This evening I found out what a bikini bridge is. I wasn’t seeking out this knowledge; I was reading the news and it popped out at me, unbidden. The trouble is, now I can’t ever un-know it (to give you a chance, I’m not linking to the piece in question). Bikini bridges will henceforth be stored in my brain alongside thigh gaps, muffin tops, bingo wings, cankles and a million other terms which exist solely to make women hate their bodies a great deal and their minds even more.

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When I first heard that the BBC had apologised for a “revealing” dress worn by a female presenter before 9pm, I felt extremely annoyed. What kind of world is this? Of all the things one could complain about – Justin’s House, poverty porn, the mere existence of Bill Turnbull – why take issue with a flash of boob? Hell, there wasn’t even any nipple involved. What next? A primetime modesty code? Is it just me, or is it nothing we haven’t seen before at this time – except usually the boob-flasher’s not actually doing any talking?

Having since examined the apology in question, I’m less distressed. It strikes me as more of a fauxpology. The BBC is sorry “if some viewers found Holly’s dress to be unsuitable” but “felt the dress she wore was glamorous and wholly appropriate for the occasion”. So really, if you’ve got problems with a bit of female flesh, deal with it, matey. We don’t like you being sad but seriously, get a grip. (more…)

This evening I am the parody of a spoilt middle-class feminist who can’t stop herself from getting in a tizz about relatively minor stuff. Oh yes, I am in a strop about a hair care advert. And yes, I know it’s not [insert your favourite "properly" bad thing to happen to women – MRAs are especially good at this]. But still, every now and then, providing you’re in a position to do so, it’s worth getting annoyed about the small stuff, if only because the small stuff remains really sodding annoying.

I’ve just been watching Dove’s latest advert for shampoo. It’s special shampoo because it repairs damage to your hair follicles, smoothing over all the rubbish bits using only the power of science and one quarter moisturiser (which is, as we all know, one of the key elements in the periodic table). Anyhow, I can’t find a link to it so you’ll have to trust me on this. In all probability the shampoo’s amazing. It wasn’t that that irritated me. It was the fact that because they weren’t advertising something linked to bodies or skin or ageing, Dove couldn’t be bothered to slum it with ‘real’ women in their ad. There wasn’t a single minor flaw that isn’t really a flaw only now you’ll think it is because Dove’s made such a big deal of it in sight. This lack of consistency really pissed me off. Either patronize us one way or another. You can’t do both! (more…)

Baby bump: a stomach swollen to beyond its usual size due to the presence of a fetus. Precise size of bump will vary, dependent on age of fetus, genetic heritage of stomach owner and sheer bloody randomness. And, um, that’s about it as far as baby bumps are concerned, only that’s not saying much. So here are some further facts I’ve compiled, mainly out of annoyance at all the inexplicable admiration that the Duchess of Cambridge is getting merely for having a small one:

  • If you are famous, it is not possible merely to go out and about while in possession of a bump. You “debut” said bump, then “flaunt” it. To be fair, you might then go on to do a nude magazine cover with arms “tastefully” covering your tits but at this point why not? Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
  • Small bumps are, generally, good.* For instance, if you’re the Kate Middleton-as-was it’s really classy. Reporters can’t shut up about how petite it is, with the Express claiming that Kate “will be the envy of many pregnant women as she’s still modelling a tiny figure despite being six months gone”. Meanwhile reality TV star Kim Kardashian “blooms”, that is to say she is distastefully large. So too are Jessica Simpson, Lara Stone and “Channing Tatum’s wife Jenna Dewan” – pregnant porkers, one and all. Bet William’s relieved he didn’t pick one of them to produce his heir.
  • It is possible to “dress” a baby bump. For instance, in this picture Kate has dressed her bump in a “gorgeous blue cocktail dress”. Unfortunately she’s ended up having to put the rest of herself in it as well – meaning it doesn’t look any different from just her wearing a dress – but it’s the thought that counts, at least until they develop invasive intra-uterine styling.
  • Alongside housing a fetus, one of the main purposes of a baby bump is for use in advertisements for body lotion and financial services. Or any other advertisement seeking comic effect via the owner of a bump grumpily demanding rubbish food combinations in the early hours of the morning.
  • Once you have a baby bump, you are public property in a way that you weren’t previously. People will smile benevolently, even take the liberty of patting your stomach. It’s annoying, yes, but worth remembering that those who beam at you on the bus one week will be glaring at you the next if you dare to stagger on with a screaming newborn. So you still have to “enjoy” it while you can.
  • Baby bumps can be used for making political statements. You could write “100% pro-choice” on yours. Or “future anarchist leader”. Or you could just put “baby on board”, “under construction” and/or “it started with a kiss”. But know that I will judge you for it.
  • Once a baby is born, a baby bump becomes part of what is known as “baby weight” i.e. that weird, liminal fat that clings to a woman’s post-pregnancy body but isn’t really her. According to Grazia, you can “get rid of your post-baby mum tum with the Gowri Wrap […] an elasticated corset that helps restore your pre-pregnancy stomach” and costs £75. Or you can just not. Personally I’d recommend not.

