Writer Caitlin Moran believes most women who don't want to be called feminists don't really understand what feminism is. In her book How to Be a Woman, Moran poses these questions to women who are hesitant to identify as feminists:
What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man that you marry? The campaign for equal pay? Vogue by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that stuff just get on your nerves?
In a conversation with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Moran talks about how women are pressured into Brazilian waxing and how humor is the sharpest weapon she has a writer.
"People get really scared when women reclaim words, talk about themselves honestly and also make jokes because it's a really unstoppable combination," Moran says. "It's part of the reason why I decided to use humor in my book because it's kind of hard to argue with someone who's making you laugh."
How to Be a Woman combines Moran's observations of contemporary sexual issues with her own experiences as a teenager, a mother and a writer. Moran is the eldest of eight children; her family lived in subsidized housing in the U.K. She began her career as a rock journalist and is now a columnist for the Times of London.
On becoming a woman
"The feminine role models I had were the cast of Dynasty and Dallas, and I just found that terrifying. I just remember sitting there sadly going, 'I'm just not gonna make it.' Literally, it was like being a woman was a boat that was leaving a dock and it was already too far away for me to jump. I mean how could I — this fat girl from Wolverhampton, you know, who had no clothes, I didn't have a coat, I was wearing a dressing gown for a coat, a tartan dressing gown — look like Alexis [Carrington Colby on Dynasty] or beautiful Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting?
"I would cling to people like Doris in Fame and it was kind of like, 'But it's OK, her personality will get her through. I know what, I'll have a personality instead, that'll be useful.' ... I just wanted to be smooth and thin and have beautiful glossy hair and lovely clothes, and be able to walk in heels. And I thought once I did all that stuff that my life would begin."
On pop culture, clothing and women
"In the early '90s, it was grunge, everybody was fully clothed. Alanis Morissette was one of the biggest artists in the world, never wore makeup, wearing Doc Marten boots, and then the Spice Girls turn up, and suddenly it all looks a bit burlesque, suddenly they're the biggest band in the world. ... And as you go all the way through the '90s, the clothes just fall off the women until you get to the year 2000, and Britney Spears is just wearing a snake."
On having an abortion
"In the same way I know that I don't want to be blonde, or go to India, or own a gun — you know, really fundamental sort of things about who you are — I just knew I didn't want to be a mother again. I think when I see a lot of people talking, anti-abortionists' pro-life dialogue, a lot of it is said by men or people who haven't had children. Because I think if you know what it involves, being a mother ... I knew what the odds were of me being able to do as good a job on having a third child as I had with the last two, to [meet] the standards that I wanted to, to be totally there for them. And I just knew I couldn't do it again."
On the sex talk
"I've really, determinedly, not done what you're supposed to do, which is: Never mention sex at all until three weeks before you think your child might even start having periods or start getting off with boys. Then, deliver it all in 'the talk,' where you sit down and give them an enormous amount of information and morally loaded homilies gathered from your own life and stuff that you've seen on TV and just blast their brains with it and then send them out into the world without ever mentioning it again.
"I haven't done that. We've just always talked about it in the same way that we've always talked about how you should probably eat some vegetables, and how it's fun to go down to the park and play tennis, what art we love and TV shows that we like. So we already started that conversation a long time ago."
On women who decide not to marry or have children
"The word 'barren' tells you everything you need to know. The word 'spinster' tells you everything you need to know about our attitude of women who choose not to marry. ... Imagine if you saw George Clooney on the cover of a magazine every week with: 'Is George broody? Is George gonna adopt a baby? When is George gonna have another kid?' It would just seem weird. We'd seem demented, yet it's totally valid for women."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're a woman and don't think of yourself as a feminist, Caitlin Moran wants to convince you you're wrong; and while she's convincing you, she wants to make you laugh. Her memoir, "How To Be A Woman," is a British bestseller and was recently published in the States.
She says while her book is about the story of all the times that she got being a woman wrong, because she was uninformed, underprepared or fatally deluded, she also wants it to be like an old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising session, with honest stories about sex, self-image, weddings, marriage, childbirth, abortion and aging - not that she's old; she's in her 30s.
Moran is a columnist for the Times of London. In 2010, she was named Columnist of the Year by the British Press Awards, and last year she was named Critic and Interviewer of the Year. She started writing for the music weekly Melody Maker when she was 16.
