I wrote a piece for the Guardian about vaginas (well, feminine hygiene products)

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I wrote a piece for the lovely Guardian women’s blog about some of the more ridiculous things women have been convinced to do to themselves in the name of fanny-improvement. As always, you can read the original here, or my original below. 

Ever worried that your vagina doesn’t smell like soft fruit? Me neither. Yet last week, in a spectacularly unpopular attempt at foof-commodification, two Silicon Valley startup bros unveiled plans for a new probiotic supplement that enables women to biohack their nether regions, leaving them smelling of peaches. While the product’s official use is as an anti-microbial, the scent serving as an indicator that it is working effectively to protect against problems such as yeast infections, it’s an uncomfortable proposition that has caused outrage online. Especially as the pair’s other fragrant collaboration is a probiotic that makes pet dung smell like bananas.

“All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you,” said Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics who plans to make Sweet Peach Probiotic using DNA laser printing technology. Adding: “We think it’s a fundamental human right to… personalise it.”

Science has long been misappropriated in order to sell products, particularly those aimed at women. Some products have used vagina-guilt to sell totally unrelated products: “We all perspire up to 2 to 3 pints a day, scientists say,” claims one 1920s advert for Lux soap flakes. “Undies absorb odour. You don’t notice it, but others do.”

Other products however, have adopted more of what you might call a full cuntal assault – if eau-de-peche sounds a little fanciful, then how about smelling like toilet water, literally? During the first half of the 20th century douching – or the rinsing out of the vaginal cavity – was a popular method of treating infection, deodorising and even used as a contraceptive (though it is not generally recommended by medical professionals now as it can upset the sensitive bacterial balance of the genitals). The most popular douche brand in the US was Lysol, an antiseptic disinfectant advertised both as a household germicide for use in toilet bowls and a feminine hygiene product. Until 1953 it also contained cresol, a toxic methylphenol that can cause inflammation to the skin and burning. According to motherjones.com, use of the product killed 5 people and resulted in 193 cases of poisoning before 1911. Yet, it was still marketed as safe, employing aggressive ad campaigns that implied that, without it, women were doomed to a life of loneliness with a distant husband. One poster entitled “Love-quiz… For married folks only”, shows a forlorn wife whose man is about to walk out of the door, and reads: “Why does she spend her evenings alone?” before finishing with a solemn warning: “Always use Lysol.”

While companies are unlikely to get away with claiming that a lack of internal bleaching will render a woman forever alone in the 21st century, we’re still not free of unnecessary vag-products. My New Pink Button, for example, the feminine dye for graying vulvas that comes in four shades and brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘having the painters in’.

Following the backlash and subsequent withdrawal of funding from some Cambrian Genomics investors, Heinz admitted his pitch had been incorrect. Pitching partner Gilad Gome – who had spoken before of hacking microbiome to make vaginas “smell like roses and taste like diet cola” – was in fact not involved in the project and the founder of Sweet Peach Probiotics was actually previously unmentioned “ultrafeminist”, Audrey Hutchinson. The importance of scent in the product, she said, was grossly exaggerated and it really was intended for the much more useful task of curing thrush.

Yet until now, who’d considered that personalising fanny-cologne was even a possibility? It seems as far-fetched and pointless as wishing for tomato-flavored eyeballs. But it could well be a hint as to what to expect from feminine hygiene in the future – a healthy dose of biotech.

I wrote a piece for Vice about body modification

vice screenshot

I’ve been really interested in body aesthetics for a while, particularly people with extreme ideas about looks. In fact, my MA dissertation focused on relationships between the body and nature. Anyway, I wrote a piece for Vice about body modification and a body modification artist whose home-cum-studio I visited, witnessing some pretty gory procedures.

Read it online here, or check out my original and unedited version (plus some extra pictures) below.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to change their body in some way. The term ‘natural beauty’ is a joke – who really lives as nature intended: a walking tangle of oil and hair? Thanks to vanity and social pressures, modern humans are slaves to their looks. Besides cats, we spend more time preening than perhaps any other animal. And what’s it all for? To look thinner, browner, bustier, poutier, more ripped? We try desperately to fit a body ideal defined, in part, by the media, but it’s like trying to fit a human-shaped peg into a Kim Kardashian-shaped hole.

Samppa Von Cyborg changes people’s bodies for a living – he splits tongues in two, removes nipples, implants things under the skin and scars elaborate patterns onto it. He’s a body modification artist, a leader in a growing subculture with a very different concept of body ideals. For fans, a strong stomach and a high pain threshold are essential. This is an underground world of home surgery and human polymorphs that operates in the crack between legislation, a world where the aesthetics of the body are seen as something more personal.

