Posted by Kay
We’re three months into 2016, and on the week on International Women’s Day (8th March) we’ve been encouraged to remember those women who are still suffering injustices, and to celebrate those have done, or are doing something about it.
That’s why we thought that we’d ‘upcycle’ this post from 2014 as a remembrance of the importance of encouragement, and of solidarity among women, about community, about finding ‘your people, about belonging.
There is plenty of time for introspection over the Christmas and New Year period, and for me there is yet another yearly milestone to add.
If Christmas and New Year is the bread, ’tis my birthday on the 28th that maketh my holiday sandwich.
Perhaps this is why it was particularly poignant to receive a gift – tucked inside the form of a vintage powder compact- from my 18 (now 20!) year-old writer friend Rosalind Jana.
Received amidst the party flurry of guests arriving and champagne being ordered and drunk, this long note (what I knew would be a hand-on-heart treat) in concertina format was destined to be read with the clarity, calm and sobriety of the next new day.
Having been rescued from a spilt cocktail- not to mention unceremoniously separated from its compact home – the note managed to get to my home in one piece somehow, to dry out (not unlike my poor over-partied body) overnight.
It took a mere fraction of time (considering the thought it had taken Rosalind to create) to absorb and cherish.
But like all things of value, her words will continue to resonate and change shape.
Which brings me to Rosalind’s last sentence which inspired me to write about the importance of ‘celebrators’, the honour and pleasure of celebrating others.
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To have sparked anything akin to a genuine connection, to have forged anything considered a bright direction from a mind as well-lit as Rosalind’s, comes a satisfaction and joy more fulfilling to me than any perceived ‘glory’ of having my name on a magazine cover/red carpet how-to.
For what I am truly in awe of is the talent, fierce intellect and dedication – at such a young age, to the craft of writing; a poster child for ‘being in your world’, as I once heard the great film director Jane Campion say to her daughter Alice as she played guitar on a photo shoot (another ‘celebrator’).
More importantly, however, it is the very reason I have ended up doing covers of magazines and red carpets – because when I was 16, 17 and 18, I had mentors who celebrated me, and placed this (shy and precocious in equal measure) teenager into extraordinary circumstances, and really encouraged me.
Yay. I’ve finally found an excuse to share one of my favourite stories about artists who’ve celebrated other artists.
In 1955 black singers were still not allowed to perform in leading nightclubs and as is often still the case today, it is the counter- culture of the Arts, and in this case Hollywood, that seeks out the underground and the unusual.
Jazz was ‘the thing’ and filmaker/photographer Bert Stern made the unforgettable Jazz On A Summer’s day‘ while his most famous subject, Marilyn Monroe began to immerse herself in the scene in New York, and in particular the music of Ella Fitzgerald.
Marilyn was apparently at a point where she was tired of her helpless sex symbol image. One of her favourite clubs – the Mocambo in Hollywood – refused to book Ella Fitzgerald as a performer because of segregation. Marilyn approached the manager, Charlie Morrison, and promised to sit in the front row for a week if he let Fitzgerald play. Morrison agreed to break the colour bar, knowing that her presence would attract a lot of reporters and publicity for the club.
Soonafter, Ella became the first African-American to perform at the club, and Marilyn kept her promise.
In 2009 American playwright Bonnie Greer had a play that she wrote called ‘Marilyn and Ella’ perform at the Apollo Theatre in London. Greer said of Marilyn, “She knew who her audience were: people who parked cars and flipped hamburgers, housewives and guys who worked in the factories – she called them workers and she was a worker, so her interest in Ella Fitzgerald and helping Ella to break the colour bar was all of a piece.”
Of her celebrator, Ella said “I owe Marilyn a debt”. She went on to become the first black woman to perform at the Copacabana in 1957.
Our society often seems to want to separate us, encouraging the competitive, ‘each man for himself ‘ attitude, which can make us go down the dead-end street of comparing ourselves to others, even rustling up a little useless envy on the way.
No one can be you, and you can’t be someone else.
To bring each other along for the ride is the ultimate honour. Celebrity make-up artist? Nah. I want to be a celebrator.
See Rosalind’s blog here
Follow Rosalind on twitter
Photograph, in film, and printing by Susannah Baker Smith
Rosalind Jana is a freelance writer, sporadic model and Oxford student who at the age of 16 won the Vogue Talent Contest for young writers. She has since written for a range of publications on topics from body image to sustainable fashion and her own experiences of spinal surgery, a theme she agreed to explore further for us here in this post.
I came across Rosalind when reading a brilliant piece on body image for the All Walks for Catwalks site and was struck by her astute observations, the kind that usually take more than a couple of decades of life to realise. Rosalind has had a particularly challenging journey for one so young and we’re touched that she agreed to share her story again.
(ps Rosalind wrote me the most tear-inducing, beautiful poem for my birthday which we featured on our ‘Celebrators’ post here).
