PANDORA SYKES wants to change the way we shop. Correction: she wants us all to think more about the way we shop so that we act on our own conclusions.
‘I love clothes, I love decoration, I love dressing up,’ she says on the phone from the house in Kensal Rise she shares with her husband and two young children (her son Sasha was born in December). ‘But I do want us to be more aware of the difference between style and fashion. I think there are major problems behind the psychology of shopping and why clothes shopping is our number one hobby. It comes from wanting constant refresh. It’s often not about the dress you are buying but a feeling inside.’
If you are one of the million or so listeners who tune into smash-hit podcast The High Low you will already know Sykes who, along with her co-host and good friend Dolly Alderton, takes apart each week’s headlines, gossip and must-know topics with wit, intelligence and millennial savviness. Sykes, 33, is a former fashion columnist for The Sunday Times and her fabulously decorated house often appears in interior supplements so she knows a bit about the siren call of a new midi skirt or vintage scatter cushion.
But she is also the author of a new book of essays, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?, in which she explores at much greater depth the tyranny of current cultural obsessions, from the cult of wellness to the allure of fast fashion to our immaculately curated daily posts on social media.
Moreover, she does so through the lens of modern feminism, probing why so many women feel, despite (or perhaps because of) their successes, they are still not getting it right.
‘Women have so much choice these days,’ she says. ‘But I’m very interested in how these options become obligations. During my research I was particularly interested to read that working women now spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the ’70s. That suggests that an awful lot of women are now trying to work full-time, be full-time parents, be full-time friends and at the same time externalise all of that online.’
By turns sparkling and serious, How Do We Know We Are Doing It Right? exemplifies Sykes’ uncanny reading of the zeitgeist in terms of leisure habits: she launched her podcast at precisely the moment podcasts took off, while her book feeds into a growing public appetite for the long-form essay (an accompanying new podcast replaces a cancelled promo tour).
Her reach in the essays is wide but her theme is consistent: the relationship between the nagging insecurity many women feel and their rapacious, invariably online quest for authenticity and fulfilment.
Moreover, her analysis is acute, from how the wellness industry spins an entirely bogus link between good health and spiritual cleanliness to the way wealthy celebrities perpetuate an identikit, hugely influential Instagram beauty ideal consisting predominantly of fillers, shellac and fake tan.
‘It’s great that Sweet Valley High combination of blonde hair and blue eyes is no longer today’s idea of beauty,’ she says. ‘But if Kim Kardashian is the new ideal, that’s an exhaustively high-octane look and it’s being constantly refreshed and at great expense. For some women, what Kardashian represents is refreshing because she has curves. On the other hand, it’s a body that to a large extent has been built by cosmetic surgeons. We have to be aware of what’s gone into the imagery we see daily.’
Sykes is a passionate reader who grew up on a diet of Jilly Cooper and Roald Dahl, and her book is swimming in references to feminist writers, from Betty Friedan to Virginia Woolf.
Privately educated, a workaholic and a lifelong insomniac, she has also been dogged by accusations of privilege: Piers Morgan once famously dismissed the High Low as ‘braying posh girls talking gibberish’. She’s always quick to acknowledge how lucky she is but surely it must get tiring?
‘Women are always categorised and that’s how it’s always been,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been keen to subvert my own image by taking different work routes whenever I can. But identity has become very tribal now because we live in such a consuming, consumable world. We are being sold to every day. And particularly if you are a mother — the cult of the yummy mummy, the community of motherhood.
‘Society still locks women into shape so I’m very interested in those really damaging labels. Because however many choices women are told they have, they don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to defining themselves.’
■ How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? (Penguin) is out now. Sykes’s new podcast, Doing It Right, is out each Monday on iTunes