Archive for June, 2006

Bat For Lashes, London Luminaire

June 11, 2006

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‘Drink his blood and he’s our leader,’ sings Natasha Khan, luring the audience into her twilight dream world of horses, bears and moonflies. The Brighton-based singersongwriter has been compared to Cat Power, Bjork and Kate Bush, and has been stirring musical passions for the last 18 months. Following a triumphant gig with Devendra Banhart at All Tomorrow’s Parties in May, tonight she plays her first London headline gig. Accompanying herself on keyboard – sometimes a harpsichord, sometimes a plinky-plonk piano – she is joined by Abi Fry on viola and Ginger Lee on a mint-green bass. Khan whispers, beginning sweet and soft, then rages, singing of two lovers who have committed suicide in their car. Her voice soars across a fantastic range from angelic trill to deep purr. She casts her fairytale wanderings within a sphere of magical noises resulting in a darkly glittering soundscape. ‘I need some howls on this one because it’s about a forest over a sea,’ Khan instructs, and the room dutifully impersonates a forest of wolves. Some bouncy numbers would have cast welcome rays of light across the darkness but Khan has a mystical magic that’s distinctly her own.

Taken from The Observer Review, Page 19

Turkish Baths are good for the soul

June 10, 2006


Illustration: Amelia Johnstone

Does my bum look big in this? Do I look fat? No matter how many times we are reassured about our weight, we worry. Perfectly healthy women are brainwashed into thinking they’re fat, and three per cent of women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Nowhere was the worry worse than in the communal showers at school, where you longed to cover up your body, and where bullying reached its highest pitch. But in the influential feminist book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that women need to be around naked women in order to accept their bodies: “The fastest way to demystify the naked Iron Maiden is to promote retreats, festivals and excursions that include – whether in swimming or sunning or Turkish baths or random relaxation – communal nakedness.”

I think about her advice, swallow my reservations, and head to the Turkish baths at Ironmonger Row, Islington. When I walk into the changing room-cum-rest area I see about 20 women of all shapes, ages and nationalities lounging on beds. They are mainly in groups of two and three, but some are on their own. Most are completely naked, some wear swimming costumes, and others clutch at unravelling towels. A young Korean girl sits on a bed and paints her toenails. Two thirty-something career women say hello to me. I listen to them chat about Shameless, holiday retreats in Italy, their jobs, and sex, while I undress and empty my things into a locker.

I walk out of the rest room into the main bath area, enjoying the warmth on my naked body. In the main room there is a freezing plunge pool, where women yelp and shriek as they hit the water. In the corner, there are marble slabs where therapists are giving massages, Reiki and scrubs. I was expecting exquisite marble floors and walls and glorious mosaics. There are scattered mosaic details, but these baths date from the 1930s. This is not exactly ancient Rome.

There is a separate steam room and three hot rooms of varying temperatures. I have a warm shower and enter the steam room. Here, women recline on the tile ledges, barely visible through the eucalyptus fog. Some women lie on plastic sheets, because towels get soaked with sweat very quickly. A fan whirrs, breathing becomes heavy. Four Middle Eastern women in their forties babble in soothing tones. In the hot rooms, there are wooden racks like those you’d find in a sauna. The hot air envelopes me like a warm hug. The final room is so hot that it burns the inside of my nostrils. It is brilliant for period pain, and I doze off.

Being naked was strange at first. Absurdly my overwhelming fear was not of embarrassing myself, but of offending others. After a while I saw that Wolf was right – when you see other people’s bodies, it makes you feel comfortable with your own. All the images in my head telling me “lean and angular equals good, round and full equals bad” no longer made sense. Lean and angular are good to hang clothes off, but they don’t have the exclusive right to beauty. I realised that round can be beautiful. I saw lots of beautiful things about the female body for the first time: round bums, round bellies, round breasts.