Horned and tattooed lady

Ex-lawyer known now as Vampire Lady: click on picture for more

The cultural origins of body modification go back millennia. It’s an ancient practice found in tribes all over the world, from the lip plates of Ethiopia’s Suri tribe to the neck rings of Burma’s Padaung. But while globalisation is slowly suffocating many of the old tribal traditions, the modern Western scene is beginning to flourish. For one of its most famous prescribers, Dennis Avner AKA Stalking Cat, ‘mods’ became a way of life and even a career. With the help of cheek implants, whisker implants, full body tattoos, lip bifurcation, nose flattening, removable claws and even a mechanical tail, Avner exaggerated his features beyond all recognition, reinventing himself as his Native American spirit guide, a tiger. But his enjoyment was short lived – he took his own life in 2012.

“The human body is dying,” Von Cyborg, told me, lighting a cigarette. I visited his warehouse conversion-cum-studio in east London where he sees his clients. He’s the walking embodiment of his art, his face laced with tattoos and piercings, metal-tipped teeth and a bifurcated tongue: it’s been split in two down the middle, leaving it forked like a snake’s, both sides able to move independently of each other. He demonstrated by sticking them out and curling them around each other. His arms are ribbed with spine-like lumps from the silicone implants he has buried under his skin. They’re known as subdermal implants and they’re one of his signature mods – coming in other varying shapes, from stars to skulls.

Star shaped lumps in the back of a pair of hands

Thanks to russfoxx.com for this image

“It’s not natural to sit at a computer or go to the gym,” he said, engulfed in smoke. “Evolution is going downhill. First we got stronger and healthier, now it’s going the opposite way.

“In the future people will have arms amputated voluntarily because they can get a better arm. People want better capability, a robotic arm would be more accurate, have more power and a million other uses. The technology exists and they’re using it already for the medical industry.”

The body modification scene is made up of subscenes, some like to experiment with cybernetics while others prefer to focus on fetish or spiritual rituals. There are Transhumanists influenced by Nietzsche and Modern Primitives inspired by tribal anthropology. Biohackers who believe in using technology to enhance the human form and Body Hacktivists who believe in avante garde experimentation with it. But their common goal is to rediscover the body, to use it again as a tool rather than just a fashion accessory. Von Cyborg is a Biohacker: he believes that one day the human form will integrate with technology, changing the ways we use our body.

“I’m working on many kinds of functional implants,” he told me. “And big companies are starting to get these ideas too – a mobile inside your body or even a kind of telepathic communication using a brain implant.

“Sony, Nokia and Philips are already getting patents for implants. They know it’s not going to happen any time soon, not for maybe even twenty years, but they’re already working on it. This is the direction body modification is going.”

Universities offer the funding he needs to develop his ideas and in return he provides them with research papers. He seems an unlikely character to save lives, but he’s currently working on LED implants for a number of health issues – pulse meters that flash LEDs through the skin could serve as early warning devices for people with heart complaints, and others that run off blood sugar which could help diabetics. His self-taught knowledge of the body’s healing process, of its limits, is impressive. As is his exhaustive research into potential power sources for his implants – kinetic energy, wireless charging, micro batteries. But sitting around a grubby reclaimed coffee table, it’s hard to connect the man to his work.

Stitching the earlobe

Samppa at work repairing stretched flesh tunnels

Two depressed scars run down Von Cyborg’s scalp where he’d once had two rows of inch-long metal spikes, a sort of titanium Mohawk. But not all mods last forever, and as his skin had shifted and lumped over time, he’d asked a friend to cut the implants out, taking large chunks of his scalp with them. His first client of the day was interested in a corrective procedure too, what seems to be the bread-and-butter side of the business. James, a young lad from Manchester, had arranged to get his flesh tunnels closed. They were boring, he said, “now everyone has them.”

James took a seat on a repurposed dentist chair in the centre of the room, a surgical lamp pointing down at him. The studio was open plan and doubled up as Von Cyborg’s London home – he spends most of the year doing residencies at various studios around the world. A metal trolley was laid out with implements – scalpels, scissors, swabs – and there were sterilisation units stacked up against the walls, metal boxes that look like microwaves with extra twizzles and knobs.

Sterilisation Units

Cleanliness is very important

It was a strange, David Lynch sort of scene: his girlfriend was doing laundry, a flatmate was making a carrot cake in a kitchenette at the back and, a few metres away, we were about to perform surgery, injecting James’ ears with a local anaesthetic, which is currently the only illegal part of performing these consensual procedures.

