Fat, beautiful, worthy

“The most attractive component to me of any woman is self-assuredness, willingness/ability to own their wants and desires, lack of concern about conforming. I’m obviously very visually stimulated and I think watching at a party is a great example of this; a ‘classically hot’ person who is boring is a whole lot less fun to watch than an average or whatever body type having a good time and feeling the moment.” American chap

A couple of weekends back I read a tweet that’s stayed in my mind. On the surface it was benign enough. A woman wondering why her friend was still single and listing various reasons why this was surprising – sparky, fun, bright. So far so good. The final thing on the list was “slim and pretty.” Someone responded saying they failed to see what being slim had to do with it. I took the lame option and fired off a rarely-seen-from-me subtweet about misogyny and women not needing fatphobia from other women.

Because comments like that are fatphobic. The subtext is that being slim is better than being fat. That being slim makes someone more worthy of finding a partner. And when slimness is held up as evidence in a case of ‘oh my God, I can’t believe you’re single’ then what does that infer about fat people who are not single? That they had some massive stroke of luck? That they must have bagged a partner and then ‘let themselves go’? That they’re a sympathy fuck? Even if this is not what people mean, when they hold up slimness as a barometer of attractiveness and worthiness then I can assure you that is what fat people will hear. It is what we are socially conditioned to hear.

Me: “What do you find attractive about me?”
Him: “I think it’s your mouth and your manner – the way you know exactly what you want and make sure you get it. Also the way my handprints look on your arse.”
Me: “My mouth as in what it does or what it says?!”
Him: “What it does, how it looks, what it says – it’s an all-round good mouth.”

The always brilliant Laura Williams wrote recently about why she’s no longer talking about weight and body image: “Yes, I am gorgeous. But on reflection, the only way to empower myself, and to also empower the women around me to accept their bodies in whatever shape and size they come in is to remove discussion around them full stop.” I grant you I am talking about it right now, but ignore that discrepancy for a moment and just absorb her wider point. Fat or slim, we all need to think a little bit more before we speak and become more comfortable in just being.

This post isn’t intended to be a massive dig at slim women – they have been subjected to the same social conditioning that all of us have. Fat women are just as bad at holding slimness up as a virtue. Whatever your size, when celebrating one type of woman puts another one down it is not a feminist action. And I believe it’s not all about how fat women are seen (although that is a huge part of it), it’s about changing the way we see ourselves too. We must stop thinking that our size and body shape is the defining benchmark of our attractiveness. We may not want to admit it but we are often our own worst enemies and in undermining ourselves we undermine other women.

What is the use of celebrating our beautiful undulating curvy wobbly sisters if we then berate our own bellies, bums and thighs? How can we hold up others if we don’t hold up ourselves? And if we continually talk ourselves down and believe ourselves to be unappealing what does that say about how much we respect the choices of the people for whom we are an object of love, affection or lust? I have not always been good at this. Full disclosure: the outward-facing body positive E40 is not always how I behave in private conversation with friends or when I am battling insecurities and taking them out on partners. But I am a million times better than I was.

In pursuit of evidence for this post I decided to do some deeply scientific research. It basically involved me asking men and women what they found attractive about me. Those polled ranged from one offs to casuals to established partners. The comments are peppered through this post. I highly recommend this glorious exercise in positive affirmation. Exhibit A came back with this:

“I met E40 five years ago, after some initial chat on a (non-kinky) dating site and several months of messaging. I’m not sure why, but the fact that she’s fat had never even crossed my mind during our various conversations, so there was an initial ‘huh!’ moment when she first opened the door to her flat and said hello. The kind of ‘huh’ you get when confronted by new information or something you hadn’t quite been expecting. After that, I went inside, took off my coat, and didn’t think about it again for the rest of the date.

“Nor have I really thought about it since then, to be honest, in the same way that I don’t really think about her toes or ears! The size of her belly is rarely a factor in anything we do, and as a result I consider it just another part of her – I don’t understand why anyone would choose to get hung up on it. There are way too many other interesting bits to focus on!

