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Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys – A Review of Viv Albertine’s autobiography

Author:
Viv-Albertine

By Amy Callaghan

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. According to Viv Albertine, guitarist of revolutionary all-girl punk band the Slits, this was a phrase expressed frequently to her by her mother during her childhood and adolescence, ‘Clothes, clothes, clothes, music, music, music, boys, boys, boys – that’s all you ever think about!’. On the surface, that’s what her autobiography appears to be about as well – Albertine’s memories and anecdotes are anchored in the clothes, music, and boys influencing her at the time. Yet her book is more than a whirlwind tale of the legendary punk scene, told through aesthetics only – it is an open and thought-provoking appraisal of Albertine’s entire life.

Albertine’s autobiography is, as punk fans would hope, an insight into what it was like on the inside of the punk scene in the 1960s and 70s, as well as what it was like to be a woman in such a world. However, this is not, in my opinion, the main reason why this book stands out as a radical piece of feminist literature. Rather, it is Albertine’s brutally honest assessment of her whole life, pieced together in an occasionally jarring order, which is the most striking and revelatory aspect of this book. From her childhood, raised by a single mother in North London, and her maintaining issues with her father until his death in 2009, to her battle with cancer, her desperation for a baby and her struggle to conceive, her time as a Hastings housewife, and how the deterioration of her marriage coincided with her increasing desperation to make music again, Albertine holds nothing back, and it is this (at times borderline alarming) determination to be completely truthful about her experiences as a woman throughout every stage of her life which makes this such an inspiring work.

Albertine’s completely frank writing is at times almost unnerving. She doesn’t care if the reader is made uncomfortable by what she has to say or how she says it – the entire book is like a declaration of ‘well, these are my experiences, I lived through this, and I’m certainly not going to sugar-coat it’. It doesn’t, however, read as intentionally playing on shock value. Above all, it is honest. It’s refreshing to hear directly from a woman on often taboo subjects such as menstruation, masturbation, crabs – Albertine refuses to fall into the cultural trap of preserving the modesty of a woman’s body, and writes about these experiences in the same reflective and honest way in which she confronts everything else. It is brilliant and defiant in its rationality.

She writes openly about an abortion she had in 1978 and about how she did not regret it until 20 years later, and has not stopped regretting it since. Still, however, she is emphatic in her support for the right for a woman to choose whether or not to have an abortion. This section of the book takes on a new significance when she writes, many chapters later, of her difficulties in conceiving, the babies she lost through miscarriages, the amount of money and effort poured into IVF, and her eventual success and joy in becoming a mother. Albertine’s writing here is emotive and powerful, and the reader cannot help but feel strongly for her life – for someone unfamiliar with Albertine’s personal life, one could almost begin to root for her as one does for a character in a fictional novel, were it not for her occasional italicised retrospective remarks from her current perspective.

Of course, Albertine’s experiences as a woman in the 1970s punk scene is a substantial section of the book, and incredibly revelatory in itself. The Slits were a defining band in post-punk, and a massive step forward for representation of women in punk as well as in the music industry as a whole. When she writes of the complete lack of representation of any women doing what she wanted to do in music – Albertine couldn’t see any female punk guitarists so firmly believed for a long time that her only access to that world was through the men she associated with – it hammers home the lack of representation women still face in the 21st century. The fact that a girl with no musical training was determined enough to pick up a guitar and play, particularly in such a trailblazing band as the Slits, is nothing short of inspiring.

In an interview with Paper magazine 6 months after the book’s UK release, Albertine expressed her surprise that anyone was inspired by the book. ‘I wanted to show the flipside of someone who looks like they’ve got their life together and what is really underneath it all, so I wrote all the downsides, and yet people found it very inspiring.’ she said. Yet it is difficult to see how Albertine’s book couldn’t be inspiring. Albertine’s experiences, while at points completely distinctive to her era and generation, will hold familiarity with women across every generation, and her publication of this honest confrontation and assessment of her life is an incredibly brave decision.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys was recommended to me as a feminist and music lover. But I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interest in music. Even if you’ve never heard of the Slits, never been into punk or any kind of subversive culture, there will be something in Albertine’s book that will resonate with you and your own experiences. And even if there isn’t – her life is bloody interesting enough to have you hooked regardless.