So those are my baby bump facts. Personally I miss having one but do appreciate the whole “being able to lie on your own stomach” thing. And also the “being able to get drunk” thing. And there’s also the “having the actual children around” thing. So yes. Swings and roundabouts, really.

* Small bumps are sometimes rubbish and a sign that you’re a bad mother who’s not taking care of herself aka her baby (see Kate Moss).

People, behold! For I have made a great discovery. I have in my hands this very minute the worst diet book EVER!

<dramatic pause>

Now admittedly, I’ve not read all the other diet books available. In fact, I haven’t read very many at all. I’ve been on loads of diets but tend to go for kamikaze, self-devised ones (I might self-publish a book of them one day). However, I fail to believe that any other diet book can possibly be as bad as Dukan: Love Your Curves.

I started reading this book while waiting in a queue at the post office. My local post office happens to be inside WHSmiths so I decided to grab a random book I had no intention of purchasing to distract me during the wait. Rest assured I was under no illusions that Dukan: Love Your Curves would be a self-esteem boosting tome that would encourage me to adore my own arse. I’ve fallen for this crap before. I’m wise to it. Two years ago I bought Gary Taubes’ The Diet Delusion, thinking it would strengthen my resolve not to buy into this diet nonsense any longer. Turns out The Diet Delusion is merely the belief that any diet other than a low-carb one is the way forward. It’s rather like if Richard Dawkins were to stop midway through The God Delusion and go “aha! But as for fairies, you should totally believe in them! I do, don’t I, Tink?” (more…)

Every now and then, fashion-y  types decide that the most fashionable thing ever is to pretend to be anti-fashion. Witness, for instance, the so-called “anti-fashion” movement of the 1990s (which, from what I can work out from Wikipedia, involved dressing as though you were either very poor or in a CK One advert, providing you were both thin and not actually poor). I’ve always thought this kind of thing was not just bollocks, but snobby bollocks, the kind of thing a manipulative playground bully would try on (“wear this! Ha-ha! Fooled ya! What we actually meant was wear the precise opposite! It’s un-fashion!”). But hey, what do I know? I’m properly unfashionable, as opposed to being fashionably unfashionable, which is something completely different. (more…)

In 2004 Hilary Mantel wrote a piece for the LRB on saints, fasting girls and modern-day anorexia. I read it back then and was not overly impressed (when it comes to disagreeing with Mantel pieces in the LRB, I was way ahead of my time). Looking back on it now, I still find the piece disturbing. Dressed in clever language, it’s essentially a pro-ana piece based on the over-interpretation of what anorexia looks like from the outside (rather like Rachel Cusk’s more recent “anorexic statement” piece for the New Statesman). The arguments are wrong but they are finely crafted and seductive. Mantel, inhabiting a body she dislikes, presents the female anorexic as someone who is able to “opt out” of the restrictions placed on women because of their physical form:

Most anorexics do recover […]: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival.

