December 2007

If I have time, I will try and post our second home made Christmas tree, but apart from that I shouldn’t expect too much blogging here for the next week or so.

Happy everything from a very excited Maia and Ariel xx


Fresh apples

There is a young woman I see around. I don’t know her name, and I’ve never even spoken to her, never exchanged more than the briefest of smiles with her. But when I see her, my heart feels light. She looks fresh, simple, unadorned. Unlike so many, many, many of the women in my world, she wears no makeup, she does not appear to style her hair, she wears normal* clothes, she strikes me as entirely unpretentious. She reminds me a little bit of me, at least, me as I would like to have been when I was her age.

(*As in sensible and functional, rather than as in the same as every other young woman. What most other young women wear is not what I would call “normal”…!)

The way she looks seems to say so much about her. She is clearly comfortable in her own skin, something that is so rare these days. I imagine her as a gentle, pre-feminist young woman who likes making music and reading books. I imagine her living alone, or with her parents still. I think perhaps she has a few good friends and that she is not especially interested in popularity or men because she is happy in herself. I hope she knows how to have the kind of fun that is actually meaningful. I admire her self-love, her strength, her self-contained content.

Of course, all this is entirely superficial, and it is pure fantasy on my part, built around an anonymous woman I see across the way from time to time, who looks nice, and normal. I’ve never spoken to her, and probably never will because either I would feel let down that she is not as I imagine her, or the fantasy would get in the way of our ever actually making friends, or both. Yet I like her enormously, as a sort of iconic figure in my life. I guess it is because she gives me hope for womankind.

Kate Harding has a thread up today about the cost of beauty. According to some man who shouldn’t be allowed to write for the Times because he is too stupid, “American women” spend about $1700 (£850-ish) a month on beauty. Obviously, they don’t, because apart from anything else very few American women have that sort of disposable income, let alone enough of it to spare on beauty.

But out of curiosity, what do we actually spend? And how much time do we spend on beauty rituals? I think it’s worth adding up the cost of beauty – because knowing that cost is essential if we want to understand how women are disadvantaged relative to men in their “compulsory” expenses.

First, what counts as a beauty expense / ritual?

  • Anything you buy or do for the purpose of looking, feeling or smelling nice or being more attractive to other people does count. Make-up, perfume, skin potions, nailcare, hair products, haircuts, waxing or other body hair rituals are examples.
  • Expenses or time spent on cleaning your body do not count. So soap, toothpaste and shampoo (but not conditioner) do not count unless you buy an expensive kind specifically because for beauty reasons. Similarly, although the cost of “feminine hygiene” products is very relevant to a discussion about what it costs to be a woman, I don’t think it comes under the heading of a beauty expense because it is about hygiene, not beauty.
  • Expenses or time spent for health or well-being reasons do not count. So if you spend time and money on a yoga class to feel good / better (rather than to look more toned) or if you buy skin creams to stop your skin from itching or hurting (rather than to make it look or feel smooth and youthful or whatever) then these things do not count.
  • Clothes do not count unless you feel that your clothes budget is higher than it needs to be for purely functional reasons, because you spend money on e.g. magic pants, or bras that you don’t actually need to wear, or bras that you have chosen because they change the way your breasts look rather than because they make your body feel more comfortable, or shoes that you wear because you think they make you look good rather than because you like wearing them.

So, to me.

Rituals – I brush my hair every morning. It takes about 2 minutes, which is probably about 1 minute and 30 seconds longer than it takes the average man to comb his hair. I cannot think of anything else at all. I don’t do haircuts, I don’t remove body hair, I don’t condition my hair let alone use other products, I don’t wear make-up or perfume, I don’t even spend 30 seconds in the morning putting on a bra!

Expenses – I probably buy a new hairbrush about once a year. Say £10 a year. I don’t count hairbands (another £2-3 a year, wow) as a beauty expense because (1) they are purely functional to get my hair out of my way and (2) actually a ponytail is not a good look for me. 😉

Gosh, no wonder I’m single.

Hmm, I’m feeling like a nun, no strike that – I’m just a frumpy British woman so this is normal. Right?

Well it wasn’t normal for me until fairly recently. I’ve never been seriously into the beauty merrygoround, but even I did used to spend more time and money – I would do the body hair thing, if half-heartedly; I bought expensive minimiser bras; I would spend modest amounts of money on assorted potions which I would then use infrequently; occasionally I would go on a diet and buy special diet food to make my body thinner and more acceptable.

And I haven’t stopped doing those things out of principle. I haven’t stopped doing them because now I am a feminist it is somehow Not Allowed. Feminism has enabled me to stop doing these things not because feminism forbids me from “taking care of my looks” but because feminism pointed out that it isn’t actually compulsory.