Over the next few hours the smell of baking permeated the room and at the same time, much of James’ earlobes were cut away. Chunks of flesh were discarded, left sitting on the metal trolley like lumps of human chewing gum, and new lobes were stitched from whatever skin was left. There was little blood due to the anaesthetic so it didn’t look real, like his ear was a rubbery prop from a horror film. But the end result was almost unbelievable; it was so neat and professional. The stitches were tiny and the wrinkly, dangly stretched lobes James had arrived with had become normal again, if a bit red and quite small.

A lump of flesh dismembered from an earlobe

Eeew… James’ earlobe

Body modification is, of course, controversial. In most countries – the UK included – it’s neither legal nor illegal. Some people criticise it for glamorising self-harm and fetishising the body. There is an undeniable link with sexual deviance – one of the projects Von Cyborg is most animated about is a vibrating genital implant, a sort of internal sex toy. At its most extreme, people are willing to bind their waist for an exaggerated hourglass figure, inspired by 50s pin-ups, permanently reshaping their own bone structure and risking harm to their organs. Some alter their genitals in various unfathomable ways, often to fulfil sexual fantasies – self-castration, FGM, splitting the penis open, otherwise known as subincision. It’s a fringe culture that is demonised by those who don’t understand, despite surging popularity. But are subdermal implants really any stranger than breast implants?

“We’re getting more and more professional,” said Von Cyborg. “People like me almost have the skill of a plastic surgeon, but without the mainstream qualifications. We’re capable of things that doctors can only dream about.

“I see a lot of people who hate themselves or their bodies. Body art can actually help them learn to love their bodies because it helps them look at them differently. If someone has a fat belly but on this belly they have, for example, a tattoo of a beautiful piece of art, the fat will loose the meaning.”

Stitched up ear

Several hours later, the finished product

According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, more than 50,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in the UK last year. It’s a figure that grows each year, with breast augmentation and eyelid surgery among the most popular services. Surgery is fast becoming a normal, socially acceptable, way to maintain your looks. Yet we’ve all seen the pictures of those that take it too far: the indestructible, almost unrecognisable, faces of stars like Joan Rivers (RIP) and Mickey Rourke. Some may call people with heavy mods strange, or shocking – I’ve even heard them described as ‘monsters’ – but social norms aside, their look is no more bizarre than your average TOWIE star. The fact is, humans love to play with their looks – it’s just not natural for us to be ‘natural’.

On fear and the London Marathon

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That’s me crying after running a half marathon along the river a few weeks ago on the right.

I’ve been meaning to write this post forever – and many more like it – about how I will be running the London Marathon in support of the Canal & River Trust. But I’ve been tentative about making a big deal of it as my training has been so hit and miss – in the two-and-a-half months I’ve had to prepare there have been three weeks off due to injury, another to sickness, two to bad organisation and one more due to heavy pollution, which should only have been a few days, but, you know, I had to make sure. There have also been countless runs missed due to friend’s birthdays (hangovers), unexpected work things (lazyness) and various other commitments (writing, failing to). I’ve spent weeks uming and aring about wether I’d be able to do it, so long that it has creeped up on me and now, like it or not, wobbly bum or no wobbly bum, the time is upon me: the marathon is tomorrow.

I’m scared. I feel sick. The longest run I’ve done to date is 13.2 miles along the Thames a few weeks ago, for at least seven miles of that I wasn’t entirely sure if I would ever be able to use my lower body again. Doing that twice and surviving will be a miracle. However, ridiculously, the thing worrying me the most right now is that I might bump into to someone I know there, I think I’d like to be alone – aside from the 30,000 strangers – with my pain and slow deterioration into a sweating, snivelling, sobbing wreck. The thought of someone I went to school with, one of those irritating ex-school friends who were just always good at life, sailing past me, calm and grinning, is too much at this point.

Anyway, it’s late and I have a long night of tossing and turning and night terrors ahead of me. And I’m still to iron my name onto my vest as I’ve no idea if I actually own an iron. By the time I write again I will, no doubt, be in considerable pain, but in the name of a good cause at least. The Canal and River Trust look after our waterways and the ecosystems they support – when you SPONSOR ME (as you will, because you’re all such nice people), your money could well help make life on the river that little bit better for a family of swans, or some eels, or otters, or trout. And, given the scarcity of our contact with nature in these modern times, rivers and canals definitely make life better for us.

P.S. sorry about the poster, limited time etc etc.

→ London Marathon shocker: I did it (and survived)

On the wilds of Battersea

1. The harshest weather is over and spring is here (again). Winter sloughed away the dead/dying vegetation, the land’s recharged, exfoliated, fresh faced and ready to start again.

