Today is a fabulous day, but…

ImageHappy International Women’s Day! 

Firstly, let me say, I love IWD. It creates a brilliant platform to celebrate women’s stories, women’s history and women’s activism. I particularly love the stories you hear about activism from around the world – last year I went to see Angélique Kidjo and Fatoumata Diawara perform and share stories of women in Benin and Mali at the Women of the World Festival at the South Bank Centre.

I am also very grateful to IWD – I got my first job in politics after going to a panel discussion to mark IWD in 2009. I was so inspired I decided to hound one of the panellists for an internship, and that eventually led to a job in Parliament with Emily Thornberry MP. 

And it’s in Parliament, on the theme of women’s political representation, where I’m going to stay today – this blog post does not have a very international flavour I’m afraid. It’s been revealed today that tax and benefit changes since 2010 have hit women nearly four times worse than men. Yes, you read that right,FOUR TIMES worse. 

Analysis by the House of Commons Library has shown that since 2010 George Osborne has raised a net £3.0 billion (21%) from men and £11.6 billion (79%) from women. Cuts to tax credits, reductions to childcare support through tax credits and child benefit cuts all contribute to these staggering statistics. 

When I read numbers like these the question I ask is why? Does George Osborne hate women? Is he on a mission to make women poor? Does he believe that the vast majority of families are supported by a male breadwinner? I believe the answer to the first two is ‘no’ – despite appearances I don’t believe the Chancellor hates women or is on a mission to raid their coffers – if only things were that simple! The answer to the third question though is probably ‘yes’, maybe I’m naive, but I prefer to believe his actions are misguided rather than blatantly sexist. 

And I don’t think it’s fair to solely blame the Chancellor for numbers like these – I hold the whole Treasury team and the Cabinet responsible. Mr. Osborne is powerful but the Prime Minister and his colleagues also have input into where the axe falls. And if you take a look at the Cabinet (which I urge you to do), you might realise what I’m getting at. 

Just four out of the 22 members of the Cabinet are female, and just one of the five Treasury ministers (scroll down to the ‘Our Ministers’ section). And I like to think that if women were a bit more visible in society, if women’s politics (and not women’s bodies) were a bit more prevalent in the media, there might be a few more women with a seat at the top table. And if all these things were the case then maybe, just maybe, everyone at the top table, women and men, would do their sums before they sharpen the axe.


Top 8 tips for getting hitched

Don’t panic, this hasn’t turned into a wedding blog… I wouldn’t dare try to enter into that very crowded part of cyber space!

But I did want to share a few tips for women like me who hadn’t started dreaming about their wedding dress at five-years-old. When I got engaged I couldn’t wait to marry Alby, the man I’ve been in love with for the last eleven years, but I was not at all prepared to be thrust into the world of weddings. And if you’ve not been planning your BIG DAY for 25 years, then it can be a pretty intimidating place. So here are my top tips for getting wed, without getting (too) stressed.

1. Throw out all the wedding magazines… or don’t buy any in the first place
We got engaged in August and were married the following February. Six months seemed like a long time to plan an event lasting just a day (and fortunately we didn’t need extra time to save). But all of the planners and to do lists in the wedding magazine we bought started 18 months before the big day. By their reckoning I was already a year behind and this fact started to freak me out big time. On top of that all the magazines were directed at me (the woman) and I had no intention of planning the day alone. So Alby and I made our own checklist in a Google spread sheet and like the geeks we are we colour coded it, splitting up the tasks between us. If you’re marriage is going to be an equal partnership, make sure it starts with the wedding.

2. Make sure someone has some Vaseline with them

Vaseline

This will sound crazy, but my biggest fear about the day itself was that Alby wouldn’t be able to get my ring on my finger. When I get nervous my hands sweat and swell… attractive I know! I ditched the wedding magazines, but I did check out a few blogs, and these are far less scary as they’re more focussed on real people, who actually got married, not 6 foot models in long white dresses clutching puppy dogs. The best piece of advice I gleaned from my browsing is to have the Vaseline nearby if you’re exchanging rings. My best friend and maid of honour Rosie had a tin at the ready while I checked the marriage certificate with the registrar before the ceremony. I smoothed a bit over my knuckle and hey presto! You might want to warn your groom that things could be a bit greasy but trust me, it’s better than being embarrassed in front of all your friends and family because he can’t get that ring on your finger!

