Frida Kahlo and the politics of disability

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Necklace

Self-Portrait with Necklace – Frida Kahlo 1933       © 2018 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

Recently, I visited the “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This exhibition comes as a result of a small treasure trove of Frida’s belongings and photographs being opened to the public fifty years after her death, in 2004.

I had seen plenty of press coverage of this exhibition, and what stuck out for me, as a disabled woman, was that here was an exhibition which spoke fearlessly about disability, something which is rare in the art and exhibition world.

Frida Kahlo contracted polio at the age of six, which left her with one leg shorter than the other, giving her a pronounced limp. Then, when she was eighteen, she was involved in a serious bus crash, which left her with multiple serious injuries, in particular to her spine, and made her infertile.

As a result of this accident, she was forced to spend many years of accumulated time during the course of her life lying immobilised in bed. Her family decided to put a mirror above her bed and create an apparatus which allowed her to paint, and the world is a better place for the surrealist, deeply personal art she produced. She painted herself into many of her paintings, and part of their beauty is that you can see her suffering and her determination painted into them.

Not only was Frida a disabled woman, she was also a woman of colour, a Mexican nationalist who was proud of her Mexican and Indian heritage (through her mother’s side) which gave her the striking looks you can see in the portrait above, with the large connected eyebrows and the facial hair. This intersectionality, I believe, caused Frida to develop a pragmatic attitude to her painting and her appearance. Like many disabled people, she wanted to present a “healthy” and strong front to the world, and her ethnicity led her to choose to present herself as a proud Mexican woman, wearing the traditional Mexican clothing of her era, and always having flowers woven into her hair.

One of my friends, Naomi Young, wrote a blog post after her visit to the exhibition. She found the whole thing prurient and voyeuristic; finding that looking at Frida’s painted plaster casts (Frida spent many months of her life in full body casts) and prosthetics made her feel like she was intruding into an aspect of Frida’s life which the artist herself chose to keep hidden from view. I see her point, but as a disabled woman, I do not entirely agree.

I suffer from a condition called fibromyalgia. I am not going to explain my symptoms here, but my disability is hidden (there are no outward physical signs that I am unwell) and I spend a lot of my time putting on that “healthy” front to the world, just as Frida did. I also refuse to allow my disability to stop me living my life, just as Frida did.

The problem with doing this, however, is that most people don’t know that I am suffering, and even some of my close family and friends don’t see how much I struggle on a daily basis. They ask me how I am and I say “I’m fine, thank you”, but very few actually see past this and ask “No, how are you really?”

Many people with chronic disabilities such as Frida and myself are forced to spend large parts of our lives hidden away at home because we are too sick or immobilised (as in Frida’s case) to go out. This can lead to feeling isolated, lonely and invisible.

In 2016, in London, there was a protest called “Millions Missing”, where hundreds of pairs of shoes were placed on the pavement, with labels naming their owners. This was a protest to highlight the many people who suffer from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) or chronic fatigue syndrome and who are so badly bed-bound that they are simply missing from society.

Going and seeing this exhibition, I hope, will give people a better realisation of what those of us, like Frida, who must hide our disabilities, go through on a daily basis, and I also hope that people will come away with more sympathy towards disabled people. Hate crimes against disabled people have risen considerably over the past few years, and exhibitions like this help to take away the stigma around disability.

Frida Kahlo wrote: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone.” Most of all, this exhibition helps me (and many like me) feel less alone.




Posted in Activism, Body Image, Disability, Health, LGBT, Mental Health, My Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cutting Loose from plastic reliance

I have been asked to write occasional blog posts on behalf of Transition Stroud, a group which aims to make the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, where I live, as green and carbon-neutral as possible.

My first piece is about “Loose”, a new and groundbreaking shop which has opened in Gloucester Street, Stroud to sell food and other goods completely free from plastic or plastic packaging.

There is a revolution happening around the world right now, inspired by horrific reports on the news, posts on social media and television programmes such as Blue Planet II, to begin to rid the world of plastic, and in particular single-use plastic.

We have been horrified by reports of baby sea-birds dying of malnutrition, because their stomachs are full of brightly-coloured bits of plastic which their parents picked up, believing them to be the similarly brightly-coloured fish and other sea creatures which their babies feed on; and others of large floating islands of plastic waste way out at sea, sea creatures caught in discarded six-pack rings, rivers choking with our discarded plastic waste…and the list goes on and on.

