Title: You’re Doing It Wrong: A History of Bad and Bonkers Advice to Women
Author: Kaz Cooke
Published: 2nd November 2021
Synopsis: You’re Doing it Wrong is an outrageous tour through the centuries of bonkers and bad advice handed down and foisted upon women, told as only Kaz Cooke can – with humour and rage, intelligence and wit.
Come with Kaz on a laugh-out-loud frolic through centuries of terrible advice, from 14th-century clergy to the Kardashians (wear a dress made of arsenic, do some day-drinking, have sex with a billionaire biker, worry about your vagina wrinkles). It’s also a roar against injustice, a rallying cry for sisterhood and a way to free ourselves from ludicrous expectations and imposed perfectionism.
Kaz’s own 30-year history of interest and experience in advice – from her newspaper etiquette column to best-selling books, including Up the Duff and the Girl Stuff series – and years of archives and research have culminated in a full-colour, exuberant shout of a book with hundreds of wacky and sobering historical photos of objects and instructions.
You’re Doing It Wrong examines what we’re told to do (change shape, shoosh, do all the housework), and what we’re not supposed to do (frown, have pockets, lead a country). It covers sex & romance, paid work, fashion & beauty, health advice, housework, and a motherlode of mad parenting instructions – from witchcraft to beauty pageants, with a side of aviatrixes. Put the kettle on and settle in.
Women have always been given advice on how to live, how to dress, what to do, what to say, and how to act – usually by men and upper classes – those who want to have a modicum of control over how certain groups in society act. For generations, women of all kinds have been given bonkers advice and told what they can and can’t do based on gender and race – there was a time when your race could determine how strong or frail you were (blithering numpties), but also where you sat in the social strata of hundreds of years, across colonisation and witch hunts. Ah yes, the delightful witch hunts, where women who had once helped as midwives and with medicinal herbs were seen as a threat. Anyway, this book takes a look at the bizarre and bonkers advice women have been given throughout history and points out how useless and discriminatory it has been.
From racist advice that pitted women of different races against each other for no good reason, to painful fashion and beauty trends that women are unfortunately still expected to follow – even if the rules are not obvious, they are unspoken and this does more harm than good, which I felt was the point of this book – that everything we have been told as women from antiquity to now does nothing but harm. It implies that we can’t make our own decisions, that we must simply follow the daft and really annoying rules men made long ago, and that are so entrenched that many have become ingrained in women of all kind, and all identities, as this book does its best to engage with and be inclusive of all women, and how these rules have affected us all. How we have all effectively been let down by societies that expect us to just shrug our shoulders and go yeah I’m happy to use a bit of arsenic-lined make up and where torturously high heels for the enjoyment of men, rather than any useful function to do our jobs. (Okay, so heels might work well for some jobs but let’s face it – they’re not the friendliest of shoes for all of us and this should be recognised).
Kaz Cooke has delivered all this advice using her entertaining interjections and reactions, and made it accessible and interesting, and I especially liked her inclusion of family stories and her engagement with the reality that her family had once had Indigenous slaves – and the acknowledgement that racism is a huge factor in some of the bad, bonkers and blitheringly daft advice women once got and in fact still get. The idea that we’re meant to be perfect vestiges of beauty and grace, yet we’re meant to feel bad anyway for not being able to do some things – that there are implied ways of how women can be useful in society is a core aspect of this book. Some advice has a single line of commentary, usually boiling down to FFS, with not-so-subtle digs at people throughout history – men and women – who have given outdated or useless advice that more than often hindered or made things worse for women – and who wants that mess? It looks at how we have overcome and are still overcoming bonkers advice and the role that some of the expectations still play out today as we strive for equality and a voice for all women. It covers everything and includes women who definitely ignored the advice and made their own way, whilst acknowledging how this was possible for them. They are still to be celebrated for what they did in proving the myths about womanhood and what women are capable of to be wrong. And thank goodness some smart doctors proved that Hippocrate’s wandering womb theory was wrong – eventually.
It is at the same time, a celebration of women and what we have done and achieved and a delicious and insightful feminist rant at the weird, bad, and downright ludicrous advice and information we are fed about what to do as women. I can’t pick out a favourite part because it’s all so good, but the part about fashion had a nice jibe at Coco Chanel for being a Nazi and left her involvement there. It moved carefully through history, with smatterings of ancient and modern history throughout the chapters as it was needed, and this made these facts accessible – and Kaz includes where she got her information in her acknowledgements so we can go and do further reading and research. It can ignite intrigue and anger and joy all at once as we roll our eyes at the bizarre advice – dismissive of women’s experiences in many arenas as well, and good to start conversations about just accepting women as they are, letting them achieve what they want and can achieve and not giving them advice that won’t work for them.
I read this book cover to cover, but I also feel like it is the kind of book that you can dip in and out of, and come back to when you’ve been given any of the aforementioned bonkers advice and see how Kaz has responded. Everyone will have experienced different forms of this advice, or some of it at some stage, which is what makes it relatable and accessible, and with the added historical contexts, it makes for a very interesting and feminist read for the twenty-first century.