The Vagenda

Women Who Smoke

I gave up smoking a few weeks ago. After smoking 15-20 a day for nearly eight years, going cold turkey was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had a health scare and just thought: enough. Thanks to a little drug called Champix, which you should by NO MEANS TAKE if you have a history of depression, I kicked the habit and am now almost entirely craving free. I’m not sure whether or not it was the Champix, the nicotine withdrawal, the health scare, or a combination of all three, but ever since I’ve stopped smoking I’ve been a complete emotional mess. I’m crying all over the shop, every day. My eyes have gone all puffy and swollen, like mice eyes. I very rarely get out of bed. Basically, I’m totally bummed out. It’s like being on my period, all the time, but without being able to make excuses for myself by saying ‘I’m not coming out because I’m losing so much blood that I feel dizzy and there is no hot water bottle in the pub for me to straddle.’ Except I can and will make that excuse too. 

My mother, who gave up smoking when she was 25 (the age I am now), did it by crying every time she wanted a cigarette. I’m basically doing the same, but not on purpose. The worst thing about this is that I have very little to be depressed about- my best friend and I just got a book deal, for God’s sake, and I’m moving into a bigger bedroom. I don’t even have a proper job. Life is good. Yet from the looks of me you’d think my cat had died, twice. I don’t know what the hell is up with me, but considering that Champix has allegedly been responsible for allegedly prompting ordinarily level-headed people to make a beeline for a noose, I thought it best to say no to the drugs. 

The perhaps as-yet imperceptible reason for rather rambling and inconsequential intro (I mean, I’m giving up smoking- so what? Why the hell should you give a toss?) is that kicking the cigarette habit has made me think a lot about why I smoked in the first place. And, perhaps oddly for a nicotine addicted feminist, most of it is tied up with being a women. It’s basically all my vagina’s fault. 

Here are the main reasons that I think I smoked:

Smoking is chic

I have never, ever, grown out of this belief. Smoking gives you lung cancer? I’ll buy it. Smoking gives you heart disease? Fine. Smoking doesn’t look cool? Sorry, not buying it. All I’d need to do if you presented me with this argument is open up a copy of pretty much any fashion magazine and wave it in your face while dancing and chanting ‘YES IT DOES, YES IT DOES, IT’S SO SO COOL.’ Because smoking and fashion are like an evil team whose superpowers consist of the ability to make you look awesome at the same time as slowly killing you. Perhaps I have a touch of capnolagnia, who knows? What I do know, though, is that this woman looks incredible, as does this one and this one. There are probably LOADS of vile little people whom I can blame for the fact that I think smoking is dead sophisticated: fash mag editors, advertising executives, Freud, Jean-Luc Goddard and Humprey Bogart, to name a few (love you really, Humph). But if we’re playing the blame game, I might as well give the archetype of the elegant woman a shout out. Oh, elegant woman: you are the whole reason I spent my gap year sat on a windowsill in a kimono, smoking like a twat. I did it for fashion (lots of fashion people smoke) and I did it for vanity. I would still be doing it if it wasn’t killing me. 

Smoking is sexy

I mean, you’re basically caressing a paper phallus with your lips. The whole idea that smoking is sexy ties in which the fact that advertisers and fashion brands have succeeded in feminising what was previously very much a masculine activity (more on that later). Think about how iconic the image of a white cigarette set against a pair of full, scarlet lips is. Then think about how, prior to about 1920, any woman who smoked was automatically regarded as a prostitute. There’s a risque, sluttish connotation to smoking that history (or herstory *GENDER STUDIES KLAXON*) has failed to eradicate. And being one who has always played a little fast and loose, I quite like the fact that lighting up can make me feel like a vixen. Miaow. Asking for a light is still a failsafe way of meeting potential sexual partners, which is why I’m glad I’m not single. Genuinely don’t know how to chat someone up without a fag in my hand. 

Smokers are thin

This is where we stray into uncomfortable truth territory. Smoking suppresses your appetite, and one of the main reasons I delayed giving up for so long is because I was convinced that it would make me fat. Of course, I completely ignored the fact that lots of overweight people smoke too (I much preferred the elegant woman/smoker archetype than the obese, giro-weilding teenage mum/smoker archetype, so I tended to ignore the habit’s working class allusions in favour of FASHION, darling). But why did I care so much about being thin? Apart from the obvious answer (‘I’m a woman, duh. I have to’), the question of elegance also raises its ugly head. The women who smoke in movies and fashion editorial are elegant, and elegance, more often than not, denotes thinness. I’m probably going to be dragged over hot coals by angry commenters for saying this, but the rules of fashion dictate that a.) you cannot be elegant if you have tits, b.) you cannot be elegant if you have an arse. I’m not saying that’s right (put the stick down, angry lady), but it was an ideology that I bought into wholeheartedly.  Whether you blame the patriarchy, the clothes themselves or gay fashion designers who want women to look like boys (that’s my mother’s theory), you can’t deny that there is little place for your lady lumps on the catwalk, and, for me, smoking ensured that said arse and tits were kept at a minimum, always. 

