Top 5 shy women artists

It’s hard sometimes, being a woman artist. We don’t get called “poetesses” any more or have to write under male pseudonyms like the Brontes, but if you read the comments on any interview with a woman writer most of them will probably be about her looks rather than her books.
Women artists get judged a lot on their personas, too. If you’re confident and egotistical you’re criticised for being “too much”, but the quiet and reserved JK Rowling has been attacked for being “cold”. So as an antidote to this weirdness, here’s my celebration of shy, quiet, introverted, reserved women artists.
I’ve missed out Emily Dickinson (who probably had social anxiety, and rarely left her room) only because she’s probably the poster woman for shy female artists. Here’s my top five:

1. JK Rowling

JK Rowling doesn’t need an introduction: the author of Harry Potter is one of the richest and most famous women in the world, adored by millions of people. But she has a surprisingly low public profile, and the first time I heard a radio interview with her it struck me how soft-spoken she is. This wonderful article explores how Ms Rowling has been criticised for her quietness and reserve (Gawker’s Caity Weaver wrote that it made you “not want to hang out” with JK Rowling). JK Rowling is an affirmation to shy, introverted women writers everywhere.

2. Dora Carrington
StracheyCarrington.jpg
Known as Carrington, she was a painter and decorative artist who was friends with the Bloomsbury Group after World War One, and had a long and probably platonic relationship with the gay writer Lytton Strachey. Although she is often seen as a hanger-on around more famous people, Carrington was a distinguished artist in her own right, and her paintings hang in the Tate to this day.
Carrington was a tomboyish, bisexual woman who was painfully shy. The artist was self-conscious and often found it easier to communicate with animals than people; she “suffered from physical awkwardness, turning her feet in and hanging her head”.*

3. Alice Walker

Alice Walker is an American author and activist, known for her novel The Color Purple and other works dealing with themes like racism, equal rights, abuse and redemption. On being asked if she “screams the truth”, she replied “I never scream and I think that silence is the best way to get real attention.”
As a child, Walker was shot in the eye with a BB gun fired by her brother. When a layer of scar tissue formed over the wounded eye, she became painfully shy and self-conscious. The scar tissue was removed when she was 14 and she later became valedictorian and was voted queen of her senior class. She says that she drew value from her injury when she realised it had allowed her to begin “really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out”.

4. Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor is a Russian Jewish American composer, pianist and songwriter. She is probably best known for her radio hits like ‘Fidelity’ and ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, but has composed thousands of songs. A CNN profile said that “in person, the classically trained pianist is shy and soft spoken”. Spektor tours a lot, but keeps a low public profile and rarely shares much about her personal life; she sometimes releases interviews, but seems to prefer staying in the background and out of the public eye.

5. Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a Scottish writer and the author of short stories and novels, such as Hotel World, The Accidental, and How to Be Both (which recently won the Baileys Prize). She creates beautiful, playful, inventive fiction which explores themes like love, loss, and justice.
Ali Smith has described herself as “quite shy” and prefers to talk about her work in interviews, rather than herself. A Guardian profile said: “Smith has always believed that an author must remain as anonymous as possible or risk impeding the fiction for her readers. Too much biographical information “diminishes the thing that you do” she says. “You have to remain invisible.””

*Virginia Woolf’s Women, Vanessa Curtis, 2014

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After Me Comes The Ableism: how to write really badly about mentally ill women