Neopronouns and clickbait

Author:
clickbait

By Pip Williams

Content note: transphobia

An article from notoriously poorly-edited and sensationalist student news outlet The Tab somehow wormed its way onto my Facebook timeline yesterday. The article was titled “Oxford University students allegedly told to use ‘ze’, not ‘he or she’ to stop transgender discrimination”, and, unsurprisingly, the comments were a transphobic mess.

In recent weeks, The Tab has taken to sharing content centring around non-binary trans identities. A video by non-binary activist and Newcastle University Student Union Marginalised Genders Officer Saffron Kershaw-Mee garnered comparisons to cancer and paedophilia, prompting them to pen a follow-up article to a similarly unsympathetic response.

The Tab isn’t the only news outlet to capitalise on transgender identities for outrage-inducing clickbait. In July, national newspaper The Telegraph published an article titled “Boarding school teachers told to address transgender pupils as ‘zie’ in guidance on gender neutral terminology”. Whilst I was unable to source the official guidance from the Boarding Schools Association, LGBT+ news outlet PinkNews spoke with Alex Thompson, deputy chief executive of the BSA, to ascertain that the guidance had been provided at the request of teachers.

In conversation with PinkNews, Thompson explains how teachers felt “in the dark” when addressing pupils with gender identities unfamiliar to them. Far from instructing staff to use ‘zie’, the guidance provided the pronouns as an example of a neopronoun likely to be unfamiliar to staff. Neopronouns such as ‘zie’ are modern personal pronouns used in place of gendered pronouns such as ‘she’ or the widely used gender-neutral ‘they’. Many have been developed through discussion in online trans and genderqueer communities. Lists of neopronouns (such as this one) are one of the most widely available resources explaining their use. As such, it’s unlikely that the average cisgender schoolteacher would be aware of their existence. The aim of including ‘zie’ in the BSA guidance was, therefore, to demonstrate its use, ensuring staff would feel comfortable employing it if requested by a student – certainly not to say that everyone should be addressed with neopronouns, ‘zie’ or otherwise!

As with the Oxford University case reported by The Tab, The Telegraph chose to insinuate forced usage of neopronouns for all students. In the age of the internet, we all know how clickbait works. These false insinuations were intended to generate outrage, clicks, and advertising revenue – at the expense of trans people’s dignity and respect, and as we can see, this is an all-too-common theme.

I believe that The Tab’s article has been either amended, or deleted and republished without comment, since the release of Oxford University SU’s statement on the use of gender neutral pronouns proved several points incorrect. The statement outlines how “There is [a] possibility that our work and remit has been confused with the work of the wider University, whose Trans Policy and guidance does include a mention of neopronouns (pronoun sets like ‘ze/hir’, ‘ey/em/eirs’).” Again we see guidance on the usage of neopronouns in the context of trans equality exaggerated to the point of compulsory blanket usage.

The Tab article states – in a convoluted fashion – that “Claims were allegedly made in a leaflet given out by the SU says [sic] that deliberately using the wrong pronoun for a transgender person is an offence under the university’s code of behaviour”. Whilst we have established that the leaflets in question probably did not exist – at least not in any association with the Oxford University SU – this is a pretty standard anti-harassment guideline to promote trans equality in the student body. Sensationalising it in the news doesn’t change that most universities do (and should!) enshrine protection for trans students in their code of conduct.

I would also like to briefly touch on how the Telegraph’s headline stated that staff were “told to address transgender pupils as ‘zie’”. Whilst neither the BSA nor Oxford University SU were demanding the blanket use of neopronouns, it’s worth noting why this is a harmful concept in itself, particularly in the case of transgender students. For binary transgender individuals (i.e. trans men or women), using a neopronoun such as ‘zie’ in place of the gendered pronouns (e.g. she or he) they have requested is as much misgendering them as using the incorrect gendered pronoun. Whilst I would encourage people to use neutral pronouns on initially meeting someone (‘they’ is most common), it is important to be open to correction and respect people’s correct pronouns.

