Book Shelf: Women's Stuff by Kaz Cooke

Book Shelf: Women's Stuff by Kaz Cooke

Tough love, that's what you'll get in Kaz Cooke's thumping new compendium to modern womanhood. A 774-odd page tome, Women's Stuff ($59.95; Penguin) is an impressive encyclopaedia of, well, women's stuff. Ostensibly a guide to good living, covering everything from confidence building to conception and choosing a career, Cooke's signature investigative crap detector skills are on high alert, taking aim at pharmaceutical companies, "bonkers new-agers", homeopathy, "pop-porn", reluctant feminists, lazy journalists and Tony Abbott, to name just a few bugbears.

In a world saturated in information, with commercial interests clouding even the best of intentions, Cooke takes to the task of sorting through the confusion to find the truth with missionary zeal. Her quest? To do the right thing by women by separating fact from piffle. Does she succeed? For the most part, yes, depending on your politics. While Cooke makes no apologies for her point of view (it's her book, after all), there's something about her approach to reporting on women's issues that resonates broadly.

The proof's in the sales. Cooke's previous books, including the pregnancy guide Up The Duff, child rearing guide Kid Wrangling and teen girl guide Girl Stuff, are best-sellers, housed in homes around the country and passed on to daughters, sisters and friends. (As an aside, make sure you buy the latest edition, she suggests, as not all the information is timeless – science and opinion can date faster than seasonal fashion!)

A journalist with 20 years' experience in the field, Cooke has consulted the top experts to inform her work, assisted by researchers, and, in the initial stages of the project, took a survey garnering responses from more than 7,000 women. Their answers form part of each section, giving us a glimpse into the real lives, struggles, heartbreaks, dreams, triumphs, disappointments, stoicism and good humour of women.

This cross-section of anecdotes and quotes, opinions and suggestions adds a layer of complexity and interest to the book, though at times can be overwhelming, as if sitting in a room full of women all wanting to have their say at once. Of course, all women should have their say, because all our stories are valid and we are all so very different and we can glean wisdom from each other. But what women really want from Kaz Cooke books is Kaz Cooke; the shiny beacon of common sense whose words give a great, big middle finger to interests that keep women from being and feeling great, unadulterated with ads for beauty creams as in a magazine.

Women's Stuff is split into 11 comprehensive (understatement!) sections – Confidence, How We Look, Eating & Exercise, General Health, Hormones & Health, Mind, Family & Friends, Love & Sex, Work & Home, Money and Being True to Yourself. The book is not designed to be read in one sitting, but for dipping in and out of and consulting when you have a pressing or perplexing question and are in need of sensible advice or a soothing I've-been-there-too insight. There are also lists for further reading, including recommended websites for visiting with Cooke's review notes – again, objective.

Cooke is not backward in coming forward. She is clearly frustrated by many aspects of modern life, including the "you deserve it" consumer culture and the normalisation of cosmetic surgery practises. "The suggestion that anybody should have cosmetic surgery 'if it makes them feel better' has more holes in it than Aunty Julie's doilies," she writes. "Yes, you have the right to have cosmetic surgery, but that doesn't mean choosing it is the right decision. Too often these two things are confused."

You'll find 'The Women's Stuff Award for the Most Piffle Crammed Into One Cosmetics Ad', as well as admonishments to "Leave your woozer alone", information on what to expect in the stages of ageing, tips for beating stress and anxiety, a list of mental health boosters (p396), hints for busy mums, and a million reasons to not diet: "Women believe they fail because they didn't have enough willpower and they just needed to stick to it – even when sticking to it is illegal, unhealthy, works against their body, and makes them crabby and exhausted. Repeat this mantra (I love a chant): I didn't fail, diets fail me."


Indeed, there are several reasons to fist pump and yelp "Yippee, it's not just me!" when paging through Women's Stuff, which promises advice "without fabs, fibs or fakery" for women aged 18 to 108. For example, she strongly opposes a sex culture that degrades women who "agree to do stuff their partner has seen in porn videos" and sees "slutty as an aspiration" because, well, if we don't talk about what we believe good sex should be, or confuse sexual servitude with empowerment, our common ideas about sex and women's roles "gets left to repulsive men on football shows, the porn purveyors on the internet" and men who control the images in music videos and computer games. Here here.