One Stroud resident, Julie Brown, had the idea that she (and by extension, the people of Stroud) could make a difference, so she set up a plastic-free shop in Stroud.

Loose, situated at 25 Gloucester Street, has gone from strength to strength since it opened back in April, selling a large and ever-growing list of plastic-free groceries and other items, including plenty of dried goods such as pasta, rice, nuts and even popping corn, alongside other innovative products like toilet rolls from Who Gives a Crap, which come wrapped in paper, and a local range of cosmetics which come in cardboard packaging. Click on the link here to see the full list, which is updated regularly. As much as possible of their produce is organic and Julie and her friendly staff are more than happy to talk to you about where she has sourced her products.

At first, Loose was run on a self-service model, meaning customers came in with their containers, filled them up with what they wanted, and took them to the till. However, as Julie explains:

“In this tiny space, it just wasn’t working. It was chaotic. I don’t think the customers even liked it.”

This is when her friend Tom Gillett, who runs Stroud Cook Club had the brilliant idea (and provided the physical manpower) to change the shop around and allow Julie and her staff to serve the customers with their goods instead. This has made the shop a lovely place to be in. It reminds me strongly of visiting the old-fashioned high street grocer as a child, with produce being weighed out by hand and then put into paper bags or your own container.

And Julie doesn’t balk at customers bringing in plastic bags or other plastic containers either. As long as they are being re-used or re-purposed, the more the merrier. When I was in there, one lady took her rice away in an old plastic bread bag, while I was using some old plastic ice-cream boxes.

The response in Stroud has been great, according to Julie:

“I jokingly said to someone recently, that if all that comes out of this is the people that I’ve met, then it will be worth it for that alone! I’ve met really lovely, enthusiastic, supportive people. I can’t say there hasn’t been any negativity, because that wouldn’t be realistic, but mostly really positive.”

As far as traffic through the shop is concerned, however, progress has been slow. When Julie first set up the Facebook page (before the shop even opened) there was an incredible buzz created, with over 6000 views and loads of “likes” and “shares”. But, sadly, this doesn’t seem to have translated into many actual customers.

“It’s very early days, and I don’t know what a realistic expectation is,” says Julie, “I have about ten regulars now, for whom it’s part of their shopping routine.”

And this is the crux of the problem: people need to get it into their shopping routine. If we want to make the changes that will pull us back from our current reliance on plastic, they are not going to be convenient. We’ve been seduced by the convenience of single-use plastic, and we need to break the habit.

Meanwhile, Julie has big plans for the shop:

“The more we sell, the more we can stock, and the cheaper we can sell it. People have asked me for herbs and spices, different oils and vinegars and all sorts of other things, but until I’m shifting more stock, I can’t afford to buy new items.”

Once Loose can get the customers it deserves, our community will have access to really affordable, organic food and other staple goods and not a piece of plastic shrink-wrap or a six-pack ring in sight.

So come on, people of Stroud, let’s get behind this great little business and help it grow. Our town and our planet will thank us.

Posted in Climate Change, Natural Disasters, Reducing food waste, Reducing plastic waste, The Planet, The Universe, Transition Stroud | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A genderless future


The other day, a friend posted the above video on her Facebook timeline, with a comment which was not positive. After some comment discussion, it turned out she felt that male and female identities were being eroded by the steady drip of non-binary narrative, which she saw as promoting non-binary identity and denigrating binary gender identities.

I can understand this feeling. Asia Kate Dillon (the non-binary performance artist who appears in the above video), in their insistence that the Emmy awarding body come up with a gender neutral award category for their award for their non-binary part in “Billions”, seems to be being hostile and nit-picking.

However, in my reading about non-binary identities and non-binary people this is far from the truth about their campaign for recognition. Think about it this way – for many years, bisexual people have fought for a true identity which does not label them according to the gender of their current partner. This has been a long and difficult struggle but, slowly, bisexuality is coming out of the shadows, shrugging off prejudice and making its voice heard.

The same goes for non-binary people. They identify with both genders, or neither. Labelling them according to appearance or genitalia makes them feel as if they are not fully themselves. Just as a pre- or non-operative transsexual woman feels she is a woman despite her male genitalia, a non-binary person feels that they are neither gender completely, and so are increasingly refusing to be categorised as one or the other.