3. If you’re a feminist don’t be shocked by the marriage certificate
Alby and I have talked a lot about how to make our marriage an equal partnership.  I’ve written before about all the negative connotations marriage has for feminists but why we decided marriage was the right step for us. So when I saw the marriage certificate I was, for a brief moment, saddened and disappointed. We had worked hard to remove any language that indicated I was chattel being handed from one man to another from the invitations and the ceremony. But on the marriage certificate there is space only for your father’s name and occupation, not your mother’s. I was raised by two parents, not one, so it seems an injustice that only one parent gets the credit. I am very close to both my parents, but if I had been raised by my Mum alone, or been brought up by a lesbian couple I would have found this very upsetting. Just a week before I got married a petition went online calling for mothers to be recognised on marriage certificates. Whether you’re planning a wedding or not, please sign it. Registers of births, marriages and deaths are one of the only ways the lives of most people are recorded, and we owe it to all mothers to stop their lives being written out of history.

4. Don’t feel you have to spend your deposit for your first home to have a beautiful wedding
Weddings, are expensive, there’s no escaping that fact. When you’re getting married people are so nice to you and it’s easy to throw money at them. Our parents were incredibly generous and we are so grateful for that. But there are lots of things you can do that save a few hundred here or there and soon the savings are adding up in a big way. Here are a few ways we cut costs without compromising on what we wanted. Use Ebay for decorations, make your own cake (trust me, if I can do it anyone can), ask friends and family to lend their help and expertise. Alby’s Dad and sister designed our wedding invites, his Mum made dessert, my wonderful hairdresser did my hair, a friend drove us to the ceremony and another friend was the DJ… and it sounds corny but having all these people that you love do these things, makes you feel so special. Getting married in February (or any Winter month) also helps on the money front in a BIG way. And let’s face it, with the way the climate’s going it’s almost as likely to rain in June as it is in February. There’s loads more ideas on the internet but these are the ways we managed to cut a few corners.

5. Spend on what’s important to you
We splashed out on some amazing photographers and it was the best money we’ve ever spent. We knew it was unlikely there’d be another day in our lives when all the people we love the most would be around us, so we wanted to get some lovely pictures of them. Pen and Cam, from Mckinley-Rodgers Photography, have given us a sneak peek of our snaps and we couldn’t be happier with them. If it’s the cake that’s important to you, get five tiers of rich chocolate, if it’s the shoes, head for Jimmy Choo… you won’t be getting married twice!

6. Prepare for people to feel it’s acceptable to comment your weight… ALL THE TIME
I collected my dress in December and wore it in February. I try not to worry about what I weigh – I don’t think it’s good for mental health – but equally I’m not immune to the pressure that comes from billboards, TV ads and magazines. I know where I feel comfortable and when I put on a few pounds I cut back on the cake and play more squash. It works for me but I rarely talk about it. In a world of thigh gapssize zero and thinspiration I don’t think the constant focus on diets and weight loss is helpful. But when you get married your weight becomes everyone’s business. I found the pressure of staying the same weight from December to February – not even having to lose weight (!) – quite tedious. Suddenly I was obsessing over something I normally wouldn’t think about. The irony of it was that when I tried on my dress a week before the wedding it was too long! Well, I hadn’t shrunk, I just hadn’t paid enough attention at my final fitting to the length! So my advice is, concentrate on staying the same height, if nothing else!

7. Just be yourself
Ok, this may sound obvious, but people have crazy expectations of brides. It starts in the wedding magazines which have hair and facial routines starting months before the wedding. Now, I like to look nice, smart, and sometimes quirky, but I rarely wear more make-up than a dash of mascara, and a slick of (that famous) Vaseline and I’ve never had a facial in my life. A colleague asked me a couple of weeks before getting wed if I had my spray tan and waxing booked. Countless people asked me if I was going to grow my bob into long hair. When I didn’t they asked me if I was going to have my hair curly! I’d never thought about all these options and I started to wonder if I should go for curls and a tanned bod. Luckily my hairdresser (who’s known me since I was four) said why would you want to look like anyone accept yourself? She was so right, so I ditched notions of curls, long or short, and looked just like me. I had my normal straight bob, expertly blow dried, and my pale and interesting skin, which has never bothered me before. I did employ a make-up artist at the last minute because I had a panic about doing it myself and she was perfect – she made me look natural and normal, like a better version of myself!