In defence of fanfiction

Author:
fanfics

I have been reading and writing fanfiction since I was 13 years old – I am almost 20 – and I am unashamed of that fact. I believe in the power of this medium. Middle-aged white men may not see the value inherent in fanfic, and the rest of the world may ridicule fangirls and our “creepy/obsessive/weird” hobby, but I know that doesn’t mean anything. After all, aren’t some of the best things about the modern world widely misunderstood and undervalued? Aren’t selfies seen as proof of the ‘fact’ that young women are shallow, vapid creatures? Isn’t YouTube culture deemed as evidence that entertainment is in decay? And yet, think of the brilliance and importance of these things, of how selfies can promote self-love, and of how YouTube allows anyone (with access to a computer – still a massive privilege, of course) to be a creator? Fanfiction has similar value. Trust me, it’s played a significant part in shaping my life and who I am.

As a young teenager, I felt incredibly isolated. I had friends at school, but for several years I was unable to be honest with them – about my emotions, my sexuality, about anything substantial. Thankfully, there was the internet. More specifically, there was the One Direction fandom. It was whilst the band were on The X-Factor UK in 2010 that I found a community for myself, and I am immensely grateful for that. I remember very clearly the evening I went on Twitter, as usual, and one of my mutual followers posted about wanting to write a fic featuring female characters based on herself and a bunch of her fandom friends. I ended up being one of them – the fic concept being of us, as a girl band rivalling One Direction on the X-Factor (but being super close friends with them all, of course!). Each of us in that group ended up writing our own fics, and we all included each other in them. I remember feeling like I belonged, like I finally had a place. That circle of friends – and the stories we created together – was integral to my survival at that point. I was more than a bit miserable at school, but I knew that at the end of every day, my computer was waiting for me. I had something to escape into – the latest chapters of my friends’ fics, and the chatter that followed reading. And I had a purpose – I had my own fic to write, and people who wanted to read it, people who wanted to know my thoughts. Although it was fiction, my group all inserted real life issues into our stories – I remember vividly how one of my friends wrote my character’s body image issues, and finding so much comfort in reading it. The comfort that ‘I’ was given in this fictional world translated into real life. I eventually lost touch with those girls, but I never lost what they gave me. I will always value their friendship, and I will always value the way that fanfiction brought us together.

Fanfiction has not only helped to connect me to others, it’s helped me to connect to myself, too. I have never been comfortable in my sexuality, never really sure of ‘where I fit’ in regards to labels. Bisexual is the word I used to define myself for many years, but it was never quite right, and that always inhibited me considerably. This discomfort only intensified as I began to surround myself with queer friends, people who were out and proud and sure of their sexuality – as I became more and more immersed in queer culture, the more of a fraud I felt. Fanfiction was the thing that began to change that, because it was through fanfiction that I first came across the labels that I felt a true connection to. It was in fanfiction that I came across the concept of asexuality, and suddenly there was a possibility in the back of my mind that I wasn’t ‘failing’, that my general disinterest in sex did not necessarily mean that I was inherently lacking. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I ‘fit’ asexuality, because I did not 100% ‘meet the criteria’. For a few months, I was more confused than ever before, and it was immensely distressing. I began to strongly believe that I was defective – sexuality being one of many things that I felt I did not have ‘a fixed place’ in, one of the many things that left me in a grey area. And then came the fic that changed my life. I’m not even exaggerating. This was a high school AU, and in this fic, the two main characters – Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson – defined as grey-ace and demisexual, respectively. I had heard of the latter, but not fully understood what it meant, and – having a friend who defined this way – I wanted to. The former, on the other hand, was a term I had never come across before – intrigued, I looked it up. The results of my Google search were like a slap in the face. Except, pleasant. It was the first time I had sighed with relief at a simple word, the first time that I did not feel like I had to reach for a label and clutch desperately at it. It was the first time I’d latched onto something – not only in regards to my sexuality – that felt natural, easy. It was the first time I realised something important, that I am not defective, and what I feel (and don’t feel) is completely valid. It continues to amaze me that something so monumental in my life was a result of reading fanfiction, and serves as a reminder that doing what you love can have some huge results, beyond anything you could possibly imagine.