I had high hopes for Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes The Flood. Unluckily my hopes have been dashed, after finding yet another weird portrayal of a mentally ill woman in its pages. I’ve read a string of books in the past year where the same awful stereotypes crop up. At this stage, let’s just say that if some scientist were to invent a radar for Problematic Portrayals, I’d buy the hell out of it.
After Me Comes The Flood looked promising. It’s the story of a man called John Cole who leaves London one day; his car breaks down, he pulls over near a house in the woods. Unexpectedly, the community of misfits in the house hear John’s name, and greet him as an old friend. The premise had everything I like in stories – liminal space, mistaken identity, a timeless rural setting, mystery.
Turns out (spoilers, here) that the Mysterious Band of Misfits are all ex-residents of a private mental hospital. That I wouldn’t have minded, as a premise, but… Alex and Claire. Oh, Alex and Claire. These two characters made me grit my teeth, sigh, and seriously consider throwing the book across the 171 bus.
Alex and Claire are described in the blurb as “siblings full of child-like wonder and delusion”. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing. These mentally ill, mentally disabled adult characters are romanticised in a positively Victorian way. They are constantly described as, and compared to, innocent infants.
Alex, experiencing psychotic delusions, is made out to be a suffering martyr too good for this world; he was expelled from the mental hospital because he secretly stopped taking his pills, which “muted each of his senses”. He also encouraged other patients to stop, which hurt them. (But really, Medication is Bad for people like Alex, because it Makes You Less Sensitive and Romantic. Do you see?)
Meanwhile, Claire is oddly sexualised and at the same time made out to have the intelligence and mannerisms of a child, despite being an adult woman. Claire’s condition is not stated, but she is heavily coded as mentally ill and autistic. Claire, I will stress, is written in a very sexualised way which emphasises her physical beauty but reminds the reader constantly that she is an innocent, a child. The disturbing implications of this I don’t need to spell out; draw your own conclusions.
This reaches a climax when Claire, late in the book, sneaks into our hero John’s room at night (“he smelt sweet alcohol on her breath… something a child would drink in furtive nips when parents were away”). Claire then attempts to flirt, mimicking her friend Eve “in a parody as unconvincing as a schoolgirl in her mother’s shoes”; finally she takes her dressing-gown off and stands “facing him, naked and afraid”. (“He’d have liked to say ‘What are you doing?’ but knew she wouldn’t have been able to answer”.)
Ick. A painful scene ensues; the upshot is that John, being a Good Guy, doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, she ends up sleeping in his bed. They curl up together in quite a chummy way, and he tells her the story of Wulf and Eadwacer (a moment which is actually well done; if Sarah Perry wrote a book bringing Anglo-Saxon poetry to life, I’d read it). End of scene.
What, as mentally ill disabled women, can we take from this? That we’re not real adults; that we don’t have a real sexuality, we are merely copying other women’s attempts to flirt; that it is up to men to be kind and not take advantage of our frail child-like selves? Well, that’s my takeaway. How comforting! – to find yet another book in which the sexuality of people like you isn’t real, and their agency is ignored! Hurrah!
A friend read over this piece for me and commented that Claire is implied to be good and pure because she is incapable of real sexuality; she’s ‘parodying’ the techniques of Eve, who John is in love with. (Note the name; he finds Eve tempting, d’you get it?)
So what does that say about women who are sexual? That only ‘normal’ women are sexual, that women’s sexuality is somehow corrupt, that a mentally ill disabled adult is technically an infant? There are so many implications to this scene that it’s hard to cover the dreadfulness of it in a short essay.
The other woman in the book who’s presented as mentally ill – Hester – is a manipulative harridan. She’s self-conscious of her “ugliness” and afraid of getting old. She turns out to have been taking advantage of poor, innocent Alex by encouraging his delusions, because she doesn’t want to be alone. So, there’s that. It doesn’t leave much for a mentally ill, disabled reader who doesn’t really want to read about either of these characters.
It’s not the first time this scenario has cropped up, either. In Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I also disliked, the hero meets a girl in a mental institution who is strikingly similar to Claire:

“She invited me into her room and closed the curtains. I said it would help to draw her in natural light, but then she unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra and we sat in silence for a while… I drew her half naked in the half-light of her room. And I drew her scars.”

My initial reaction is plain old bafflement; I know many mentally ill and disabled women, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. Ever. If straight men think that vulnerable women are likely to strip their clothes off as soon as they’re alone in a room with them, they’re probably flattering themselves. Whatever sexist hell-dimension these two books are set in, it’s not this one.
Mentally ill and disabled women are at a far higher risk of getting raped and sexually assaulted, especially in institutions and by police and other ‘professionals’. Scenarios like this play into society’s sexualisation and infantilisation of mentally ill, disabled women: the idea that we never understand what we’re getting into, that we don’t understand risks or stranger danger. Many of us are well aware of that, thanks.
And those women who, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of risk? Well, of course they don’t deserve to be raped! And nor do they deserve to be portrayed in this horrible, patronising way which objectifies their bodies and simultaneously implies that they are sexless, pure, innocent children in the bodies of adults. This is what it looks like when ableism and misogyny converge.
Returning to the real world, almost all the mentally ill, disabled women of my acquaintance have stories about ableist ignorance, medical neglect, and abusive relationships. I also know a developmentally disabled woman who is highly vulnerable, and her carers have had to fight hard to make sure she is safeguarded. These women’s trauma and the danger they face is absolutely valid and real, and it’s really quite insulting to romanticise it like this.
Stories are not reality, no, much of literature is escapist in some way. But literature doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum; you can’t handwave this portrayal away by saying it’s all a dream. People’s hatred of mentally ill, disabled women is not a dream.
What we’re really looking at is a male fantasy (which is even worse when you remember it’s a female author perpetuating it in After Me Comes the Flood). The fantasy goes like this: a beautiful, vulnerable woman throws herself at you and strips naked. But you’re a good guy, so you understand that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You don’t take advantage of her; you sit with her and try to Ease Her Pain.
This is queasy-making for so many reasons; it’s not realistic, it’s not fair, it’s creepy, it filters women’s pain through the male gaze. It ignores the sexuality and agency of the woman; the scene becomes about the heroic man’s feelings. It’s also insulting to mentally ill, disabled women who’ve been targeted precisely because of their vulnerable body and mental state.
I really don’t understand what Sarah Perry was trying to do in that scene. Perhaps she was trying to establish (again) that Claire is Innocent and Pure, despite trying to mimic sexuality like a Big Bad Real Woman; or that John is a Good Man for taking care of her. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that I keep coming across these awful portrayals of disabled women, and I want it to stop. We deserve so much more than this apolitical, insular, ignorant rubbish.