“So yes, I’d say I find E40 attractive neither despite nor because of her body shape – instead it’s her energy, openness, and creativity that draw me to her, as well as her excellent legs and ridiculously strokable hair. Five years later, those are the qualities (along with a hundred others) that make me glad that we met each other, and that we’ve managed to build the connection we have now. I wouldn’t change anything about that, and I wouldn’t change anything about her appearance either.”

There’s an important point there about acknowledging fat. We cannot expect partners not to notice it but we must also trust that this won’t negatively define their feelings and that to them we are more than the bodies we inhabit, just as they are more than their bodies to us. Would we ever say “I worry that you don’t find me as hot as other people because I am so slim?” I think not!

We also need to own our fatness more confidently. I realise I can be a bit Pollyanna sometimes and I know some people have had horrible experiences on dating sites. But if we are really honest with ourselves, how open are we in our profiles? I know my dating profile says “a little bit extra” when my belly is definitely fat. It is only in the last year that I truly shook off the shackles of fat belly shame and put a full length photo up. Yet I carry all of my weight around my middle. So when I was only putting up pretty smiley head and shoulders photos was I really owning my whole self? EA was justified in being surprised when he saw the whole me for the first time. It didn’t bother him but I have had comments from others that I looked different to my photos and they were fair comments.

I know some people worry that they won’t get attention if they are fully upfront in profiles, but there really is no point in being anything other than honest. Jedi Hamster pointed me to this article about a woman who created two identical profiles, except one used photos when she was a size 10 and one when she was size 18. Size 10 her got exactly twice as many messages as size 18 her. Predictable and disheartening you might say? Maybe, but like I said earlier we’ve all been conditioned to think slim is best so let’s not judge the men for a minute. What I liked was her closing comment: “You could interpret these results slightly differently. A size 18 woman, posting some of her least flattering, double chin-featuring pics, received 18 messages in five days.”

Interestingly, the profiles of the men who messaged fat her were similar to those who messaged slim her. Both versions of her attracted fat and slim men of varying degrees of ‘typical’ accepted attractiveness. This is an important thing to note. Fat people don’t sit in a little colony together, only fancying each other. A friend who is one of the most body confident people I know had this to say on the matter: “It’s important to remember us fatties don’t just fuck each other. We desire and are desired by people who would be thought of as conventionally fit/slim/hot. And we are not always defined in sex by our fatness. Sometimes us fatties get comments about how sexy we are that don’t refer to our size. It’s important to hear those comments and share them so that other fatties know that it’s possible to be sexy without it just being about the size of your body. Having lovers for whom your size is not relevant, for whom you are, simply, sexy enables us to feel like anyone else having (good) sex – it makes us feel transcendent.”

Tellingly she added: “At the same time I don’t wanna sound smug – like fucking handsome, fit men is some kind of prize for a fat girl. It’s tricky to get the tone right.” She’s right, we don’t want to hold up the conventionally hot people we fuck as trophies in our fight for fat acceptability, but we also need to recognise that people still express surprise at mixed size couples (of any gender make-up, actually). How often do we hear comments about similarly sized people along the lines of ‘don’t they make a lovely couple?’ or ‘don’t they look good together?’ whereas the bigger half of a differently sized couple will get ‘you’ve done well for yourself’ or ‘good for you!’ No! The fat person didn’t do well. Both people did well for finding each other, for having the good fortune to meet someone whose company they thrive in, who they fancy and who makes them feel good about themselves.

I am giving the last line to this lovely piece of feedback and I am paying it forward to any woman who needs to believe she’s hot and desirable. Own these words and go out and be your best beautiful confident self.

“You are so gloriously sexy and fuckable. Everything about you, especially when you’re turned on, is hot. Your movements, your facial expressions and damn it – your body just makes me want to work my way down to in between your legs. Feeling all of you on the way. You are fucking sexy”

 

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Collaboration

I describe Exposing 40 as a collaboration. My strapline is ‘Friends. Photography. Adventure.’ So I really couldn’t let this week’s Wicked Wednesday prompt go past unmarked. In the true spirit of the word I decided to produce a collaborative post. I chose my favourite photos of four amazing 40-something women and asked them to send me some thoughts to use alongside them. I don’t really know why I was surprised by their words as all four are so generous with their love, but they made me laugh and cry and I now feel a bit of a plum for creating a post that’s one big love in. I hadn’t intended this to be a willy waving exercise! We hope you enjoy our collaborative post!