Fanfiction has been many things for me over the years – a place of community, of creativity, and of self-discovery. But perhaps the simplest and most important thing that fanfiction has done for me is given me a place to call home. Of course, that’s fandom in general – in the worst of times, One Direction have always been my retreat, my safe place – but fanfiction is perhaps a particularly special extension of that. As a life-long book nerd/story obsessive, it is the part of fanfiction that matters to me most because it encompasses all of myself, and it provides me with an escape of multiple dimensions. I will never understand why the rest of the world can’t see the beauty in that, but I’m not too bothered about that anymore. I know that I am never on my own in what I believe in and care about, and the proof is in this fandom.

Alopecia, TV & Me

Author:
woman

By Gemma Garner

I remember the day I found my first bald patch. I was around 14, in the middle of getting my hair cut. I was getting a trim, nothing more, nothing less. My mum always insisted that I should get a bob, or a pixie cut, but losing THAT much hair seemed too drastic for me. What if I looked ‘like a man?’ What if I wasn’t pretty?

I was always so excited to go to the hairdressers. It seemed like something that would change my entire appearance. Style gurus in television programmes like ‘10 years younger’ taught me that hair is such a crucial part of my appearance. All of my favourite kids TV programmes that I grew up on had at some point used the ‘oh-no-she-got-gum-in-her-hair-and-now-she-has-to-rip-out-a-chunk-of-it-how-embarrassing’ trope that caused the otherwise powerful leading ladies to become centrepieces of ridicule. This taught me how important my hair truly was. Don’t fuck it up, TV said. You’ll be ugly, TV said.

My hairdresser was separating my hair to cut it, when my mum, who at the time had recently been diagnosed with alopecia, stopped her. ‘What’s that?’ she asked, gently. My hairdresser, a friend of my mum’s who knew of her alopecia, became silent. ‘What? What is it?’ I asked. I felt the tension grow in the room. My mum let me know about the small bald patch on the middle of the back of my head. My stomach dropped, my heart shattered, my world stopped. From that moment on, my life was different. My future was different. I went home after that haircut and cried. I cried and cried, and cried. Not just for days, but for weeks and even months. Who’s going to love me? I thought. Who will I tell? How much more will fall out? I began to feel everything spin out of control. My beautiful, curly auburn locks were no longer something that I felt proud of. I no longer looked forward to getting my hair cut. I no longer felt loveable.

Before me, my mother had already been diagnosed with alopecia, after an accident caused her to temporarily lose the ability to walk. She lost most of her hair, and developed an underactive thyroid that caused her to gain a lot of weight. This lead to a deep depression. It was the first time I ever saw my mum weak, hopeless and lost. Now, she is stronger because of it, and tells every woman she meets about how empowering it was to be fat, bald, and disabled; three things that our society deems the ugliest.

Now, I realize that some may be thinking it’s rather dramatic to talk about alopecia as if it were a terminal, life threatening disease. I would agree with those people. However, statistics prove that when people, especially women, suffer from hair loss, they would give up everything just to have hair again.

Eventually that little patch would grow, and make me lose one third of my hair on the back of my head. This led me to believe that it would eventually all go, and I would lose my entire head. Luckily, it stopped there. I was able to conceal it with hairgrips, and hats. I avoided sitting in the front of class, thinking everyone would laugh if they saw I was bald underneath. I told no-one, in fear that they would find it too disgusting. In hindsight, this was ridiculous. But at the age of 14, with my mental state slowly deteriorating and my sense of self confidence essentially gone, there wasn’t a rational bone in my body.

This was one of the worst times in my life. I had never felt uglier, more worthless, and more unlovable. The alopecia caused me to isolate myself, giving me more time to feed my ever growing habit of self-pity and self-loathing. Though forums full of young women who felt the same made me feel a little less alone, it was still dark, scary and lonely. Eventually my mum got better, stronger, and became her bracing, wondrous self again. She still had alopecia, but she was OK with it. She got me counselling, and my family and friends, as I opened up to them, were incredibly supportive. Although my alopecia was still going strong (and was also being very inconvenient with where it chose to show up) (how the fuck do you hide a bald patch on your natural cow’s lick?), It never showed up like it did when I first got it. I got steroid injections in my head on a regular basis which caused the patches to get smaller and easier to handle.

Now, here I am today. Stronger, happier, with a high self-esteem and a level of openness to the point that most people have to ask me NOT to share too much. I rarely get bald patches and if I do, it doesn’t particularly bother me.