Parents, I want to let you know some of our conversation will be in adult territory. Caitlin Moran, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CAITLIN MORAN: Thank you very much. I must tell you an important fact before we go any further on this radio show.
MORAN: It's that my hair is very big today, and I need all of your listeners to imagine that.
GROSS: Your hair's very big. Since you brought up your hair, your hair has - it's very dark with a gray streak growing across the top. Is that a little shout-out to Susan Sontag?
MORAN: It is. Simultaneously my two biggest heroes are Susan Sontag and Morticia Addams from "The Addams Family."
MORAN: And between those two vectors of culture, I lie.
GROSS: Well, I want to start by asking you to do a short reading from your book, and there are a few things that are quoted from your book by a lot of people, including our book critic, and I've come to think of these as, like, your greatest hits. So I'm going to ask you to read one of your greatest hits.
MORAN: Yeah, I think of this one as my "Born in the USA," and I'll do it in my posh reading voice.
GROSS: OK, great.
MORAN: So here is the quick way of working out if you are a feminist: A: Do you have a vagina? And B: do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations, you're a feminist. Because we need to reclaim the word feminism. We need to reclaim the word feminism real bad.
When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist, and only 42 percent of British women, I used to think: What do you think feminism is, ladies? What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote, the right not to be owned by the man that you marry, the campaign for equal pay, "Vogue" by Madonna, jeans? Did all that stuff just get on your nerves, or were you just drunk at the time of survey?
These days, however, I am much calmer, since I realize that it's actually technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn't be allowed to have a debate on a woman's place in society: You'd be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor, biting down on a wooden spoon so as not to disturb the men's card game, before going back to hoeing the rutabaga field.
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's Caitlin Moran, reading from her new book "How To Be A Woman." So why do you think so many people, so many women, don't want to be associated with the word feminism?
MORAN: I think it's simply because they don't know what it means. When - one of the reasons that I wanted to write a whole book about feminism, rather than just endlessly wanging on about it in a bar - which had previously been my technique, in order to spread the word for the sisterhood - it was because I was meeting a lot of younger women, and I would kind of confidently say oh, well, you know, we're all feminists here.
And they would, with a look of horror, as if I had just banged them on the knee with a fork, go no, I'm not a feminist. And you go: What do you mean? And, you know, you kind of - you run through kind of, you know, what being a feminist means, sort of like voting and, you know, rape being illegal and not being a legal possession of your husband.
And they go: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, we're into all of that. I said: Well, you are a feminist then; women are feminist by default. You know, unless you've actually gone and handed in your vote to parliament or, you know, to the White House, you are a feminist, and you live in a feminist world. The first world is feminist.
You are educated equally to boys. You're expected to go into equal employment with boys. In a marriage, you are legally equal. So, you know, you cannot deny we live in a feminist world.
GROSS: What made you realize that?
MORAN: I never didn't realize it. I mean, I was brought up in a kind of, you know, very hippie, liberal family, and it was just always automatically assumed that men and women were equal and indeed superior. I mean, when you've got a mother who's given birth to eight children, you know, often without any kind of medical intervention, just she gave birth to one of my brothers sort of on the bedroom floor in front of all of us, you know, you see that women are fairly capable.
So that was why it was always weird kind of, you know, whenever we did have a television - our possession of a television was sporadic because we were quite poor, and they would often be repossessed, but whenever we did have a TV, and you'd see the women on television, you'd be like: Why are these women kind of pretending to be stupid or just kind of - just being all blonde and giggly and kind of only operating as an adjunct to the male characters? You know, why aren't the women as important as the men?
GROSS: So I want you to read another excerpt of "How To Be A Woman," and I think of this as another of your greatest hits, another excerpt that has been quoted a lot. And it's basically about your feelings of women thinking that they need to wax their pubic area and have, you know, a clean bikini line. Would you read that for us?
MORAN: Yes, I like to think of this as my "Strawberry Fields" / "Penny Lane." It's a double-A side, this one. I can't believe that we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax, muff excise. This is money we should be spending on the electricity bill, and cheese and berries.
GROSS: OK, that's Caitlin Moran from "How To Be A Woman." So before we get to waxing and how it became so popular and what does that mean, I just want to talk to you - and I should say here, we're going to have an adult conversation. I want to talk with you about how vagina seems to have become the word of the year.
