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Caitlin Moran: 'It continues to be a really revolutionary thing for a woman to say: I am happy'

We talk to the British author and columnist about her new book.

SOMETIMES, IT’S HARD to be an (ageing) woman. Or maybe, actually, it’s not that bad really.

So goes the premise of British author and columnist Caitlin Moran’s new book, More Than A Woman, which sets out to show women that getting older need not be the fall into the pit of despair they think it is. 

This, her sixth book, comes almost 10 years after her bestselling debut, How To Be A Woman, which was written when Moran was in her late 30s. A successful columnist who is married to journalist Pete Paphides, mother to two girls, and who made her way into the journalism world as a precociously intelligent teen, she felt she knew a few things about how to live.

Except, as her latest book sets out in its first chapter, she didn’t really know back then what was ahead of her.

That gap in her knowledge, between what she thought she knew and what she actually knew, is what Moran sets out to fill with More Than A Woman. In the first chapter, she’s visited, Christmas Carol-style, by Caitlin of the future. This other Caitlin, as our ghostly future selves are wont to do, imparts a bit of unwanted wisdom to her younger self. Her message? You don’t know anything, mate. 

It turned out that getting older involved much more stress and learning than young Moran realised. As her kids aged, being a mother of teens brought a new slew of problems. As she and her husband aged, their happy marriage still had things that needed to be dealt with. As her family aged… you get the picture. 

And yet, this book is not about bemoaning the loss of her less wrinkly self, and instead about embracing who she is right now. 

“I’m saying that I have learned a lot in the last 10 years, and my blithe young woman confidence 10 years ago writing that book has now been found to be sadly misplaced,” explains Moran as we chat over Zoom.

She says this and her first book are “kind of self-help manuals”, but “the tone of so many self-help manuals for women is a little bit tilty-head, like ‘oh poor you’ or a bit hectoring, or a bit like ‘bitch, you fucked up and now I’m going to sort you out’.”

The words tumble out of 45-year-old Moran at speed as she talks. Her prose reflects this exuberant energy, reeling in the reader with lots of ‘dudes’ and capitalised words. She’s certainly not trying to be something on the page that she isn’t in real life.

“I just think women deserve to just have the most fun things that they can possibly have,” she says of the premise behind the new book. But she also wants to make sure that her readers don’t feel bad about themselves.

Let’s make sure the joke from the very beginning is on me. I never want women to feel anything other than that they are loved by the person who’s writing this book. 

‘True wisdom is knowing how little you know’

Moran says that she is “very distrustful” of people who say they know everything. ”If you really are getting wiser than the true wisdom is realising how little you know and how many mistakes that you’ve made and that you’re going to carry on doing this stuff until the grave,” she asserts. 

Being a columnist (she has written for the Times for a number of years) has meant that she’s had to live her life – and mistakes – out loud and in public. Not that she minds. “I think I have a couple of things wrong in my brain or in my glands… the things that everybody else finds embarrassing, I really don’t,” she laughs, vape in hand.

“Like, I would happily walk down the street naked. I will describe the anal fissure that I had. I just don’t find these things embarrassing. The only thing that can hurt me is if someone ever accuses me of being cruel, or unkind, or unfair. Those are the things that burn me.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, to see why her books (particularly her non-fiction work), have connected with large audiences. Here is a woman who doesn’t give a toss in a world where women really, really are expected to give a toss. About everything. 

Because she has connected with a cohort of women, Moran is often presumed to talk for all of them. This does tend to be “a sexist presumption”, she says. “No one ever goes ‘Philip Roth! You’ve written something that hasn’t included all men!’,” she says.

Some of the criticism that has been directed at Moran is that her work, while written by a white woman raised by an Irish-British working class family, is attempting to represent every woman.

It’s something she addresses in the book, in a chapter called Don’t Eat Your Sisters. “It’s like, no one has ever written a sentence that included everyone in the world,” she says. “If you did, it would be clumpy and ugly.”

It has become more common in recent years to see writers outline their relative privileges as part of their autobiographical writing. It is seen as a way of acknowledging that the various privileges people have – be it their educational background or their ability – feeds into and can affect their output. It’s not something you’ll find specifically in Moran’s work, though it’s clear her own background is what she is mining. 

I’m making it very clear in the beginning that I’m writing from the perspective of a working-class white cis heterosexual woman.

“I see other writers and they are noble and brilliant for doing it but when people write something and go, ‘and of course, that’s from my perspective as a white heterosexual woman, you know, LGBTQ will be different’ and suddenly you’ve got 10 paragraphs all going ‘well it would be different if you were this and this’.

“And I think: A, it looks like ugly writing and B, my belief is that I don’t want to see someone white gesturing at or guessing at what it’s like to someone LGBT or someone from a different country. I want them to write that book. And then I will tweet about it.”

“That’s all you can ever do: tell your truth. And then when you see other people telling their truths, go: this is brilliant, read this, there’s some more truths,” she adds. “But it’s an impossible burden to put women in. And I feel really particularly sorry for younger women writers and creators and stuff, who just feel burdened to represent everybody when they’re still working out who they are, and it just crushes them. That’s what kills creativity.

It’s like, I understand the liberal drive that makes people want art like that to happen. But there’s never been a piece published that includes everyone’s experiences apart from Sesame Street, and that’s run for 30 years. So you know, unless you’ve got 30 years and a load of muppets, you’re never going to be able to do the entire human condition in one artform.

Moran believes that having to constantly underscore your privilege “just means that women are constantly putting themselves down, and we just need to see women standing up and going, here’s what I know. Here is my truth. I am a capable person.

“I’m not going to stand here and destroy myself because the world will fucking come at you and destroy you anyway”.