As a recovered anorexic, I want to say “no, it’s not like that, not like that at all”. And indeed it isn’t. All the same, I read Mantel’s words and feel that I, too, have “fattened, compromised”. As though anorexia gave me ownership of my body and now I’ve lost it, albeit not as dramatically as I lost it once.
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Until this week, I didn’t realise bump painting – having one’s heavily pregnant belly decorated by a professional face painter – was “a thing”. I knew about those plaster casts some women get made, and that some pregnant women choose to wear “statement” T-shirts (“Under Construction”, “Baby on Board”, “It Started With A Fuck” – I may have tweaked that last one slightly). But I didn’t know that some were actually going in for having their tummies made into temporary works of art. This is annoying; if I had known, I’d probably have had it done myself.
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Yesterday I found myself in a room with a woman who was telling me that it was permissible to eat. She also told me that it was permissible to put on weight, and permissible to grow as you age, and permissible not to have rules about every single item of food that you buy. It was all very radical and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It felt a bit cultish, or rather un-cultish. It was as though I was being de-programmed, made to unlearn all that I’d come to believe. What she was saying made sense, yet it sounded so odd. I kept thinking “but that’s not what I’ve been told. How can you be right and everyone else be wrong?” (more…)

So yesterday, 18 months after I decided to go for treatment, I finally attended my first “proper” session at the eating disorders clinic. It went well and I feel positive about it. Therefore, once it was over, I decided I ought to treat myself. Hell, I deserved it. Because obviously, walking into a health centre, sitting down with a black coffee and spending 90 minutes moaning about your messed-up life requires huge amounts of courage (although thankfully not too much in the way of stiff upper lip).

You may be wondering, as was I, what constitutes a suitable post-ED clinic attendance treat. Not food, obviously, because Food Is Not A Reward. But then what? Fags? Booze? Porn? No, because all that would lead to potential cross-addiction (or whatever being into everything bad is called these days). How about a nice, good book? No, because I’ve still not finished my current non-fiction (Delusions of Gender) nor my fiction (The Stranger’s Child) and besides, when I’m allowed something new, it’ll probably have to be something boring like How Not To Have A Totally Ridiculous Attitude Towards Food. (more…)

As a teenager, the actress Celia Imrie suffered from anorexia. Years later, in an interview with the Telegraph, she expresses regret at what she put her mother through:

I’m so angry with myself for putting her through that. Because it was my own fault. I had made myself ill [...] I get very angry now – and quite unsympathetic – because it’s such a terrible waste of time and energy.

Part of me feels sorry for Imrie; it’s sad that she bears this burden of guilt. All the same, another part of me wishes she’d keep her feelings to herself. These might be her personal sentiments, and as such they’re valid, but they also happen to chime in with a broader undercurrent of opinion about anorexia, and it’s one that causes real harm. (more…)

A 16-year-old girl feels pressured into posing nude for a national publication yet it’s not until she’s in her late thirties, and a very famous model, that she reveals her misgivings. It’s all rather sad, partly for the girl in question, Kate Moss, but mainly for people like Alex Needham, culture editor of the Guardian, a man who risks having his enjoyment of groundbreaking art spoiled by the fact that bare-breasted ingenues have voices as well as tits.

In response to Moss’s own comments regarding a shoot she did for The Face in 1990, Needham has stepped in to reassure her that however bad it made her feel, she “took one for the team”:
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It has come to my attention that Chantelle Houghton is struggling to lose her “baby weight”. Chantelle – the woman famous for not being famous, and hence a postmodern symbol for something or other – features on the covers of New! and Now, looking like a normal person with a stomach and therefore totally rubbish. New magazine even quotes her as saying “this is the worst time of my life – I can’t stop comfort eating”.  If, like me, you happen to clock this headline while on your way to purchasing something far more serious (such as cheesecake), you’d be forgiven for thinking “well boo sodding hoo! Some of us have real problems” (such as the absence of cheesecake). In the grand scheme of things, Chantelle’s belly is a non-issue, so why am I still thinking about it at all?

Magazine covers such as these ones really piss me off. They’re sexist, spiteful and bullying. They’re also meant to be trivial, yet they don’t feel trivial to me. There’s something deeply wrong with an environment in which these images and headlines are peddled as entertainment. Moreover, the effect such magazines can have on the self-esteem of young women can be appalling. I think all this yet I don’t bother to say it very often. Mention it and you just get dragged into a debate about the legitimacy of caring at all. (more…)

Don’t you just hate it when you’re all set to have a grumpy, humourless feminist moment and you happen to find the thing that was meant to annoy you vaguely amusing instead? That totally pisses me off – but not enough to put me in the grumpy, humourless feminist mood I was aiming for to begin with. Pah! (That is about the level of it – a wry smile, then a “pah!”. Where’s the Sturm und Drang in that?)

In case you’re wondering I’m referring to that new “viral” ad for KFC. In It doesn’t count if… a young woman runs through various situations in which eating “forbidden” foods is permitted, all of them ridiculous (it doesn’t count if you drink green tea afterwards, it doesn’t count if you’re wearing gym gear etc. etc.). Ha, thought I, yet another food company making a massively unfunny joke out of women’s shitty relationship with food. I will not find this amusing. But then I did, a bit. It actually is what some women – myself included – do, and as such it’s very well-observed. I suspect the only thing some viewers might miss is that when women say these things, they already know it’s a lie; this is their sad, wry joke, not KFC”s. (more…)

Last Sunday my brother had his 40th birthday lunch in an Italian restaurant. As our starters arrived, I glanced across to the table next to us and spotted a young woman who I’m pretty sure was suffering from anorexia.

I hate writing that – “pretty sure was suffering from anorexia”. As though thin women aren’t constantly being over-diagnosed by ignorant observers who know nothing about the inner lives and fears of others. Celebrity magazines are the worst for this; one week a young starlet is in “size zero hell” (usually because she’s breathed in while wearing a bikini), while the next she’s “flaunting her curves” (having breathed out again). I don’t want to make these pathetic, faux-concerned assessments of others, especially since, when I was anorexic, I was paranoid that everyone else in the entire world had an eating disorder, too (at least I think I was paranoid). All the same, something about this particular woman really struck me. It was her face rather than her body. Pinched and haunted-looking. Her eyes looked so dead. She seemed so lonely amidst all the food and conversation. She looked cold and scared, and it reminded me of a fear that sometimes I’m able to forget. And then her order arrived. It wasn’t quite as she’d expected it to be. She questioned the waiter, her voice rising, this mix of nervousness – she didn’t want to cause a fuss – and terror – she had to say something, absolutely had to. I was afraid she’d cause a scene but she didn’t, eventually backing down. She ate only the garnish of a meal that perhaps she’d been planning for several days. Throughout it all her hollowed-out hands were shaking. (more…)

Mummies! You know how it is – you’ve just had a baby and sure, it’s the miracle of life and all that, but just for one moment (during nap time, once you’ve set the washing machine to ‘delicates’) let’s all take time to consider your tummy – that tummy which, for the past few months, has been glorious and drum-tight – and let’s now focus on how terrible it’s looking. One big mass of shapeless, useless flesh, brimming over the maternity pants you thought you’d never be wearing by now. Urgh. ‘Baby weight’ is far too cutesy a term for something so repulsive, is it not? Look, I’m not asking you to feel ashamed. On the contrary, it’s far better just to be honest. Say it loud, say it proud: “I look shit! And I hate all those women who snap back into shape in five seconds flat! The bitches!” Come on ladies, out with it! It’s the perfect post-feminist rallying call. No longer do we have to rely on men for misogyny. Independent and resourceful, we’ll make our own! (more…)

You know when you see something crap that has nonetheless made the originator masses of money – the latest Turner Prize-winning sculpture, or Fifty Shades Of Grey – and you can’t help thinking “bloody hell, I could do that!”? Well, I do that all the sodding time. There are a billion and one things I could have done to make my fortune. Of course, I haven’t done any of them, although I’d like to think it’s because I’ve had better things to do. After all, what’s writing a bestseller compared to reaching the final level on Jak and Daxter 3?

