From the trivial to the titillating, the hilarious to the heart-rending, women are spilling their most intimate secrets on the internet — and revolutionising their lives.
We know about Facebook and Twitter, about downloading free music, and that the current crafts explosion started online. We know about forums and celebrity gossip; about sinister blokes “grooming” pre-teens in chat rooms; about funny clips on YouTube, online gaming and techy nerdery. But it’s a mysteriously under-reported fact that the internet has also dramatically changed the landscape for “ordinary” women. Many people still view technology as off-puttingly masculine and the joys of the online world as geekily blokeish – either that or a tiny bit sad. That’s certainly true at one level (there’s the overwhelming preponderance of porn, aside from anything else), but it ignores the seismic – and I don’t use the word lightly – difference the online world has made to women’s lives, by holding a mirror up to them and celebrating the minutiae of their existence as if it mattered.
And, of course, it does matter – it matters a million times more than Paris Hilton’s dress or penguins falling over on YouTube. It’s just that, pre-net, there was scant evidence that anyone cared at all. Now, thanks to the online world, where there was isolation, there is kinship and solidarity, where there was bleakness there is humour, where there was need, there is help offered, where there was sadness, there is support. And where there was a big, ordinary-person-shaped hole, there are brilliant women letting us into their lives in what seems less like narcissism than like an act of extreme generosity.
“I sometimes feel like an exile from real life, and the blog helps me feel more normal,” says Katy Wheatley, who writes as Katyboo (www.katyboo1.wordpress.com), echoing a sentiment familiar to many women bloggers. “I get what I call ‘washing-machine head’. My thoughts sort of go round on spin cycle endlessly and often make it difficult to function.”
Katy, 37, who lives in Glenfield, Leicestershire, started blogging when she worked in marketing: “I started a business blog and got more feedback on the personal stuff than on the business stuff. It never occurred to me that people might find the trivia of my life interesting.” She now blogs for between an hour and three a day.
Her sphere is domestic, from the mundane to the peculiar. One memorable entry concerns a smear test: “Apparently, my cervix is on sideways, which may explain a lot of things. ‘Oh, yes! I like to wear my cervix at a jaunty angle. It’s all the rage. Much like the resurgence of the beret.’ ” A huge part of the appeal of blogging, she says, lies in the people who leave comments beneath the entries. “The blog is more of a dialogue now – it started out as a soliloquy. I feel I have a kind of blog family.”
The blog family shares in the good times as well as the grim. Alexa Stevenson, 29, writes the brilliant blog Flotsam (www.flotsamblog.com), which she set up in 2005, from St Paul, Minnesota. Apart from liking the discipline of writing for an audience, “no matter how small”, she started writing out of need.
“I was preoccupied with my infertility, and I had nobody in my offline life to talk to about it. So in the beginning, my blog was mostly a place to talk about grief over my miscarriage and to connect to other women who couldn’t get pregnant. The subject matter has changed as my life has changed. I’ve talked about pregnancy, the loss of my son, my daughter’s stay in intensive care, and now parenting, because those have been the largest things in my life – though of course there is always room for whining, current events and assorted small, unrelated absurdities.”
Alexa found blogging “exciting and freeing”. “I felt like I’d found a whole community of funny, smart women talking about things I never talked about in real life. It was honest.” She feels more vulnerable now that her audience has grown, but still spends six hours a week blogging. “It’s bizarre,” she says, “that I am more comfortable talking intimately with virtual strangers. But I’m more of the stiff-upper-lip school, and I don’t generally discuss feeling sad with people I know in real life, because pity embarrasses me.”