GROSS: Because of the way it's entered the political dialogue, through the controversy in the U.S. over mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds before an abortion and then Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown, during a debate about a restrictive abortion bill said: Finally, Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but no means no. And after that, she was banned from speaking on the House floor. So...
MORAN: I'd like to think that was because, both, she was saying that word, and also because she was being funny. And people get really scared when women sort of reclaim words, talk about themselves honestly and also make jokes because it's a really unstoppable combination, you know, it's partly the reason why, you know, I decided to use humor in my book, because it's kind of hard to argue with someone who's making you laugh, and I should imagine she made quite a lot of people laugh when she said that.
GROSS: So is there anything that's similar to this going on in England now, where the word has entered into the popular vocabulary for political reasons?
MORAN: No, I mean, we're much more laid back there. It would seem really odd. I mean, I guess we don't have - there's a kind of more sort of Puritan and kind of sort of religious context in America that we just don't have in England. So it's kind of - it's OK to be a bit more kind of louche and rude.
But, I mean, when I was watching this whole kind of controversy unfold in America, I was just thinking that if you just had it so that every women who was in that room had stood up and said that word, in a kind of I'm-Spartacus way...
MORAN: That every single woman had just stood up and: I have a vagina, I have a vagina, like Spartacus, you can't stop that. In the same way that, you know, kind of that there's - you know, one of the chapters in my book is about abortion and sort of, you know, when they're talking about restriction of legislation rights in America, if every women in this country who'd had an abortion just threatened to down tools and not work that day if they brought that legislation in, this country would grind to a halt.
And that would be a beautiful and symbolic thing to happen, because women's lives grind to a halt if they are not in control of their fertility, if they can't make a decision about when they're going to become a mother and have responsibility over someone for the rest of their lives.
So yeah, no, I would have - if I had time, I would have programmed a website to suggest this to everybody.
GROSS: So was there a time in your life, when you were young, when the word had so much power and was so embarrassing because you couldn't even, like, admit that you had genitals? Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: Like the whole idea of having genitals was just so horribly embarrassing that you just couldn't say the word, and did that stick with you?
MORAN: Yes, I mean, we never sort of had to say it. I mean, I felt that, sort of, being a child was fine, you're kind of asexual when you're a child. But I was the eldest of eight children, and we were all educated at home. So kind of we never - we were all sort of very close together. We never went out. So sort of we all noticed what was going on.
So within this kind of Elysian world of childhood, where we just spent all our time playing with our Barbies and out in the garden, suddenly I started developing breasts. And, you know, I started to - into adolescence. And my brothers and sisters considered it a massive betrayal. It was like: What are you doing with your body, you freak? Why are you doing this?
And I too felt that I had somehow, without having realized it, made a choice, like it was kind of my fault I was becoming a girl. And my parents weren't very good at sort of guiding me through my adolescence. They sort of treated it alternately as an embarrassing thing and something that was my fault. Like in the book I sort of talk about how I used to sort of come downstairs from the bath and sort of sit in front of the fire in our front room because we had a very cold house. And the first day that I developed a pubic hair, my mother kind of, from across the room, a crowded room, went ooh, is that a pube you've got there, Kate, and drew the entire family's attention to it, at which point I wrapped my towel around me and never went in that room again.
MORAN: So the whole thing was mortifying.
GROSS: So let's get back to the reading that you did about how many women feel that they need to wax their bikini line and have a clean area there. You write that when you were 17, around the time of grunge, the idea of waxing your bikini line was bizarre, marginal, for porn models only. And now it's a pretty routine part of self-care. What do you think changed?
MORAN: It was a combination of pornography and MTV, and the pornography fed into the MTV. That's what you see in pornography, and I tried - I was trying to work out with common sense why it would be that everybody would be waxed in pornography, and it's kind of, I guess: A: it's, you know, it's, you know, the making of pornography is a kind of mechanized, industrial having of some sex. So you would want to remove anything that wasn't wipe-clean, you know, to the creation of a wipe-clean surface.
And also that, you know, it just makes - you know, it makes the man's parts look larger if he is waxed, too. And these are the two considerations. I couldn't see any other reason why you would want to do this. It just seemed to me that those would be the two considerations that would influence this.