London ducks

2. Under bright skies and the constant flow of air traffic, ducks and moorhens and geese etc bask and fish among the city’s wasted STUFF: forgotten shoes and slabs of polystyrene, otter-shaped garden statues stolen by the floods.

Battersea river shoes

3. Sherbet-pink blossom flakes from cherry trees and carries in the breeze like sugared wishes.

4. Wildflowers pop up in riverside wastelands, acid-bright against the fading grey.

5. In Battersea Park, this is the perfect time to see the heronries, while the herons are gathering to breed and raise their young and the vegetation is still thin enough to get a good view of their huge, unlikely nests.

Perched precariously in the tops of the tallest trees, herons tend to their tangled clumps of twigs in a spectacle that seems somehow lost in time – Pterodactyls roosting in front of Battersea Power Station, swooping and squawking and bickering with each other mid-air.

6. Bully swans team up into bully pairs to hassle the geese on the lake – nipping, bashing, chasing, hissing.

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 7. Geese fly low and heavy in the sky, honking a song in unison.

IMG_70228. This idiot.

Andy in the park

On tough times

'Everything important about London'  by designer Nick Patchitt

‘Everything important about London’ by designer Nick Patchitt

It’s been a while since my last post, I’m sorry. I’ve been navigating the joys of post-recession London – losing an editorial job to redundancy, losing another to an argument over pay (there was, it turned out a few months in, none), completing my master’s, then discovering that, since neither the publishing industry or the media were battering my door down (or even mildly tapping) any longer, I was to join the vast majority of graduates scratching around for any work, tearing clumps out of each other at the merest mention of a full time job. I was also overjoyed, as you can imagine, to spiral into debt after having spent four years avoiding it as a student and to then finally, after months of applications, get a job, but one so low paid that I’d be lucky to get a Kit-Kat out of what’s left after travel and living costs.

It’s been a tough time, but I’ve learnt how lucky I am to have the support of friends and family and my poor, perhaps slightly nutty boyfriend who has really put up with far too much from me (I know… barf). And now I’m out of the woods and working in a job that, ok, isn’t directly related to my chosen vocational area, but nonetheless is one that I genuinely enjoy.

I’ve been ashamed to admit to people, and online, that after university and several good jobs in digital media, I’m back in retail. As though it was somehow the same as admitting I’d failed. I’m writing and editing still too, but the stability of a ‘normal’ job for now has rescued my sanity. I couldn’t have afforded to be dropped again with no notice, or to go for yet another interview where they ‘forget’ to mention until the endnotes that the position will be unpaid for the first three months (seriously, how are employers STILL getting away with this?).

Nor could I have spent another week staring at my emails for hours on end, desperately bashing the refresh button waiting for a ‘yes, we’d be delighted to pay you handsomely for your 3,000 word rumination on the finer points of your living room floor’. While the last of those things is most definitely my own fault (no matter how much I blame the damn editors who don’t ‘get’ me), it saddens me deeply that the government still refuses to stand by struggling young people during this cost of living crisis.

Here in the capital, more so I think than other parts of the country, we take so much of our self worth from our career. I moved up to the north for a few years some time ago, south Yorkshire, and was struck by the difference in attitudes towards work – to most people, work was just a means to an end, a way to earn cash so that, in their free time, they could do what they wanted. It didn’t matter whether they were a trolley attendant in Asda or an admin assistant for the council. I had no idea what some of my friends, people I’d known for several years, even did for a living.

But in London, we’re dominated by the question ‘and what do you do?’ We’re obsessed with status and it’s exhausting. London, Londoners, have a superiority complex which makes it very difficult to enjoy life or be happy with your lot. We destroy ourselves with a sort of catastrophic desperation, the need to have our lives validated by a posh sounding job.

It’s perhaps fuelled by the unnatural living conditions we’re crammed into: the tiny homes stacked up like lego blocks, the artificial noise and light and a constant state of hyper alertness, the distance we have from nature’s wrath and rhythms. We’re totally absorbed in ‘people stuff’ because there’s no escaping it. But people stuff is so boringly predictable – it’s all about money and power.

Sometimes tough times can help you gain some perspective, you realise that perhaps life isn’t always about getting somewhere. I feel a few more Londoners could benefit from remembering that.

Find out why most unpaid internships are illegal and join the campaign to end them.