Honey
Exposing 40 is a force of nature when it comes to collaboration. I was naked in front of her camera the second time we met – although that time, I’m not sure I was the most easy and relaxed model. Since then, it has been so much fun giggling around places with less and less clothing. I know it is an Exposing 40 day when I am making sure I can whip my clothes off in a flash (and whip them back on again-but that is less exciting). One of the brilliant things about photo adventures with Exposing 40 is the combination of amazing ideas that she comes ready with, or thinks of in the moment and the fact that she is also up for any chaotic ideas of my own. The best thing though is that out of a day of outrageous, soul nourishing giggling and mirth, there is suddenly later the ping of amazing images landing in an inbox. It takes a lot for me to completely relax when there is a camera pointing at me, and yet, Exposing 40 knows that I can’t wait for another chance to strip off and cavort for her. I think that is the gold standard of collaboration. The fear is gone (although there is the tingle of fear of being caught) and the joy of creating together shines through. How she manages to get crisp images of giggling models is her secret to tell.

Maria
When I visited the UK for Eroticon ’17 I knew one of the main things I wanted to do was go on a photo adventure with Exposing 40. I long to take outside photos when I’m on my own at home but for some reason, I’m paralyzed by fear of being seen or getting caught. But when I was with Exposing 40 I felt like I could easily whip my kit off anywhere and the fact that we were together was a magical form of protection. Partly because we were having so much damn fun and partly because I knew that Exposing 40 could talk her way out of any legal or awkward public scrape we might encounter. We took our photos in the loveliest overgrown cemetery, there were sometimes people only yards away, but I felt secure and confident and had the time of my life. Having my photo taken by her, specifically, gave me new eyes to see myself. A pose or angle that I normally would have cut if I were taking the pictures of myself suddenly became beautiful because I was seeing myself, my figure, through her eyes. I felt beautiful in ways I hadn’t before. The other thing I love is that she includes non sex blogger friends on her blog. I am still intensely private about mine at home, so seeing her open up to let people in that way is lovely. And something I am still aspiring to. What breakthroughs could be made in my long-standing friendships if I opened up to them about this aspect of my life?

@19syllables
On our recent daytrip to the seaside Exposing 40 and I made getting a shot for the Sinful Sunday diptych prompt our mission. A diptych is often described as a matching pair of images, but this is not true. The two parts of diptychs are never matching; they are always different but together tell a story. This reminds me of our friendship. Exposing 40 and I are two things that that complement each other, not a matching pair. We have chosen to structure our lives very differently. I am married; committed happily and whole-heartedly to one man for decades (and forever), in what looks from the outside to be a relationship constructed on the traditional, establishment model. Exposing 40 has crafted a more unorthodox, non-monogamous structure for herself which is bespoke to her preferences. She is also actively and joyfully child-free, whereas a central, defining and love-filled part of my life is that I am the mother of four. Sometimes it feels as if the media would like women like us to pitch ourselves against each other; the traditional against the bohemian, but we’re having none of it. She is resolutely happy for me, quick to celebrate my family’s triumphs and console me through inevitable bumps in the road, and I only feel admiration for her choices and the way she conducts herself. Honest to herself and those she connects in a way I have not encountered close-up with anyone else before.

