Review: Be Awesome – Modern Life for Modern Ladies, Hadley Freeman

Most people who know me are aware that I adore the Guardian.  Despite my notoriously skinflintish ways (as a student I collected all my stationery as free gifts from society fairs and whenever I had a cold, I stockpiled napkins from the cafeteria rather than springing for a box of tissues), I willingly pay out for the Guardian because I want to keep it.  Although I do wish it would send slightly fewer push notifications.  Anyway, they have a host of fantastic columnists and one of my favourites is Hadley Freeman.  For those who have not had the pleasure, Freeman does the fashion and celebrity chat and she is brilliant at it – as a fashion illiterate, her acerbic commentary on fashion trends and celebrity culture as a whole have been very helpful over the years.  I have mused more than once that if I were ever to have a daughter, I might very well name her Hadley.  And now, I get a whole book full of Ms Freeman’s wise words over which to ponder.

It has been quite a little while since Caitlin Moran wrote How To Be A Woman (one of my very first reviews for Girl with her Head in a Book), this was rather the book that launched a thousand copy-cat survival guides on how to survive your gender.  Tina Fey has confessed to be a Bossypants, Bridget Christie has instructed us to Mind the Gap and also lectured on the importance of using the right kind of pen, Rachel Held Evans discussed how to fit in with the Biblical view of womanhood – basically, a whole raft of funny women have been called upon to hasten to the keyboard and write something similar.  This is not to sound cynical – I read The Vagenda in the middle of last year and  I don’t think I’ve looked at an advert in quite the same way since, it was fantastic.  The battle cry of fourth wave feminism is being shouted out in the bestseller charts and although some may claim that what is being said is repetitive, I think we should just celebrate that the words are being expressed.  It struck me that the recent trend for uplifting memoirs by funny feminist writers constrasts sharply with previous best-sellers such as the fashion for misery memoirs – there have been a lot less of these recently.  Of course, on the other side of the coin, there have also been a fair old flood of black and grey covered erotica which seem to feature insipid women putting up with rather a lot of rubbish from some very silly men.  So I guess it swings in roundabouts.

It is hard to object to a book that calls on women to Be Awesome and Freeman reveals herself once more not only as a talented writer but also as a sensitive and friendly one – this is a book written by a woman who genuinely likes other women and wants us to be our best.  Not in the saccharine faux-caring tones of the glossy magazine industry but rather as someone who understands the perils and pitfalls of life in the social media age and who is calling upon us all to stand against, stand together and stand tall.  Indeed, to stand awesome.  This book was a joy.

Be Awesome does have its own distinct feel – Caitlin Moran’s book is an unapologetic battle cry for women everywhere and with more than a little tinge of anger, Be Awesome feels slightly more low-key.  Rather than a call to arms, Be Awesome is more like having a conversation with an incredibly valuable friend who is gently nudging you towards a few bits of advice she thinks you might benefit from.  This is the kind of feminism that wears a woolly jumper and drinks lots of tea (eg. my kind of feminism).  Hadley Freeman is speaking for every woman who has ever checked the Daily Fail website and then loathed herself for so doing.  This is not didactic, Freeman never moralises or talks down to her audience – a lot of her advice may even seem obvious enough but it was just so wonderful to hear someone else vocalising those things that you wonder about but never do quite getting round to saying oneself.  Be Awesome is a book filled with warmth and kindness and acceptance for others but more than anything, the constant refrain is to ‘be confident, be good to yourself.  Be awesome.’

Be Awesome felt quite episodic, with some snippets clearly designed to take aim at the Daily Fail.  From narrating a day in her own life via a series of Fail-inspired headlines to a lengthy chapter ripping into the journalist she refers to as ‘Jiz Lones’ to a faux-interview with herself in sycophantic magazine style, Freeman has no illusions about the way the industry she operates in views women.  Her own personal experiences with anorexia are briefly referred to in contrast to the ‘anorexic minstrel’ Liz Jones but it never feels as if she is trying to make us pity her.  Be Awesome was a genuinely empowering read for me – far more so in many ways than How To Be A Woman.

Hadley Freeman & dog (c) The Sunday Times

There were a few points that really hit home for me.  Freeman has such a refreshingly business-like attitude towards sex and relationships.  Unlike so much of the media, she remarks matter-of-factly that it is completely normal to not be having sex regularly.  She gently chides people in relationships who pity single people.  Hadley cheerfully points out that one’s relationship status does not define one’s worth, ‘Stalin had girlfriends’.  She points out how much fun it can be to just relax and listen to David Sedaris.  She cries out against Brazilian waxes (“Here’s a slogan to embroider on a pillow on a rainy Sunday: sexual maturity is an attractive quality in an adult”).  Still, the point that really struck me as true was when she discussed how common it can be to find yourself dating someone who you don’t even like just because he likes you.  This happened to me a lot in my late teens/early twenties – there was one particular boyfriend who was quite tricky to shake off (he lived far away so it was harder to break up with him convincingly) and I was cringing about his e-mails to a friend who looked at me and said, “I don’t know why you went out with him in the first place but the bigger thing is that I don’t think you know either.”  She was right.  I hadn’t a clue.  And that was the big problem.

I am someone who struggles with anxiety – childhood school reports generally featured an amused sentence from the teacher something along the lines of ‘Susannah is a happy enough child but panic does tend to cross her face when confronted with change/something new.’  The expectations of others, my own desire to do well, I can do the inner turmoil thing with surprising ease – yet I was caught by Freeman’s words that you should ‘never talk to yourself in a way that someone who loves you very, very much would not allow.  In other words, stop calling yourself stupid when you forget to buy washing-up liquid on the way home and stop calling yourself fat because your jeans are chafing a tad.  It’s just bad manners.’  It’s about having a little self-respect.

I loved her ‘Beyond the armpit’ ten-point rules to being a modern-day feminist – this is a word that people have been fighting over for years, decades, centuries.  What does it mean?  How do you be one?  Of course, I didn’t agree with everything that she said – I have few issues with being called a ‘girl’ rather than a ‘woman’.  When I created Girl with her Head in a Book, I was definitely mid-twenties whereas now I am only a few years away from thirty.  It has occurred to me that the Girl bit of a title does not apply as much as it once did.  But one of my great-aunts referred to herself as going out with ‘the girls’ while in her late seventies so I guess it’s not that big of a deal.  And I also still like Richard Curtis films despite Freeman’s disdain – I do agree that sticking Kristin Scott Thomas with Prince Charles was a bit insult-to-injury but I like Four Weddings. I did have a sneaky issue with About Time and the whole ‘only-men-time-travel’ thing but I still loved that film too!  But there are many, many different kinds of feminism.

Freeman gives us films to love, films to avoid, a wonderful list of ‘Ten awesome women’, ‘Ten awesome books’, all with her own guidance on how to approach them.  To be honest, much like when I read How to be a Heroine last year, by this point I was feeling as though I had made a new friend and just wanted to invite Hadley round for a cup of tea so we could discuss things further. She describes Bridget Jones’ Diary as a book that she loves and has read a thousand times and, ‘if [she’s] lucky [she] will get to read it at least a thousand more.’  I have very similar feelings about Be Awesome – these are kind rules for life with the wisdom of a woman who understands the perils of social media, Twitter-trolls and all the rest.  Part memoir, part feminist-charter, part survival guide – this is above everything a Book to Treasure.

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Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies by Hadley Freeman
Published by HarperCollins UK on April 25th 2013
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Women, Humor, General, Social Science, Sociology
Pages: 286
ISBN: 9780007485710

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