8. Take 10 minutes with your husband/wife on the day
A few friends said to us, make sure you take some time out of your day to survey all your friends and family have an amazing time. It’s essential advice – the day goes by in a flash: you think at 11am you have all the time in the world and before you know it you’re on the dance floor boogying with family and friends and it’s all almost over. It’s so special to have so many people there celebrating you and your relationship. There’s a mezzanine floor at the Lobster Shack, where we got married, and we snuck up there for a while to watch the party below. I won’t forget that moment… of looking down and watching our friends run up the bar tab on jager bombs!!!

The BIG DAY!

The BIG DAY! – McKinley-Rodgers Photography

Getting married is the best thing Alby and I have ever done. But for women in particular weddings can be stressful and overwhelming. There is an incredible amount of focus on you, and if you’re not used to that it can be very scary. So I really hope this post is of some help to any bride feeling a bit nervous, a bit overwhelmed, or bloody excited but stressed about the bank balance. And if you’re reading this and have no intention of ever getting hitched, don’t let that stop you signing the petition to get mums on marriage certificates. At the time of writing they were looking for another 2,599 signatures and it would be great to contribute in some small way to helping them achieve that.

Feminism is funny

My fiancé went on his stag do this weekend, so what did I do? I bought myself a ticket to a feminist play – Rapture, Blister, Burn at Hampstead Theatre.

To be honest I’ve avoided the theatre during the last few years (musicals excepted). To some people the following words will be sacrilegious, but I generally find the theatre to be a waste of money. The reason for this is the setting of the theatre itself; it’s warm, it’s dark and it’s filled with those ludicrously comfy velvet seats. The result is that somewhere between the curtain coming up and the interval I usually nod off into a deep slumber. To pay £50 for a good snooze is ostentatious at best and frivolous at worst.

But when I heard Emilia Fox and Emma Fielding (the stars of the performance) being interviewed on Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour, I decided to give the stage another shot. At £29 a ticket I knew that if the worst happened it would be a cheaper nap than some.

Well, it was the best £29 I’ve spent in a long time. The first observation I’m going to make is how strikingly theatre audiences seem to reflect the characters on stage. The place was packed with women. Some years ago I went to see a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all-black cast and it was the same – the majority of the audience was black. It seems to me it’s not that difficult to work out how to get audiences of greater diversity into theatres… anyway, I digress.

The play is set in the USA and is about two female friends who chose very different paths in life; Catherine opted for a career, as a feminist academic, Gwen opted for marriage and children. To complicate things Gwen married Catherine’s boyfriend Don, who she split up with to pursue a fellowship in London after university. Catherine moves home to care for her sick mother and after a decade apart she rekindles her friendship with Gwen. She ends up teaching Gwen and Gwen’s babysitter Avery a course in feminist theory.

Three generations of women explore the choices they’ve made through the vehicle of Catherine’s course in feminist theory. The play uses smart dialogue and intensely believable characters to collide academia and reality and the result is intelligent, emotional and really funny. Laugh out loud funny in fact. Much of the amusement comes from Avery, the teenager babysitter, who takes great enjoyment in doling out relationship advice to Catherine, although her own relationship, with a Mormon who’s making a reality TV show with her, is clearly far from perfect. Catherine’s mother, Alice (played by Polly Adams), who has a penchant for martinis, is also a source of much hilarity. 

I started this blog because I was frustrated with how removed feminist theory is from real life. This play brings the two together in a funny accessible way without passing judgement or patronizing women. I’ve never seen that done before and I’d like to pay tribute to Gina Gionfriddo who is an exceptionally talented playwright.

The one time I stayed awake for the duration of a play and I went to the theatre on my own! Normally I dread the post-play dissection with fellow theatre-goers, but on this occasion I’m dying to discuss Rapture, Blister, Burn with someone. So please, buy a ticket and let me know your thoughts.