Tabitha
I have always struggled with body confidence – my photos for Sinful Sunday are always carefully curated, 99.9% being trashed. I was so nervous when Exposing 40 approached me for a photo. What if she indeed exposed the truth I felt about my own body? She didn’t, she exposed the beauty I didn’t believe was there. I am so grateful. I love even more when we do a shot together, giggling as the timer goes off. Just lovely. Being photographed by Exposing 40 is thrilling beyond belief- not only at the time where, for that naked half hour your world vibrates with the excited buzz of possibly getting caught – to the moment the photos are sent through. To be photographed from angles you never see of yourself, being able to recognise yourself through another’s eye. To look at a photo somebody else took and not be horrified. It is liberating, exhilarating and has changed every walk I now go on. Now I’m always scouting for the next Exposing 40 location. Thank you my friend, you’ve changed the way I see myself – it’s actually life changing x x x


Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Invisibility

“So I just told them how it all works. I didn’t want to keep it secret because I am really proud of how my relationships work.” Me to Exhibit A, a few weeks back.

I have become friendly with a group of neighbours in the last six months or so. Things started with typical chat about taking in parcels and cleaner recommendations, then someone decided to host Christmas drinks. I thought it would be a couple of hours of small talk, pleasant but not memorable. I wobbled home at gone midnight after an evening of copious wine, raucous laughter and chat that ranged from women’s health in Africa to local running routes to one neighbour confessing her husband tells her off for being an exhibitionist when she stands naked in their bedroom window. Basically, a crowd of people who are right up my street – literally and metaphorically!

One Saturday in April someone pinged the WhatsApp group to see who was around. Remarkably, we were all free! A few hours later we were round a table in a local restaurant, feasting on charcuterie and planning a street party so we could meet even more of our neighbours. Fast forward to the second May bank holiday and we’re having a planning BBQ to finalise party details…

It’s the weekend after Exhibit A and I have been to Luxembourg and the neighbours are asking about my trip. I don’t know if there was something about the way I was talking (I definitely didn’t talk about photos and fucking in musty tunnels!), or whether some penny dropped by chance, but the face of the-neighbour-with-the-big-house-who-always-hosts fell and she exclaimed: “Oh my God! I am so rude. You have a partner and I have never invited him to any of our get-togethers!” I laughed and reassured her it was all fine, thinking it was easier not to get into detail of why he doesn’t regularly rock up to events as my plus one. Then she asked if he would be coming to the street party and I just thought ‘fuck it’!

“I don’t know, I will mention it. I know he and his wife are planning quite a low key weekend but they might want to come.”

Nobody flinched but I could see questions behind eyes so I clarified. It’s ethically open, Livvy and I are friends, I was at their wedding, he loves meeting new people so if any of our street get-togethers happen to coincide with when we have plans I’m sure he’d like to come. Simple statements of fact, a chorus of ‘oh wow’ and ‘that’s cool’ and then onto deciding what games we would put on for the kids. But that straightforward explanation of relationship status when you’re not in a traditional set-up is still relatively rare.

I have written before about being a very happy second and everything I wrote then still stands. I still have zero interest in the trappings of a full time cohabiting relationship. And I still recognise that I thrive from having the security and affection that comes with a partner who means more to me than a fuck buddy does (although I love my straightforward sex dates with fuck buddies too!). But something I have found myself reflecting on over the last year or so is the issue of visibility when you’re a secondary partner living in a society that still doesn’t widely embrace non-monogamous set-ups.

A lot of the time you have to be pretty invisible and it can occasionally make you feel wistful. You have to modify your behaviour, think about what you say, and occasionally lie. Last summer Exhibit A and I went to see a friend of mine do a reading of his work. At one point when EA was looking at his phone my friend mouthed over ‘Is that your chap?’ and shot an ‘appreciative eyes’ look at me. ’No, just a friend,’ I mouthed back. What I really wanted to say was ‘Yes! And I know – hot, eh?!’, but I knew that my friend is friends with EA’s sister. When someone asks how you know them at a party (or a wedding!) you hide your affection and say you used to work together. You spend a lot of time being aware of your actions. I am the most ridiculously enthusiastically tactile person but I once asked whether I could touch EA when we in a pub; he looked at me oddly so I reminded him that we were in Livvy’s sister’s neighbourhood.