And then that's bled over into mainstream culture because once that - because that's where you see the bodies. That's where you see naked bodies. That's how we know about sex and human bodies is in pornography. So that's where we go to see naked bodies. That's what's normal. Again, it's that word normal that keeps coming back. It's like what is normal?
And then that bled over into MTV as - if you look at pop culture, I'm a rock critic, so all I do is look at pop culture - in the '90s, the early '90s, it was grunge, everybody was fully clothed. Alanis Morissette was one of the biggest artists in the world. You know, she never wore makeup, wearing Doc Marten boots.
And then the Spice Girls turn up, and suddenly it all looks a bit burlesque. Suddenly, they're the biggest band in the world, and they're kind of - you know, it's something for the dads. And then as you go all the way through the '90s, the clothes just fall off the women until you get to the year 2000, and Britney Spears is just wearing a snake.
And within this, in all the videos that you see, you know, you get massive close-ups of women in bikinis and huge zoom, crash zooms into their genital area, and you see that they are perfectly smooth. I spent so much time looking at pop stars' smooth pubis mons in bikinis on MTV. So that's where the idea that that was normality came from.
GROSS: Do you feel that when you were young, that the young men who you were seeing were influenced by watching pornography?
MORAN: No because you couldn't get it in those days.
GROSS: It was before Internet porn.
MORAN: It was - yeah, no, I'm from a pre-Internet era, which young people would probably not be able to imagine, and to be honest I can't imagine either.
MORAN: I don't know how we did anything. But in those days, the only pornography that was available was magazines like Playboy that people would just for some reason leave stuffed in hedges next to schools. I think sort of once a teenage boy had finished with his porn mag, he would leave it in a hedge for another boy to find, and that was the only way we could disseminate pornography in those days, via hedges rather than on Internet.
GROSS: My guest is Caitlin Moran, author of the new book "How To Be A Woman." She's a columnist for the Times of London. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Caitlin Moran. She's the author of the new book "How To Be A Woman." She writes a column for the London Times. And she has also been a rock critic and written a lot about popular culture.
Let's talk about pregnancy. You write about pregnancy in your book. You had a very difficult childbirth with your first daughter.
GROSS: What - just briefly what are some of the medical problems you had?
MORAN: I mean, most of it was that I just wasn't ready. I kind of - I did, you know, I hadn't attended any birth classes. I was insanely unfit. I was very, very overweight. The last, sort of, two months of my pregnancy coincided with Christmas, and it got to that point where I was kind of like eating mince pies and cream for breakfast, thinking that was normal, and then looking in boxes of chocolates and going: Well, if I have two with nuts in and two that have got like an orange liqueur center, that basically works like kind of protein and fruit. So I'll be smiling.
So I put on an enormous amount of weight. And also at that time, I didn't know that I was hyper-mobile, sort of double-jointed, and basically kind of my pelvis, sort of, kind of, cracked in half and stretched in a really bad way. So I couldn't walk. So when I finally went into labor, not only was kind of the two parts of my pelvis grinding against each other, but the baby got stuck. It was the wrong way round. None of the anesthetics worked. The epidurals didn't work. I had five of those; they were fun. And eventually they had to give me an emergency C-section.
But I would never have written about a bad birth, because I think women do like to sit around and scare each other with bad birth tales, unless I'd had a really good one for my second birth. And I wanted to contrast it between if you go into your first birth unprepared, it could go wrong for you. If you prepare for a birth, which I did with the second one, I was fit, I went to all the classes.
And the main thing that I learned is that if you are lying down to give birth, gravity is not helping you. You know, you stand up and, you know, a baby will basically kind of fall out of you, if you keep walking 'round. But as soon as they have you, which is the medicalized birth, on your back with your feet in stirrups, you're kind of pushing a baby out sideways, and it really will feel like that.
So you kind of want to be standing up and having it falling out.
GROSS: So I'm almost surprised that you were willing to have a second child considering the agony of the first birth, though, you know, what a lot of people say is that if women really remembered what birth was like, they wouldn't have more children.
MORAN: Oh yeah. You're still addled. Like for the two years after you've had a kid, you are so addled with hormones. You're like: Yeah, bring all the babies, I'll have all the babies. That's why after I'd had my second one, I was kind of going, we should have a third one. And my husband was like: Let's just buy cats as a holding mechanism, just kind of give you something else to mother for a while.