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2013: Top 10 steps in the right direction

As usual for this time of year the media is filled with round-ups of 2013. When it comes to feminist takes on the last year though, there have been a lot of blogs and articles focussing on the sexism that took place in 2013. It makes for shocking and depressing reading. So I thought I’d focus on the positive: who are the women and men, and what are the events that took place, particularly in the political sphere, that are worth celebrating?

1. Malala Yousafzai

No one can forget Malala Yousafzai standing up at the UN on her sixteenth birthday to call for universal access to education. It’s nineteen minutes long but it’s worth watching the video in full. That girl is pure courage and pure inspiration.

2. Caroline Lucas MP says ‘No more page three’

Caroline Lucas MP made an impassioned speech about violence against women and media sexism whilst wearing a ‘No more page three’ t-shirt. She was told to cover it up with her jacket because she was not conforming to Parliament’s dress code. She then whipped out a copy of the Sun, available across the Parliamentary Estate. It seems bare boobs are fine, t-shirts on the other hand…

Caroline, I’ll embroider the slogan on a suit jacket for you if you want to do it again. Go girl.

3. New Zealand legalises gay marriage

Two videos for the price of one!

This is a brilliant and hilarious speech from MP Maurice Williamson in favour of gay marriage.

For me the laughter turned to tears  watching this video, when the bill is passed. I defy anyone not to be moved when the singing starts – beautiful.

4. Woman’s Hour Power List

I’m a real fan of BBC Radio 4′s Power List, put together by the fabulous team at Woman’s Hour. All of the other ‘lists’ of women I’ve ever seen are titled ‘sexiest’, ‘hottest’ or ‘most beautiful’. This list is a celebration of powerful woman and I think that’s pretty radical.

5. A Girl Called Jack 

A Girl Called Jack has been writing for some time, but she’s really been recognised by the media this year. She’s a young single mum, who after losing her job, found herself having to feed herself and her son on £10 a week. She’s got a blog of budget recipes, but she’s also a vociferous campaigner on child poverty and hunger. She’ll be one to watch as in 2014 she’s bringing out a book and she’s got an advertising deal with Sainsbury’s.

6. Wendy Davis speaks for 13 hours to try and block a bill in Texas reducing access to abortion

Wendy Davis was fighting Senate Bill 5, which banned abortions after 20 weeks and forced the majority of abortion clinics in Texas to close. Sadly the bill passed later in the year, but Wendy has vowed to run for Governor and make overturning it a priority. Wendy, we’re right behind you.

7. Germany allows parents not to register a baby’s sex at birth

This was a major step forward for individuals who are intersex and I hope that other countries follow in Germany’s footsteps in 2014.

8. Australia’s Prime Minister defends marriage equality

Australia’s Prime Minister spoke out in favour of gay marriage, having previously been opposed to it. Politicians are usually lambasted when they change their mind, but I think this is one U-turn we can all applaud.

9. Facebook changed its policies on rape and domestic violence content 

A coalition of activists launched the social media #FBrape campaign to lobby Facebook to change its policies around content that glorified rape and domestic violence. See, YOU can change the world. Facebook invited Women Action Media (WAM!) and The Everyday Sexism Project to provide  input on how its new Community Standards should look.

10. The World Health Organisation recognises violence against women as a ‘global health problem of epidemic proportions’

Having the recognition of an internationally respected organisation made global headlines. WHO’s landmark report on violence against women drew on studies from around the world, and found that more than 1 in 3 women will experience violence during their lifetime.

I hope that some of these stories and the people behind them inspire you and give you hope for the year to come. Let me know what inspired you this year.

Happy 2014!


Let’s keep knives away from vaginas

Labiaplasty is a plastic surgery procedure for altering the labia minora (inner labia) and the labia majora (outer labia), the folds of skin surrounding the human vulva. It’s often called the ‘Barbie’ surgery because it makes your down there, look like, well Barbie’s. If you’re still confused, there are before and after pictures of operations here. This week I read a BBC news article saying that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have warned that labiaplasty should not be carried out on the NHS.

The popularity of these operations has exploded in recent years and according to the BBC the numbers have increased fivefold in the last decade. Sometimes there’s a real need for this surgery and you only have to read these posts on Mumsnet to see why. But in recent years there’s been a trend for ‘designer vaginas’; vaginas that fit an ideal introduced by porn. And with porn now freely available through the internet, it’s become a standard that many men and women seem to expect.

We’ve seen the same thing happen with the removal of pubic hair – women in porn are bare down there and so many of the female public has followed suit. But shaving or waxing is reversible; it grows back and without any serious long-term side effects. Labiaplasty can leave women with pain, scarring,  less sensitivity and a host of other problems, and once it’s been done, it’s irreversible. You only have to read these heart-wrenching stories to realise that for many women having a ‘designer vagina’ left them feeling butchered, scarred and violated.

Personally I’ve always felt uneasy about cosmetic surgery. While it’s obviously a personal choice, it’s always seemed a great shame to me that women (and men) feel the need to nip here and tuck there to fit a body ideal that doesn’t exist; that people feel so unhappy in their skin that they’re prepared to undergo major surgery with all the risks that come with it. For so many people to be running to the operating table to change how they look I think says more about the problems of our society, than any problems with our bodies… but that’s another blog post for another day.

What I find incredibly ironic about labiaplasty is that while some women are desperate to go under the knife to have their vagina altered, others are fighting a long hard battle against female genital mutilation (FGM). What’s FGM?

Here’s the World Health Organisation’s description:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Sound familiar? Yes, to me that sounds a hell of a lot like cosmetic labiaplasty and FGM has been illegal in the UK for 28 years (although there are yet to be any prosecutions). FGM is understood to predominantly take place in African and Asian communities, and is performed both in the UK and abroad. Some 20,000 girls living in the UK are thought to be at risk and 140 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM.

You may think it’s crass to make comparisons between the two procedures. FGM is most often performed on children who have no choice. It often takes place in unsanitary conditions and carries far more health risks (including death) than labiaplasty. The point of FGM is to ensure women do not experience sexual pleasure so that they are virgins before marriage and remain faithful afterwards. I assume that women seeking a labiaplasty want to make themselves more sexually desirable, rather than remove their own feelings of pleasure. And women in a position to have a labiaplasty presumably know the risks and give their full, informed consent, which cannot be said for the frightened women and girls who suffer FGM.

Like all cosmetic surgery, to have a labiaplasty is  a women’s free choice, and I would always defend a women’s right to make her own choices about her own body above everything else. But I hope these women consider the irony of their choices in a world where so many other women are fighting to keep knives away from their vaginas.


Male/female: what happens if you don’t tick the box?

I’ve often wondered which social practices, that today are considered completely normal, will be exposed as being discriminatory and abusive in the next fifty years. What is it that we’re doing now that in 2063 will be viewed on a footing with unequal pay and marital rape?

I pick these examples because it was only in 1970 that it became illegal to pay a woman less than a man, and it was just 22 years ago (in 1991) that it became illegal to rape your wife. During the last century both of these things were viewed as widely acceptable, but in recent decades the tide of public opinion turned and now we have legislation to protect women facing these issues. So what are we doing today, that could be blindly causing harm and pain to others, which in the future will be deemed unacceptable?

At the LSE (where I did a Masters in gender theory) I remember spending hours in the library struggling to make sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble… and that was just the first chapter. I remember trying to wrap my head around new concepts of gender that had never occurred to me, because I’d never bothered to question the status quo. I remember struggling to articulate those concepts to those around me and trying to imagine what a better world might look like.

One of the things that really struck me was how to imagine gender. I’d always thought of male and female as secure categories, which were easy to define and articulate. It had never occurred to me to think of gender in any other way. But the more I read, the more I learnt. One of the things I realised was that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are born without without clear male or female genitalia, and so our obsession when a child is born about whether it’s a boy or a girl, whether to buy baby blue or baby pink, is actually incredibly unhelpful to a large number of parents.

As many as 1 in 2,000 babies are born intersex. That means that in the UK every single day there is at least one new mum having a conversation with a doctor about gender assignment surgery.

Parents are often pressured into decisions about surgery and gender assignment just days after their child comes into this world. One of things contributing to that pressure is that when you register a birth you have to register the child’s sex, and you have to do this within the first 42 days of life. Operating on a healthy newborn baby, to fit society’s idea of male and female seems fairly extreme, particularly in a culture which also places a high value on individualism and self-determination.