Of course, in the sex blogger community there’s no need to hide anything and outside of the community some of my closest friends and a couple of family members know. But broadly speaking a partnership I really value remains largely invisible to the outside world. Nobody is doing anything wrong or intentionally trying to hurt anyone; for many people in non-monogamous relationships it’s still easier, for numerous reasons, to keep things quiet in their wider lives. My situation is in no way unique.

Although I reflect on this from time to time, I don’t dwell on it. I spend enough time overthinking the things I can change without overthinking the things I can’t! But for my own processing of feelings I allow myself to acknowledge that having to hide something that you put work and emotional energy into, and that you’re really proud, of isn’t always easy. Which is probably why the conversation with my neighbours felt like a little victory and why I relayed it with such delight!

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

The Catastrophe of Ageing

Summer 2015 and I am six months into my forties. It’s a balmy Friday evening and I’m at the bar at Lewisham Street Feast.

Cute twenty-something barman: “That’s a really nice dress.”
Me: “Thanks.”
Him: “It’s Cos isn’t it?”
Me: “Yes!” (Impressed)
Him: “I ironed it for my Mum earlier.”

I don’t think I stopped giggling for about half an hour. When do cute barmen stop noticing you and start noticing that you’re wearing their Mum’s dress?! Joking aside, becoming invisible is the great catastrophe that befalls women as they creep into middle age. Or it is if you believe the Daily Mail, which last week claimed “midlife invisibility stings, whatever the feminists say.” Urgh!

Summer 2016 and I’m 18 months into my forties. It’s a balmy Thursday evening and I’m sat in my garden, savouring a glass of white wine and thinking about a conversation with a friend.

Notes > 25th August 2016, 22.35.
Am I invisible?
Spoiler: no!

It’s taken me another 18 months to get any further than that indignant ‘No!’ To find the right way to say that I don’t feel like I am becoming invisible. I feel more visible than I have ever been. Not to young men serving me drinks or the ones who to used to beep at me in the street and now drive by, oblivious. But in my life that I have chosen for myself, I do. I feel a little guilty that my experience is out of kilter with friends who feel differently and while I understand the reasons they give for feeling invisible, to me they are more visible and more vital than they have ever been.

There are many good reasons why women feel they become invisible as they age. We rarely see ourselves in positions of power or represented on the screen. There have been a total of 489 women MPs ever; there are 442 male MPs sitting in the current parliament alone. Just seven of the top 100 FTSE CEOs are women. A review by Harriet Harman in 2010 found that just 18% of TV presenters over the age of 50 were women. An analysis of 414 scripted movies, TV shows and digital series released between September 2014 and August 2015 found that men made up 80% of characters over the age of 40. When we do not see ourselves reflected in our leaders or in our cultural world we learn not to see ourselves.

But why, despite all of this, do I not feel the invisibility creep? I have mulled it over often and have my conclusions but I wondered how these would dovetail with the experiences of friends. So last night I messaged a few.

 “I don’t feel invisible at all in work but that’s because I’m in a senior role I guess so it’s probably the only place I’m totally 100% visible!”

“I think being a mum made me invisible. People refer to you only as someone’s mum.”

“As much as I’m body positive and accept others for whatever they look like I miss the person I once looked like, and am at odds with the exponential speed with which [youthful] attributes diminish.”

“There’s a second-tier-citizen feel to it [motherhood] that feels a lot like invisibility. This bled over into physicality in that I completely forgot that I might have any sexual or physical appeal or power, outside of my own loving relationship I felt entirely separated from that whole notion.”

The benchmarks by which women judge themselves so harshly – work, motherhood, our looks and our sex appeal, not to mention our ability to be a success in all of them all at the same time – are all areas that at the moment I am at peace with. I did not want children so I am not experiencing that perceived invisibility. More significantly I am not juggling job and offspring. My business is a success and within my sector I am very visible. My relationship with my body, my looks and with sex is improving with age, in a large part due to this blog and the people and experiences it has connected me to. I think the reason I procrastinated for so long over this post is that I did not want to sound smug. But I am not smug, I just opted out of one big life choice so, for now, my experiences are different, possibly easier and I have more time to focus in on my priorities.