And sort of yeah, no sure enough, sort of like once two and a half years had passed, suddenly all the hormones left, and I was like: Yeah, I'm OK with two.
GROSS: Well, not only were you OK with two, you actually got pregnant again after your second child, and you decided to have an abortion, and it was not an anguished decision for you. You write that you knew immediately that you wanted an abortion. You write: Not even for a second do I think I should have this baby. This isn't who I'm going to be again.
After wanting children so badly, having a very difficult first birth, going ahead with the second, and that was an easy birth, you really wanted to be a mother, you had two children, why were you so sure that you did not want to have the third child?
MORAN: I think - well, I mean, as I put in the book, in the same way that I know that I don't want to be blonde or go to India or own a gun, you know, really fundamental sort of, you know, things about who you are. I just knew I didn't want to be a mother again.
I think when I see a lot of people talking about sort of like - sort of anti-abortionist, pro-life dialogue, a lot of it is said by men or people who haven't had children. Because I think if you know what it involves, being a mother, that's not something that you can say in a kind of yeah, hey! I'm sure I'll be able to busk through again a third time.
You know, I'm not a gambler. You know, I'm a calculator, I'm a planner, and I knew what the odds were of me being able to do as good a job on having a third child as I had with the last two to the standards that I wanted to, to be totally there for them. And I just knew I couldn't do it again.
And I think it's a really important thing for women to be able to just put their hands up and go, I can't actually do any more. Sort of the template of being a mother is that you're endlessly giving, to the point of exhaustion. You know, the stories that you see in those kind of tabloid magazines that you see in supermarkets, about, kind of, you know, I was told that if I gave birth, I'd die, but here's my miracle baby now, you know, kind of women who just kind of against all the odds just kind of keep nurturing and nurturing and nurturing until they wear out.
You know, that's amazing if you can do that, but for that to be seen as the norm of motherhood, that women are always supposed to give until they're exhausted, you know, to always take on all these burdens, I just think it's a really lovely and beautiful thing, and it's why I'm so, you know, in favor of protecting all of the abortion legislation we've got, to give women the right to go: I can't do that. I can't do it. I'm too tired.
GROSS: Well, you had no second thoughts about having an abortion and didn't experience guilt or remorse after having the abortion. And I'm wondering: Are you comfortable expressing that certainty? Because a lot of people think even if you're, you know, pro-choice that you should have remorse after an abortion.
MORAN: Yes, well, this was something that I thought you were supposed to have. I mean, this is why I wanted to talk about it really honestly, you know, kind of, you know, as a writer who is fairly high-profile, you know, in Britain, you know, I didn't need to write about this, I could have kept it secret.
But I just wanted women out there - you know, I wrote this book kind of, you know, I was a very confused and lonely teenage girl, and the thing that I had in my voice, in my head while I was writing this book all the time, was just try and write this book with as an open heart as possible, writing it to someone who could be going through one of the big crises you had in your life, and you're just there as a friend, putting your hand on their shoulder and going: Dude, I've been there.
You know, take it easy on yourself. I'm just going to tell you some stuff now. You know, you will get through this, but, you know, I just want to be here for you during this. We can talk to each other about this.
And everything that I'd ever read about having an abortion was always prefaced with - you know, the very few things that women write about abortion was, well, you know, it was a very, very difficult decision and one I always regretted.
And one of the reasons why I wanted to write about it was to go: It is actually an option not to feel bad about it. I'm not saying you should not feel bad about it, and I'm not saying that there are some women out there who won't feel bad about it, but just proportionately, statistically, one in three women are going to have an abortion. They're not all going to feel guilty.
You know, you walk into that - you know, so often, you know, you walk into that going: No, I know that I have to do this. Kind of, you know, I'm glad that I have the option to do this. I had such an overview of all of, you know, of all of mankind's history when, you know, I went to have my abortion, just thinking of all the women who just couldn't have made this choice. They just had to go and do this. They had to face the fear and the pain and the worry and the heartache and the exhaustion and the, you know the loss of self that you have where you just disappear into another person, as you should.
But it should always be your choice to disappear and give yourself over to someone. You know, but to say that you have to carry to term and look after a child for the rest of your life is to say I force you legally to love someone. It's like saying, you know, you have to go and love another - you have to go - you know, you have to go marry someone. It's like an arranged marriage.