However, here we do come upon a stumbling block, in my opinion. If non-binary people can persuade awarding bodies, be that the Emmys, Oscars, Olympics etc to become gender neutral, then we hit the thick glass wall which is misogyny. Don’t we just know that if there was a “Best performance in a leading role” category, instead of “Best Actor” or “Best Actress” it would mostly be won by straight, male actors? After all, white, straight men make up the majority of all awarding bodies; and they make up the majority of actors too.

I would love to see the day when athletes are chosen according to their size, strength etc, rather than their gender identity. I would love to see gender-blind categories at awards ceremonies. However, until we as a society become more equal and accepting (and here I am talking about gender, sexuality, race and really anything else that’s different from the straight, white norm); until we are prepared to educate ourselves when we encounter something we don’t like or understand, instead of instinctively reacting defensively and angrily, then I don’t think we’ll ever get there.

All we can do is keep fighting and educating as best we can, and continue to dream big.

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Living with an invisible disability

I read a letter in our local paper recently, in which someone was complaining about what he called the “misuse” of the disabled Blue Badge parking scheme. He claimed to have seen many people, with Blue Badges, park in our local disabled car parking spaces then “leap out” of their cars and “stride” into town.

Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that there are some people who misuse Blue Badges. Someone might be a carer or relative of a Blue Badge user and use it occasionally to make parking easier (this is a criminal offence – I think some people are not aware of this fact). There will also be some people who are such good actors that they’ve been able to pull the wool over the Blue Badge assessors’ eyes, or whose condition has improved since they obtained their Blue Badge. The former reason is less likely, in my opinion, as I have attempted to get a Blue Badge and believe me the assessors are harsh. I didn’t get one.

However, there will be even more people who have a hidden disability. If you saw me get out of a car and walk away, you would not for one moment think I had mobility problems, particularly on a good day. You can not see the pain I have to ignore to get up and walk. You don’t know that I can only walk a relatively short distance before I need to rest or stop. I don’t use a stick or crutches. I don’t use a wheelchair. In order to lessen my pain, I have to walk fairly quickly, as walking slowly is agonising. Perversely, not walking is worse for my general pain levels, so I will often walk despite my pain because, in the long run, it helps.

Over the years, I have come across a lot of “disable-ist” thinking. One of my former clients, on being told I had a disability, was shocked when I turned up to our first meeting without a wheelchair. For him, disabled meant wheelchair-bound. I often describe myself as disabled and get looked up and down with disbelief. And I know there are thousands of people like me out there, living life with pain, deafness, mental health problems, learning difficulties, head injuries…the list goes on and on.

For me, one of the most disabling aspects of my conditions (which are chronic pain in my back, legs, shoulders and neck plus a mild form of cerebral palsy) is the fatigue. People who are not living life with a chronic illness can not understand the amount of energy it requires to get around each day. At the moment, because my neck and shoulder pain has flared up over the last nine months or so, I am so tired by the energy needed to get up and get dressed that I have to go back to bed for an hour afterwards. This lack of energy has been brilliantly explained by something called The Spoon Theory , which was written by a woman in the USA who is living with chronic illness. I would recommend that everyone reads this theory, as it explains so well the way chronic illness affects your energy levels and how those of us who live with this have to plan, prioritise and pace everything we do. On the excellent Pain Management course I attended some years ago, these were referred to as the three “Ps” , and they rule my life.

For example, tomorrow I have work in the morning (I can only manage three hours a day each weekday or my body lets me know!) then I am meeting a friend for lunch. I will then have the recorder group I run come round to my house in the evening for a vital rehearsal before a performance this weekend. I try not to let my disabilities stop me from enjoying my life, so in come the three “Ps”.

I have made sure that I have nothing to do this afternoon or evening. I will probably go for a walk, but other than that I will do restful things, such as napping, colouring (which really helps me destress), reading and watching TV. I may well go to bed early. Tomorrow, I will probably limit my work to two hours (I work from home, so can be flexible). I will then go out with my friend. This is always good for my mental health, but exhausts me physically, so I will come home and sleep for at least an hour. I will then chill out (as above) until my recorder group arrive, another activity which I love to do, but which exhausts me physically. Once they leave (around 8pm) I will probably go to bed. If you read this last paragraph back, you can hopefully see that I have used the three “Ps” as effectively as possible, leaving room for the other thing which I learned at Pain Management, which is that “some things are worth it”. I will be more tired on Wednesday, but seeing my friend and running my recorder group will be so good for me personally that it will be worth it.