Abusive feminists are not my ‘sisters’

There are three things I wish I’d known when I became a feminist.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter how you dress. (Wear what you want! Fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore.)
Secondly, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit*. (Flavia Dzodan.)
And third, a surprising number of well-known feminists – media-friendly, intelligent women – are abusive. They are prejudiced against vulnerable people, particularly trans women and sex workers. And by having a blind spot the size of Australia, mainstream feminist discourse manages to paint these feminists as victims of uppity minorities.
The power dynamic is positively dystopian.
Recently, an open letter appeared in the Observer, complaining of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic””.
The letter is bollocks, for reasons that have been beautifully expressed elsewhere** and can be summed up thus:

– Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite lies that she was no-platformed by a university for her views on sex work, Muslim women and trans issues.
– Prominent academics and journalists, including several feminists, then use a national paper to collectively complain about being silenced: JeSuisSmurthwaite.
– Media storm ensues, with a huge backlash from trans people and sex workers.
– Ultimately, many of the signatories will profit from this mess, mostly by writing paid thinkpieces on free speech. They will then use their platform to continue accusing marginalised women of being ‘trolls’ and ‘bullies’.
– At least three of the signatories crying victimhood are white, cis feminists who have previously, unapologetically expressed virulently transphobic, whorephobic views.***
– These feminists are abusive.

For several years, I thought that talking about abuse by women (including the power dynamics between feminist communities) would be letting the side down. To discuss it would be to invite sexism, to perpetuate negative stereotypes of women and feminists as bitchy harpies. Of course, this reflects my position as a white, cis woman: this discomfort with seeing any woman in a bad light. I reasoned that although abuse by women was awful, it wasn’t a structural problem; that women hating each other must be ultimately down to patriarchy, and internalised misogyny. If it weren’t for that, we would all get along, as Feminist God intended us to.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
2013 brought more answers. After reading through the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen****, I researched. I read about slave owners’ wives. I read about violence committed by white women against women of colour, particularly black women. I researched modern-day violence against disabled women, which is often committed by female carers, and violence against trans women and non-binary people.
The ‘sisterhood’ narrative ignores structural violence, power structures and everyday labour relations between women. It ignores the propensity of some people with a little bit of power to kick down, hard.

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#HowOCDWorks: Typical Anxious Woman

“My wife’s got O.C.D and keeps asking me to help clean the house.
Her loss though – I refuse to do it until she asks me perfectly.”
Internet proverb (Sickipedia)

Let’s start with compulsions.
So imagine there’s a woman called Rose, who’s putting clothes into her washing machine. Halfway through, she gets worried: what if the cat manages to get into the washing machine before she closes it?
It is possible. Rose’s cat is not very bright.
Rose checks the washing machine. She checks it again, just to make sure. She goes back to getting clothes out the basket. But as soon as she looks away from the machine, she starts to worry the cat might jump in and hide in it while she’s not looking.
So she looks at the washing machine, puts her hand under the clothes; no cat. She knows it’s stupid, but somehow, she still thinks the cat might be in there. Her brain is telling her that her senses are wrong.
Rose is 30 years old. She takes all the clothes out and dumps them on the floor. She is still finding it hard to believe there is no cat in her empty washing machine.
This is me trying to illustrate what it’s like living with my form of OCD. You check and check, but your brain is still telling you “This isn’t right.”
A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that people feel driven to perform as a result of anxiety, caused by their obsessions. For me, compulsions are often caused by a general anxious feeling; a sense that something is wrong, but if you check it might be OK.
Eventually, you reach a point where your thinking mind and your brain’s entrenched faulty mechanisms are battling each other. It’s like having a very concerned, persistent demon following you.
You: I’ve locked the door.
Demon: But is it locked? Check it.
You: I just locked it.
Demon: But is it actually locked?
So you go back. You check it. Just in case.