One thing I still think I could do – and just might – is write a diet book. Whereas mommy porn is probably much harder to write than you’d imagine (I got stuck on “oh my” and “oh crap”), I reckon diet books are a piece of piss. I’ve invented loads of diets in my time and most of them have worked. Any diet works as long as you can brainwash yourself into thinking entirely fucked-up thoughts. (more…)

Last night my partner and I were watching the BBC coverage of Day 13 of the Olympics, and were struck by one thing, and one thing only: Amir Khan, 2004 boxing silver medalist, is really, obscenely attractive. Honestly, he’s lush. He’s definitely been added to both our lists of pre-approved infidelities (got it, Khan? You’re in there!). Wouldn’t it be great if all young men aspired to look like him? After all, he’s a sportsman, which makes him a healthy role model. And demanding that all young men model themselves on Khan is no more unrealistic than asking young girls to aspire to look like Jessica Ennis. (more…)

If seeing pictures of skinny models in magazines makes you feel fat and ugly, please don’t blame the mags. The person you need to hold responsible is actually your mum. This, at least, is what September’s issue of Glamour would like you to believe. It is of course complete and utter crap, but you may well think it anyhow. After all, these magazines always catch you when you’re at your weakest.

Once you’ve ploughed through page after page telling you that you’re eating the wrong foods, wearing the wrong clothes and buying the wrong beauty products, what are the odds on you challenging the idea that you’re thinking the wrong thoughts, too? Not very high, I’d say. That’s why pieces such as Dawn Porter’s “Self-esteem? It’s kids’ stuff” come along and kick you when you’re down (while simultaneously berating you for not getting right back up again). Yes, Porter’s written yet another of those articles which are all about YOU and why YOU need to feel GOOD about YOURSELF and why aren’t YOU doing it yet? Go on, get on with it. Stop feeling shit about yourself RIGHT THIS MINUTE! (more…)

Here is a picture of me, aged 10:
image
Okay, it’s a bit of an exaggeration – my skin was not that lily-white and I had shorter hair. Plus, I’d have killed for a genuine pink leotard. But beyond that, I’ll be honest, it’s a pretty good likeness.

I got this artist’s impression of myself – generic, miserable, cake-obsessed fat girl – from my teachers at school in 1985. It was in a booklet they gave out to everyone at the end of “the period talk”. Called Take A Look At Yourself, it was produced by the National Dairy Council and sent out to all primary schools in an effort to brainwash young girls into associating having periods with drinking milk and eating cheese. I don’t think there was an equivalent for boys.

By the time I received Take A Look At Yourself, I already knew I was fat. I can’t remember ever not knowing it. It was not a subjective self-assessment. The school nurse told my parents I was too heavy. The dinner ladies were told to give me salad instead of mash. The other children would sing the Marvel advert at me in the playground (“Somebody isn’t using Marvel, Marvel is over 99% fat freeeee!”), then launch unduly hard Special K “pinch more than an inch” pinch attacks. It was a nightmare. I knew that at some point I’d have to lose weight, to look at least a bit more like the girls in Bananarama. It was just such hard work, what with everyone around me being a total cunt. No wonder I regularly hit the biscuit barrel before stepping onto the scales, sadly, with the same old comedy knickerbocker glory thought bubble hanging over my head.

Trying to diet in the 1980s was no fun at all. I mean, it never is, but back then diet foods were exceptionally shit. There was crunch ‘n’ slim, One Cal, Lean Cuisine, Shape French Set Yoghurts and cottage cheese. Nothing else had the calorie count on the packaging, so most things were out of bounds. The only way to try and beat the system was to purchase a tiny yellow booklet called Count Your Calories, which gave calories per ounce of various generic foodstuffs, on the bizarre assumption that you’d be arsed to weigh them out. In the late 1980s the received wisdom was that 70s dieting (cutting out carbs, i.e. Atkins) had been total crap, and that the way forward lay in cutting out fat and gorging yourself on fibre. Only if you were ten and had parents who didn’t believe in diets anyhow, they wouldn’t listen and you’d be required to eat cheese regardless. And then the National Dairy Council would throw a complete spanner in the works by agreeing that this was okay, too.

I rediscovered Take A Look At Yourself recently and was surprised to discover it didn’t also contain the words “long” and “hard” in the title, given that I remember it as such a harsh, unforgiving book. It is only 24 pages long but the impact it had on my life was huge. I became obsessed with this book. Sometimes, in later life, I’d wonder whether I imagined it. What were people thinking, handing out this crap to impressionable, insecure girls on the verge of puberty?

The booklet contains loads of unnecessary bollocks – advice on clothes, hair, skincare, avoiding BO (“left to itself it can become quite unpleasant and unattractive and so every effort should be made to prevent it”) – all of it to hammer home the message that starting your periods, in making you a “real woman”, has to make you totally obsessed with your appearance. The stuff that really got to me related to diets, though. That stupid fat girl picture, and also the words.

The ‘Weighty’ Problems section tells us:

You won’t want to be overweight — not just because it’s unfashionable and unattractive, but also because it’s not good for your health (and remember, the same applies to being underweight).

It’s nice that a thought is spared for the underweight as well. Even so, there is not a picture of a skinny girl on the scales fretting about lettuce leaves. Perhaps there was an issue with space on the page. The book goes on to tell us:

If you are inclined to put on weight too quickly or too easily, the best thing to do is to cut down all round on the amount you eat. This means cutting down on the size of helpings at meal-times (except for most vegetables and fruit) and cutting out snacks between meals. Remember, you’re eating to be healthy as well as to be the right shape, so it’s important to have a variety of foods. Never go on crash diets – these can be dangerous. If you have eaten correctly from an early age, slimming shouldn’t be necessary.

I can see how to some people, all of this might sound fairly benign. To me, though, it wasn’t. It was the last line that killed me, the sense of blame and responsibility, as if at ten I had somehow already fucked up on the diet front. And the fact that, however much of a comedy leotard-wearing fat girl I was, I wasn’t permitted to ease the pain quickly with a crash diet. Oh no, these can be dangerous. And on top of all this, all the other girls got this booklet, the thinner and prettier ones. It was like a public shaming. And worst of all, none of the boys, fat or thin, had to deal with any of this.

Fuck them, I thought. Or rather, I didn’t. I didn’t think “fuck” back in those days. I don’t know if I ever got so far as to think into words the anger that I felt. Instead I just stopped eating anything. To do otherwise had just become too confusing.

Twenty-six days after my twelfth birthday I began the first of three long-term hospital admissions for anorexia. I do, in part, blame that fucking book. I also blame myself. And I blame the Nancy Reagan, 1980s Kylie Minogue, Special K and the whole of the Sweet Valley High series.* But mainly Take A Look At Yourself. Because it was given to me by figures of authority and I thought it therefore mattered.

On the bright side, it all meant I didn’t get those sodding periods after all! Way-hey! I didn’t get them till I was well into my twenties, at which point I forgot to stop eating and got fat again, only this time very, very fat. In particular, I ended up with massive, back-breaking breasts and eventually saw a consultant regarding a breast reduction. He agreed it was advisable, but also recommended trying to lose some weight: “Try drinking less lemonade and eating fewer jam tarts” (bizarre, I know. Do I look like an Enid Blyton character?). Anyhow, I didn’t answer him back, because fat people know their place (but that’s all they know, what with being fat and therefore stupid and doughnut-obsessed).

The happy ending to all this is that I did lose the weight, and I did it without developing full-blown anorexia again. Want to know my secret? Smoking! What’s dying of lung cancer in your mid-fifties compared to being a fatso? You know it makes sense! Or at least, it makes as much sense as all the diet crap does. It’s pointless and hurtful and mean. Anyhow, I don’t smoke any more. I’m now fat in the “normal” sense (in the same way that any woman who is not about to drop dead of malnutrition is fat).

I don’t really know how to end this post because I don’t think it’s any better now, not even with proposed “body image classes”. It’s just different. A different type of meanness. We don’t give girls stupid booklets but Heat and Closer body hatred is in their faces all the time. I suppose what I’m really wondering is, why, in all this time, in so many years, haven’t we just evolved? WHY AREN’T WE BETTER THAN THIS?

Well, that’s just what I think. But what would I know. Most of my thinking space is taken up with knickerbocker glories.**

* Of the Sweet Valley High books, the worst one is called Power Play. A fat girl called Robyn starves herself to Wakefield-twin thinness and gains the life she’d always dreamed of. Somewhat amusingly, a few years later (perhaps when the publishers realised just how monumentally awful this book was) a sequel was released – The Perfect Girl – in which Robyn develops anorexia. Only it isn’t that funny, really. I’d have preferred a book in which she got fat again and walked all over the Wakefields and their shitty little crew.

** A comedy foodstuff which no one ever eats. I’ve had two goes at being fat and still haven’t had one. Perhaps they’re mythical.

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