It’s important to note that I’ve been incredibly lucky with my alopecia. It thankfully didn’t develop too much. For some people, however, it does. To prove how traumatic it can really feel, I decided to reach out to some women on twitter who also suffer from alopecia, and ask them for their experience.

‘My alopecia started when I was 11. I was devastated. I felt like I wasn’t a proper girl anymore. It was just heart-breaking for me. I was so jealous of other girls with lovely long hair. I felt so alone. I had no one to talk to about it. My alopecia gets worse when I am stressed. I was bullied quite badly throughout secondary school and this made my stress levels worse and my hair fell out more. It was a never ending cycle. I’m 28 now and I’ve worn wigs for the past 7 years as I was no longer able to hide the bald spots. I recently went 3 months with no wig but my hair fell out again and I felt the same way I did when I was a wee girl. Just devastated. It’s something I’ve just had to accept. I’ll never have lovely hair and I’ll always feel like I lost some of my femininity.’ –Amy Tucker, 28

‘Getting diagnosed with Alopecia was absolutely soul destroying – you’re losing something that essentially forms so much of your identity, so it changes the way you see yourself, and rattles and shakes up the way you saw yourself in the future. Plus, there are also so many unknowns – when will it stop? How will people treat you? What’s next?’ –Katie Hale, 23

‘Losing my hair was a frightening experience. Women without hair weren’t classed as pretty, apart from seven of nine in Star Trek and I certainly didn’t have her figure. I dealt with it as I was a strong women in her thirties with a loving family. After a while I shaved my remaining hair off, I didn’t want to carry on having it fall out bit by bit. So I took control of it. When my teenage daughter also got Alopecia that was much harder to take. Peer pressure at that age is so hard. As she went on her own personal journey of acceptance I was so proud of her and her inner strength. She started to own it and take back control of her life. Alopecia taught me that I am more than my appearance.’–Samantha Garner, 47 (a.k.a. My mum)

I’m sorry, dear readers, to ramble on so passionately about something you may not even understand. I don’t blame you, either. I had no understanding of alopecia when I discovered my bald patch. There are three types of alopecia; Areata, Totalis, and Universalis. Areata is where your hair falls out in patches, Totalis is when you lose all of the hair on your head, and Universalis is when you lose all of the hair on your body and head. Each are caused by different things. Areata and totalis are autoimmune disorders in which your own immune system begins to attack your hair follicles as if they were intruders. Universalis, however, is the rarest form of alopecia. It is caused by a genetic mutation that is present from birth, but may not show up until much later in someone’s life. The hardest thing about alopecia is that most of the time, all kinds of alopecia start out looking like alopecia areata. The first patch is certainly the one that causes the most anxiety. Where will it go? What more will fall out? Is this the start, or the end? There is no cure, only things that MAY help. You do them anyway. You have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

For most people my age, growing up, TV was the best time of the day. As soon as I got through the door from school, I would lounge on the sofa watching my favourite shows on CBBC, Nickelodeon, and Disney Channel. It’s impossible to argue that the shows I watched regularly at this age didn’t have some kind of influence on me; it’s all I consumed at that time. Television programmes have always been a deep reflection of society at the time that they’re shown. By looking at the societal and cultural themes that run through a programme, we can gain quite a large understanding of how people felt about life at that time. This is even true with seemingly innocent children’s television programmes. An example of this is in an episode of the sassy, progressive and incredibly popular Disney Channel show That’s So Raven that aired on February the 4th 2005, named ‘True Colours’.

In this episode Raven and her friend Chelsea apply for a job at the same upscale clothing store. Though Chelsea’s resume is far less impressive that Raven’s, she ends up getting the job. Why? Raven is black, and Chelsea is white. Raven, hurt and angered, continues to try and ‘out’ the store and make their blatant racism a public matter by getting the store owner to admit to it on camera, ultimately ruining their reputation. When I watched this show as a kid, I didn’t really think about it that much. But when I think about it now, this episode was incredibly controversial and the fact that it even aired at all says a lot about society as it was at the time. To this day, that episode is still incredibly relevant, as racism is still a huge issue, especially in the supposed ‘Post-Racial’ America.