What a relief, to know that these boring, expensive, uncomfortable rituals are not compulsory!

A brief update on the “Qatif girl”, the 19 year old woman who was sentenced to 90 and then 200 lashes and 6 months imprisonment following her gang rape, because the rape happened after she had been sitting in a car with a man (who was also kidnapped and raped along with her) who was not a relative of hers. See my posts here, here and here for more details.

The BBC and ABC are reporting that the king has pardoned the Qatif girl. There is no information about whether the man, who was also sentenced to 90 lashes, has been pardoned. The Saudi justice ministry’s official position is that this pardon does not affect the justice or legality of the conviction and sentence. Apparently the king is being criticised within Saudi Arabia for bending to “foreign interference”. Well yay for foreign interference, and boo for the Saudi justice ministry.

Meanwhile, I had a fairly prompt response from my MP when I wrote asking what the government position is on this case, expressing appropriate shock and dismay about the case and saying that he had written to David Milliband to answer the actual question. I have not heard anything more. Not yet.

[Image stolen from Sherrie Adams again 🙂 ]

It was parents’ evening at nursery today and it turns out that the nursery have (unknown to either me or Ariel) been piloting this new statutory framework for early years education since September. As far as they are concerned, for children of Ariel’s age this simply involves noticing when the children do stuff that is on their “checklist” of learning goals, and making a note of it so that future or other carers / teachers can keep track of her progress and identify areas where she might need more support to encourage her to develop skills. That is, the children don’t know what is happening and the parents only find out if they ask. As such, I think I can live with it. Phew.

(Not that I don’t think it is wrong and harmful to make these frameworks universal and compulsory, I just don’t worry quite so much now that it will affect Ariel directly.)

Oh and for the record – I know it is all a bit meaningless but still it is nice to know that Ariel is advanced for her age 🙂 From what I can gather, she is already doing pretty much everything in the “24 to 36 months” category of “things your child should be more or less able to do by now” – such as “have some concept of 1 and 2″… she can recite numbers pretty reliably up to 13 and count objects up to about 4 or 5 effortlessly! And “learn new words rapidly”… she can say words like “dodecahedron” and “triceratops” and “oesophagus” (she even knows what all those things are, more or less), so I should think she can nail this one too. Aww.

On the alleged downside, she isn’t so hot at joining in with things, which means (because most of the physical activities they do are group “joining in” activities) that nursery haven’t been able to see her consistently demonstrating her ability to do many of the clever things she can do like jumping, stretching, running, climbing and playing ball. She does all these things with me – and she is certainly able to walk pretty far at a reasonable pace when we go out – but since this is never observed at nursery it is not something she has got many ticks for on her physical jerks checklist. Shucks. So we (Sophie’s keyworker “Meera” and I) discussed it, I explained that she is actually fine on all those things, she just doesn’t much like doing things in big groups, and that was fine. We also agreed that the important thing is to let her gain confidence in group situations at her own pace and not to push it in any way, so that’s also fine 🙂

Finally, I had the chance to find out a lot more about what “pre-school” will involve for Ariel when (if) she goes. It starts for her next September and doesn’t sound worrisome at all, despite my earlier fears. It is a little more structured than ordinary nursery, and there certainly does seem to be a theme of preparing children for school but the children can opt out of the activities and seem to have a fair amount of space and independence, with lots of different things that they can decide to do: nothing is compulsory. There is a daily “lesson” which lasts for about 5 minutes and is focussed on small groups of children practising a particular skill together e.g. cutting or drawing straight lines or something, but the children don’t have to join in if they don’t want to. Also, it looks as though Meera will be “moving up” with her children so Ariel’s group, including her keyworker, will effectively just be moving into a bigger, more exciting room – a much softer transition than if there were new staff to make friends with as well as everything else. Obviously I will be watching for problems that might arise but at least I am no longer terrified by the whole idea, which means my options remain open. Hooray!

Take: 1 batch of sweet pastry; some mincemeat; a little milk or eggwash; icing sugar.

For the mincemeat, you can use ready-made – about half a normal-sized jar is enough – or make your own. We used a recipe (my Dad’s) which involves putting all the following ingredients in a big bowl and mixing it up: 4oz each of suet (vegetarian if you prefer), mixed peel, raisins, sultanas, currants, finely chopped apple*, and brown sugar; the zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon**; 1 wineglass each of brandy and rum***. This recipe makes easily enough for at least 3 dozen mince pies. Conveniently, what is left after making 1 dozen will just about squash into a pudding basin.

(* We just used 1 apple, I assume it was about the right amount.)
(** We used a couple of tbsps of lemon juice because we didn’t have a lemon.)
(*** We used a couple of tbsps of brandy and some orange juice, because I didn’t want a drunken Ariel. I think if you follow the recipe it would be very very boozy…)

So much for the ingredients. To the pies.

