March 2021

30 Mar On crop-tops, man-buns, modesty and school uniforms

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29.3.21


Given I am about to share my sartorial advice, a little heads-up seems in order because I’ve just looked down to see what I am wearing.

Currently: my Level 3 Lockdown leggings under a pair of shorts I bought without trying them on whose label said they would fit me but whose actual dimensions suggest they could fit two of me (which I didn’t return because the voluminous-ness of them provides my husband and I with much mirth, plus I like to eat so it’s good to have things to grow into) and a washed-out t-shirt I acquired decades ago as a handy declarative for protest marches which forthrightly states, “I’m against it” – just like that, but in capital letters.

So this piece is not being written by a fashionista. Grab a pinch of salt and read on.

At various points throughout each school year, there will be news stories covering the apparent lack of coverage on the bodies of students in the student body. These will be the stories about girls. There will be other stories with hair-raising headlines about afros, cornrows and man-buns (which, in case you’re confused – and why wouldn’t you be – are just buns like ballerinas and nanas wear but for some reason get a special name when people who aren’t women wear them). These will be the stories about boys.

Both these types of stories make me roll my eyes so hard I almost tip backwards (so it’s lucky I’ve got my active wear on) but there are some attitudes involved that are worth having a chat about.

First, let me say I’m a fan of school uniforms and not at all opposed to dress codes. Parameters are good and having a set daily outfit can be equalising and democratic. If you’ve got a school uniform that is reasonably priced, suited to the local climate and sufficiently unisex to make everyone, regardless of gender, feel comfortable about how they’re being asked to present themselves to the world, fill your (regulation) boots. The fewer decisions to be made before you leave the house, the better, I say.

Second, schools can be good at listening and evolving. Back when I was at high school (post slate-and-pencil, pre-computer) a bunch of us lobbied for long trousers to be a winter option for girls (and junior boys) because tiny polyester tartan skirts (and shorts) are a stupid idea when you live in a place with heavy July frosts. Our principal could see the point of that, so uniform options were widened.

But once you’ve got your kids wearing the same clothes as each other, it seems a reasonable idea to allow people to also express their individuality. Much of adolescence is about working out who you are in the world. What are you like? What do you like? How are you different from Oliver or Olivia? Which things matter to you about your culture or ethnicity or values? We talk a lot now in corporate environments about “bringing your whole self to work”. We’re going to be better at that as adults if we start learning about it in our teens.

So as long as a boy’s hair isn’t a health risk (I am attempting to imagine this) or stops him seeing or hearing what’s going on the classroom, I fail to see any problem with how he arranges it on his head. Perhaps if school authorities object to a hairdo, the owner of said hairdo could be given an opportunity to argue their case before a jury of their peers – make it a teaching moment and a chance to speak up.

But the perennial issue for girls, it seems, is “modesty”. Already this year a senior mufti-wearing high school student has been told that the clothes she wears (crop-tops, thin-strapped singlets) were saying too much about who she might be (or could be assumed to be) and that this would “distract” her male teachers and boys. As though the sight of a shoulder might stop you being able to cope with calculus. 

Here’s another teaching moment: if you want to know how a woman feels towards you, ask her – not her clothes. I spent a lot of my parenting years wishing that my daughter would put more clothes on. My mother wished the same about me. I expect my daughter will have the same thoughts about my granddaughter before too long.

Every generation has two sartorial aims – to not dress like their mothers, and to dress like each other. It says everything about fashion, and nothing about behaviour or character.

Eventually, they will do what we all do – design our own “uniform” for daily life to streamline the business of getting out of the house on time. A little bit of fashion maybe, a dollop of personal expression and increasing nods to comfort and practicality. Which is how I ended up here in my Lockdown leggings and balloon-like shorts, not fretting about what young women wear because eventually they’ll all get cold and put their cardies on.