And the thing about the women who answered my questions, and those I did not have chance to message in my rush to write this post? They are spectacular! By the standards of visibility that they personally judge themselves by they may feel they are diminishing but my God, they are not. They are raising kickass feminist daughters and sons. They are looking after ageing parents. They are in senior positions. They are running businesses. They have created happy homes. They are beautiful. They are hot. They have contributed directly to the improvements in how I feel about myself. Through their friendships I am more visible. They are not invisible.

Zooming back out, are things going to improve? I hope so. I hope that #metoo and #timesup create lasting social change. I hope that soon women will no longer be judged on their looks, their ability to ’juggle’ or ‘have it all’. In the UK, today was the deadline on companies that employ more than 250 people releasing their gender pay gap data. I hope that pay transparency will finally result in equal pay for equal work. For single women that means they will be just as well off as a single man doing the same job. For women and men who have families the work/childcare split will no longer need to be decided on financial viability alone. Last year the Office of National Statistics data showed that the number of childfree women has doubled in a generation. Those women are women like me. I employ a 67-year-old woman and two working Mums, all of whom work the hours that suit them. I hope that the rising tide lifts all boats. I hope the increasing number of childfree women in senior positions afford mothers more flexibility. I hope older women in positions of power and influence offer other older women opportunities.

I’m going to give (almost) the last word to Tabitha Rayne, who said this:

“When I was young I heard from women in their fifties that they simply disappear. I decided a long time ago to make sure it never happened to me. However, now I’m in my forties I’m not feeling the same need to be in the limelight. I am happier to sit back, watch others take the lead. I actually don’t care now if I gently fade away. Maybe we make ourselves invisible? Self-contented ninjas. Shadow warriors of maturity.”

Lady! If you don’t want the limelight, that’s fine, but don’t ever think you don’t take the lead. You shine. You make beautiful art and wear your heart on your sleeve. You are leading a tribe into 30 days of orgasms! Self-contented ninjas and warriors of maturity I’m on board with, but there is no shadow. Until the world shines a light on the ageing woman let’s all reflect each other’s light back so women never feel invisible.

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Do Not Delete

Yesterday I read this smoking hot guest post about the effect of a leather skirt over at Girl On The Net’s place (if you haven’t read it yet go and check it out and then come back!). It reminded me of some photos that Exhibit A took of us way back in early 2015.

This morning I went looking for them. I couldn’t find them. They weren’t in the folder with all the other photos we took in that hotel room. Then a little creeping dread came over over me. I remembered deleting those shots. I didn’t like them. I didn’t like the way my tits looked, the weird expressions on my face or the roundness around my middle. I kept them for a short while but every time I looked at them they made me feel bad so eventually I deleted them. After much rummaging in my recycling bin I found them and recovered them.

So what do I see today?

I see a snapshot of a really hot moment and remember a happy 24 hours. I think my tits look pretty good actually. I like the way he’s gripping my leather skirt. I smiled when I saw the green wristband that was such a part of him for so many years. I chuckled at the memory of his dinner turning up with teeth in it. I remember it was the first time he talked to me about Livvy and I feel a little bubble of happiness at everything that has happened on that front since. I think about walking in the New Forest and playing pool. I recall being annoyed that they’d run out of croissants by the time we went down for breakfast and picking all the chocolate out of a pain au chocolate. I grimace that we were charged £42 for two gin and tonics!

And I feel sad that it’s taken almost three years to appreciate the photo.

How many of us have deleted a photo in haste not realising that with it we have closed the door on a whole host of happy memories? How often do we take a photo then fail to appreciate the nuances of the shot because we are focusing in on our perceived flaws? Why are we not kinder to ourselves?

I’m glad I read that leather skirt post. I’m glad I fished this photo out of the recycling. I’m glad I’m sending it out into the wild. And I’m resolving to not delete in haste again and to zone in on the memories of moments, not the bits of me I don’t like.

Status, stigma and self-testing

I am writing this from the back of a vehicle in Nigeria. I’m in Lagos, the biggest city in Africa and home to 21 million people. New Africa. A so-called mega city. Vibrant, ambitious, tenacious, captivating. And becoming increasingly liberal as the trappings of our globalised world take hold? Not where it really matters, no.