Having given all this stuff a lot of thought, I was fascinated to discover on Friday that Germany is to allow parents to leave the box for sex blank when registering children. The reason is to remove pressure from parents for assigning a sex to their child where they display both male and female genitalia. It’s a means for parents to register the birth of their baby, without forcing them into a box they just don’t tick.

There are some who say the new law doesn’t go far enough, that rather than leaving the box blank, parents should have a third box marked intersex that they can tick. I happen to agree, but I also think we should applaud Germany for being the first to make this landmark change. It’s easy to criticise reformers for not going far enough, but in a world where I find myself having to tick a box marked female at least every few weeks, I think Germany’s doing a pretty radical thing.

In 2063 I hope that being intersex is no longer a taboo, that gendered identities aside from male and female are not just acknowledged, but embraced. I hope that people realise that not everyone fits into the boxes marked male and female, and that that’s ok. At the moment we’re causing hurt without even realising it, and I hope that in fifty years’ time that’s changed.


I’m engaged! But I’m still a feminist.

She said yes!On the sixth of August I went on a cycle ride in the beautiful Kent sunshine with my boyfriend, Alby. We stopped off at a vineyard to taste some local wine where we bought a bottle of ‘Canterbury Choice’. The vineyard owner had started making wine as a retirement project, but the project had got too successful and he was running out of wine so he asked us not to tell our friends about the place – so I won’t advertise his business here (!) despite the fact that he does make an excellent dry white.

Anyway, we continued on our cycle ride, found a lovely picnic spot near the sea, opened our bottle of Canterbury Choice and tucked into a blue cheese and pearl barley salad we’d had for dinner the night before. I lay down with my head in Alby’s lap and he told me to close my eyes. When he said to open them again there was a small box on my tummy, and I was pretty sure I knew what was inside.

I am absolutely thrilled to be engaged to Alby. We got together when we were just teenagers and I don’t think either of us imagined we’d end up marrying each other. But I feel proud that we’ve carried each other through these past 11 years and I have no doubt he’s the one for me.

So, what’s the problem? Getting married has made me think very hard about my feminism. In fact, it was before Alby popped the question that I began contemplating what marriage means. I did a Masters in Gender at the LSE so it’s not like the issue hasn’t cropped up before, but it was during the campaign in the USA against Proposition 8 that I really got thinking. I have always been a strong supporter of gay marriage, and I thought most people I knew were too. So I was a bit shocked when some of my friends were questioning whether gay marriage is a good thing.

The argument rests on the fact that marriage as an institution has perpetuated inequality, so in the words of Dean Spade and Craig Willse ‘Expanding marriage to include a narrow band of same-sex couples only strengthens that system of marginalization and supports the idea that the state should pick which types of families to reward and recognize and which to punish and endanger.’

It’s a strong argument, but for those (like me and Alby) that want to publicly declare their love for each other, make a promise to be there for each other until the end of our days, and cash in on the £200 Tory tax break (only joking!), it’s not particularly helpful. Our decision to marry is about love and emotion and this argument is somehow devoid of that.

I have to say, for those young feminists who are seriously contemplating marriage, there’s not much advice out there. Wedding magazines steer clear of this thorny issue, in fact wedding magazines inspire a whole kind of other anxiety. Their pages are filled with ‘To do lists’ that start 18 months before your wedding. We decided to organise our wedding in six months, so technically I’m a year behind!

Anyway, I digress, there are a couple of good blog posts out there and this one titled ‘Who wants to marry a feminist?’ is full of helpful insights. Lisa Miya-Jervis concludes ‘Marriage, is now, potentially what we make it.’ We intend our marriage to be a partnership and I hope we will be able, in our own small way to redefine an institution, which hasn’t always been a good thing for women. Obviously, where the removal of dead rodents is concerned, responsibility lies squarely with Alby, but apart from that we intend to share the responsibilities of home and work and ask ourselves tough questions if that ever stops happening.

I’m acutely aware that women have a long way to go before we live in anything close to an equal world but I don’t believe marriage needs to be a retrograde step in that journey. Any celebration of love should be cherished, because for anyone who’s been to a wedding or civil partnership, they’ll know it truly is a beautiful thing. Marriage is what we make it and it’s only by getting married, we can make marriage better.


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