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22 Mar On Dirty Books & Dog-Eared Pages

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 22.3.21


My mother had an older friend who shocked everybody once by stating firmly that she rarely used our town’s public library because she didn’t like “dirty books”.

What Mrs M. meant wasn’t clear at first – this was in 1972 when a fair bit of chatter over the teacups was about lewd publications. “The Little Red School Book” and “Down Under the Plum Trees” – two books controversial in their time for openly discussing sex, sexuality and drugs – were an especially hot topic in living rooms near us because both were published in New Zealand by Alister Taylor who had family in our neighbourhood and would occasionally drop by. Small towns can be both shocked and thrilled to be connected – however tenuously – with things a touch cosmopolitan and risqué.

So the idea that our library might actually be brimming with “dirty books” gave everyone pause. Was it? Had we simply not noticed? Were we looking in the wrong sections? Should my mother be cancelling Friday afternoon family trips to stock up on weekend novels for her and young adult books for us?

Turns out, Mrs M. wasn’t referring to literary content. She was talking about how grubby a book might get after being read by many members of the public, who may or may not have washed their hands first, or spilt their dinner on various pages, or dropped the thing in the bath. The thought of unknowingly touching a book previously dipped in human soup was too much for her. There was a shelf near the checkout counter of “new books”, just arrived, and these were the ones she would read.

As hilarious as my mother found this (not expressed at the time, manners please) we still had firm family rules about how a book should be treated. It was less about catching anything off previous readers, and more about treating things with care so you could pass them on to others unspoilt.

And also, I guess, because of reverence for books. I think of the books in our house as members of our family, impossible to give away if they have been loved. A thought like that has to come from somewhere, and I blame my mother. Scribbling on books, leaving them out in the garden, turning down corners instead of using a bookmark – these were all crimes. Babies round here get a free pass in terms of chewing board books essentially made for this purpose, but a toddler with a crayon? No chocolate pudding for you. 

There is no government edict on How To Treat A Book, so we write the rules ourselves. Part of growing up is learning that different families have different rules for this and other things. I was shocked when my mother informed me (and she knew I’d be shocked, this was her goal) that an otherwise respected member of our community quietly wrote her initials on the inside back cover of library books so she’d know if she’d read them before. Shocked that someone who would heartily disapprove of graffiti or any kind of civic defacement would do that to public property, and also a little shaken that you’d get to a point in life where you might read the same book twice accidentally. (I am older now, and – sigh – I get it.)

There was a wild time in my teens when I went to bible study (bless me) and we were instructed to use a fluorescent highlighter to mark quotes we wanted to return to which was, to me, a heady mix of piety and sacrilege. There was the second hand student text I bought, discovering too late that the previous owner had written copious notes in red ink in the margins, and I spent a semester bewildered by their analysis and second-guessing my own.

But suddenly, I am rewriting my rules. In an RNZ interview, Kim Hill (and you can’t doubt Kim’s love of books or respect for literature) talked to writer Douglas Stuart about his Booker prize-winning “Shuggie Bain”. About five minutes in, she says this: “There are many parts of the book that I’ve turned the page down on… One of them is a description of Shuggie’s mother who has passed out from the drink…”

She passed out? I fairly fell off my chair. Turned down the corners?! Can we do this? Has my assiduous use of the bookmark all these years been for nought? Making notes on a slip of paper tucked into the back been a wasted effort? Well, yes, now I think about it, it has – for the books I own, not the books I borrow, of course. Far be it from me to tell the next reader when to turn the light out, or which bit might be worth another look.

But in the privacy of my own home now, you will find me here, turning down corners, sans regrets, except that I didn’t do this sooner. And wondering what other rules I can toss aside.


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14 Mar Lessons We Can Learn From Lemurs

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 15.3.21


If you asked me to draw up a list of the nicest things that have happened to me, somewhere on that list it would say, “Having my ear sniffed by a lemur”.