You know, you have to give that love willingly. You have to walk into it with your eyes open.
GROSS: Caitlin Moran will be back in the second half of the show. She's the author of "How To Be A Woman," and she's a columnist for the Times of London. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Caitlin Moran, author of the British bestseller "How to Be a Woman," which was recently published in the U.S. She's a columnist for the Times of London. Her book is part memoir, part comic manifesto.
When we left off, we were talking about her decision to get an abortion after having two children.
You have a chapter about not having children and you want to express your approval to any woman who decides that that is her preference. And, you know, it wasn't always something that women could decide. I mean they didn't have the birth control to effectively make that decision even if they wanted to, and society would certainly not have approved of it. You know, any woman not having children would've seen as - been seen as, you know, tragic, sad, pathetic.
MORAN: Well, the word barren tells you everything you need to know.
MORAN: And the same with the word spinster tells you everything that you need to know about our attitude of women who choose not to marry, yes.
GROSS: Well, do you still think that that chapter is needed, that women who decide not to have children need that kind of reassurance and that there will be some kind of societal disapproval of them?
MORAN: Oh god, I mean it totally still needs - I mean just this week on the cover of Grazia, kind of like the biggest selling women's magazine in the U.K., was yet another picture of Jennifer Aniston with, you know, Jennifer's baby fear. And you know, we've spent 15 years discussing whether this woman is going to have a baby or not. I just think that's so rude. It's just, you know, we don't know what issues she's got. You know, that's totally her decision. The idea that this is like a national debate that we have all the time. You know, is she pregnant? Isn't she pregnant? Does she want a baby? Is she sad? Did she still wish she could have Brad's baby? Is she going to adopt a baby? Is she going to have a baby with this new boyfriend then leave him so she can be a single mother? It's just never been an option for Jennifer Aniston not to have a kid. Imagine if you saw George Clooney on the cover of a magazine every week with, is George broody? Is George going to adopt a baby? When is George going to have another kid? It would just seem weird. We'd seem demented, yet it's totally valid for women.
And I wrote that chapter for two reasons, it's a love letter to my sister Caz, who is my writing partner and we're adapting the film into a - the book into a film and into a sitcom and she's my writing partner. And she's, from the age of 10, always known that she doesn't want kids. And so I wrote that chapter as a love letter to her and it was spurred by the fact that having worked for women's magazines myself as a journalist, if you go off and interview a female celebrity, I'd just go and interview them like I'd interview any human being and talk about the things that interested me. And you'd come back and you'd file your copy and then my editor would read through my copy and go, why haven't you asked them if they want kids? And I'd be like well, I don't know, I interviewed Aerosmith last week and I didn't ask them that.
MORAN: And they'd be like no, you - then she just would ignore that and go look, just ring the PR and just get fixed up another sort of quick phone interview, five minutes where you ask her if she's going to have a kid or not. And I'd be like, why? Why would this be the question above all else? I'm genuinely more interested to know if a female celebrity wants to grow her own vegetables in her back garden and become self-sufficient than I am to find out if she does or doesn't want a baby. So it was just to stop this women constantly being asked if they're - you know, a woman gets to 32 and even if you do it in a kind of double-back ironic way, to say to her: is your body clock ticking? Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. I mean it's the only thing that would spur me into violence. It's just a horrible thing to keep saying to a woman - do you want a baby inside you. I mean, it's creepy.
GROSS: Let's talk about your background a little bit. You grew up in, like, an industrial town in England.
GROSS: Your father was a drummer in a rock band?
MORAN: That's right. Yes. He was our rock 'n roll contingent. He faked his passport when he was 15 and ran away from home and did the same, he was in a kind of psychedelic rock band and they did the same tour circuit as The Beatles, kind of, two years after The Beatles. But he just sort of never made it, so we were brought up in this kind of - and he never made any money and he met my mother, who was from sort of quite a nice background. But the presumption always was that he was going to make it as a rock star next year. So, kind of, when we were watching television and we saw Bob Geldof and his sort of beautiful children, I would always presume that next year I would be friends with Bob Geldof's kids and those would be the people I would be hanging out with and we'd all be at Live Aid together backstage. But that continually and persistently never happened for my entire childhood.
GROSS: No. In fact, you were living on the British equivalent of welfare.