Every day of my life has to be planned this meticulously, every activity I add to my diary carefully weighed against any other activities I have that day/week. Sometimes, I have to cancel things I wanted to do because I have things I have to do, and I can’t do both. Then there are the days when I wake up so tired or in so much pain that no activity is possible, making me an unreliable friend and meaning I may have to cancel some other things later in the week to allow me to fit in essential activities (such as work) that I am not able to do that day.

S0, next time you see someone with a Blue Badge get out of their car and walk normally into town, don’t assume they are swinging the lead. They may well be living with an invisible chronic illness which means they really need that badge. In this time of increasing polarisation and a “them and us” mentality, please think before you judge.


Posted in Activism, Disability, Education, Health, My Life, welfare | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

So. You want me to be happy?

On Friday morning, I was given notice that my EU citizenship will be taken away. The house in the sun – the one that I planned to retire to – is no longer for sale. My 2-year-old son wi…

Source: So. You want me to be happy?

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Being self-employed: what I have learned

Exactly a year ago yesterday, I qualified as a bookkeeper. Since then, I have been busy setting up my practice and running my own business, hence no posts on this blog for almost a year. I thought I’d share with you what I have learned so far.

  • Being self-employed is hard

Having to discipline myself into a daily routine has been one of the hardest things about being self-employed. For various reasons, I had not worked for some years before I set up my business, so I didn’t exactly have a daily “routine”. Now, I work for three hours every weekday morning and to begin with I found this so tiring I could barely do anything for the rest of the day. Partly, this had to do with my chronic illness, but mostly I think it was just having to concentrate so hard for three hours straight every day was difficult for my brain to adjust to. It’s amazing how quickly you learn to fit everything else around work.

If you’re self-employed the buck stops with you. You can determine your own hours, but if a client needs to see/call you outside those hours, you need to accommodate them, as there is no one else to do that for you. I’ve had evening meetings and phone calls, I often answer calls outside my work hours, and I’m often thinking and talking about work outside those hours too. It’s all consuming.

However, it’s not all bad. I can plan around my work hours, change them if I need to, go away when I want to (as long as I take work into account). The money I earn goes straight into my own business bank account, with no need to fiddle about with job sheets or payslips. I can work from home, and I am my own boss. I like that a lot.

  • Every client works differently

…and it’s my job to make sure I work with them. This means not imposing my working practices on them, but fitting around theirs. This has been one of the most valuable lessons I have learned. Some of my clients use the software I use, but some want to use the software they are used to, and I’m happy with that now. It took me a while to let go.

Some of my clients are highly organised and have all their paperwork sorted out and ready for me. Others just thrust an envelope full of crumpled receipts and invoices into my hands and run away. I’ve even processed one invoice which looked as though it had been being eaten by mice!

Now for a big lesson I’ve learned just this week – some of my clients don’t really need me. I have a client who was shocked by my first bill (I don’t charge much, but my clients do pay for my expertise) and asked me yesterday if there was any way they could input their own books and just have me check everything over at the end of the year. I’ve had to learn that sometimes less is more. I will be going over to teach this client how to use the software next week. However, this does free some time up for me to take on the potential new client who rang me yesterday.

  • Advertisers are a pain, and it’s easy to get conned

Advertisers will ring you constantly. I must get at least five or six calls a day, and it would be more if I actually answered them. I’ve had to change my voicemail message to explain that I don’t answer calls from unknown numbers or numbers I don’t recognise. They never leave a message.

However, when I was just starting out and needed to advertise, I had no choice but to answer their calls and I got myself embroiled in an elaborate scam which ended up costing me hundreds of pounds.

The first call I got seemed genuine enough. The amiable man on the other end of the line told me they produced a magazine for the emergency services, many of whom ran their own businesses on the side and might well need a bookkeeper. He told me that I would be the only bookkeeper to advertise in the magazine, which would go out quarterly for a year, and quoted me a very reasonable price. So I paid.

What I know now: when they tell you you’ll be the only one in your trade to be advertised in the magazine, then that is a hallmark of these types of scam.