On the other hand, those who position virginity as a precious gift, thereby painting those women/girls for whom the first time is a less than spiritual experience as "sullied, ruined or otherwise anything less than she was before", also get a blasting. The same goes for workplaces where sexism prevails: "There are laws that protect you from being hurt or harassed, or being made to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable at work and in some other situations (such as customer service). You don't have to wear revealing outfits or other humiliating clothes, or put up with bullying."

Then there's 'Home making: point of pride or ghastly drudgery?', in which she reasons that although "housework can be horribly dull and oppressive" that for those who choose to take to it with a song and a sunny outlook, "there's honour and dignity in making a home for yourself, or for yourself and your family, and lots to celebrate in the traditional arts and skills of women in the home".

In 'A fair go for women: are we there yet?", the answer is a resounding no, as "every day in Australia, without trying, you can see evidence of entrenched discrimination against or exploitation of girls and women". She lists the equal rights and opportunities that feminism has forged, and those women are yet to win – we cannot afford, she says, to be slack. We are now railing against "The Tyranny of Hot" that's still all about male approval and exploitative "pop porn". Do you think it right, she suggests, to be accosted in a supermarket by music with violent and sexist lyrics? "I just came in for broccoli, I'd rather not be told to smack my bitch up."

Cooke encourages you to work out who you are, what you stand for, what you're good at and what you love doing ("I missed my chances because I couldn't be arsed' is a sad sentence to utter at any age," she writes). She wants you to chop out the size labels in your clothes. And thumb your nose at imposed rules for perfection. She gives gentle advice to women who find themselves caught up in a cycle of emotional or physical abuse. She wants you to think critically about the products you consume, the things you read, the decisions you make, the path you take.

My major contention? In the section on religion, there's no major (nor fair) representation for women who are Christian, such as myself. I reconcile this with the fact that if you're looking to external sources for validity of your faith, as in outside God, the scriptures and fellow Christians, you will surely be sorely disappointed, so take things for what they are and don't despair. Cooke takes a pluralistic view of faith, and mentions the "proven theory of evolution", and in doing so shares the notion with many women while alienating others. I agree to disagree, and that's that. If you find this stance intolerable, Women's Stuff is simply not for you. 

The same goes for those who prefer nature over science. She attests, "Let common sense, evidence and self-preservation be your guide about which treatments are working for you. Evolution isn't a perfect system... It's a nice idea that the body knows best, but it isn't always true" and, "it's good to have a positive attitude, avoid stress and eat healthy foods, but proclaiming 'You can heal yourself' with just those things and without medical help is smug and dangerous."

Cooke similarly advocates for regulating one's hormones ("the 'natural way' could be damaging you or making your life miserable"), challenging the Aussie "drink like a bloke" culture, ditching the romance fantasy, and thinking carefully about choosing a partner, child-bearing and family raising: "As well as loving a child, do you have the resources and character, and maybe the time, to be able to stand up for yourself, and for them, and to fight for what you need, in case of special medical, educational or other needs?".

In her grand census of womanhood, Cooke is critical (sometimes downright bossy) but less clinical, offering over some of her own life experience, which humanises the woman behind the book, in addition to dishing up several golden quips: "How fascinating that you felt the need to pass that on" is one of the suggested retorts when told something you would rather not have known (I wish I'd had that one to sling on numerous occasions!).

Women's Stuff is an admirable, monolithic undertaking three years in the making, and Cooke is a lady with her heart in the right place whether you agree or disagree with the fine, pointy end of her politics (which poke about like the nose on her signature cartoony sketches). The book is not perfect or infallible, and can feel oppressive under its sheer volume – but Cooke's done her best, tested what she can, and aims to give you credible and authoritative information, while not dismissing the idea that she is not God.

In short, which this book and its review are certainly not, if there were the opportunity to award an Order of Australia for services to women's journalism, Cooke should be a recipient.

Coming soon... notes on an interview with Kaz Cooke.

Girl With a Satchel