There remain, of course, more blogs with eye-popping content than you could shake a stick at. Some are straightforward titillation, such as Belle de Jour (belledejour-uk.blogspot.com), whose book The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl sold by the truckload (there have been three more since) and inspired a television series. Some are nicely written, occupy that strange middle ground between the erotic, the fallibly human and the educational, and chronicle the author’s sexual experiences, such as the lure of infidelity in My Married Life), or the adventures of Girl with a One Track Mind (www.girlwithaonetrackmind.blogspot.com). Here is the latter writing about blood on the sheets despite her period not being due: “Usually, after having sex, one does not expect to find blood everywhere.” If it’s frankness, extreme or otherwise, that you’re after, you’re spoilt for choice.
While women sex bloggers were, in their way, pioneers – for every one basically writing porn with one eye on a book deal, there is another writing about the innermost sexual concerns of women with humour, honesty and occasional anxiety – the most dramatic difference the internet has made to women is in terms of what we must slightly patronisingly call “the domestic sphere”, particularly parenting and family life.
In the prehistoric era before sites like Mumsnet, which launched in 2000, existed, women had no friendly, accessible, sympathetic outlet in which to articulate their queries or anxieties – or let off steam, moan, cry, witter pointlessly, laugh hysterically. This isn’t because women were friendless or had no partners or health visitors or anyone else to talk to. It was because this stuff – about irritating husbands or weird rashes or family-friendly holidays, about having kids with special needs or being a single parent or being bored or going to work or staying at home, about what’s on telly and what boots to buy this winter and how you don’t really feel like having sex – isn’t necessarily appropriate work chat, or what you want to tell your friends on the rare occasions you actually manage to get away from your children.
The problem is, or was, that these questions and thoughts and concerns are also the stuff life is made of. They are both trifling and huge, silly but important, dull but gripping, ephemeral but permanent – and universal. They are the stuff that connects us all, and before the internet, they had nowhere to go. There are some things you can only ask strangers – because asking a friend, colleague or relative would cause them to question anything from your child-rearing methods to your commitment to your work, to the state of your marriage or the state of your sanity. And then of course there’s the more outré stuff, usually to do with sex: who on earth do you ask the explicit question of? If you’re curious about anything from threesomes to lubricant recommendations to where to find female-friendly pornography, you can hardly send out a round-robin e-mail.
The net is a vast repository of women’s sexual concerns. If men worry about penis size, women seem to worry increasingly about being asked to recreate improbable pornographic scenarios at the expense of “normal sex”. These are not topics likely to be covered in glossy magazines. But the appeal of online goes beyond sex queries: nowhere else in the traditional media are women allowed to express the fact that they might be anxious, confused, scared, muddling through without really having a clue. The debate on working versus stay-at-home mums has had the unfortunate effect of silencing women. Saying you sometimes feel bored at home is viewed as an admission of defeat – clearly you should be at work. Saying you miss your kids while you work is seized on as evidence of the opposite. Nobody dares to pipe up. Not in real life, at any rate.
The sisterhood – or a disparate, chaotic, joke-loving 21st-century version of it – is thriving online, in a way that isn’t necessarily evident in “real” life, where women often seem to like nothing better than sitting in judgment on other women. Which isn’t to say the online world is devoid of bitchery or spite: there’s plenty of it about. “Someone recently dropped by to tell me my baby is ugly and ‘needs a good punch in the face’,” says Alexa, which is incredible after what she has been through with her children. “There are always a few people who feel impelled to be cruel to strangers for reasons passing under-standing. But they’re in the minority, thankfully.”
There is also an embarrassment of clever, articulate, supportive, funny, savvy women eager to engage with others. Say you’re a new mother, with her first child, who is on maternity leave and at home all day with the new baby. You can easily feel you are slowly losing your marbles: change, feed, nap, change, feed, nap, cry, why am I so tired, bath, there’s nothing for supper, change, feed. I’m not talking about postnatal depression, but about that where’s-my-life-gone? feeling all parents experience at some time – feelings that it was never quite polite to air in public, and that aren’t invited in parenting magazines, where everything is rosy and swathed in Cath Kidston.
