White Privilege

One of the many reasons I love living in London is the city’s diversity. Take the street I live on, for example. I have neighbours from India, Nigeria, Japan, Jewish neighbours and Polish neighbours. And English neighbours too of course. When I recently blogged about self-identifying as a Londoner, I came in for some criticism from a commentator who insisted that only those who are born and bred in London could rightfully call themselves Londoners. I beg to differ. For I don’t believe that identity and belonging are set in stone or determined by bloodline or place of birth. Rather, as my own history tells me, identity is fluid. Continue reading

No, it’s not ‘just entertainment’

A couple of weeks ago I found myself having dinner out with a bunch of middle-aged parents (myself included), something my husband and I enjoy now and then.

Now, what do you talk about when you don’t want to talk about your kids (you’ve got the night off after all), and any topic surrounding the aches and pains of being middle-aged has already been exhausted?

Movies of course! Everyone loves movies, don’t they?

“What’s the one film you’d see over and over again?” someone at the table asks, prompting the eruption of a cacophony of voices. Everyone has a film, it seems, that they love above all else.

“I just love Wonder Woman,” someone says, and several mums nod enthusiastically.

“It’s a fabulous film.”

“It’s so empowering.”

“I watched it with my daughters, and we all loved it.”

Now I don’t particularly enjoy being the lone contrarian in a conversation, especially when I am stone-cold sober, which is my permanent state these days as I no longer drink alcohol. But sometimes I just can’t shut up.

“Actually, I have a problem with Wonder Woman,” I say, and at once the mood at my end of the table drops markedly.

“Why?” someone asks, looking at me incredulously.

“Well, if you have a scar across your face or any kind of facial ‘disfigurement’, you may not feel at all empowered by Wonder Woman,” I say.

I’m referring to one of the main villains of the film, Dr Poison, who wears a prosthetic mask to conceal her visibly scarred face. Like so many of Hollywood’s famous villains – Darth Vader, Freddie Kruger, countless James Bond baddies, etc. – Dr Poison’s evil character is directly linked to her facial disfigurement. As in so many films, the implicit message here is that beauty = good and ugly/disfigured = evil.

These villains, including the actress portraying Dr Poison, are almost exclusively played by actors who do not have any disfigurement but are made to look the part with the help of makeup and prosthetics.


“Come on, Jenny,” someone at the dinner party says, “it’s just entertainment. It’s only a film.”

No, it isn’t. It isn’t ‘just’ a piece of entertainment for people – and in this case young girls and women in particular – living with a condition that affects their appearance, many of whom struggle daily with bullying and discrimination because of the way they look.

How disfigurement (as well as race, gender, sexual orientation etc.) is represented on the movie screen matters a great deal. We may be oblivious of the subliminal messages conveyed on the movie screen or dismiss them as ‘just a bit of fun’ but the reality is that what we – and our sons and daughters – watch on the screen influences the way we interpret the world around us.

I for one love my scars, and there’s nothing scary or evil about them. And the fact that I may sometimes be a bitch has absolutely nothing to do with my disfigurement.

Break the Silence

I am a boring mum.

That’s my eight-year old’s verdict.

My crime? I don’t play with my children often enough.

“Play netball in the garden with me, mum.”

“Not now, darling, it’s too late.”

“Play Top Trumps with me.”

“Not now, sweetheart, I am reading the papers.”

“Play Monopoly with me.”

“Not now.”

Frankly, I’ve never been much for playing board games. I’d rather read a good book.

When my daughter recently celebrated her birthday, one of the many gifts she received from friends and family was a game called Hearing Things: the lip-reading challenge and, in an attempt to pick up some house points, I agreed to play. Continue reading

Cleft Truth

When I was little, 1st of May was the day I’d climb onto my stepfather’s shoulders as he marched through the streets of Stockholm in support of workers’ rights. Perhaps that’s how I acquired my activist streak, although I’m ashamed to admit I’m a little lazy these days and prefer to conduct any activist activities from the comfort of my home.

The problem with being an armchair activist, however, as I detailed in a blog last year, is that for the lesser disciplined, like myself, the temptations of Netflix sometimes proves too much. That’s why this year too, I nearly missed Cleft Lip and Palate Awareness Week (5-13 May).