Mind, and body
Ask me how I now feel about it and my answer could be one of intense pride and gratitude, or ambivalent gloom. Depends on the day. It’s certainly an improvement though. Several years ago it was more a partnership in which I concertedly tried to pretend that my other half didn’t exist. This other half was less visible in the mirror, the worst parts hidden beyond the reach of reflections. But it wasn’t something separate from me. Quite the opposite. It was as integral as it gets – my spine. The central core holding up my skeleton had contorted itself into a wonky ‘S’ shape and been diagnosed as scoliosis.
My curvature was labeled ‘idiopathic’, meaning cause unknown. It’s one of those things that, until someone discovers how it’s triggered, will continue to be a condition that ‘just happens’ to an unfortunate few. As a female adolescent I was in the group most likely to be affected. Although up to 10% of the population are thought to have it, most cases are slight – the vertebrae a little skewed, but hardly noticeable. I was one of the minority where the spine doesn’t just tilt, but twist until it’s both easily seen and always hurting.
It was discovered on a wintery evening when I was fourteen and a half. I was wearing a white vintage blouse. My mum tugged at it, thinking the fabric had bunched on the lower left part of my torso. The thick chiffon moved but the lump didn’t. It was under the skin. Immediate thoughts were of tumours, or something similarly terrifying. Thus when appointments had been made and doctors seen, the initial label of scoliosis seemed almost a relief, a collective sigh of “thank god it’s not worse.” However, my first x-ray showed a spine bent to 56 degrees. This should have caused more alarm than it did at the orthopedic hospital I’d been referred to. Most healthcare professionals suggest operating on anything above 45 degrees. Yet I was told by my consultant to go away, “live your life” and return for the occasional check up. Six months and a growth spurt later and it had increased to 80 degrees.
Those are the medical facts. But it wasn’t merely a matter of numbers. Scoliosis affects the whole torso, in my case leading to everything from a rib cage pushed into unnatural prominence to a lopsided pelvis with one hip higher than the other. My shoulders were unbalanced, the right one sticking outwards like the stub of a wing while the left folded inwards. Outlines could be seen where they shouldn’t be. All the while the deep aches and stabs of pain increased, sometimes flashing like lightning – sparking tears.
To go from being a shy, skinny girl to having an appearance approved of by the fashion industry to having one unusual to even the most non-judgmental eye was hard. It was a quick, bewildering trajectory.
Puberty and scoliosis hit at almost exactly the same time, meaning I had to deal with an additional set of curves unknown to most. I tried my best to hide from what was happening, tetchy if it was mentioned by parents – yet over-sensitively aware at school of how I was perceived. I felt that it was weak to ask for help. I struggled, miserable in my uniform, miserable in the figure beneath the cheap sweatshirt.
I had surgery in October 2010. I won’t dwell here on recovery (I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, including in Vogue UK) other than to say that it was short-term agony and debilitation for life-long gain. I grew two and a half inches in height and lost two months from my school year. I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to live in a time and place where this operation is available. My life (and body) would be looking very different without it.
Now when I’m describing all of this in a hurry, I’ll say that when I was was fifteen I had scoliosis. That’s the easiest way to start the story – in the past tense. To remove myself from the experience, look back from a distance.
Several years on it’s perhaps the only way to approach it. But to say that I ‘had’ scoliosis suggests a complete narrative that’s over and done with, now encased in the glass of memory like a museum exhibit.
The truth is that I still ‘have’ scoliosis. Surgery doesn’t cure it, but rectify the worst of the damage. My curve, fused solid, has been reduced to 22 degrees – enthroned by metal rods, screws and bolts.
It still hurts at times, both physically and emotionally.
I wear it with pride, showing it off in backless dresses. I’ve also, inspired by Frida Kahlo (and Alexander McQueen and Elsa Schiaparelli), used my back for various artistic projects from photography to clothing to framing my scar with faux pearls (right) a la Chanel SS12.
Yet there are elements I’m less fond of. I can celebrate skin, but the bone beneath is more problematic. There are the traces left behind: the shoulder blade that curves out like a crease in a sheet of paper that should be smooth, deep-seated throbbing caused by heavy bags and books, the ribs still prominent enough to disrupt my waistline, the strange patches of numbness and oversensitivity surrounding the line the surgeon sliced to reach my spine. In order to scrape muscle from bone, nerves were severed. Some are still re-attaching themselves. Others were disconnected permanently.
The skin between my shoulders has been de-familiarized, made strange. Numbness serves to separate me from a body otherwise functioning without thought.
I cannot imagine a version of my past that did not include surgery, and yet I can wonder. I am forever thankful for a body that works, that allows me to move and walk and dance for hours – but, every now and then, wish that I had a perfectly symmetrical set of shoulders. I appreciate the aesthetics of unbalanced and irregular shapes, can look back on my pre-surgery figure with an awed fascination, yet still recall how vulnerable and brittle I felt whilst inhabiting it. Contradictions and complexities are inevitable. It was one of the most formative things to happen to me.
See Rosalind’s blog
Follow Rosalind on twitter
Rosalind is currently working on her debut book.
Look out for Rosalind in the 1st issue of Violet magazine (Lula founder Leith Clark‘s new magazine-that I’m the beauty editor of) in a set of portraits of ‘liberated ladies’.