I can describe it only as an epiphany. The fear of being fat I have held onto for so long has dropped away. For the first time I understood the beauty of plump women in classical painting. Most importantly I saw women as complete human beings, made of flesh, hair, soul, spirit and humour rather than flat images made of paper, plastic or pixels on a screen. I got so used to being naked that putting clothes back on to accentuate lumps and bumps seemed quite a shame.

Ironmonger Row Turkish Baths
1–11 Ironmonger Row, London EC1V 3QF
020 7253 4011.

Women only – Wednesdays and Fridays 9am – 9.30pm, Sundays 10am – 6.30pm.

Weekdays before 12 noon – £7.20. Weekdays after 12 noon and weekends – £12.00.

Payment is for a minimum three-hour session, including access to the swimming pool. You will have to leave after three hours only if it is busy. Give yourself two hours at least for the whole process.

Towels – £5 refundable deposit
Lockers – returnable £1
Hairdryer – takes 20p
Olive oil soap body scrub – £5
Sea salt and essential oils scrub – £10
Apricot and elderflower cream scrub – £10
Massage – 30 minutes £20, one hour £38
Reiki – 20 minutes £11, 30 minutes £15

Shaving my head

June 9, 2006

To baldly go…

…from Rapunzel to GI Jane in ten minutes.

Photos by Oliver Berry

The hairdresser takes a deep breath. “Oh God, I’m really nervous. Are you sure you want me to do this? ” I nod and smile reassuringly although I am petrified. My hair is nearly 50 centimetres long and it almost reaches my waist. The clippers buzz into action and within seconds it is gone. Grade two, about half a centimetre long.

No, I’m not doing a Sienna. Thankfully I haven’t split up with my boyfriend or lost my hair through chemotherapy or alopecia. My haircut was inspired by a US TV programme called Fear Factor. Three women were challenged to shave their heads for $50,000, but only one went through with it. I couldn’t believe it. “Hair grows back!” I wanted to shout. “It’s not a limb. Think of all the wigs you could buy with $50,000.” Then last week a man in Wolverhampton was charged with GBH for cutting off his ex-girlfriend’s pony tail. Is cutting off hair really the same as glassing someone in the face?

When I tell people I plan to shave my head it seems it is a big deal after all. My long-haired friend shrieks down the phone at me for 15 minutes and tells me she cried the last time she had a trim. When I ask her to come with me she refuses, saying it will be like going to a funeral.

Most people are supportive, if puzzled. The first reaction is, “Why?” Followed by, “You’re so brave. You’ve got such lovely hair.” Then they ask about the cold weather and job interviews until finally they say: “What does your boyfriend think?” My boyfriend is unruffled. Not so his friends. “You don’t let your bird shave her head mate,” says one as he flicks through FHM. “It’s up to you to stop it.”

The truth is shaving my head wasn’t just about curiosity. Rather like dieting and being submissive during sex, having long hair seemed to be sacrificing my own comfort and enjoyment in order to provide pleasure for men. After 10 years of being leered at in the street I was pissed off with conforming for other people’s viewing pleasure. I hoped that shaving my long hair would put an end to being treated as public property.

In addition to this peace of mind I imagined that shaving my head would free up cash and time. I am extremely lazy when it comes to appearance; I don’t own a hair dryer, hair straighteners, or hair serums and sprays. I dispensed with dieting and make up ages ago because I really couldn’t be arsed, and the thought of compromising my comfort with handbags or high heels does not sit well with my inner slob. Consequently I enjoy pushing gender boundaries that seem to be there for no reason other than to waste my time, please men, and profit the fashion industry.

The night before the cut my high-minded ideals vanish and vanity kicks in. I constantly touch my hair and twiddle it around my fingertips. Rather pathetically my biggest concern is looking fatter. It is winter, and I am pale and spotty with chapped lips. I wonder if long hair provides cover for your shit bits.