This was at Wellington Zoo in the early 1990s – a chilly day, making some kind of TV nonsense. I can’t remember the show or why it involved a ring-tailed lemur, but it was one of those times when working in television felt properly privileged, almost as fancy as people who don’t work in TV might think it is. That it opened doors that would have stayed closed if you’d picked some other sort of job.

I see now on their website that Wellington Zoo offers these kinds of close encounters to all-comers for a fee, which is fabulously democratic of them. I honestly recommend saving up your pocket money for an up-close-and-personal with a meerkat or giraffe, but particularly with a lemur. Bang for your buck, right there. 

He sat on my shoulder (not something you can arrange, I imagine, with a giraffe) and ate (dried fruit? fresh grapes?) carefully from my fingers. Which was already delightful, but the magic was when, for a time, he found me more interesting than the treats and gently nuzzled his nose into my hair for long enough for me to feel his quick, soft breathe on my ear and little dabs of nose. I can feel it and hear it now. Like sniffing a baby’s head except in this scenario I was the baby being sniffed.

You know what I mean, I’m sure, about the flood of warmth you get when animals pay you a bit of attention and you imagine somehow that your existence has been approved. Dogs are easy, cats are hard, lemurs feel like a proper achievement. On a rough day you might think, remember that lemur? That lemur really liked you. You must be alright.

I can spot the word “lemur” in print now from fifty paces in much the same way I can spot “New Zealand” in an overseas newspaper – that particular arrangement of letters leaping out from the page. Which is how I stumbled across a story about Cheyenne, a red-bellied lemur in North Carolina who, at age 32, has had a rich life and maybe something to tell us about what matters in the end.

Lemurs, like humans, favour monogamous relationships – or regard them as aspirational, anyway. So far, so human. In the wild, red-bellied lemurs like Cheyenne form tight, long-term bonds with their mates, rarely moving more than 10 metres from each other. (Potentially claustrophobic but stay with me.) Other species such as crowned or ring-tailed lemurs are less strict about the monogamy, but still prefer a small tight group of friends and lovers. None of them like to spend much time alone. A little bit “hippie commune” then, or “what really happens in the suburbs”.

Cheyenne’s first partner at the Duke Lemur Centre was another red-bellied monogamist. But when he died, Cheyenne hooked up with Geb, a similarly mature crowned lemur. Geb had recently been dumped by his younger partner, Aria, who had left him for an even younger lemur with whom she could make babies, and haven’t we heard that story a thousand times. Cheyenne and Geb, both too old for breeding, nevertheless spent many years in a happy platonic relationship until Geb passed away a couple of years ago.

Now, Cheyenne lives with Chloris. Chloris is a 32-year-old ring-tailed lemur with cataracts and a touch of arthritis. The two old girls spend their days hanging out, grooming each other, and cuddling up for naps. It’s a pairing that has nothing to do with sex (both of them are post-reproductive) and everything to do with comfort, companionship, and having someone to snuggle at night.

The goal for keepers at the Lemur Centre is to match-make geriatric residents so that no lemurs live alone, pairing temperament and physical ability so they can keep each other’s fur fluffy and the loneliness at bay. In the wild, a ring-tailed and a red-bellied lemur wouldn’t interact, but in the retirement wings of a breeding centre, these kinds of conventions don’t matter anymore – certainly not to Cheyenne and Chloris who make themselves into a yin-yang symbol all hours of day.

We wonder sometimes about the kind of place we’d like to live in our autumn years, with more urgency once we start visiting them to see our gran, then our dad, and realise – look out – whose turn it is next. We will want a movie theatre and a bar, we declare, and the same species of people we’ve hung out with before – a retirement village of mad lefties or creatives, and a menu designed by a chef.

What we will really need might have less to do with the facilities (the what) than the quality of the companionship (the who). Personally, I’ll be angling for a place with ready access to cuddles with a lemur.


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07 Mar For International Women’s Day 2021

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 8.3.21


Hag. Crone. Old trout. This International Women’s Day, these are some of the words I would like – on behalf of women of a certain age – to reclaim.

