Book review: How to Be a Woman

How to Be a Womanby Caitlin MoranEbury Press, 320pp, £11.99

CAITLIN Moran is fast approaching National Treasure status, especially among the Twitterati, who rely on her tweets for entre to the clique of cool Londoners keeping social media buzzing with their quips, feuds and flirtations.

She is equally renowned as an award-winning columnist and interviewer for the Times – a paper she joined while still a teenager, on the heels of spending six months at the Observer, after winning their Young Reporter of the Year competition when she was 17.

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Moran is the eldest of eight children who grew up largely unsupervised in an anarchic, cash-strapped Wolverhampton household. No shirker, she wrote a novel at 14, and before leaving her teens she'd moved to London, joined the staff of Melody Maker, and was presenting the pop show Naked City, on Channel 4. In 1999 she married music journalist Pete Paphides, and they're the parents of two daughters.

Along the way Moran began menstruating, sprouted breasts and pubic hair, discovered the joys of masturbation, fell disastrously in love, became a feminist, encountered sexism, and dithered over the most apposite nicknames for her breasts and vagina. Each of these milestones – along with having children, having an abortion and contemplating plastic surgery – forms a chapter in her hysterically funny memoir-cum-manifesto, How to Be A Woman.

It should really be called How to Be a White, Heterosexual, First World Woman. Moran writes from experience, and what research there is functions as garnish, rather than meat. But her experiences, in all their gory, shaming detail, are universal.

I'm old enough to be her (teenaged) mother, but I cringed and giggled at the universality of her struggle to make sense of her ever-changing body and her experiences out in the world. That's rather sad, because it means my peers and I didn't rattle the bars loudly enough.

Moran spares no-one, but her cheerful amiability is magnetic, pulling you through the narrative at a rapid pace. I found her notably eloquent about being fat. She is outraged by our hypocritical view of addiction. Those who eat compulsively do so for exactly the same reasons that others take drugs or drink, yet someone like Keith Richards is secretly admired.

What if his mood-altering drug of choice had been food, she wonders? "Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that's why it's come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It's a way of f***ing yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to."

At every step of the way she challenges perceived wisdom. She argues for and against having kids with tremendous lucidity. She boldly challenges the premise that choosing to abort is traumatic. The point of feminism, she reiterates, is to offer women options. Still, I suspect what will really stick with readers is the raw cry of pain that is the story of her eldest daughter's traumatic birth – it's harrowing enough to function as birth control.

At no point does Moran write off the male of the species, nor does she absolve women from all blame, insisting that we won't make real strides until we stop worrying about such foolishness as Botox, Brazilians, and boob jobs. She knows there are those who will argue that she's being trivial, and that it's far more important to focus on genital mutilation, HIV transmission, equal pay, glass ceilings and the dearth of female heads of state and companies. But, she counters, "all those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women's peace of mind".

Along with reclaiming the phrase "Strident Feminist", she proposes a new rule of thumb for sniffing out sexism. "It's asking this question: 'Are the men worrying about this as well? Are the men told not to do this? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?'"

How to Be A Woman is not without flaws. For example, Moran argues for more, and different, pornography, but calls strip and lapdancing clubs "light entertainment versions of the entire history of misogyny … No man who ever cared for or wanted to impress a woman made her stand in front of him and take her knickers off to earn her cab fare home." She reckons they should be abolished, because no one inside is having any fun. But she makes that proclamation after describing a fun night out … at a lapdancing club.

One of the most distracting, potentially undermining problems, is her habit of hitting the Caps Lock button. The effect is like a gobby teenager grabbing your lapels and screaming in your face. And it's unnecessary, since Moran is completely capable of expressing her intelligence in a normal typeface.

If I had my way this book would be issued to every teenage girl along with her first box of tampons. Who better to help them navigate the minefield of adolescence than everyone's favourite fun auntie, whose presence is testament to the lifesaving value of humour, and who understands that the best way to administer home truths is by slipping them in with the gags?

l Caitlin Moran is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14 August.