Women-friendly online sites and forums started serving as a vast repository for all this stuff. The internet – home of porn and weirdness – quickly also found itself to be sisterhood central, a place where women could go to seek guidance, advice, jokes and comfort from other women who were usually total strangers. The result was that women started feeling supported, befriended and not alone. And these “small”, “domestic”, “feminine”concerns – boxed in since the advent of feminism, because we’ve all been supposed to be too busy busting the glass ceiling to concern ourselves with whether guinea pigs make good pets – had finally found an outlet. Mumsnet, to pick just one parenting site, now has 850,000 unique users a month. Two weeks ago it made the front pages when Gordon Brown took part in a live web chat with its members and refused a dozen times to divulge what his favourite biscuits are. But beyond biscuits, it’s full of wit, smarts, opinion and vim. It takes for granted that you can be as interested in politics as in weaning methods, as preoccupied by the Middle East as you are by making a really good Hallowe’en costume.
What all of these women chatting online led to was a dramatic re-evaluation of what it was and wasn’t okay to say about family life and parenting. And eventually, with the advent of this new honesty, came parenting blogs. There are hundreds – hundreds of thousands, probably – some better than others; the ones featured in these pages are all highly recommended. Heather Armstrong, who blogs as Dooce at www.dooce.com, is probably the most widely read “mummy blog” in the world. She writes on everything from depression and skin cancer to Mormons, has millions of readers and is worth a reputed $40,000 a month in advertising revenues. Parenting blogs written by women differ wildly in quality, style and content, but they have this in common: the writers aren’t slumped in front of This Morning, flicking through a magazine that bears no relation to their life, wondering whether they should renew their Prozac prescription. Or if they are, they’ll post something blackly funny and resonant about it later.
They aren’t shuffling about, feeling they’ve lost all powers of communication, because regardless of how knackered they are, they’re writing for, and communicating with, a constituency of devoted, supportive readers. Mother’s Little Helper is no longer a drink or a Valium-induced fug: it is being creative and vocal by writing, online, for free, for whoever cares to have a look, about everything from the tragic to the sublimely funny, from the microscopic topic to matters of life and death. This seems to me nothing short of revolutionary; I’d go as far as to say that the writing of the “mummy bloggers” is as epoch-defining as anything that Marilyn French or Betty Friedan ever came up with (though of course it owes them an enormous debt). No wonder that the subject of Motherhood, a new film starring Uma Thurman, is “mummy blogging”. She says it’s about: “How do you hang onto the image of yourself you had when you were in your twenties? Where does that self go?”
The idea of shy or anxious people wanting to be heard is a recurring one. “I am an egomaniac who’s also shy,” says Katy. “The internet is brilliant for people like me.” Antonia Cornwell, 38, who writes the blackly funny Whoopee at yetanotherbloomingblog.blogspot.com, says: “In real life, I never get to tell a story to the end. I think I have one of those voices that people instinctively talk over: it’s quite low and quiet. Maybe I should learn to shout.” Online, her voice is so compelling that you have to listen and join the fan club.
At first blogging was “an outlet, somewhere to put things that make people laugh. But the everyday-life stories have begun to outweigh the throwaway thoughts and ideas. When I have time, I draw cartoons for it, or put together photo-stories, short films or animations”. Antonia started blogging in 2006, halfway through her first pregnancy. “It was important to start a blog before the baby came: I knew having a baby would change me and my relationship with Ian, and I wanted to preserve as much as possible of who we were and what made us laugh before we were parents, so we didn’t forget.”