But although I’m a few days late to the party, I want to do my bit for raising awareness about cleft. As a proud cleftie, I want to begin by stating loudly and clearly, that being born with a cleft lip and/or palate is NO TRAGEDY. There’s no need to feel sorry for me or the millions of clefties out there in the world. The tiny scars on our upper lips aside, we are no different from the rest of you.

Why do we need a special awareness week for people born with cleft, you might ask? Because ignorance and prejudice around cleft lip and palate are still more widespread than they ought to be. Because we live in an appearance-obsessed society where the definition of what is normal and beautiful is exceedingly narrow. Because, as a recent study by Changing Faces reveals, two-thirds of people hold a negative bias to those with a visible difference, such as a scar.

Here are a few useful facts about cleft, courtesy of the Cleft Lip and Palate Association:

  • A cleft may mean a baby looks different, but it doesn’t hurt.
  • Cleft is a physical issue which, by itself, has no effect on a baby’s cognitive development. It’s not linked with learning difficulties.
  • It’s not a disability, though some children need extra help with their speech and hearing as they grow up.
  • A cleft can usually be closed in one or two surgeries before a child’s first birthday, but the treatment pathway is 20 years long. It’s not a quick fix.
  • Just like every child, every cleft is unique, and every family will face unique challenges.
  • Hospital appointments and operations aren’t fun for anyone, but for many people, the most difficult part of being born with a cleft is dealing with public ignorance and the reactions of others.

That last point is particularly important to highlight, I believe, and resonates strongly with my own experience of having been born with a cleft. As a young girl, it wasn’t the cleft itself that was the biggest issue for me, but the way in which adults and children around me reacted to my cleft. I didn’t need anyone’s pity, all I wanted was to be treated as the full human being I was and not be defined by my cleft. However well-meaning, people’s pity left me feeling patronised, humiliated and dehumanised. And absolutely furious. It was as if these people didn’t really see me, the person beyond the cleft.

Surgery to close a cleft is necessary for the sake of long-term health and well-being, of course, but that doesn’t mean that a baby born with a cleft isn’t just as whole and perfect as any baby that comes into the world.

Admittedly I’m biased, but in my world, there’s nothing more beautiful and life-affirming than a cleft baby’s broad smile.


This Is Europe

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A few days ago, I overheard my daughter and her friends talk about secondary schools, unsurprisingly, as they’re in their last term of primary school and getting ready to move on.

‘Some schools make trips to Europe,’ one of my daughter’s friends said, excitedly.

‘I’d love to go to Europe,’ said another, at which point I could not keep quiet and much to my daughter’s embarrassment, chimed in,

‘But we are in Europe, girls.’

‘Not for long,’ quipped one girl.

‘Listen,’ I said, exasperated, ‘even if Britain leaves the European Union, it will still be part of Europe, geographically at least.’

No one said anything. I’d killed the conversation.

But it had me worried about what British children learn in geography and history classes across the country. Driving to school the other morning, therefore, I lectured at length to my daughters about Britain’s historical, geographical and cultural place in Europe. I bet they were relieved when we finally arrived at school and they got out of the car as fast as they could.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m an ardent Remainer, although not because I love the European Union especially (I don’t), but because I can’t see how Britain would, in any way, shape or form, be better off post-Brexit. I’m also an awfully liberal person who believes that immigration is a force for good and an EU citizen myself, I have made England my home, and I won’t be told I don’t belong here. I may never be British although I’ve married into a British family and have two British daughters, after living in London for almost nineteen years, I am a Londoner, dammit.

Speaking of which, I did vote in today’s local elections. Having opted in favour of postal voting, I effectively cast my ballot weeks ago, so it felt a little strange this morning not to be joining my husband at the polling station. I did make sure he got there, though.

‘You need to vote strategically,’ a friend implored me last month, which is another way of saying that any vote cast in favour of a party other than Labour and the Conservatives is a wasted ballot. Even though I knew he was right, I just had to vote with my conscience, even if that meant my vote didn’t count for anything.

And no, I didn’t simply vote for the party who promised to fix the crater-sized potholes in my neighbourhood – I didn’t have to, because miraculously, shortly after I posted a blog about potholes last month, the council started filling them up. I wonder what would happen if I blogged about the dismal quality of street cleaning in my borough…

As a foreign resident in London, I can not only vote in local elections but, as I recently discovered, I can run for local office as well. Although I’m no friend of party politics, the thought of running for office tempts my ego I must admit. Wouldn’t that be fun?