MORAN: Yes, in the British equivalent of the ghetto. Yeah. No. It was pretty rough and it was pretty poor. Sometimes we didn't have enough to eat and we certainly never had enough clothes. I was brought up in my mother's underwear and my father's thermal underwear, in winter, was my pajamas.
GROSS: And when - you often didn't have enough to eat, but you write when you did have enough to eat you binged...
GROSS: And that your siblings - or at least your sisters - binged too and you ended up becoming very overweight. You got fat.
MORAN: Oh, the whole family did.
MORAN: I mean even now sometimes just for a laugh, I'll arrange to meet all my siblings in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
MORAN: Even 20 years after we got out of that scenario they'd just, all of a sudden, just be hovering there just like with the tray going, after three minutes you get into that kind of carbohydrate tunnel and you're like, we could just not bother with the plate, let's just pile it straight onto the tray, let's eat the whole tray of food. Yes, it was very much wax and wane, binge and fast. So, yeah, no, we all became very, very fat. And also, we were taught at home, which is kind of my parents were quite apocalyptic. They kind of believed that the end of the world was nigh and also that they couldn't be bothered to get everybody school uniforms ready for school, so a combination of those - that very prosaic thing and that complete belief in the end of the world meant that we were taught at home, so all that happened was there was just seven enormously fat, pale, shy, socially awkward children stuck in a very small house all day watching the classical musicals of MGM whilst eating an enormous amount of cheese.
GROSS: And it sounds like you had to do a lot of the parenting of your siblings.
MORAN: Yes, which I never resented then. I mean I've always been very, very cheerful. I mean I genuinely believe if you have been moaning about something for three minutes, you should have started doing something about it two minutes ago. And my diaries at the time have all the joyful ebullience of an idiot. It's just sort of stuff like, moved the deep fat fryer onto another sideboard. Looks great! Found a new way to store shoes, in a cardboard box under the stairs. Brilliant!
MORAN: So I was just, I was enormously cheerful, because all the heroines I that I read about - that's why books are so important to me, like kind of, you know, Jane Eyre, she's poor and working class and a bit gobby and she triumphs. And Anne of Green Gables, she's kind of an orphan and a bit weird but she triumphs. And, you know Katy Carr, in "What Katy Did," you know, she is disabled but she triumphs. And Annie in "Annie," you know, it was all about that kind of like, you know, girls from restricted means making it, which is kind of very much the trope of heroines from like sort of the late 19th century, early 20th-century literature. So that was, you know, the stuff that I clung to.
GROSS: Do you think that being fat contributed at all to...
MORAN: Not losing my virginity till I was 17? Yes. Definitely.
MORAN: Yeah. Definitely. Yes.
GROSS: I was going to say to your sense, your early understanding of feminism because the whole kind of feminine thing was something you weren't going to easily fit into.
MORAN: Yes. I mean I was brought up in the '80s. I was born in 1975 so by the time I got to 10 and I kind of knew that I probably was going to have to be a grown-up lady at some point, the feminine role models that I had were kind of the cast of "Dynasty" and "Dallas" and I just found that terrifying. I was just, I just remember sitting there sadly going, I'm just not gonna make it. I'm just, literally, it was like being a woman was a boat that was leaving a dock and it was already too far away for me to jump. I mean how could I - this fat girl in Wolverhampton, you know, just who had no clothes, I didn't have a coat, I was wearing a dressing gown for a coat, a tartan dressing gown - look like Alexis Colby Carrington or beautiful Cybill Shepherd in "Moonlighting?" Or, you know, or even Agnes DiPesto in "Moonlighting?"
I just couldn't, you know, I would cling to people like Doris in "Fame" and it was kind of like, but it's OK. It's just her personality that will get her through. I know what it. I'll have a personality instead. That'll be useful. I just couldn't see how I could be - I just want - you just wanted to be normal. It wasn't even being beautiful. I just wanted to be smooth and thin and have, and you know, have beautiful glossy hair and lovely clothes and be able to walk in heels. And I thought that once I did all of that stuff that my life would begin. And so I remember getting to about 28 and 29 and still really realizing that I subconsciously thought that, that when I was perfectly smooth and perfectly thin with perfect hair and beautiful outfits and I could sort of spring out of bed and just put on a beautiful kind of beautifully tailored skirt suit and pick up my massive clutch bag and put on my heels and go down and drink half a cup of coffee before going, must dash, and getting into a cab...