So, onto the joke I started with:
People find OCD compulsions funny. Why is that?
Here’s my take: in many people’s minds, OCD means compulsive tidying, cleaning, checking and worrying. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that this stereotype overlaps with ‘humorously’ sexist views of women. Google OCD jokes and you will see what I mean. Many of the traits we associate with OCD are also stereotypically feminine traits, which both men and women are mocked for displaying.
Why is the “cleaning the house” joke funny? Would it be as funny if it was about a man? Is it still funny to read about a woman who had to leave her family because of her compulsive cleaning*?
We’re starting to understand that people with extreme compulsions need help; but at the same time many women and girls with OCD are discouraged from getting help at all.
Why? Because they’re told in so many words that they’re “just an anxious woman”.
If they’re a mother, they are told it is natural to worry. If they’re a teenage girl, they’re told it’s school stress or hormones.
Society often associates OCD with checking up on people, being anxious, clean and tidy, overprotective of children and afraid of the outside world. People joke about tidy women being “so OCD”; or “my mother is so OCD, she’s always nagging.”
OCD is associated often with gender stereotypes like the female neat freak: the fussy, repressed, controlling woman, often a housewife, who’s “completely OCD” and would definitely check for cats in the washing machine. Bree from Desperate Housewives springs to mind:
Bree Van De Kamp is not impressed by your feeble attempt at humour.

Yeah, women like this exist. Maybe some of them have mental illnesses, others are simply tidy and fussy. But we’ll never get anywhere if we assume every woman is the same.
We need to accept that our stereotypes of people with OCD can intersect with stereotypes, often negative stereotypes, about women and girls.
The fact that real-life OCD is not always like the stereotype means that people of all genders might not even realise they have a mental illness. And conversely, many women and girls with OCD are still socialised to not realise their compulsive checking, worrying or other behaviours might be signs of a mental illness.
What we need to do is reevaluate our collective view of OCD, and look at how that view intersects with society’s view of women and girls. Because the picture is not pretty.
I am a 22-year old Woman Who Checks. I accept that I am an Anxious Woman, owing to a mental illness. But if I hadn’t been constantly told that worrying was normal and that I was just a sensitive anxious girl, I would have got help much sooner.

*The story is one of many cited in Jeff Schwartz’s Brain Lock. Highly recommend it.

Addendum

Misdiagnosis in general
NAMI:
“OCD is often misdiagnosed, and it is often underdiagnosed. Many people have dual disorders of OCD and schizophrenia, or OCD and bipolar disorder, but the OCD part of their illness is not diagnosed or treated. In children, parents (and teachers and doctors) often are aware of some anxiety or depression but not of the underlying OCD.”

Misdiagnosis in women for OCD
BJGP: “A hidden problem: consequences of the misdiagnosis of perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder”.
”Detection and help-seeking for all perinatal problems is low relative to the prevalence and this is particularly true of anxiety,4 although little evidence exists regarding OCD. In perinatal OCD, the shame of disclosing difficulties is often compounded by fears of being misunderstood by professionals and being judged a potentially harmful parent. Parents themselves may not make sense of their experiences as OCD, particularly if they have no previous history. This may be particularly true of those experiencing thoughts of deliberate harm who often fear they are ‘going mad’.”
More on OCD in parents – “It may be particularly difficult for mums first to recognise their experiences as OCD and second to seek help due to the shame and secrecy associated with the illness, especially at a time when they themselves and those around them expect them to feel happy. As there is often a lack of awareness of OCD during pregnancy and postnatally, people are rarely asked about these experiences by professionals. Despite recent breakthroughs in awareness, understanding and treatment of OCD, many GPs and mental health professionals may still not recognise the symptoms of OCD or even know how to correctly treat the disorder.”
Myths about OCD: includes the myth that OCD is a “women’s disease” which shows how feminised the OCD stereotype is. This is despite the fact that OCD affects people of all social groups and genders at the same rate.

… and for other illnesses
Essay on trauma, mental illness and misdiagnosis: “Pollett writes that individuals who have experienced violence, like others dealing with mental health problems, face mental health treatments that are primarily based on the biomedical model (focused on biological and genetic factors of mental health instead of social determinants such as poverty, housing, stigma and past experiences of violence). Women who require mental health services often receive inappropriate diagnoses and treatment or are denied services because their behaviour is misunderstood or stigmatized.”

In addition, the book Preventing Misdiagnosis of Women: A Guide to Physical Disorders that Have Psychiatric Symptoms, by Elizabeth A. Klonoff has an interesting discussion on theories about gender-specific stress being a contributing factor to anxiety disorders. (p. xxii)

Stereotyping
“Ho
w can I be just like Bree Hodge?”: (Answer: “develop an unhealthily extreme case of OCD”)
OCD jokes: Sickipedia
Woman explains her OCD:When I first went to my doctor and she gave me the diagnosis, I disregarded it: ‘I’m not washing my hands or constantly rearranging the spoons, so it can’t be OCD’.”