About a week later, I got a call from someone from another publishing company all together claiming that I had agreed to take out an advert in “Fire Prevention” magazine. He was so convincing that I assumed I had agreed to this in my original phone call and I paid him too. This is the point at which alarm bells started to ring. I immediately rang my bank and cancelled the payment.

Within a couple of days, he was back again. I told him I thought he was scamming me and he acted completely horrified. Again, he was amazingly convincing. He said he would send me a copy of one of their magazines to reassure me.

What I know now: it costs next to nothing for them to print a mock-up magazine and send it to you, often including your “advert”. 

When I received the magazine, I assumed it was genuine and I paid him again.

A week later, yet another publishing company called me, claiming that I had agreed to take out an advert in “Crime Prevention” magazine. I protested, but the caller then became so abusive and threatening (court action, bailiffs etc) that I panicked and used my own personal credit card to pay him.

Now, I knew I’d been had. I contacted the credit card company straight away and stopped answering numbers I didn’t recognise on my phone. They tried to call me six times in one morning, then several times a day, and then eventually it stopped.

I recently got the money back from my credit card company, but the rest is lost.

These people are the lowest of the low. I have reported the whole scam (as I believe all three were linked) to Action Fraud, who are investigating my case. Recently, three men were jailed for an almost identical scam.

And lastly:

  • Use the internet and local business groups for support

Being self-employed can be very lonely. I don’t meet other bookkeepers very often. However, my awarding body, the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers, runs an excellent website with forums and numbers you can ring for advice and support. The forums in particular have proved themselves invaluable when I’ve encountered problems I’m not sure how to solve.

The ICB also have a network of local branches. It’s a struggle for me to get to branch meetings because I’m unable to drive due to my long term health condition, but the branch chair and vice-chair have worked incredibly hard to accommodate me, and I will be going to my first branch meeting this month. I’m really looking forward to getting advice and support from fellow ICB members and also to listening to the excellent speakers they have lined up.

So, there is what I have learned so far. I’m sure the learning will continue as I become more established. I hope what I’ve written here might help other self-employed people not to fall into the advertising trap I got caught in, and reassure them that we’re all experiencing the same challenges.

Posted in Advertising, My Life, Self-employment, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why women must vote

Last night, I finally watched the last part of an excellent BBC2 documentary series that was on a few months ago called Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re about to have a General Election in the UK, so the story of women’s struggle to gain their electoral rights and loosen the male establishment’s grip on power was even more inspiring.

Many women are bored of hearing the same old line: women must vote because suffragettes died for their right to do so. But it was so much more than that. Women were beaten with whips, raped, force fed and trampled to death. Men were so afraid and angry about the suffrage movement and women gaining power that they were prepared to go against all modern standards of respect for the “fairer sex” at the time and would physically attack with abandon. If that doesn’t make you angry enough to get out there and exercise the right which they fought so hard for, then I don’t know what will.

Or perhaps I do. The thing that struck me most about the last part of Suffragettes Forever! was that it looked at how much power women have now, in Britain today, and how that power still brings out the worst in some men. In 2013, campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and the MP Stella Creasy campaigned for the Bank of England to put at least one woman on the back of the newly-designed bank notes, which were planned to only feature men. Their campaign was successful, and Jane Austen will grace the back of our £5 notes in the near future. However, it was what happened afterwards that was shocking and shows how men still fear women with power. Both women received hundreds of rape and death threats from anonymous trolls on Twitter. Stella Creasy, when interviewed for the documentary, detailed some of the sexism and misogyny she’s had to endure as a female MP too.

And not that much has changed as far as the balance of power goes, either. We may have had a female Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, but she felt she had to surround herself with men in order to be taken seriously. In her 11 years in office, only one other woman held a position in her cabinet. There were only five women in David Cameron’s most recent cabinet. If you look at photos of British cabinets since 1990, there are so few female faces as to be, frankly, insulting. Even Tony Blair’s first cabinet, which featured more female politicians than ever before, was immediately ridiculed in the press, with these well-respected, intelligent women reduced to being called “Blair’s babes”. Another huge insult.

So this is my call to British women during this important last week of the election campaign. You must vote. Vote for your sisters who fought and died to gain your right to vote. Vote for women all over the world who still don’t have the right to vote. Vote because the balance of power is not shifting fast enough. Vote because men still threaten powerful women. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, but please, for women everywhere, vote.

Posted in Activism, Feminism, General Election 2015, Suffrage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment