I learnt to smoke when I was 11 in the horse-riding stables where I spent most of my afternoons after school. The main reason I learnt to smoke was because of a boy called Renato. Renato was 16. He was a really good show-jumper, had a great pony and a permanent tan. He had long, browny-gold curly hair and showed up to the stable on a Vespa every day wearing mirrored glasses. He was really flirtatious with all the older girls and always really nice to me, which was important at a time when I was going through an unfortunate phase when I was neither a girl nor a boy, let alone a woman. In retrospect I think Renato was probably gay. But for the purposes of this story he was what I looked forward to most when I went to my locker in the stables to put away my saddle and bridle.
Three things were fashionable in the stables at this time: 1) Smoking. 2) Writing and drawing on each other’s lockers with UniPosca. 3) Those platform ankle boots that have recently been brought back by TopShop. I was only interested in the first two of these. As a kid I was very fond of setting dates and limits for things, restricting things into a superstitious bracket within which they had to happen or else never be thought of again. So I decided that by June 21st I would learn to smoke and I would pluck up the courage to ask Renato to do a doodle on my locker, all in the same day. Being 11 I was scared that my parents would catch me or (worse still) that a shop owner would laugh at me, so I didn’t buy my own cigarettes. Everyone around me was smoking either Marlboro Lights or Camel Blues – Renato smoked Marlboro Reds of course – so cigarettes were offered to me continually and I continually refused them. Not as one might expect, because my school had drilled into me that “It’s cool to say NO!” but because of my ‘big worry’. The big worry was very simply that I would do it wrong. I had never smoked before and yet when asked if I wanted a cigarette I would never say “No, I don’t smoke”, I would always just say “Not now.” Somehow I had got it into my head that the 16 and 15 year-olds would actually believe that I was a smoker, that they had just never seen me smoke, but that in fact I was a regular Clint Eastwood. So I came up with a strategy to teach myself to smoke in time for the grand reveal of June 21st.
I’ve always been laborious when it comes to tidying things up and would most often be the last person in the stable-room where everyone gathered after classes to smoke. Once everyone had gone and I had been left alone I made it my practice to scope the joint for the best looking, least smoked cigarette butts. I’d pick a few up, brush them off, straighten them and then I’d sit on a locker, light up and puff away satisfied and filled with a sense of purpose. I can still taste the tangy acridity of those pre-saliva-ed cigarettes, and none have ever tasted as sweet since. When June 21st came round I was a pro. Renato offered me a Marlboro Red and I smoked it nonchalantly to the gratifying “Oos” of the older girls. With a shocking pink UniPosca, in that rounded writing that was cool in the early noughties, Renato wrote TVB on my locker, an acronym that stood for the equivalent of Luv Ya! It was, all in all, a terrific success.
Occasionally I catch myself slipping into that semi-shameful state of fear that induced me to pick up filthy cigarette butts in a mouse-infested stable in order to prove I was good at something. The idea of trying something when I am not fully competent at it terrifies me beyond anything. I can’t really cook, I can’t ski and I can’t put my bike chain back on because I’m afraid of the phase that precedes being able to do these things – being lousy at them, and being witnessed being lousy. What terrified me most about learning to smoke was not being made fun of, or not being cool – I was very far from cool aged 11, my favourite thing was audiobooks – but trying something and not being good at it was an absolute obsession.
It’s become apparent to me that people can roughly be divided into two categories – those who throw themselves into things and those who perfect things. Women seem to be more inclined to fall into the second category. What strikes me again and again is how difficult it is for women to ‘just do something’ and ‘own their shit.’ I know great swathes of talented women who are often as ambitious, driven, talented and competent as their male counter-parts but who have some form of restraint that prevents them from promoting themselves or putting themselves forward in the same way that men do. It goes back as far as dynamics in school. It’s a reluctance related to a sense of shame or embarrassment, a feeling that putting yourself forward leads to exposing yourself to unwanted criticism. But exposure and criticism clearly can have an incredibly positive impact as well. It seems to me that when it comes to weighing up the pros and cons of putting yourself forward, a lot of women find that the risk of criticism outweighs the merits of ‘owning’ what you do and promoting it.
A part of me reluctantly feels that this stems from women’s (dare I say it) natural inclination towards self-scrutiny and self-loathing. It powers that drive towards perfection but it also wrangles up fear in a way that is counter-productive, whether you work as a creative or as a suit. It affects me on a daily basis. Acknowledging that this exists as a phenomenon is enough. Without predicating a form of Lean In (which I more or less am) I think acknowledging the existence of this is important on some level – I don’t suggest women get over it and be bigger than their hang-ups – I suggest they put themselves forward in spite of them. I can’t win out against those feelings of self-doubt, shame, and fear – I can’t make them go away. But what I can do is acknowledge them, function in spite of them, and ‘own my work.’
I put my bike chain on for the first time by myself last week, in front of a bus stop where a bunch of people had nothing better to look at. I stepped in a dog pooh while doing so and it took me about 10 minutes because I kept putting the chain on wrong. But it was ok. I still get a shiver of fear every time I try something new or expose myself to public scrutiny but I’ve been doing it more and more, and every time it terrifies and embarrasses me a little less. And these days I smoke like a pro – something I will never forgive Renato.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna
Photo Credit Olivier Kervern