You will need one of those baking trays with 12 hollows in. I think they are called muffin trays.

You will also need two pastry cutters of different sizes, depending on the size of the hollows in your tray. We have what I assume is a standard sized tray, and used 88mm (3 and 7/16 inches) (what kind of size is that!) and one that didn’t have the size written on but which I would guess is have measured (!) and is about 70mm (about 2 and 7/8 inches…). Crinkle-edged cutters are nice, but not compulsory 🙂

Oh, and a pastry brush!

So much for the equipment. To the pies.

1. Put your oven on – about 200C.
2. Divide the pastry into two, in about a 60-40 ratio.
3. Roll out the larger lump of pastry on a floured surface and use the larger pastry cutter to make 12 bottoms. You will have to re-roll to get 12 bottoms.
4. Place the bottoms carefully in each hollow, use your fingers to gently push the pastry into the hollow, then put about 1 dsp of mincemeat into each bottom.
5. Roll out the smaller lump of pastry, and use the smaller cutter to make 12 tops (again, you will have to re-roll).
6. Place the tops carefully on top of each pie and press down the edges gently onto the edges of the pastry bottoms.
7. Use a pastry brush to brush the milk or eggwash over the top of each pie.
8. Sprinkle icing sugar extravagantly over the lot.
9. Bake for about 20 mins (until golden brown) then take them out of the oven and carefully transfer them to a cooling rack. Don’t eat them immediately as they will be too hot and the pastry too soft – you have enough time for a bath 🙂

Makes – 12, silly.

TIPS – eat as many as you can before anyone else gets the chance. I’ve already had 3, and it would have been more if they weren’t so far away from my desk 😉

Pastry is so much easier to make than you might expect. Remember that it needs to rest before you can use it, so you will have to plan accordingly if you are working to a deadline (ours is usually bedtime…)

Take: 8oz flour; 4oz butter; 2oz sugar; 1 egg.

1. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl. Cut up the butter into small pieces (say 1cm cubes or thereabouts) and add to the flour.
2. Rub the flour and butter together* until you get a sandy texture.
3. Put the egg and sugar together into a separate jug (or mug or whatever) and mix them together until the sugar is dissolved.
4. In the mixing bowl, make a sort of well in the centre, then pour the egg/sugar mix in. Use a dinner knife to gently combine all the ingredients. You are there when it goes all lumpy and horrible-looking.
5. Squash and knead the lumps together to make dough. If the dough is a little too sticky, add flour. If the dough is a little too dry, add a little milk (a very little).
6. Put the dough into a reusable plastic bag (or wrap it in clingfilm if the planet is no concern of yours) and bung it in the fridge. It needs to chill and rest for at least half an hour but will keep for a few days if you want to make it in advance.

(* By this I mean use your fingers – not your whole hand – to pick up flour together with floury buttery lumps – and then rub your thumbs over your other fingers. The idea is to rub the flour into the butter until, eventually, you get a sandy texture. You have done this when there are very few lumps left, and the lumps are small and generally doughy rather than buttery.)

That’s it!

These quantities will make enough pastry for 12 small tarts or 1 larger tart. If you are making a covered pie (e.g. mince pies or a large fruit pie) you should be able to manage with this quantity if you are used to rolling out pastry efficiently but beginners might want to make a little more (say: 12 oz flour, 6oz butter, 3oz sugar, 1 egg, and 1 tbsp milk – NB treating the milk as an extra bit of egg).

Tip on rolling out pastry – my Dad says never* roll pastry more than twice. That is, you roll it, take what you can, roll it again to cut out more, and after that it is playdough (too much flour gets into the pastry and it gets all tired, or something, so is no good for cooking). This is why beginners might need more pastry, because they haven’t yet got the hang of rolling it out efficiently – it might be too thick, too thin, it might accidentally break or stick to the surface, or it might be the wrong shape – and you just might not get as much out of it before you hit the “two rolls and you’re out” limit.

(* Possibly “never” is an exaggeration. Only my Dad never exaggerates…) 


You can add flavourings to the mixture (see Shortbread for ideas) to make flavoured pastry.

If you are making a covered pie, you can use remaining scraps of pastry to make decorations e.g. an apple shape for an apple pie or a holly leaf for a mince pie (kiddie cutter collections rule!) and put these on top of the pie.

If you want to make a covered pie but you don’t quite have enough pastry, you could try a lattice pie. Just use a sharp knife to cut out long strips of pastry and lay these over the pie filling in a lattice effect. This is also a good one to do if you are worried that you might otherwise have a high pastry-to-filling ratio…

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