"God, she looks like a hag, doesn't she?" one woman said, laughing. She was sitting on a train with her friends, waving a popular book in the air.
"I know! If I published a book, I'd dye my hair to cover the grey before letting them take my picture," a second woman added.
"And look at her wrinkles! How old is she anyway?" a third wondered. "I bet I'm older than her, but I look much better."
They studied the cover of the book, snorted in derision, and then set the book aside in order to begin gossiping about celebrities.
What book were they talking about?
Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman.
And why was the women's conversation incredibly ironic?
Because instead of talking about feminism and the way women are treated in our society, which is in many ways the point of the book, they were busy considering whether Moran's author photograph did her justice. Instead of focusing on the essential issues that Moran raises in her work, these women spent their energy putting down a woman who was attempting to help them and speak to them.
It was shockingly sad, but also a bit amusing. I was tempted to ask whether they'd actually read the book, or if they were too busy dying their hair and getting Botox to use any of their brain cells to study the content.
Moran's book, which was published last year to much acclaim, is a funny, honest, intimate look at what it might mean to be a woman today. People could rightfully argue that the book is very heterocentric and doesn't consider issues of race or sexuality, but then it is based on Moran's own experiences, so it's hard to claim that she's attempting to speak for all women or that she ought to do so.
What she does do is offer a combination of personal musings related to gender and general advice about life. For example, she says that if you want to tell if something is "sexist bullshit", ask "Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men's time? Are the men told not to do this, as it's 'letting the side down'? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit? Is this making Jeremy Clarkson feel insecure?"
The women I saw on the train laughing at Caitlin Moran's appearance clearly didn't make it to this point in Moran's book. They obviously didn't get the message that worrying about grey hair or a few wrinkles could definitely constitute "sexist bullshit" because the average man isn't obsessed about these things. Nor did they notice that Moran argues that being "human-shaped" is more important than aiming for some unachievable perfection of form.
Indeed, one could claim that Moran's "intervention" chapter, towards the end of the book, is one of her most important texts. Her advice is simple: live your life and be yourself. Don't worry about wrinkles, don't try to be something that you're not, don't get plastic surgery, don't obsess about body hair, and so on. It's pointless and it wastes time, energy, and money. It causes unnecessary stress. Why not enjoy each day as much as possible, without constantly striving to change yourself and to meet ridiculous standards? As Moran writes, "Lines and greyness are nature's way of telling you not to fuck with someone - the equivalent of the yellow and black banding on a wasp, or the markings on the back of a black widow spider. Lines are your weapons against idiots. Lines are your 'KEEP AWAY FROM THE WISE INTOLERANT WOMAN' sign."
Moran's lines and grey hairs are her "'KEEP AWAY FROM THE WISE INTOLERANT WOMAN' sign", but it's a shame that some of her readers (or should-be readers) do in fact choose to keep away from her, rather than to learn from her. Her very simple sentence "BEING POLITE is possibly the greatest daily contribution everyone can make to life on earth" is worth repeating. Why not stop worrying so much about how you look and how others look and focus on things that actually matter? Why be so critical and mean?
Moran's book caused a splash, in part because it approaches some difficult and important topics in an easy, accessible, fun way. It deserves to be read as more than a memoir of feminist awakening, although it's worthwhile as that alone, especially because the result of this awakening is that Moran decides "to just not really give a shit about all that stuff. To not care about all those supposed 'problems' of being a woman. To refuse to see them as problems at all."
If more people - including those hapless ladies on the train with me, crowing about Caitlin Moran's grey locks - would refuse to give a shit, if they would be polite, if they would argue against "sexist bullshit", if they would just get on with living their lives rather than analysing how others live, society would be in a much different, and better, place.
So let's take a page - actually, a chapter - from Moran's book and stage an intervention. Do something about things that truly are problems, but as for the rest of it, give a "big shrug" like Moran. Just don't give a shit.
Follow B.J. Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bjepstein