Smokers are rebellious

That’s right. Way back when, women who smoked were essentially saying ‘screw the patriarchy’. Until the Suffragettes, and later the Flappers, smoking was regarded as a completely male pastime, and any woman who did it was very firmly on their patch. Smoking was rocking out with your cock out as far as the Victorian era was concerned. The fact that someone with a vagina lighting up could be seen as so subversive is almost unbelieveable now, but back then it was pretty much the equivalent of growing a penis and becoming Director General of the BBC. The fact that smoking has remained a signifier of rebellious behaviour is partly thanks to these women. The Flappers were probably the first ‘liberated’ class of women the 20th century would see- they drank, they smoked, they danced. They just wanted to have as much fun as the dudes were having, and smoking wasn’t the only male behaviour that they adopted- they also bandaged their breasts down and swore. This masculine look seems to have been the inspiration for the gamine (read: elegant) fashion styles that were popularised by Coco Chanel and are still worn by like, every French girl ever, today (I started smoking while living in Paris, because I am a terrible cliche). Pretty soon women were wearing trousers and demanding equal rights, and stuff.

Now, I’m not telling you this because I think that my smoking was an attempt to say ‘fuck the patriarchy.’ It’s 2012 and that would be a really lame excuse. But I certainly thought it gave me a certain rebellious edge and that without that edge I’d have just been another boring girl. Smoking was basically my way of trying to convince everyone that I was interesting, when actually I’m about as interesting as the next gal, fag or no fag. Turning your back on traditionally feminine mannerisms is actually quite a brave action to take, even now (just look at the abuse women with short hair have to put up with). Of course, no one thinks smoking is ‘for the boys’ anymore, least of all my grandma (40 a day, I reckon), but that doesn’t change the fact that that’s how cigarettes have been marketed since the 1970s. You’ve come a long way, baby, indeed. 

All you have to do is show me a picture of Debbie Harry with a cig in her mouth to get me craving a puff. I mean, LOOK AT PATTI SMITH! Smoking is punk, perhaps because it’s such a stupid, dangerous thing to do that it makes you look proper hard (read: stupid) by doing it. 
Smokers think they are basically saying ‘fuck you’ to ‘the man’ (and everyone knows that ‘the man’ = patriarchy), except the man doesn’t care, because he’s moved on to other stuff, like riding my ass about how I should curl my eyelashes and telling me to get a ‘proper job’.

Smokers don’t cry

This is probably the main and most important reason why I smoked. I have always been, and probably always will be, a cryer. It sucks because no one takes you seriously, and you become a target for bullies because your reaction to their taunting is often spectacularly overblown (like that choke sobbing you do when someone dies) that they feel it’s adequate payoff for the labour of being a dick. Up until I moved to Paris (ten days of crying cos I missed my mum, mofos) and started smoking, I would burst into tears at the drop of a hat, which was inconvenient for me and annoying for others. Once I found the crutch that is the cigarette, I stopped crying and became all insouciant. Smoking is a really easy way of suppressing your neurosis (see Betty from Mad Men) 

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I started smoking during the time in my life when I was the most confident. Smoking didn’t make me confident, but it turned me into the kind of person I thought I should be (aka not someone who cries because they saw a squirrel and it reminded them of a squirrel they had once seen with their ex boyfriend. YES REALLY.) Instead of crying, I started going out with a French guy who cried every time we argument and I actually became that tosser that sits there calmly in an row and says ‘I can’t discuss this with you when you’re like this.’ In other words, I became more like a man and less like a woman.

Now that I’m smoking again I’m crying all the time (twice while I was writing this, FYI) and I genuinely think it might be because I’m crying all the tears that I have been stifling for the last eight years. It is genuinely THAT spectacular. So for me, smoking was primarily a way of controlling the emotions that I perceived as shameful. If I was stressed, or sad, I’d just have a cigarette, and now I don’t have that anymore I’m like, WAAAAAHHHHHHHH! 

I don’t want to be a bride with a fag in her hand

I know, I know. I need a trip to feminist bootcamp, but I just can’t get over how ‘common’ this looks. I’m not even sure I want to get married, but on the off-chance that I do, I don’t want to be hacking up tar riddled phlegm onto my dress (which, by the way, will totally not be a ‘wedding dress’ because, gross.)

So there you have it: how I’ve psychoanalysed myself out of smoking with help from feminism. Of course, none of the reasons I smoked even come close to the reason that I’ve given up, which is that I don’t want to die (the number one reason like, ever). But it’s interesting that, by not smoking, I suddenly feel fatter, less fashionable, more square and like more of a crybaby than I used to. What’s that about? And how much can I legitimately blame the patriarchy? 