She had been reading other people’s blogs for a year or so and felt: “I can do this.” (If you fancy the idea, you can have a professional-looking blog up and running in under five minutes using sites such as Posterous or Tumblr.) Her blog can be exceedingly funny, as when she discusses her doomed attempts at pleasuring her partner, or creates photo-stories using small plastic figures from the Early Learning Centre. Again, the idea of blogging was intimately tied up with her sense of self: “It has done a lot for my confidence, which hit rock-bottom when I gave up work to have a baby. My shelves at home have embarrassing books like Increase Your Confidence and How to Use Your Voice that I hide when people come round. Gradually building up a readership of people who really like what I write has made me feel confident in myself again. Last July at the BlogHer conference in San Francisco, I read one of my blog posts to a crowd of about 1,000 people who all fell about laughing. It was a real turning point.”
Women bloggers inform as well as entertain. Grit, who home-educates her triplets in Britain and writes the excellent, spirited, funny and indescribable gritsday.blogspot.com, is a case in point. “I started the blog because I was leading a bizarre life, the sort where fact and fiction blend into each other,” she says. “I was mothering triplets at home in a bomb site when my husband flew in from the West Bank. He changed his trousers and passport, then flew off to Jordan. Six weeks later he’d be in China and I’d be at home making trucks out of cardboard. Through writing I’ve come to terms with situations, and I can honestly say I like where we are now and I feel comfortable. And I’ve learnt that, for us, bizarre is normal.” Grit also blogs specifically to enlighten people about the joys of home-educating their children: “Home education can offer a truly real-life education. And I hope that from the blog you can see that a home-educating lifestyle can be a lot of fun as well as a lot of hard work.”
Blogging also presents very 21st-century opportunities for new friendships, both real and online. Even a few years ago the idea of meeting up in real life with people you’d “met” online was eccentric and desperate at best and sinister at worst, but it is now perfectly reasonable, not to say commonplace. I developed such a crush on Belgian Waffling that I more or less forced her to meet me. Equally novel is the notion that you have online friends and that those friendships can be of real value. I have a girlfriend whose husband, watching her at her laptop, is fond of sneering, “Are you playing with your pretend friends again?”, blithely unaware that only the support and advice she receives from these “pretend friends”, rather than from the counselling sessions she attends with him, has delayed her instigating divorce proceedings.
Antonia says: “I never made many fantastically close friends before my twenties, because I was reluctant to share anything I thought private with anyone. Blogging has broken that down. I’ve met probably a half-dozen people I feel will be friends for life and about 20 to 30 other readers. If someone e-mails me and says they’re coming to London and would love to meet up, I always say yes. If they know what they know about me and still want to meet me, then hooray! And they always turn out to be genuinely lovely, interesting people.”
Like all the bloggers I spoke to, Antonia reads her comments avidly: “They are what set blogs apart from other forms of writing: the immediate feedback, the creation of a small community, the development of in-jokes. My father writes Proper Novels for a living [he is Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe series], and he was fascinated by the blog format when he first found out about mine, because my readers jump up and react to me immediately. It’s fantastic.” She adds: “Since blogging, I’ve made a lot of friends abroad, and a lot of my social life happens on screen now rather than face to face.”
Grit agrees: “That sharing of ideas, resources, support, practical help is an essential part of blogging. There’s a wider community too; we were in Hong Kong this year and I’d corresponded with a blogger based there. She invited us over to say hello. She was totally beautiful, poised, elegant – everything I’m not. I would never have met her in real life. Yet here we were, taking tea together halfway across the world. I felt there was a lot of shared value and understanding we’d gained through the blogs.”
Katy is positive too: “The good thing I’ve found is connecting with people who appreciate me for some of my less gregarious traits. There are people who respond to my anarchism, my refusal to play by the rules and my grumpy old bastardishness. It’s not often you get to ‘click’ with someone at that level. I try to rein in those qualities in my day-to-day life in order to escape unscathed. And, yes, I’ve been amazed by how supportive people are.”
For Alexa, whose book, Half-Baked, will be published in the US next year, the comments are truly cathartic: “Re-reading the messages I received after my son died, or when my daughter, Simone, was in the hospital, still makes me cry. I can’t count the number of times I was facing something difficult and felt bolstered by the knowledge that I had all these marvellous people cheering me on. They’ve given me comfort and advice, and they’ve made me think.”
