Wednesday, 28 June 2017

This summer's must-have accessory? Kindness.

The last twelve months have been pretty grim if, like me, you're emotionally invested in creating a fairer, more equal society. In 2016 the EU referendum was fought on a platform of fear and lies, and left an angry, confused and divided nation in its wake. The hate stirred up by the tabloid press and fuelled by professional contrarians has resulted in violence and murder, so when another general election was called I felt like I needed to do something, anything, to counter the hysterical and vitriolic coverage of the election campaign in the press. I 'cosplayed' the election again, sharing my outfit posts (complete with calm and rational political commentary!) with friends on social media in an attempt to give people some more positive, cheerful content to enjoy. 

Unsurprisingly, my posts didn't go far beyond my circle of friends and mutual followers (pleas for considered and thoughtful action just don't have the click-bait appeal of hate-speech) and seeing the horrifying abuse that other people who have encouraged a kind and hopeful approach to politics have received, I'm kind of glad they didn't. But they did make me feel better, as they forced me to focus on the positive rather than the negative, so I wanted to take this feeling forward into how I engage with media content in the long term, rather than just in regard to election coverage.

As well as trying to encourage fear and distrust of one another, we're also encouraged to feel bad about ourselves, and publicly shame or ridicule anyone who isn't following an archaic, classist, discriminatory and seemingly endless list of 'rules' designed to police our appearance. I'd love to live in a world where I could breezily tweet "just wear what you want!" as temperatures soar and we peer into our wardrobes trying to figure out if we have anything, anything at all, that is 'suitable' for whatever we might need to do in weather we're just not used to. But we don't live in this kind of utopian future (yet!) and I'd be doing a disservice to a lot of people if I pretended that we are all subject to equal levels of judgement and condemnation. By moaning about my personal pet peeve (the ongoing policing of the upper arms of all women over 30), I'm belittling the constant public scrutiny other people face over every aspect of their appearance; it's false equivalency. "Wear what you want" doesn't require a daily act of courage from me, a rejection of years of social conditioning, the strength to face media-sanctioned cruelty from strangers. So I'm not going to demand bravery from activists who have been doing it for years, or from people whose bodies and clothing choices are none of my business, but I am going to demand an act of kindness from everyone else. 

We've been brainwashed by countless "circle of shame" or "worst dressed" photos to have similarly uncharitable thoughts about the people around us; people who dare to defy clothing conventions; who dare to (in the words of pearl-clutching tabloids) 'flaunt their assets'. Maybe we need to unpack why we leap to conclusions about folk who just want to go about their day feeling fabulous about themselves. Are we jealous of their apparent fearlessness, angry that they've decided that the rules don't apply to them when we've been trying so hard to follow the rules so closely, and are still told that we're found wanting? Whenever we criticise someone else for being "overdressed" or "not making an effort", for revealing or concealing too much of themselves, we're not just policing their bodies but also our own. We're restricting everyone's freedom of self-expression, but most vital of all we're restricting everyone's ability to feel comfortable in their own skin and just move through the world without attracting unwanted commentary. 

The acts of kindness I want to see involve, at the most basic level, doing nothing. If you don't approve of someone's appearance - who cares? Keep it to yourself! There's a wealth of old adages that can apply to this situation, and with good reason; petty meanness has never been a good look on anyone. Compliment pals who are rocking great outfits instead.

Hopefully this will already be second nature to you, and you might feel emboldened to gently challenge body shaming if you hear it from friends or family, and ignore it when you see it presented as a click-bait headline. As Labour's general election campaign showed, it's possible to challenge the status quo in quite a radical way and win people over to your cause if you do it in a thoughtful and positive way. I was so glad to see that there isn't an infinite appetite for cruelty, spite and deliberate misinformation. People have shown that they can be nuanced in their thinking, and that they are open to a kinder, fairer way of being. But rather than expecting other people to create this world for us, we have to push back, even in the smallest ways, against the relentless negativity we have been subjected to for far too long. Being bitchy is so last season, this summer should be all about kindness, and the joy (or, quite honestly, just quiet relief), that can bring into all our lives.

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