17 thoughts on “Women Who Smoke

  1. Good choice!

    Maybe you will be less fashionable, fashion has not conscience though, it doesn’t care who it leaves behind. It doesn’t care about your skin at 35, 45, 50 (that’s when people are meant to die right?) let alone your health (or anyone else’s, ever).

    The reason I would smoke is that the smell reminds me of people I loved, it enveloped them and invited my into a world that held us together in a magical haze…then I remember that they are all dead (this is not a coincidence).

    Incidentally, for those who care about their looks in a more long-term way (past the next time they weigh themselves). Smoking is terrible for the skin, if you want a prematurely aged, leathery visage and those ‘cat’s arse’ mouth lines, go ahead.

    Oh and there’s cancer, CVD and COPD and all those other nasties, obviously.

    I may of course be biased, I have handled (ex-living) ex-smoker’s lungs and they are pretty uncomfortable looking.

  2. I’ve never been a smoker never will be, but there is one situation in which I’d really really wish I were, best summed up in this paraphrased quote by someone I can’t remember (I think it was in a TED-talk):
    “If at a party you just want a break and sit by yourself and stare out the window, you’re a freaking looser, add a cigarette to the situation and you instantly become a fucking philosopher!”
    -so true, but feel free to join me in the ranks of the smoke-free loosers, that has got to be the offer of the day :-)

  3. Yes! I was going to say something similar – that it’s nice to pop out of the pub for a fag & watch the world go by. Usually when my (male) mates are having a competitive ‘debate’.

  4. Look, you’re gifted, funny and intelligent AND you’ve got a fucking book deal AND you get to work with your mates. Not to mention dicking around all day on Twitter having a laugh. A new bedroom into the bargain, well that’s just takin’ the piss. You have to feel like shit, smoking or not, just so you don’t turn into a complacent asshole on account of your enormous privilege.

    Nah, seriously well done in making a deal. Them’s very rare things! Although I don’t know you Vagendas personally I was pleased to see that. You deserve it on ability alone. Pity the non-smoking is bringing its own peculiar forms of torture. Try meditation – 20 mins a day can work all manner of wonders on all manner of ills.

    I do hope the blog will continue as it makes me laugh – every day…. “you cannot be elegant if you have an arse.” Brilliant!

  5. Dear Clark,

    This is probably my favourite comment of all the comments ever- thank you!

    Am actually way ahead of you on the meditation – I have been practicing. I just didn’t mention it because I didn’t want to sound like a twat. x

  6. On the subject of smoking being cool, I wonder: did it occur to you that it may well be cool, but only to other smokers? Non-smokers don’t think it’s cool at all. I mean, if we did . . . well, we’d be smokers. It’s hardly an unattainable goal. It’s not like those of us who choose to remain tar-free and unstained by nicotine sit around thinking “oh, if only I could venture out from my flat and purchase a packet of Marlborough Lights, BUT HOW CAN I POSSIBLY DO THAT, for I am intrinsically unhip and don’t know how to converse with a cashier”.

    If I see someone my age smoking, I just think “that’s a bit sad”. I find it kind of odd that as women who are so concerned with breaking longstanding, ingrained perceptions of outdated ideals, you can wilfully accept this one. Surely the Vagenda is about promoting individuality, embracing us as women both en masse and as our own independent selves? And if that’s the case, why sully it by making a sweeping generalisation that “smoking is cool” and thus instantly demeaning female non-smokers? It’s just so frustratingly shallow, hipster and immature.

    I’m sorry for this negative rant. I love you all. And I do have a sense of humour (promise). I just find this a particularly sore point, and I feel like you’re undermining the great work you do with the occasional bout of ignorance. Hope you don’t hate me :) Oh and congratulations on the book deal – it’s totally deserved!

  7. Um… I’m not sure that’s what the writer was doing at all. I’m not a smoker, but I know at school those who smoked did seem cool. I think she is insightfully considering why she started smoking rather than making generalisations. She provides a lot of convincing evidence as to how smoking was traditionally portrayed as cool in film and how it is still associated with elegance, slenderness, etc. She’s also questioned these ideas by finishing with the very uncool idea of a ‘bride with a fag in her hand’ and noted that it’s not actually true that smoking = thin. An article about giving up smoking because it can kill you, is hardly promoting it. Cigarettes come with lots of gruesome pictures and health warnings, which apparently have little affect. Perhaps more frank discussion about the ‘cool’ image of smoking might help more people to stop/not start in the first place.

  8. From a bloke’s perspective, virtually all the above is also true… sexy, cool, chic, moody, strong, masculine… The wonders of advertising and addiction.

    I quit when I was on 30+ a day, over 10 years ago.