The author of Motherhood: The Final Frontier (motherhoodthefinalfrontier.com), or MTFF for short, is a former pop star who prefers, for obvious reasons, to remain anonymous – I’ll call her B. She’s an expat and mother of two, a Brit living in California, and started blogging in 2008. “It’s the first writing I’ve done that doesn’t rhyme or repeat,” she says. B started blogging to record her children’s childhoods, “but now it’s more of a place for me to share my view of the world as seen through the lens of motherhood”. She felt “quite daring” at first, but now sees blogging as “an intrinsic part” of her life and identity. “It’s partly the connection to my own culture. As a Brit in California and mother of small children – a tiny, isolated island – I miss my tribe. A lot of the people who read my blog are British and parents themselves and I can relate to them even though I’m 6,000 miles away.”
She also thrives on readers’ comments: “They make me feel supported, understood, cheered up, and as if people are glad that I’m blogging. I spend all my time with tiny savages, my husband works a lot, I am living in a small town in California far away from my real friends and a proper city, and I was almost at Shirley Valentine talk-to-the-wall stage. But the blog talks back!”
I asked if she thought all women who blog are longing for “me” space. “Clearly, some of us are. I am,” she replied. “And we are also longing for ‘we’ space, because this is not only where we write, it’s where we meet.” Antonia agrees: “Now I’m a parent, I no longer have any physical space with a door that is my territory, so in some way the blog makes up for that. It satisfies the show-off in me, too.” And so does Katy: “One reason I divorced my first husband was because I’d stopped seeing myself as ‘me’. I was a wife, mother, worker, etc. I now make sure that I nurture myself as an individual, and blogging is a big part of that.”
“Proper” writers are often very sniffy about bloggers. But there is a guilelessness about the best bloggers that suggests a degree of frankness far beyond anything the professionals have to offer. This warts-and-all aspect is what keeps people reading, of course. Some blogs are like soap opera, except grittier and sadder – the ring of truth is often deafening.
This throws up the question of what bloggers will and won’t write about. The ones I spoke to all gave variations on the “anything that would hurt or embarrass anyone I love” theme. But it also causes one to wonder what their children will think when they are old enough to read their mothers’ confessionals. I asked my bloggers whether this was a cause for concern. I was quite surprised by their answers and by the optimism they suggested.
Katy said: “I want my children to read my blog. I’m such a grumpy cow in real life, I want them to realise (a) I did listen to them, (b) I do love them and (c) I do try to understand them. I’d also like them one day to realise their mother might have had a whole other life.
“I remember being slightly overawed by my parents. Growing up and finding out their failings came as a huge shock to me. I’ve always tried to be much more transparent with my children, so they don’t feel burdened with the idea that they have to grow up to be perfect. I expect my constant swearing, crying, failure to be organised and turn up for anything will help, but the blog will be the icing on the cake.”
Antonia agreed: “I hate the idea of raising a family with secrets.” She looks forward to her children reading her blog: “I want them to enjoy a little thrill of being known and read about in some small way. When I was a baby, my picture was used in Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child, and when my father began writing, he gave his main character a daughter with my name. These little things used to make me feel look-that’s-me happy, a bit special.
“I write to sort of celebrate my children, not put them down or make them a laughing stock, and I hope I never share anything about them that would embarrass them one day. I do share things about their father and me they’ll probably find acutely embarrassing, such as accounts of our bungled attempts at sex. Of course, in 10 years’ time my kids will probably have their own blogs, so they can get back at me as much as they like.”
Alexa also finds blogging to be celebratory: “People talk a lot about the way the anonymity of the internet fosters cruelty and the other less-appetising facets of human nature. But nothing has inspired more awe and hopefulness for me than the kindness and humanity I have seen online. People coming together to support people they’ve never met – it’s beautiful, I think.”