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You are 5
You are at your aunt’s house. You are wearing a gingham summer dress. Your relatives eat a buffet of sandwiches, scones, and cake. Your step-uncle asks you to sit on his knee. You do as he asks. You have what your mum calls “ants in your pants” and squirm a lot. He tells you to do it again and again. You think it’s a game.
You are 9
You are on a bike ride with your friend. You are wearing a spotty top and a denim skirt. You eat potted meat sandwiches by a stream. The sun warms your back. A man walks by. He’s wearing walking boots and carries a professional camera. He talks to you, says he has children of his own. He works with children, too. He has the key to a local wildlife sanctuary. You and your friend go with him to see it. He shows you a monarch butterfly and how to suck nectar from honeysuckle. He asks you what you want to be when you grow up. You say an actress. He says he will take pictures of you posing. Your friend doesn’t want to play – she sits on the grass and picks daisies – but you like the attention. He suggests you pretend to faint like an actress on the stage. You oblige and, with your small squidgy hand pressed onto your forehead, swoon to the ground. Your skirt bunches up as you lie there pretending to play dead. He takes many photos from lots of angles. When you tell your mother, she doesn’t allow you to go on bike rides anymore.
You are 12
Your father’s friend, who your older sister calls “handsy”, drops by your house for a cup of tea. You are wearing a pink summer dress with capped sleeves and a drop waist. You are in the kitchen making fizzy orange in the SodaStream, using Robinsons squash. While your father talks on the phone his friend asks how school is. You say you are off for the holidays. He nods then asks if you have a boyfriend. You say no. He nods then asks you when you’ll be getting a bra because he can see breasts forming under your dress. Afterwards, you only wear baggy jumpers.
You are 14
You have a Sunday job at a newsagent. You are wearing a black t-shirt and a black knee-length skirt. You are straightening the Smash Hits on the lowest shelf of the magazine stand. A man, a very old man he seems to you, comes in. He always wears a long dark frock coat and a trilby, and walks with a cane. You feel a jab between your legs. You look behind you and see that the old man has used his walking stick to lift your skirt. “What the fuck are you doing?” you say. Your boss walks over and asks why you swore at a customer. “This dirty old man just stuck his cane up my skirt,” you say. You are shaking. “Talk like that to a customer again and you’re out,” your boss says. “And I’ll be telling your dad.”
The old man comes in every week. His gnarled fingers linger on your palm as he hands you coins for soft porn magazines. When your boss is at the football you take Hustler and Playboy from the top shelf and tear out random pages.
You are 15
You have a job washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant. Your uniform is jeans, a white t-shirt, and an apron. You work from 5.30 PM to 11 PM every Friday washing hundreds of plates, platters, and glasses, elbow-deep in greasy water. You share the kitchen with three Cantonese chefs. They have posters of Page 3 girls on the wall. They call you Big Tits – cup their hands in front of their chests to weigh your imaginary breasts. If you don’t laugh along they do it more, so you laugh along.
A server, who is 18, flirts with you. When you say you don’t want to go out with him he calls you a slag. You scoop up dirty dishwater and fling it at him, splattering him with cold strands of noodles and red pepper chunks. He raises his fist to you. His sister, who is also a server, comes in and defends you. She tells you her brother is a creep and explains what happened to the manager. You get fired. On your way out you block the staff toilet with two rolls of pink loo roll.
You are 16
Your mother has died. You spend most of your time at your best friend’s house. You go to an indie club in a city 20 miles away, with two boys who are 18 and 19. Your friend fancies one of them. You are wearing a black jumper dress, thick tights and Doc Martens. You buy cheap cocktails with jelly worm stirrers. You mosh with your friend while the two boys sit in the dark and smoke. You go back to the house of the boy your friend fancies. They go to his bedroom. His parents are asleep upstairs. You are left in the sitting room with the 19-year-old. He has ignored you for most of the evening. He tries to kiss you and puts his hand in your knickers. You say no. He cajoles. “No,” you say again. “Why did I have to end up with the frigid one,” he says. You start to cry. “Oh, for God’s sake, shut up,” he mutters, and he lies down on the sofa and goes to sleep. You hide his shoes while he dozes.
You are 17
You are recovering from an overdose. Your friend suggests you take a holiday with her and three boys from school. Your school friends don’t talk about what you did – they call it “your hospital stay.” You bus it from the north of England to the south of France. You stay in a static caravan near St. Tropez. Your daily budget allows for cheese, baguettes, and cheap wine but, on the last day, you and your friend go to a cafe for lunch. You are wearing pale blue Capri pants and a black strappy top. After you’ve paid the bill you go upstairs to use the toilet. The bathroom is very small. You hear someone come in. As you open the door to leave the cubicle you see the chef from the restaurant. He’s wearing dirty chef whites, which he has moved to one side. He’s wanking. He takes your arm and moves your hand towards his penis. He talks French to you in a soothing voice that almost calms you. You push him away. You run down the stairs. You don’t tell the others in case they think you’re being dramatic. Back at the caravan you check the Collins Pocket Dictionary and learn the French words for “rape” and “help.”
You are 18
You are living in halls of residence. You have become friends with a guy from Dublin. He’s five years older than you. He fancies you but you aren’t attracted to him. One night you and your friends get high. You begin to dare each other. Someone challenges you to get in a bath of cold water fully clothed. You do. You are wearing black leggings and a tie-dye dress. Your friend from Dublin strips off and gets in the bath opposite you. His stares at you as his penis floats in the water. He was not given a dare. The next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, you and your friends blank him.
