on your own. Anyway; where would all the fun be if someone had told me what not to do? Events become stories you remember for years after because at the actual time of them happening, you really didn’t have a clue what was going on. Yet I do recall yearning at particular moments of apparent darkness for some female guidance.

Here are pictures from a photogram session which involves holding bizarre poses in a dark room on giant photographic paper whilst coloured lights are flashed from above.

27_20130801-crop-esther-bunting1326 I had to get used to working in the dark with artist Andrew Chisholm which I found very meditative. It was like a ritual, each of my movements in coordination with his procedure and that of a technical assistant, giving each other signals that a phase was complete so the next could begin.

27_20130801-crop-esther-bunting1327Extremely light sensitive paper had to be wrapped and unwrapped in darkness, deposited in a giant processing machine. It was quite amazing and magical as we waited for the result to see if how we had planned the image had transpired.

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This was a novel way to engage in nude art and could appeal to those preferring total anonymity, though I am not sure a shadow is necessarily that. It is a fairly expensive procedure but if you are interested contact Andrew. Some of his photograms will be in an exhibition starting this Friday at Candid Arts in Angel, London.

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Yesterday I was grateful for a more spiritual experience when modelling. This was for a friend Jon who organises the annual Festival of the Art of Japanese Rope Bondage. Dressed in a partly transparent kimono I allowed Jon (Nawashi Murakawa) to tie the intricate knots around me and suspend me from bamboo sticks hanging from the ceiling. An eerie haunting Japanese music accompanied together with Vera Bremerton doing live vocals. The stage was set up in Japanese decoration; a painted backdrop and various paraphernalia; sticks, cloths, hats and the twiney ropes. First I watched Jon arrange Maya into poses as she submitted, I could see she was in trance and so it was after for me. The atmosphere here was very supportive of my whole being, the room full of enthusiasts, people doing knotting themselves at the other end. I felt the love and gave Jon my trust. I experienced how this art allows the model to express sexuality without being overtly sexual. Parts of me were exposed at times which may have been more erotic for me being partially covered. But I was just hanging there, contorted in ways I could not normally manage. There was pain, tingles and numbness but I am used to that. I gave in to the new variation of sensations, the rope digging in cutting off different parts of me in isolation, and enjoyed performing to a drawing audience.

I wore a hat with ears first

I wore a hat with ears first

by Brett who added remembered text

by Brett who added remembered text

by Jon, after he had suspended me

by Jon, after he had suspended me

On October 11th Thelma and I will be spinning slowly in The London Eye around breakfast time with women role models from a variety of backgrounds including ‘policewomen, artists, lawyers, conductors, painters and decorators, athletes and business women.’ We will be speed-mentoring teenage girls about body image and related matters, this is organised by Southbank Centre, Women of the World (WOW) of which we were a part this year and have attended every year since it began (2011).