An Unnatural History of London, BBC4

There are three colonies of European yellow-tailed scorpions in London

There are three colonies of European yellow-tailed scorpions in London

Pigeons that catch the tube, pigeon eating pelicans, duckling nabbing turtles, scorpion (!) invaders, fox fighting badgers, screeching parakeets, crayfish gang wars – London has the best wildlife. It’s one of the greenest and most animal-friendly cities in the world. Last night’s Britain’s Natural World: an unnatural history of London’s streets on BBC4 told the often unseen story of London’s natural world, a bustling community as diverse and populous, more populous, in fact, than its human colony. And just like its people, London’s collection of weird and wonderful animal inhabitants is changing, ever evolving with the ebb and flow of migrants (stealing their rubbish). Recent arrivals include several small, relatively harmless, scorpion colonies that glow under UV light.

I’m not quite sure why nature-loving and general nuttiness seem to complement each other so well, but there are a good few, shall we say ‘special’, characters here: the sausage-wielding woman who’s trained her local foxes to sit on command; the photographer who seems to genuinely believe that pigeons have political opinions, that they’re a community of power fighting protesters, and the man who likes birds so much he bought a house overlooking a RUBBISH DUMP. Perhaps, with a bit of practice, I’ll be as uniquely eccentric one day.

The show’s only on iPlayer until Wednesday 27th November (which is one of the BBC’s many annoying habits).

WATCH: an unnatural history of London

New column: more Wandling

My new column/regular feature is up and I’m really excited about it. It’s called Mind the Sap and is in The Journal of Wild Culture. It’s a sort of tangential approach to London nature, I’m no naturalist so it’s more about the way people interact with the nature around them. The first piece is called Deep Clean and is about the Wandle river clean up (I know, such a river bore).

Here’s an exerpt, and by the way, it’s definitely NOT poetry:

Waders on, hands in gloves, litter-picker ready – today we’re cleaning up the Wandle.
I slide down the muddy banks into the river. It’s fucking freezing.
What now?
Feel the riverbed, says a man who seems to be in the know.
Feel for things that shouldn’t be there.
How do I know what shouldn’t be there?
Look for bubbles.

I pat the riverbed with my foot.
Is that something? No, no bubbles.
What about this? Not this time either.

Read more here, I promise it’s exciting.

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Cycling the Monsal Trail: learning the hard way

Monsal Trail

“Now, is the seat ‘igh enough for you?” asks Cheryl from the cycle hire place, beaming at me with twinkling eyes. I’ve no idea, but quietly nod. She points up at a steep gravel track. At the top is the Monsal Trail. “Back by five at the latest, love,” she says. I don’t mention that I’ve never ridden a bike before.

Derbyshire is damp, but there are advantages. All around the trail lush, vibrant foliage shoots in every direction. It bursts with green, and plump leaves of every shade vie for attention: giant slug-nibbled water dock, thick grasses, ferns, mighty trees and tiny saplings. It’s green on green on tangled green – a cacophony almost too bright to focus on.

I wheel my bike up and stand evaluating the map – eight-and-a-half miles from Buxton to Bakewell along a disused railway line, recently renovated and opened for traffic-free wanderings. Then back again. I should be a master after that.

It’s midday and the air is thick with low summer cloud. But it’s dry, for now. The stony track is flat and fairly straight and after a couple of failed starts I manage to balance. For a metre or so.

Following the trail along the river Wye, cutting through damp tunnels, I cycle, in fits and starts, passing limestone kilns cut boxily into the cliffs. They taper towards the sky like temples to the lost local lime industry. But mostly my eyes stay fixed on my front wheel, desperate to keep it pointing forwards.

I rest at a disused Victorian railway station – now a toilet block – and I’ve only fallen off once. My knee is bruised and bloody, but, as I tell an onlooker, “I’ll soldier on”. Over the Monsal Head viaduct, where the steely Wye veers off through steep valleys flecked with limestone, and on I wobble, jerk and skid all the way to Bakewell.

When I get there it’s nearly three o’clock. There’s no time for a cup of tea or even a tart. Turning back, with gritted teeth, I peddle faster and faster. Back through cool tunnels, back to Monsal Head, passed leafy nature reserves and overgrown footpaths.

The sun is finally out and everywhere there’s life – tiny birds bobbing around like buoys in the undergrowth, pairs of pale butterflies teasing each other, spiralling mischievously into the sky.

After two more falls I’m sore and tired. I crouch on a rock watching cows graze the velvety pastures below, envious of their simple life – eating and walking and never riding bikes.

I make it back to Buxton with ten minutes to spare. The cycle hire hut is buzzing with excitable children and men in Lycra. I do my best to hide the cuts and bruises. Cheryl’s there, bright and smiling, her caramel hair glossy in the late afternoon sun. “Good ride?” she asks. “The best,” I tell her.

Me_bike