Last week, the World Health Organisation revealed that British women are among the unhealthiest in Europe. This news was greeted by British women with a mixture of fake surprise and no defensiveness whatsoever. For example, nobody commented, "GOD, WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION. WE KNOW, OK. WHAT ARE YOU, OUR MUM?" before stomping upstairs to listen to loud grunge music, while crying into a pillow, even if they felt like it. No. British women faced the facts head on, with polite equanimity and maturity, for that is how we roll.
You see, even though we have the second-worst life expectancy in 15 European countries, because we eat, drink and smoke to excess, and don’t do enough exercise (I KNOW! I’M SHOCKED, TOO!) there are many, many great things – like having the good manners to take bad news on the chin – about being a British woman.
So, while I acknowledge the importance and gravity of our situation health-wise (I’m typing this on an exercise bike), in the interests of balance I thought I’d use this week’s blog to highlight a few of the great things about being a woman in the UK. We might not live the longest, but we know how to live well. Here’s why.
1. WE ARE POLITE
British courteousness may be a cliché, but it’s rooted in reality. However, our manners aren’t just adorable, they’re fascinating. They are a language in themselves, one which – I believe – women speak best of all. For example, the phrase “I’m sorry” can mean anything from “I apologise” to “You appear to have just bumped into me” and even “You are incorrect and unbearable, now shut your face while I explain why”.
Oh God, tights. A good-enough reason to live in this country even if you hate everything else. The only thing Danny Boyle’s London 2012 opening ceremony was missing was a section where hundreds of women skipped around the stadium singing the praises of opaques, and the fact that, thanks to our terrible weather, we can wear them for nine months of the year. An accessory-cum-security blanket, opaques make everything you wear look better, turn bum-grazing hemlines into a doable proposition and provide a daily opportunity to yank them up to your bra and pretend you’re a cat burglar before you put anything else on.
OK, so we eat too much of it, but who can blame us when it’s so bloody delicious? British food was once a laughing stock; these days, it’s the best in the world. Just like Britons themselves, our food is a glorious mishmash of global and cultural influences. Given an unlimited budget and a pair of sufficiently elasticated trousers, a lady could travel to any reasonably sized British city and eat herself around the world over the course of 80 days or so, like a greedier Phileas Fogg.
No matter how stylish and excellent HBO box sets make America look, I always feel sorry for the cast when they end up in an American bar. Even Mad Men can’t make them seem appealing. Pubs, on the other hand, are heaven. A great pub is a cross between your nan’s comfy house and a really good nightclub, multiplied by a great restaurant, minus people being knobby about the food. In the summer, their gardens are beer-splashed, fairy-lit LOL dells; in the winter, they light cosy fires and make daytime alcohol consumption socially acceptable. My local pub is loud enough to feel buzzy, but quiet enough to have a conversation, offers great food, occasional non-obligatory dancing, a wall of Kinks fan art (long story) and (on Tuesdays) table magic. For a thirtysomething woman like me who is equally apt to be seized by the need to dance as she is to have a little sit down and a chat, there is no better place.
5. OUR JOKES/IRONY/SCEPTICISM
I’m not claiming that these are unique to us. A while back, Eddie Izzard travelled to over 30 countries doing stand-up in different languages and claimed there was no difference in what people laugh at. All the same, I do think there’s a particular British outlook that we’re lucky to have. It’s a certain, gentle kind of scepticism. An arched eyebrow at things that are too loud, too bossy, too earnest, too much… it’s satire that punches upwards, towards power. There is a row of portraits of former PMs lining the stairs at 10 Downing Street but, next door at number 11, the chancellor of the exchequer has a row of newspaper cartoons of his predecessors, dating back several centuries. George Orwell wrote that fascism didn’t take in Britain because people would laugh at the goose step, and one of the interesting things about zealots of every stripe is their lack of humour. Our keen sense of the absurd is a firewall that protects us from their mindset.
6. STAYING IN
“Go to Miami/Marrakech/Ibiza,” people tell you, “the evenings are warm and lovely, and everyone just lives outside, hanging out and socialising. It’s amazing!” And it is. It’s just not as amazing as staying in. There is nothing so delicious as the torpor of a plan-less, obligation-free Sunday afternoon, or as sweet as a lazy weekend. There is no outfit more pleasing than fresh pyjamas after hectic day. Contentment lies just the right side of a rainy window, especially at this time of year. British women are more engaged with the world than ever, which makes it even sweeter to spend time in The Nest.
7. OUR MANY WONDERFUL NERDS
In other parts of the world, nerds are looked down upon, considered strange or comical. Not so in Britain. Here, nerds are heroes. In fact, citizens who are merely conventionally physically attractive often have to spend part of the year in other countries, where their Route 1 attributes can be of some sort of benefit. People often say that British actors find work in America because the money is so much better and the weather is amazing, but this isn’t true. In actual fact, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy and Daniel Craig are simply too handsome to remain in the UK full-time. This is bittersweet, especially for nerds cursed with pointless good looks (like Professor Brian Cox), but, for the rest of us, it makes this country a more interesting place to live, one where ideas matter, and where our national treasures include Richard Ayoade, Jarvis Cocker, Caitlin Moran and JK Rowling.
8. IT’S OK TO HAVE SHIT HAIR
Obviously, my colleagues and I all have excellent hair. This hair is more of a metonym – a figurative expression of a broader idea (which may include hair). For the most part, Britons don’t expect one another to look perfect. Whatever judgements we might make on the strength of our appearances, median grooming levels are much lower than in, for example, Los Angeles, where, as I understand it, it is obligatory to have a full body wax, blow-dry what’s left and then bleach one’s anus before heading out of the door each morning, to eat a meal known as “brunch” in which other foods pretend to be bread. This might explain why hobbies like stamp collecting, rambling and Top Trumps are less popular on America’s West Coast than they are here. People simply don’t have the time.
9. BRITISH STYLE
In an age where it sometimes seems the blogosphere is contouring itself into one homogenousaesthetic blob, it’s important to applaud quirks, kinks and subversive style statements of all kinds and, despite internet monoculture, there are still plenty of them to be found here. There is an iconoclasm about British style that makes it special. It’s about the pull between tradition and rebellion, between history and cutting-edge street style. It is epitomised in the fashion industry by designers like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane, but worn best by British women themselves.
10. WE WORK TO LIVE
I’m incredibly lucky (and perhaps unusual) in that I love my work, but I believe that I am typical of my countrywomen in one respect: no matter how much I love my job, I know there’s more to life. It’s considered bad manners and poor conversation to ask people what they do (though personally I’ll take small talk about work over traffic or weather). This is because Britons know that the 5-9 counts just as much as the 9-5. As a radio DJ, I am privileged to accompany thousands of listeners each morning of the working week, so I know from their constant feedback that the nation’s mood shifts palpably over the course of the working week, reaching a giddy zenith on Friday. Even people who are incredibly committed to their jobs can’t wait for the weekend. Perhaps this is why we tend to overdo it when wine o’clock arrives, as the WHO points out.
So, while I’ll be taking their findings on board and striving to live as healthily as possible, I’ll also remember that the most important thing is not how long we live, but how we live in the first place.