What WOW means to me (and is it 2013 yet?)

I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing a bit of a comedown after the three days of non-stop feminist fabulousness that was WOW 2012. When I woke up this morning, I gave serious thought to rocking up to the Southbank Centre in my Wonder Woman t-shirt and acting like it had never ended.

It’s been an intense few days, not least because it included my very first experience being on a panel instead of in the audience. Body Politics: What’s wrong with you? was chaired by the fantastic Catherine Mayer and my fellow panellists were fat activist and academic Corinna Tomrely, fashion designer and boutique owner Jan Asante, journalist Katherine Baldwin and actress and writer Harriet Walter.

Early on in the panel, we were all asked if we were comfortable in our bodies. I’d arrived primed to rave about those extra few pounds I can’t quite shift (because that would require eating less cake, and who wants to do that?), but was surprised to hear the words ‘Um…no, not really’ coming out of my mouth. What we discovered was the sliding scale of body acceptance as we moved up the age range of the panel. By the time we got to Harriet, who is in her 60s, we’d discussed fat positivity, eating disorders and fashion, and she opened by saying “Well, not much IS wrong with me.” If you’ve never heard a room full of women cheering a 60+ woman whose just announced that she’s happy with the way she looks – well, I recommend it. Harriet has very kindly posted her talk on her blog, and it’s well worth a read – as is her book Facing It: Reflections on images of older women.

I started the panel working out how to hold my notes in a way that would disguise my stomach, but I left reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to be attractive, and they have nothing to do with how old you are, or what parts of your body still work in the way they’re ‘supposed’ to. And when I looked in the mirror this morning and saw the first signs of crow’s feet around my eyes, my reaction wasn’t horror – it was excitement.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the chance to share our experiences, both in the Body Politics panel and in Undivided Attention: Having no children or grandchildren. As a confirmed fence-sitter when it comes to either passing on my genetic material or raising someone else’s, it was wonderful to express my fears and ambivalence in a space where my eventual choice would be celebrated rather than questioned.

Possibly the most emotionally-charged part of the festival for me was the speed-mentoring session. 15 minute conversations with four different women, where I bounced ideas around, confessed my deepest desires and most debilitating fears – it was challenging, terrifying and the most uplifting experience I’ve had in a long time. I left bubbling with ideas, full of confidence in my abilities as a writer, and dying to get started on the countless projects on my to-do list.

No celebration of women’s achievements and struggles would be complete without that classic anthem, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I think it might be enshrined in law that when a group of feminists get together to put on a festival, this song has to be played at least once. At WOW, it was the conclusion of Mirth Control: March of the Women 2012. Sandi Toksvig guided the audience on a whirlwind tour of female composers – some relatively well-known, like Clara Schumann and Hildegard von Bingen, and some undeservedly overlooked like Amy Beach. The WOW orchestra – who, to the audience’s amazement, had only met the day before at their first rehearsal – was the largest all-female orchestra in the world, and all 73 of them were amazing. Sue Perkins helped out with the conducting, and Sandi was joined by the ever-hilarious Jo Brand and West End star Sharon D Clarke, whose voice gave me goosebumps. She’s that good. As a theatre critic, I’m all too used to seeing performances like these dominated by men – Mirth Control was a rare treat, but I wish it was a regular occurance.

So that’s it for another year – next year will see the first WOW Brisbane, and there’s talk of performances in both Derry and South Africa. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful Jude Kelly for putting it all together. She spoke about growing up in Liverpool with fantastically supportive parents but few role models when it came to women in the arts. As a teenager in Merseyside in the 1990s she was one of my role models, and ten years on she still is. Thank you Jude, and thanks to all the people who made WOW 2012 possible. I can’t wait for next year.


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