Woman About Town

Ticked off with Twitter

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I heard the Twitter blue ticks had disappeared I was at a party in the British Library, talking to three good friends, all of whom I met through Twitter. Twitter has been significant to me: it’s hard to imagine how I could have built a professional network in journalism from outside London in the absence of social media. But often, it’s been significantly unpleasant.

Women can rarely afford to take rights for granted

The blue tick system was one of the ways Twitter attempted to limit harassment, and it worked to a degree. Now Elon Musk has rolled it back, impersonation is rife. Along with other Musk-era tweaks, it’s helped to make Twitter feel not just unpleasant, but — horror of horrors for a social media platform — unengaging.

There’s a drug that’s prescribed to alcoholics called Antabuse. It works by causing the patient to experience nausea, chest pains and dizziness when they relapse. Elon Musk is Antabuse for Twitter. After years of trying to break an addiction I knew was doing me harm, he’s made a once fun thing so horrible to consume that staying on the wagon is no effort at all.

Force of Nature

The party was to launch my friend Rachel Hewitt’s book, In Her Nature. It’s a spectacular achievement. In part, it’s a history of women in the outdoors — especially Lizzie Le Blond, a nineteenth century pioneer of female mountaineering, whose achievements were so obscured that by the time Hewitt started researching her book, many people were sceptical that women like Le Blond had existed at all.

It’s also a book about loss. Hewitt suffered several shattering bereavements while she was writing it. Ultra running helped her to mourn. And there’s a more general grief, too, for what women lose when the outdoors is closed off to us, either through formal bans or the informal hostility expressed by men via harassment and violence.

It’s beautiful, deeply researched and eye-opening. Women can rarely afford to take rights for granted — even the simple right to scramble up a mountain. Aptly for a book about the joy of physical endeavour, we celebrated by dancing till 2am and I spent the following day scaling a cliff face of tequila-induced nausea.

* * *

Last time I wrote this column, I was studying for my driving theory test. I’m happy to report that I passed with only one wrong answer, and I think that was a question about towing a caravan, which none of my fellow road users need to worry about because I will never tow a caravan.

The strangest thing about driving is that, after years of considering it a terrifying imposition that I was much better off avoiding, it turns out I actually enjoy it. Driving is, astonishingly, fun. I like learning something new, and I like being (so far) quite good at it.

I also like the praise from my instructor. “I think you’re one of the best I’ve had in a while,” he said, then ruined the effect by adding, “considering you’re 41.”

Botoxing clever

It’s not just my driving instructor who’s been making me feel my age. The subject has been on my mind ever since I wrote a feature about botox. There’s nothing like talking about wrinkles to make you hyper-conscious of your own.
That’s especially true when you’re doing the talking over Zoom and have to look at a picture of your own face on your laptop screen as you chat, and most especially when many of the people you’re talking to are beauty industry pros who’ve been making judicious use of botox for years.

There’s a quiet power in being unbeholden to other people’s opinions of you

So I’m tempted. And I’m even more tempted because one of the things that came out strongly from my research is that botox isn’t just effective — it’s also safe (assuming you’re getting it done by someone with the appropriate training and skills, rather than on the cheap at a kitchen table).

Yet people who haven’t had it often only want to hear horror stories. One asked if there was a risk of you ending up even more creased when you stop using it — as though the botox recipient should be punished for trying to stall time.

Actually, it seems like the only long-term effect of selectively paralysing your facial muscles is looking younger, since the wrinkles don’t have a chance to form. Alas for the moralists, there’s no Dorian Gray-style price to pay. Just the thousands of pounds you’ll spend over a few smooth-faced decades.

* * *

The Botox issue came up again at Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where my chairing duties included an event with Victoria Smith (sometime contributor to this magazine) and the psychologist Sharon Blackie, who have both written excellent books about the place of older women. Smith’s book is called, simply, Hags, while Blackie’s is called Hagitude.

For an inspiring vision of later life, look no further than one of my other interviewees at the festival: the pioneering vascular surgeon Averil Mansfield. Fearsomely sharp at 85, she must have been scalpel-brained in her early career. She needed to be, to stand firm against a gentle but steady pressure for her to move into a more “feminine” discipline.

She politely ignored suggestions that paediatrics or obstetrics might suit her better. She was even unblanching when allocated the perineum during an early dissection class. Reading her memoir, I wondered whether she suspected — as I did — that this was done deliberately to humiliate her.

If it was, it failed. There’s a quiet power in being unbeholden to other people’s opinions of you, both good and bad. I could only admire the charming but decisive way that Mansfield shut down any line of questioning from the audience that drifted too far into hero worship. She had, she pointed out, simply been doing a job that she loved.

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