MORAN: ...that would be the point where my life would begin. And just realizing I was never going to do that even one day ever, let alone that be my life. And I think loads of women have this idea that their life is going to start at some point, once they've busted all these problems of being a woman, once we're thin and we're pretty and we've got all of our clothes and stuff and we're fabulous, that's when our life will begin. And you meet people at 48 who are still thinking that, and 58.
GROSS: So if fabulous for you wasn't going to be the perfect skirted suit and the expensive clutch handbag and heels and everything, how did you redefine fabulous for yourself?
MORAN: Well, I went through several phases, though. When I realized that I couldn't, I wouldn't be fabulous - I just thought I could be so, that I could just be a muse. Like it still hadn't occurred to me I could actually do anything in my life. I had given up on being beautiful but I thought I could be kind of inspiring instead and kind of inspire boys to write songs about me. So I became a music journalist at the age of 16 and I had sort of dyed bright red hair down to my waist and sort of stomping around in my little Doc Marten boots. And I just sort of tried to stand around being fascinating and saying amazing things - often things that rhymed in the hopes that they would be able to pick them up and just turn them into lyrics straight away.
MORAN: I mean I was just trying to save them time. You know I wanted a "Layla" written about me, you know, I would've had a "Rita" written about me. I would've become a traffic warden if I'd had to. But that never happened. And it was again, the penny didn't drop until too far into my life and I would just hope that another generation of women don't, aren't as stupid as my generation was. I just realized I was going to have to do it myself. If anyone was going to write a song or, you know, or a book, or make a film about a girl like me, it was going to have to be a girl like me, and quite literally, me.
GROSS: So you have two daughters.
GROSS: And one of them is getting to that age.
MORAN: Yes. Yes. She's just had her first iPhone, which I think these days is the stage before adolescence, isn't it?
GROSS: Right. OK. So she's getting toward adolescence, toward puberty. So are you worried about what you're going to tell her about entering a pre-sexual and then a sexual era of her life?
MORAN: No, because I've really determinedly not done what you're supposed to do, which is kind of never mention sex at all until three weeks before you think your child either might start having periods or start getting off with boys and then deliver it at all in The Talk - where you sit down and give them an enormous amount of information and morally loaded homilies gathered from your own life and stuff that you've seen on TV and just blast their brains with it and then send another world without ever mentioning it again. I haven't done that. We've just always talked about it in the same way that we've always talked about kind of how you should probably eat some vegetables and how it's fun to go down to the park and play tennis and what art we love and TV shows that we like. So, you know, we already started a conversation a long time ago, which I think is really important, because I know a lot of my creeping horror about being an adolescent was kind of knowing that one day my parents were going to sit down and give me The Talk, and even just thinking about it made me feel very uncomfortable and made me just want to take some puberty-stopping, inhibiting drugs and stay a child forever.
GROSS: And did your daughter ever go - have your daughters ever gone through princess phases where they really wanted to be, you know, wearing princess kind of clothes and doing everything that's pink?
MORAN: Yes. You know, they did that much to my husband's chagrin, because they would make him dress up as a princess as well. Daddy, giving daddy princess makeovers.
MORAN: It's one of the best things ever. My dad, my husband is a very dignified man. He's sort of very into his psychedelic rock and kind of he wears a cardigan, he's a rock critic, very sort of chin-stroking man, and seeing him dressed up as Princess Aurora from "Sleeping Beauty" was one of the best days of my life. Yeah. No, they're not - my 11-year-old, now, is just kind of super sensible and amazing. She's kind of, she's got a collection of straw hats that she likes to put flowers on. She really enjoys reading "The Hunger Games" and folding up all of her clothes really neatly in her wheely suitcase before going away for a weekend. She's, sort of, very self-possessed and in control of her life in a way that I could never have imagined in my own chaotic childhood. It makes me so happy seeing her being happy and calm. The younger one is weird though.
MORAN: The younger one is a problem, but the older one is great.
GROSS: Thank you so much. It's really been great to talk with you.
MORAN: Thank you so much. It's been a hoot.
GROSS: Caitlin Moran is the author of "How to Be a Woman." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the fourth detective novel in the award-winning Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.
This is FRESH AIR.
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