Sykes' collection of essays covers a surprisingly large amount of ground for a relatively short book. She turns her attention to a lot of the inner turmoils that seem to plague millennials' inner monologues, as well as broader societal issues: fast fashion, the "true self", instagram husbands, and work-life balance all feature. How do we know we're doing it right? clearly comes from a lot of careful conversations, introspection, and research but at times Sykes seems to lose herself under disjointed quotations of other peoples' words. When she does start to connect others' research to her own opinion, the two feel a little disjointed, which is a shame because both raise good points worth discussing.
I hadn't heard of Pandora Sykes before I saw this book in a local bookshop. I'm a sucker for strong feminist essayists, and also for buying books on a whim so I picked this up. It turns out this is Sykes' first collection of essays, though she's a seasoned editor, journalist, and broadcaster according to her own website.
I was initially worried that I'd bought a well-written book aimed at a more female more middle-aged more parent audience. The first couple of chapters spoke about parenthood and domestic life, and the environmental and psychological toles of fast fashion. Both of these things are issues that we should all be aware of, regardless of our role as child guardian or garment buyer, but both aren't things I spend a lot of my time being affected by1. Not to brag, but I have practically no children and I'm really trying to avoid shopping in H&M (or at least feeling appropriately guilty when I do). Though it was fun to have a well-spoken and funny woman complain about the state of a hypothetical husband and baby-daddy - some parts of the book definitely felt less relevant or less targeted at me. I could clearly see what was being said, I just couldn't relate.
And then something happened. Suddenly Sykes was talking my language: in talking about social media use and its effects on us, she spoke about her own very purposefully spent time unplugged not because it was "so good" or "well balanced" but because she recognised it's what she needs for her brain to function in a way that makes her happy. Not because she wants to humble-brag or shame others, but because genuinely it is the right choice for her. This is something I've had simmering at the back of my brain for a while: that the inner monologue a lot of creatives rely on is being pushed aside for this content. It's not even limited to creatives - everyone can benefit from providing their mind more unoccupied space move in, or less noise to speak above depending on your metaphor of choice.
She mentions, but I don't think does justice, to the constant input from, or demands made by, technology on our attention and time. She makes some really great points about Cultural Homework - about how there's always that series or film to watch. But this almost already feels outdated against the algorithm-run media platforms of Twitter, podcasts, YouTube, and Netflix. There's always more material, there's always something "we think you'll love" or something "everybody's talking about" even if no one you know ever actually speaks about it. These recommendations will be served up to you unless you actively stop it. This is a different point to the Cultural Homework idea, but I think it's got a lot more potential to destroy the internal conversations, meandering thoughts, and quiet moments that make us... us.
I'm a software engineer by day but creative by night, and these are issues I think about a lot, so I don't think it's fair to judge someone's work for not writing about things that I personally find very interesting. In all, Sykes does what all good essayists do: taken some nebulous thoughts and feelings and put them into coherent words.
It's also wonderful to hear the strong feminist currents through pretty much all the pieces. Sexism, like any other kind of prejudice, is plagued by the idea of a micro-aggression. While the right wing of the political spectrum have got a hold of this word and use is pejoratively to dismiss any discontent as an overreaction, Sykes is able to pinpoint specific examples and lay them in front of you. When she's talking about social media usage from a woman's perspective it becomes plain how female empowerment, voice, and worth still rely on external validation for their power, which often comes from their aesthetic beauty.
This slight shifting of the rules is not the same as the ground-up change that we need. Changing the standards of "beauty" is not the same as changing the "source of power". It's easy to be placated by a celebration of stretch marks and natural hair (looking at you, Kendrick) and Sykes reminds us that we still need to go further.
As a dude, I don't want to talk about why something might make me feel inexplicably icky, because often I am a witness not a participant, and often the last thing we need now is another dude speaking on behalf of women. This means that I don't have a lot of experience putting into words why something makes me feel icky - but this book gave me that. It gave me concrete examples and it gave me a well-considered viewpoint from both a participant and an observer perspective.
And she does all this without ever asking for, or demanding, you believe her. Perhaps if I came into this book without already agreeing with her, I wouldn't have found the arguments so convincing. But I don't think her intention is to convince or persuade so directly. I might as well score the book a 0 because it taught me nothing about the economics of wool in 1400s Morocco. Instead, the tone I got was of someone patiently and considerately explaining why they think and act the way they do, and let's stop for a second to realise that this is totally the
~magic of books~ and the wonder of reading.
While it's very clear that she has her own opinion on the matter, this often feels disconnected from the citations or research she puts in. She'll often throw in a bunch of quotes from books, or personal e-mail exchanges (which aren't published by the way, but I'd 100% read that in a serialised newsletter, Sykes) and then in a paragraph move onto something which feels... sort of related? I got a lot of good book and author recommendations, but it felt like she had a quota for her bibliography? I'd prefer to see these references linked better into the main body of text, or at least acknowledged consistently. Sometimes she'll come back to mention and author or a work, but a lot of the time it's "as [AUTHOR] says in [WORK] 'word word word'" and then we never hear about [AUTHOR] or [WORK] again in any detail.
With that said, I would recommend this book. I made a lot of notes in the margins - I got a lot of good further reading, and she gave me a lot of examples and words for things which I will use in the future. I look forward to anything Sykes write in the future and I'll definitely pick it up, as I think there's room for a tighter, more informed writing style. Alternatively, she can keep things just the way she is, and I can feel like my clever patient badass friend is explaining things to me and I'd still read it. 3.5⭐
Men can be equally as targeted by fashion marketing which preys on insecurities - fortunately the algorithms that serve us adverts never place them in front of me.↩