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How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

Juggling emotions and expectations, comparing models in magazines with the stretch marks in the mirror, sexism, bras, motherhood: there is a lot to being a woman today. Thankfully, British author Caitlin Moran, in her recent memoir How To Be A Woman, promises to show how it’s done.

Moran writes about her childhood in Britain in the mid-80s, her experience as a teen on the punk rock scene, and her eventual maturity in what is both memoir and manual; an illustrative coming-of-age story where reminiscences from her own past lead into thoughts from her present.

The book reads breezily, as if it were dashed off on the back of a shopping list. Included are bullet pointed lists, excerpts from her childhood diary, and rants punctuated throughout with caps lock as if her words are too strong for the page.

Each chapter has an enthusiastic title like “I Start Bleeding!” and “I am in Love!” With unflagging honesty she shares about everything from her past relationships: “by sheer force of will, I [got] a person, all my own,” to what she finally decided to call her vagina (hint: it’s not printable in most media).

How To Be A Woman pushes boundaries, not of what one is allowed to recall about one’s past, but about what a woman is allowed to experience. The topics seem taboo, but only because we’re not used to hearing a woman be so frank about her body and her sexuality.

Caitlin Moran is a passionate feminist, but a realistic one. To those who call her a bra-burner, she says “Fool. FOOL. Bra is my friend… except for that balcony-cup Janet Reger one that was an inch too small and cut off circulation to my head. Yeah. That one, I covered in gas and torched it outside the American embassy.”

Moran is funny, and finds humor in the darkest parts of her past. She tells stories about her negative body image, bullied childhood, and abusive boyfriend in a lighthearted, larky way. But despite her apparent flippancy, there is a sharp intelligence behind her jokes. Each part of her past illustrates an issue as she editorializes on celebrities, fashion, and society’s perception of women. Her observations are engaging; however, her memoir occasionally takes a backseat to her opinions and her experiences seem to be sugar-coating for her ideology.

She moves, for example, from a self-conscious teenager worrying about her weight, to breaking narrative and addressing the reader with “I would like you to stand on a chair and shout ‘I AM A FEMINIST’.” The story of her first period turns into an ALL CAPS RANT about pornography’s objectification of women. Moran is, by trade, a columnist, and the memoir reads like a series of essays.

This is a shame, because her storytelling is so compelling. “I’m 16 I’m 16 I’m 16, and these are my best clothes,” she writes when remembering her first crush “and this is my best day, and a loft of pigeons flash past us, wings like linen, and it’s autumn, and the sky goes on forever, and I can wait for him, I’ll just wait for him she [his girlfriend] might die, after all, she could die so easily; people drop dead on buses all the time.”

In the flashes of her life that she chooses to include, we are given glimpses of Moran as she moves from misfit to successful writer, wife, and mother. As she grows up, the tone also becomes less breezy. The account of the birth of her oldest daughter, for example, is harrowing, and stomach-clenchingly graphic.

When she writes about her abortion, she is spare and careful. “The nurse was kind, but also, obviously, already putting her coat on and thinking about getting out the door,” she writes mutedly, “we all seem to have agreed, at some point, to pretend that we’re not here…”

Throughout the book, How to be a Woman is brash and bright and scandalous. While the disjointed narrative might not “work” to convey a history of Moran’s past, if one views it as a series of essays rather than a coherent memoir, it is engaging, thought-provoking, and extremely funny. For the woman who can embrace Moran’s coarse and earnest voice—or the brave man seeking insight into the female mind—there is enough wisdom in the book’s madness to make it well worth the read.