Today I was told of a dress code for women who attend a business skills development course. Encouraged into business and championed as role models for a modernising country? Yes, but as just as long they don’t do it in trousers, v neck tops or skirts that end above the knee. But worse than that, sexual freedom is being curtailed.

In 2014, the Nigerian government increased the punishment for homosexuality to 14 years in jail. Anyone ‘assisting couples’ may face a 10 year sentence. In 2010, just 18% of men who have sex with men were reached with HIV prevention services. They do not access the services they need to manage their sexual health out of fear for their freedom. The result? In 2007, 13.5% of men who have sex with men were living with HIV. By 2016, that had risen to 23%. It’s not only men who have sex with men whose health is being failed by the Nigerian government. They are falling short on recommended target for testing, treatment and counselling services for the whole population. The country has second largest HIV epidemic in the world.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, in my hotel my room in Lagos, I exercised a privilege many Nigerians don’t have. I took an HIV test. The kit came courtesy of Freedom Shop and was given to me at Eroticon. The whole process took about half an hour in total: a few minutes reading the blurb that came with the test, five or ten minutes rereading The Other Livvy and Emmeline Peach’s great reviews, an embarrassing number of minutes summoning up the courage to use the lancet and then 15 minutes for the test to progress. It was easy, discreet and, actually, quite an empowering experience. It may sound odd to say I enjoyed the process, but I did. I was in control.

I live in the UK. Here we can pick up a kit like the Bio-Sure HIV Self Test for under £30 and test at a time that suits us. If we have a little more time and are not anxious about visiting a clinic we can test for free. Home testing kits are free for high risk groups. Yet, despite the ease with which we can access testing and a low prevalence rate, the UK still needs to make progress. Here, new diagnoses are almost double the average for Western Europe, it is estimated that 13,500 are unaware of their positive status and 40% of those diagnosed positive receive a late diagnosis. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that just 14% of those who identified as high risk had taken a test recently.

It is easy to think that the world has got a handle on the HIV pandemic. Comparatively speaking it has. The first time I worked in Africa, in 2003, I was visiting communities where almost the entire population of working age adults had died and the majority of households were headed by grandparents or children. Then, fewer than 200,000 people around the world were accessing treatment, now 19.5 million people receive antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. An HIV positive person on ARVs who has had an undetectable viral load for more than six months can’t pass it on.

But there is still a long way to go. 17.2 million HIV+ people still aren’t getting treatment. The rate of HIV infection hasn’t declined amongst adults since 2010. There were 1.8 million new cases in 2016. We all have a role to play in tackling HIV, by taking care of our own sexual health, especially if we are lucky enough to live in a country where stigma is (relatively) low and testing and treatment services are free, by staying up to date on the facts and testing our knowledge and joining campaigns where our voice can make a difference.

Happy World AIDS Day!

For self-testing kits plus a whole lot of other useful stuff for staying safe and heathy visit https://www.freedoms-shop.com/

When Love-Affair Friendships End

This time last year I’d just been dumped. Not quite ghosted but not far off. In the year since it happened I’ve trodden the well-worn post-break-up path; there’s been shock, disbelief, ‘what did I do wrong?’ wondering, looking at their social media feeds, sadness, anger and bitching. The only good thing about it all is that I haven’t been going through it alone. You see, I wasn’t dumped by a lover, I was dumped by a friend and Jedi Hamster and Charlotte Brown were dumped at the same time.

The screen grab opposite is the message that dropped into our WhatsApp group (and yes, don’t judge, we did also have a separate for-spoiler-avoidance GBBO chat!) and then ‘xx left’. Just like that. Actually, probably not ‘just like that’. In hindsight the signs had been there for a while: subtle and not-so-subtle silences that would smart; an air of disapproval and judgement; casual criticism of things we’d always enjoyed together that felt like a point being made; and sometimes just undeniably mean behaviour.

