The author on the red carpet for The Falling. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI
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Back in front of the cameras this week – and posing doesn’t get any easier

The more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder.

I've had my photo taken quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, being at the start of another promotional merry-go-round, and it never fails to amaze me how difficult it is; how, after all these years, the simple process of having a camera in front of my face can reduce me to jelly. I know I’m not alone here, and in fact I wonder whether the great joy of the selfie lies in the absence of any photographer looking at you. No human eye staring and judging, just that impartial lens, and you can delete and delete until you’re happy with the result.

At a photo shoot so much depends on the social skill and personality of the photographer. Thrillingly, one of them told me recently that I was “very photogenic” – and astonishingly this was after a menopausal hot flush had postponed the start of make-up until a fan, or air-conditioning, or a window to stick my head out of could be found. Then at a different shoot a few days later, the film director Carol Morley and I were reprimanded for being “hopeless at chilling”. Guess which of those two comments made me more relaxed in front of the camera?

So they vary, these sessions, and can go either way. I used to love working with Juergen Teller, with his camera-in-each-hand, gunslinging approach. Point and shoot, point and shoot, he’d go, sometimes while wearing a sarong. There was a hint of danger, but it was arty danger, not pervy danger, and at least he never minded you looking like yourself. Pretty wasn’t the point, interesting was. And Marcelo Krasilcic – who took the photos that produced Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded album cover – made me and Ben look like a glamorous version of ourselves; again, he seemed to like what he found and just wanted to make the best of it.

On the other hand, there’s a photographer out there who apparently describes me on his website as the most unpleasant person he has ever had to work with, and I imagine that’s because he frightened and brought out the worst in me, back when I was young and fear made me snappy and defensive. Equally, it can be frustrating that editors often have their own, predetermined idea of how I should look, so I can stare defiantly down the barrel of the lens for 19 frames, but turn to gaze wistfully through the window on the 20th, and that’s the shot chosen.

Being photographed and looked at is rarely easy for those of us without model/film-star looks. Sarah Millican wrote last year about her experience of attending the Baftas as a nominee and presenter. Thrilled to be there, she was nonetheless intimidated – “I had a few awkward photos taken by the wall of paparazzi. Awkward as I’m not a model (I’m a comedian), have never learnt how to pose on a red carpet (I’m a comedian)” – and devastated afterwards by cruel comments about her dress. In a moment of honesty that brought cheers of support and recognition from other women, she confessed that the criticisms had been “like a pin to my excitable red balloon . . . My dress . . . was destroyed by the masses . . . I cried in the car.”

I’ve put up with this kind of stuff throughout my career, albeit on a smaller scale, as most of my pop-star days pre-dated the internet (for which, in this instance, I am extremely grateful). But I remember make-up artists and cameramen huddling and whispering as they tried, not very tactfully, to work out how to prettify me. I remember being told to hold my stomach in, despite weighing eight and a half stone, and I remember a video where my make-up melted and my ears went red, and how I had to keep singing despite feeling ugly. I look at the video now and think I look beautiful. Of course I did: I was 23.

But I tell you all this not in a downhearted way, or fishing for compliments, but more in a spirit of hope that the more we say these things out loud – as Sarah Millican so wonderfully did – the more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder. And then being photographed will be easy! Some hope.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 April (for more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com) and Wapping Project Mayfair, London W1, on 30 April (newstatesman.com/events)

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.