  9. I smoked socially for years and I always thought smokers were such nice people, usually more generous, less judgemental (cause as a smoker, in this day and age, you pretty much have no right to give advice). Now I pay the price of having asthma and can´t even go into H&M without having a coughing fit (all the weird chemicals in the clothes irritate those ruined lungs) and I´m so grateful there is a smoking ban at restaurants because otherwise I´d be confined to my home forever. But I still miss smoking, still wish it was healthy to do, and still thinks smoking looks cool. What can I say.

  10. I used to hate smokers, mainly cos smoking nearly killed my nan before she quit 15 years ago (and she’s just now been diagnosed with lung cancer), also unless you’re smoking too, you’re always viewed with suspicion, as a square, as a narc…. and anyone with an addiction is usually really on edge and denial-y. I never met a smoker who would admit they were addicted and I never met a smoker who would admit they started cos it was cool/edgy. They were always adamant that they just loved smoking (not addicted!) and they started for their own totes unique and special and idiosyncratic reasons, not because of peer pressure at school or whatever. I can’t handle that level of aggressive denial around me, plus I could never stop smokers from lighting up inside my house or blowing smoke into my face at the pub. I was so glad it got banned because it was such a social faux pas to ask someone to please not blow smoke directly into everyone else’s nostrils.

    Also I’d like to thank the Vagenda for continuing to smash the myth that everyone totally loves big tits “because the lads luv ‘em don’t they”? Cos it IS a myth! Most women I know hate their boobs, I know women who bind their breasts, I know women who liken their boob-hate to gender dysphoria it runs so deep! They feel like they are carrying these huge cumbersome sexual invitations around that don’t fit their identity, they feel they can’t be cute or boyish or elegant or carefree or wear shirts buttoned up to the top or braces or bow ties or string bikinis or anything from H&M or anything resembling cat-walk fashion!

  11. I quit this week after 10 years and the thing I’ve found the hardest is that smoking had become so intrinsic to my self image. I liked being the girl who rolled perfect cigarettes, and health and finances have never been a problem (rolling your own is seriously cheap). I’m really struggling to redefine myself as this non-smoking girl who doesn’t have piercings anymore and actually *gasp* has a real person job and everything! I guess the thing keeping me going at the moment is that I refuse to lose to myself, because I’m a dick and I’d never hear the end of it. My point is, if you’re crying, don’t worry, you’re changing what is undoubtedly a big part of your life, and if that’s how you’re coping then that’s fine, because it’s got to be better than the inevitable self-loathing if you fail.

  12. Really surprised that no-one has commented here about the snobbery in the last point of this article. Not really concerned about whether you get married or not, but find it quite worrying that you’d imply that you think that women who smoke whilst wearing a wedding dress are ‘common’? This IS a feminist blog right?! I’m guessing when you say that you need to go to feminist bootcamp it is to change your stereotypical view of what a bride will act like- i.e not a smoker and not unfortunately to address your misuse of ‘common’….

  13. silentpunk – if the people around you at the pub and in your house (I’m guessing they’d be classified as “friends” then) lit up wilfully in your dwelling and blew smoke in your face, then they were just arseholes. I’m a smoker, and I would NEVER light up in someone’s house or car without explicit consent. All smokers I know are cognisant of where their smoke is drifting, and if it’s affecting someone else, they are quick to rectify their behaviour.

  14. I totally relate to the emotional thing, because I think that smoking acts as a tranquilizer and so suddenly it’s a case of having to deal with experiencing raw emotions again after years of being insulated from the highs and the lows. I’ve also started to look at smoking as self-harming: it was a way of saying to life, “Hah, fuck you, I don’t care – look at me, hastening my own demise!” Kinda stupid, now that I think about it.

  15. Great article, even if I think some of the critiques are true it got me thinking.

    Personally, I have always thought trying too hard to be the most socially uncool thing to do (which I’m massively guilty of and also what’s so wrong with wanting people to like you?) and smoking always seemed like a crutch to be cool to me so I avoided it in a sort of double bluff so every one would know that I am obviously cool. Uncoolness is many layers deep.

    What is actually cool is being introspective about your own behaviour, trying to live consiously and daring to say potentially uncool things in order to learn. It’s generous to share your mistakes as well as your triumphs.

  16. Hi Cherry

    Article author here. Thought the inverted commas and the boot camp reference made it clear that the ‘common’ thing was written with the utmost of self-awareness. Sorry if that didn’t come across.

  17. I know I’m really late on this one but I thought this might help – the association with female liberation was actually encouraged by the propagandist/advertiser/descendant of Freud Edward Bernays- he staged a parade where he gave cigarettes to women marching in and called them torches of freedom. Think the cigarette companies were wondering why they were cutting out half their market with women not smoking! Depressing, but another reason not to smoke!