But why am I using this language? Isn’t it a bit relationship-y? Well, yes, but in the last week I’ve discovered a new label – love-affair friendships. I picked it up in Rosie Wilby’s Is Monogamy Dead? In it she references the “impenetrable fortress of female friendship”, speaks of how “intense non-sexual trysts between women are common” and ponders whether “a world beyond the oppressive binary of relationships being either sexual or not, might be the richer and more vibrant one.”

I wonder how many of you are nodding along to that as I was when I read those words. I’d wager that many women reading this will recognise some of their friendships in those statements. Not all of them. We can ‘just’ be mates. But it’s undeniable that many (most?) of us have a handful of ‘food for the soul’ friendships that aside from the physical component can feel as intimate as the relationships we enjoy with our partners. Are those friendships more common between women than men? I don’t know!

So what was our group was like? Well, we were funny as fuck, obviously. We were so funny we decided we needed a shared Twitter account to give life to our musings and observations. That was bollocks and lasted about a month – in jokes are rarely funny to the outside world! But while the belly laughs were good, we bonded over far more than our ability to make each other laugh; all of us single, childfree and with complex relationships with our families, we recognised ourselves and our hang-ups in each other’s experiences and responses. Some of our chats about body positivity and sex probably sowed the seeds of this blog. Jedi Hamster came up with the name Exposing 40!

Should friendships like this last forever just because, for a time, they felt so significant? No, of course not! I have often thought that there’s excessive pressure for longevity and commitment placed on female friendships and an assumption of loyalty that is rarely expected of male friends or sexual partnerships. A few years back a sociologist from the University of Utrecht in the Netherland founds that on average we ‘lose’ 50% of our friends every seven years. I can believe this. Lives evolve, circumstances change and we meet new friends through jobs, travels, volunteering, new lovers.

But there’s a difference between the natural ebb and flow of ‘of the moment’ friendships and the fracturing of the ones that help shape us. And there’s no recognisable prescription for getting over those. No automatic right to mourn. If I split up with a partner and needed a cry or a bitch, that would be perfectly normal – people know how to rally for that. Break up with a friend and want to talk it out? There aren’t the same social norms around that.

But how does all this fit with a book about monogamy? Doesn’t monogamy refer to lovers not friends? Well, you might think so but Rosie explores monogamy in the wider sense. The jumping off point for her book is a survey where she poses a series of questions to help her unpick respondents’ views on monogamy and what counts as infidelity. Now, if you’re a deeply scientific person concerned with credible representative samples, then look away. Me? As a twenty-something PR who felt her cheeks burn when interrogated by a journalist about the ‘80% of Welsh respondents’ and then had to confess that the Welsh contingent in fact numbered 10, it should be said that I am not averse to a wafer-thin bit of evidence if it provides a good hook for a story. And this book is full of good stories.

If you’re endlessly fascinated with human experiences, emotions and behaviours then ignore the sample size (100!) and just soak up the stories. Through 49 pithy and anecdote-driven chapters Rosie explores what monogamy really means. If you’re not in an open relationship what counts as cheating, kissing or falling in love but doing nothing about it? Do our needs for emotional security and physical intimacy need to be found in the same person? That’s a lot of pressure for one person. If our lives are a rich tapestry of different people with whom we enjoy different connections, are we all a bit non-monogamous?

As the book is winding up she talks about the issue of language and muses that “if we don’t have the words for a particular type of loving relationship, we can’t talk about it and it remains invisible.” Like I said above, I hadn’t heard the term love-affair friendship until a week ago. I don’t actually need my friendships to be more visible in the literal sense of the word – I play a pretty open hand as far as talking about the friends that really matter to me goes! But taking that label to reconsider certain friendships was an interesting exercise.

Was our friend wrong for wanting out? No. No more than a partner would be wrong for ending a relationship if it no longer brought joy. But I also know exactly how she would have responded had a man behaved towards us in the way she did. What are our responsibilities when we decide a friendship has run its course? There’s no blueprint for ending them. But just going dark leaves a bitterness that’s sometimes a bit hard to swallow, even if the collective moaning sessions are therapeutic.

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