Happiness

With More Than A Woman, Moran says she “really wanted to sell the idea of being an older woman, like, I feel being a hot mess is over now”.

We’ve had our Fleabags and our Amy Schumers, and as “brilliant” as they are, she believes that we need to “start seeing older women now who’ve got their shit together, and who’re confident in who they are, who are able to be helpful to themselves and others. And who also can go, ‘I am happy’.”

“It continues to be a really revolutionary thing for a woman to say ‘I am happy’,” she says. She’s a fan of writer Nora Ephron, whose book I Feel Bad About My Neck is often cited as a fine example of comic writing about ageing. Which it is, but Moran says “it felt it was almost like an obituary to her younger self, that she hadn’t created an older self that she was going to be happy with”.

“And it’s like, no, there’s this whole next section of your life. And I want to sell it to you,” says Moran.

And particularly for younger women, like, you know, these crises that we see in mental health and depression and anxiety. I think so much of it is we don’t make being a grown woman, an older woman, look appealing to younger women. And that’s the only place they’ve got to go, but they will age. Like it’s either ageing or death.

Moran feels particularly strongly about how young women are impacted by our ideas around ageing as one of her daughters has been treated for an eating disorder and self harm. The book details a little of the impact this had on the Moran-Paphides family.

Her daughter is “amazing now”, and allowed her mother to write about her as long as the personal detail was minimal. She told her mother to write about it for “parents to start a conversation and help their children, [so that it] will be useful to the community as a whole”. She read and approved the parts about her. 

“So much of what makes it difficult is that there’s a sense of privacy or shame or secrecy about these things,” says Moran, who says she has multiple friends whose families have been affected by eating disorders. “And so they never get discussed. ”

When this chapter was serialised in the Times, Moran got a huge amount of responses from readers, particularly people who said “they felt ashamed”.

“So I’m hoping now that with my daughter’s permission, and being very careful about what I do and do not say, that I can now help to advocate,” says Moran. “Because the simple truth is that [eating disorder treatment is] terribly underfunded and children will have to wait for years. And that is what takes families to the brink because you are promised help, and then you have to wait years as you go up a waiting list.”

There just needs to be more money. So I will continue to make a fuss and a noise about it until there is.

Part of her exploration of the body in this latest book also seeks to help the reader find joy in their physical self. Not in the ‘I lost weight’ way, but in learning to inhabit your own unique body. Moran says she grew up in a house where she and her family “never moved or exercised”, but instead were more interested in being funny and clever. 

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“I had no sense of myself from the neck below. And so as I’ve got older, it’s been slowly realising that I have a body and that it’s amazing,” she says. “I have in no way a perfect body – like, my tits have always just been like womble’s noses and I’m kind of covered in cellulite and scars and stretch marks. But as I’ve got older, I’ve gotten fitter. I just swim and I stretch and I exercise. Listen to what your body wants.”

‘I’m aware this will cause outrage’

Part of her self care has also included doing a 180 on her opinion on Botox. In How To Be A Woman, she defiantly railed against the popular facial injections. In More Than A Woman, she writes about how they’ve changed her life. From the neck up. 

“I noticed that – and obviously I had taken part in it – there was this big sort of stigma around it,” she says. She was recommended Botox by a friend, and it came after she tried multiple non-surgical treatments to help her face look less ‘sad’. 

But after she had it done, “I didn’t want anyone to either out me and try and shame me, or go ‘you look really good’, and then for me to have to lie and go, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s just serums and facials’.”

She believes that women need to be honest if they’ve had Botox, and so do celebrities – because we look at how celebrities age and presume we’re doing something wrong for not looking the same way.

“Surely the job of feminism is to be truthful about every aspect of being a woman so that there isn’t this, you know, secrecy and hierarchy and shame and all this kind of stuff,” says Moran. She sees Botox now as “just like a sensible low-risk thing to do”.

She says that the ultimate test of whether she was doing it for herself or for other people was the coronavirus. It was the last thing she did before lockdown, and says that proved to her that she did it for herself.

“All the things I’ve written about, like, you know, writing about abortion or masturbation, all these things, I’m aware that this is the thing that will probably be the most controversial and cause an amount of outrage, which is what makes me want to write about it,” she says, bracing herself somewhat for the criticism.

There is always the risk of criticism turning into so-called ‘cancellation’. “As with everything, [on] almost every issue, I can see both sides of [it] – I’m such a centrist mum,” says Moran of ‘cancel culture’. 

“On the one hand, cancel culture is generally younger people helping show older liberals that they’ve got it wrong, and that words have changed, phrasings have changed, ideas have changed, and then enforcing that,” she says. “They tend not to have paid jobs as columnists, they tend not to have the big jobs. So the only power they have is as an online force in numbers.”

She says that younger people educating older people on changing mores is a good thing. “But the problem is that because no one is in charge of the internet, it is a wild west. Then if someone is the subject of a cancellation, it’s so vastly disproportionate to what would have happened,” she says. There “isn’t a due process to it”. 

But it’s not cancel culture that she focuses on with this new book. It’s giving a boost to the women who feel invisible. Over the last 10 years, her readers have got older, and she found “they would all come up to me like hunched over to take a picture and say, ‘Oh, I’m so fat. I’ve got so freaking tall, or I’m so boring’”.

Enough was enough for Moran.

“I was like: no. Brilliant, middle-aged women who run the world, stand up, take up your space. I am so pleased to meet you. You are fucking brilliant.

“And that was the point where I was like, I’m gonna write a book for you.  I want to be able to do for older women now what I feel like I did in How To Be A Woman, to give them a way of going ‘this is the kind of woman I am, and it’s brilliant – here’s a new way to talk about how fucking great I am’.”

More Than A Woman is out now.

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