So, if Television is really a reflection of what’s happening and what is and isn’t acceptable in society, then where do we stand with hair? This is a question I struggled to answer when I began to write this article. It’s almost impossible to create a substantial debate when there’s hardly anything to reference. Most women on television have gorgeous, long hair. No questions asked. The only female television personality who’s bald in real life is Gayle Porter, who before alopecia was a sex symbol, a fun ladette for men to view in their lad mags. Now post alopecia, she is only depicted as mentally ill, broken and rarely looked up to as a feminine figure. It’s just the way that it is.

But then I began to think; is that just the way that it is? I began to look at the things I saw around me. I think about the countless amount of times I’ve seen a beautiful young woman write ‘Should I cut my hair short?’ on Facebook. This woman, more often than not, knows that she wants to cut her hair, but needs approval first. She needs that validation. And let me tell you, she’ll never get it. My heart sinks when I begin to read the comments of these incredibly common statuses. With almost no positive responses in sight, all I see is ‘Don’t do it! You have beautiful gorgeous long hair!’, and ‘Your hair is amazing as it is. No.’. This makes it clear to me; hair is very, very important as a status symbol for women.

Why is it that we ask for permission to cut our hair? Why is it such a daunting thing to do? Why do people seem to think that short hair cannot be equally as gorgeous as long hair? And don’t even try to tell me it’s because long hair takes ages to grow. When we see men with long hair – unless they look like Brad Pitt, or Jake Gyllenhaal – we consider them gross, lazy and dirty. So it’s obviously not the hair itself. It’s what that hair does to the woman attached.

Ultimately, there are very few representations of baldness on television. Because of this, I’m going to look at both bald women, and women with short, ‘boyish’ hair. Both equally demonstrate how important hair is to us in society today. My first case study is a character from Friends. One of Phoebe’s friends, Bonnie, goes on a date with Ross. Phoebe describes her as bald before they go on their date. However, when they meet, Bonnie has a full head of hair, and they end up dating. Eventually Rachel persuades her to shave it all off again, and in response to her baldness, Ross is creeped out, disgusted, and doesn’t know what to do with this woman he once found beautiful. Although this plot line is done for humour, his disgust genuinely reflects a truth in society today. Another example of this is in Americas Next Top Model season 6, when all of the girls have to wear bald caps for a photoshoot. This is shown to be a statement, something that is difficult to pull off. This representation makes me wonder, when my mother’s hair fell out, and she decided to go bald, did she pull it off? Did she make a fashion statement? She sure as hell wasn’t trying.

Now I’m going to look at women with short hair in television. There are various examples of this and ultimately, they all are also making a statement about their character. Short hair on a woman in television represents masculinity, toughness, aggression and a lack of vanity. An example of this is when we look at Arya from Game of Thrones. She’s a strong, masculine character that hates most feminine traits. She notoriously slags off other women when asked why she isn’t a typical girl. Another example of this is in Supernatural, where Meg, a demon, after possessing a vessel, cuts her long hair. This is used to show how horrible it is when humans are possessed by demons, making a statement.

It’s important to note that long hair, however, is used to portray sexuality, innocence, beauty and even normality. Ultimately, it is the pinnacle of femininity, and it is mostly all that we see.

All of these examples show us something about society that explains why those with alopecia suffer like they do; hair is considered the be all and end all of a woman’s appearance. Because of how hair is shown in television, film and other mediums, from a very young age, we understand that hair changes how other people see us. It’s because I was bombarded with images of women with long, luscious locks growing up, that I eventually saw it as the norm, meaning that when there was a possibility my hair could all fall out, it was the end of the world for me.

Hair is one of the most important things in determining society’s rigid and limited gender roles. When I was losing my hair, I didn’t want to make a statement. I didn’t want to be aggressive, tough, and masculine. I wanted to be feminine. Although I am more than happy to have short hair and baldness be portrayed by some badass women, I want there to be variety. I want it to be a norm. I want all hair/lack thereof to be seen as beautiful AND badass. I want to see more bald and short haired women on screen. Maybe then, beautiful bald ladies will feel better off screen. At the end of the day, it’s just hair. Why can’t we treat it that way?

[i] http://www.popsugar.com/celebrity/photo-gallery/33327231/image/33327276/Jake-long-hair-slicked-back-Qamp

[ii] http://weheartit.com/entry/group/17062843

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