I mean, some of you might not be up for it. It’s possible not everyone is relaxed about being an old chook. Certainly, we’re supposed to be offended by being reminded of our age – dismissed for being no longer useful in reproductive terms, our attractiveness therefore entirely diminished. The implication being that if we’re post-childbearing potential, what is the point of us?

Yet I find as the years go by there’s even more point in being me. Perhaps it’s because my reproductive system (I won’t go into too much detail here because I don’t know if you’re reading this while eating) was functionally a bit of a disaster and made me regularly unwell to the point where I had everything but one ovary whipped out many years ago. Consequently, the whole menopause thing has been less about grief and more about liberation. So if anyone wants to take a shot at me for being beyond reproductive use, those arrows don’t pierce.

Have a crack they do, though. I don’t know if you’re on Twitter (if not, don’t take this as encouragement to join) but as well as being a useful news source and an opportunity for creating a community of friends, it is also a place where all-comers can leap in and, in 280 characters or less, try to ruin your day.

The modus operandi of attempted day-ruiners (particularly if you’re a woman and the potential ruiner is a man) is to turn the conversation from the issue (let’s say it’s the fight against Covid-19) to the appearance of the woman talking. Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, for example, will say something scientific and then a bloke will observe she has pink hair. The aim is not to continue the discourse, or even introduce fresh ideas, but to shut the conversation down.

Because I don’t have pink hair but I am old, that’s the angle generally taken by people eager to ruin my day. When Auckland went into lockdown in February, I tweeted about the reaction of Valentine’s Day diners in our neighbourhood who, on simultaneously receiving the Emergency Alert between main course and dessert, collectively expressed a resigned but cheerful community spirit that made me think of camaraderie during the Blitz. I didn’t actually mention the Blitz in my Tweet, but a handful of blokes took it as an invitation to hiff a few fire bombs my way.

Ryan (if that is his real name) wanted me to catch Covid and die (turns out it’s his go-to message on the medium) and backed it up with an assurance that I am bound to catch it because my “immunity is ancient” and, further, “no amount of makeup will cover it up”.

Remarkable skill, really, to pivot a conversation from a pandemic to reference a woman’s age (bang) and appearance (boom). Not, however, a unique approach – I’ve been noticing this pattern for years ever since a chap put together a collage of my studio headshots (the like of which you see on NZ Woman’s Weekly pages) with their careful makeup and professional lighting juxtaposed with a candid snap of my everyday face, presented as evidence that I have not come to terms with “being an old hag”.

Mostly I am too busy enjoying being an old hag to register these things. The glorious thing about being this age is you’re not bothered about being this age. Yet it’s as though these men think we might not be aware we are older, so if they point it out we’ll be shocked, shocked I tell you, and terribly hurt. But honestly, I’ve been with me the whole time, on my many long years on this planet. I know how old I am and what I look like. As a friend puts it, you might be shocked by my age/height/weight/hair colour, but I’m not – and I can’t help you with your feelings about it.

We need a name for this invalidation of women for age and other crimes. Some of it happens so swiftly – one minute you’re dismissed for being “too young”, the next you’re “too old”.

We could call it “the Merkel Affect”. Angela Merkel, Germany’s long time Chancellor moved seemingly overnight from “Madchen” (that “girl”) in politics to “Mutti” (Germany’s “mummy”) with no time to pause between and simply be a grown adult woman.

Or it could be the “Sally Field Rule”. In the 1988 movie, “Punchline”, Field played Tom Hanks’ love interest. Six years later in “Forrest Gump” Hollywood decided Field, at age 42, was too old to romance and had her play Hanks’ mother.

So why not embrace the crone, and the freedom and ease it brings us. And on March 8, be ready to respond to all those whiny questions about, “When is it International Men’s Day?” with “November 19, actually… silly old coot.”


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