You are 19
You are at the Ministry of Sound with friends. You have lived in London for nine months. A friend is DJ’ing so you get access to the VIP room. You are wearing black hot pants, black tights, and a see-through black top with a black bra. An older man comes to talk to you. You recognise him from the TV. He’s the better looking one of a comedy duo. You have fancied him since you were 14. You can’t believe he’s singled you out. You get off with him. He tells you he’s 31. You’re not sure why he wants to hang out with someone as young as you. You tell him you’re at university. He says that’s not a problem. He asks if you like S&M and invites you back to his place. Your friends tell you not to go. But you’re star-struck, so you give him your number. He calls your house seven times – each time your flatmates say you’re out.
You are 24
You have the lead part in a play for a local theatre company. You play a prostitute who finds meaning by taking ecstasy. The director suggests you and his girlfriend, who also has a part, role-play in his bed. She is playing your alter ego. He suggests you kiss as he watches and directs you.
The play opens. One night backstage the actor playing your boyfriend pulls down your sparkly boob tube before you go on stage. He does this every night for the rest of the run. When you ask him not to he says it’s his character. You quit acting and find a job in a charity.
You are 25
You are on a Routemaster on your way to work. You are wearing smart black skirt and a pink sweater. You sit up top. Four teenage boys get on the bus. Two sit behind you, two sit in front. Their clothes and faces are unwashed. You keep your head down and read a book. They start to taunt you. They prod you and pull your hair. One says he’s going to wait until you get off the bus then pin you down and rape you. The others agree. We will all rape you, they say. When you tell him them to fuck off one of the boys spits in your hair. No one on the bus helps you. You get up and one of the boys puts his hands up your skirt and tries to put his finger between your legs. You run down to tell the bus driver. He stops the bus and calls the police. Other commuters complain that they’ll be late for work. The boys use the emergency button to open the doors. They laugh at you as they saunter off. The police come and take you to the police station. An older policeman takes your statement. He is attentive but you don’t like it when he puts his hand on your thigh to comfort you.
The next time you see a woman being hassled by a man you step in. “Just fucking leave her alone, OK” is usually enough, although your heart hurts from beating so hard afterwards.
You are 26
You go on a last-minute package holiday to Crete with a close friend. It’s a cheap deal. ln Agios Nikolaos you share a room overlooking a kidney-shaped pool. You spend the days sunbathing and sightseeing. One evening you go to a local club. You are wearing a maroon top with spaghetti straps and a ruched knee-length skirt. You both get a lot of attention, which you both ignore. At 2 AM, you walk back. You are happy and drunk. As you get to your apartment you hear a man say something in Greek. You turn around. He is a similar age as you and your friend. He is good-looking. His jeans are open and he holds his large erect cock in his hand. He smiles as he strokes it. You and your friend scream and run inside. You sit with your backs against the door listening to him come. Afterwards, it’s quiet. You realise, then, that you have left the keys in the lock. You play Rock Paper Scissors. Your friend loses so she has to open the door to retrieve the keys.
You are 29
You have been dumped. You are not in love but as you near your 30th birthday you are afraid of being alone. The fear makes you cling. You ask him to come over and beg him to give it another go. You are wearing a dark blue skater dress. He seems to waiver, and you sleep together. Afterwards he kisses you. You say, “So we’re back together?” He gets out of bed and, as he puts on his socks, says, “I thought that was a goodbye fuck.” You vow never to beg a man again.
You are 38
You have had a child. It was a difficult birth. You go to the hospital. You are wearing jeans and a woolly jumper. The consultant offers to insert a mesh into your vagina. You say you don’t trust the mesh, that hundreds of women are suing the company that made them. He tells you not to believe everything you read in the Daily Mail. You tell him you don’t read the Daily Mail. He becomes irritable and says you will be costing the NHS money if you opt for traditional surgery. He offers another procedure and you say yes. He injects a bulking agent into the wall of your urethra. It hurts and you yelp. He tells you to calm down. Afterwards, you can’t leave the hospital until you can urinate. You can’t go and the pressure builds. You are in agony so you ask for a catheter to relieve the pain. He says a catheter is so rarely required that he doesn’t believe you need one. You speak to a nurse – she overrules him and organises one for you. The relief is overwhelming. You send the nurse a thank you card.
You are 42
You meet your former mentor for lunch. You are wearing a long-sleeved, mid-length shirt dress with a belt. You both eat steak frites and drink red wine. You are talking so much you are the last to leave the restaurant. Afterwards, you go to a pub and drink more red wine. You like having someone to talk to about books and philosophy. When you get up to leave, you hug. You tell him that you don’t know what you would have done without him. He jokes you should come to his hotel room and finish what you started. You laugh it off and blame the strong painkillers he’s taking for his back. You don’t speak to your mentor again.
You are 45
You have been married for 12 years to a man who loves and respects you. Sometimes you wear sweatpants, sometimes jeans, sometimes shorts, sometimes dresses. If you don’t want sex he accepts this. You have a young son you both explain equality and consent to. He gets angry when other boys pull girls’ dresses up in the playground. You are glad he gets angry. Your father dies and you grieve for him most days. He made you feel loved and protected. His hugs were fatherly. Your male friends treat you like a friend. You see yourself as one of the lucky ones.