I consider the gallery of famous shaved heads – Demi Moore, Natalie Portman and Sinead O’Connor. How can I compare to such beauties? Will I be compelled to wear make up or dresses to prevent myself looking like a lesbian or a bloke? I have a penchant for dangly earrings. Will I be forced to wear studs to avoid looking like Pat Butcher? And will my boyfriend still find me attractive?

It is the big day. Streets the Barbers in Truro is packed with men reading Saturday tabloids while waiting for their hair to be cut. I ask the hairdresser to shave my head and her face drops in horror. She asks if I am doing it for charity. When I explain, her reservation soon turns into excitement at the prospect of shaving a woman’s head.

I take one last look at the long hair tumbling around my face and down my back. A pit of fear wells in my stomach. The hairdresser chews through my ponytail with scissors and hands it to me in one piece. What was attached to my head now seems utterly disgusting, like a mangy fox’s tail. There is a funny moment when it is shaved on one side but not the other, and then it is all gone.

I look in the mirror expecting my whole face to morph and transform. The truth is that I look exactly the same. No better, no worse. I don’t look fatter, in fact I probably look thinner. I don’t feel any sense of loss. I don’t feel like crying. I don’t want it all back. I feel a bit silly that I made such a fuss about something so small.

A few hours later it still hasn’t sunk in. I keep trying to tuck my hair behind my ear and realising that it isn’t there any more. There are other strange things to get used to. My hair sticks to the backs of chairs and inside hats like fuzzy felt, and rain on my scalp is a new sensation. It is one of the bitterest Februarys in 10 years and yes, I am cold – especially on my neck.

Friends and family who do not know what I have done are satisfyingly gobsmacked. My ten-year-old niece proclaims: “It is horrible, absolutely awful.” My boyfriend tells me I am amazing and takes to affectionately calling me “Kojak” and “baldy”. Once the initial shock is over, people are very complimentary, telling me that I have a lovely shaped head, good cheekbones, and that it suits me. Of course there are the obvious reactions about illness and lesbianism.
Word gets back to me that people in my office have been asking if I am ill. A colleague looks concerned, and asks: “Are you okay?”

As I suspected, the best thing about short hair is the laziness factor. I don’t have to wash my hair every day. I use the tiniest amount of shampoo and no conditioner. Shower time is cut from 15 minutes to 5. I don’t have to worry about my hair blocking the plughole, getting tangled in my brush or sticking to my coat. I do not have to rearrange it or think about what it is doing. It just is.

My fears about looking fat and hideous prove to be unfounded. Female friends say to me “You can pull it off, but I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t suit me.” I think this is a cop out. In my experience you look exactly the same with a shaved head as you do with long hair tied back. Last May the Daily Telegraph commented on Natalie Portman’s shaved head, saying that “only a handful of women can pull off the sexy skinhead trick.” That’s because only a handful do it. When do we ever say that a man “can’t get away with it”?

A shaved head doesn’t look as bad as I thought, but also not bad enough. I thought I would feel more in control of my sexuality by being able to put on lipstick or a dress when I want to be sexual but otherwise be able to abdicate from the competition. To my surprise and dismay a shaved head is viewed as a sexy attribute by some men, and not just those who frequent baldbeauties.com. A male colleague says he thinks I am more attractive with a shaved head. In his eyes it is exotic, non-conformist, and more of a challenge. Another male friend says he would assume a woman with a shaved head was a lesbian and therefore a threesome might be on the cards (yeah, right).

I thought that by shaving my head I’d rid myself of unwanted male attention, that I’d become a hideous freak, no longer seen as a sexual being. But shaving my head taught me that you can change your appearance and your own self-image, but you can’t change people’s behaviour. I am not a dictator or hypnotist; if men want to treat me as a two dimensional image then they will. But whatever happens, I’m happy to be rid of my girly long hair. In work meetings and negotiations I feel my shaved head is saying: “Take me seriously. Treat me as a human being.” Now I understand why so many women in powerful positions have short hair.

I didn’t get $50,000 – just a paltry £15 from a wig-making company – but the extra 10 minutes in bed is priceless.