Working Out the Gym

Over the last few months, I’ve taken up going to the gym. I can hear the eyes roll and the bored sighs from here. People hate people going to the gym – until recently I was one of those people, and honestly I would also sigh and roll my eyes at a blog post about going to the gym. Stick with it, my friends. Hopefully it will be faintly informative, or at least faintly funny.

I started going because I have an ongoing issue with the nerve in my right elbow, due to the amount of time I spend sitting at a computer. Three physiotherapists have asked me if there’s anything I can do at my job that doesn’t involve a computer – the answer is no. Perhaps I need to retrain as a shepherd or a taxi driver to avoid the problem. But in the meantime, my solution is to go to the gym to try and release the tension that runs from neck to shoulder to wrist and back again.

The gym is a fascinating place to observe human behaviour. It is at the same time an intensely private and completely public place to be. People are frequently half-dressed, or in clothes so tight-fitting they may as well be half-dressed. Men with shoulders the size of their heads stride around calling to each other, obviously at home and at ease. Women run on the treadmills with their headphones in, making no eye contact. I am one of these – I avoid looking any other people in the eye, mainly for fear of judgement. I am blessed with a slight physique, so don’t have to worry about people thinking I’m too heavy to be in a gym (which is, by the way, a completely bizarre piece of logic) but I worry anyway about being judged on my appearance or abilities – and on being compared to other women.

There is one woman who goes to my local gym who is pretty, petite and blonde. She wears a crop top and leggings, showing off a lovely figure. She does do some exercise in the gym but she also spends a lot of time chatting to the guys with shoulders the size of their heads. It’s a proper flirt party in the middle of a gym. Once, she was doing some kind of squats while kneeling on the floor – fair enough – but was pausing for minutes at a time in between sets to chat to the guys while rocking back and forth on all fours. For heaven’s sake – just grab your favourite and take him home for a romp in the sack.

I feel bad for judging her. I shouldn’t really, and honestly she only really annoys me when she’s hogging some equipment I want while doing her flirting workout. Obviously, the main reason she makes me feel bad is because she makes me feel unattractive, with my unwashed hair (I’ll never understand people who shower BEFORE going to the gym) and my already modest chest squashed a little flatter thanks to sports crop tops. I act aloof among the men at the gym, rejecting them before they can reject me. I’m quite sure they don’t notice and don’t care even if they do notice, however. While I’m feeling insecure and worrying about people watching me, most of the people at the gym are entirely focussed on themselves.

I mostly do weights stuff at the gym, trying to strengthen my arms and back to take the pressure off my arm. The weights area is lined with mirrors, which are sometimes useful to make sure you’re straight and centred, but which personally I hate because it brings my attention back to my appearance instead of my performance. If I’m not in front of a mirror, I’m in front of screens playing music videos (without the sound, the music is something else) which infuriate and depress me in equal measure as the women bounce around and stretch and make sexy faces at the camera. Why on earth would anybody find me attractive, I think, after staring at them for five minutes, getting up to do something else, and trying to surreptitiously wipe sweat marks from my hands or back or arse off the equipment.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I. Of course the point of going to the gym isn’t to judge yourself and come out feeling like a bag of manure. It’s to take control of your body and push yourself and feel the difference, in fitness or strength. In the media, for women it’s always about losing weight or getting toned, which I hope is slowly beginning to change as the world and her mother push the benefits of exercise, quite apart from any weight loss. Even though I’m not really going to the gym to lose weight, I am still (clearly) thinking too much about how I look while I’m there. I read this article this week about taking exercise in a body positive way, which has some great tips. I went to the gym after reading it but tried to ignore everyone else, view myself with detachment instead of negativity, and focus on how my body felt and on whether I could push myself to do a little more. It worked, and I set some new personal bests.

For my partner, going to the gym is very useful for his mental health. It’s a pure, uncomplicated feeling for him. He enjoys going through motions, going through routines, and appreciating the complexity of simple exercises. Doing things properly requires focus, and practise. He says although our stereotypes are of meatheads in the gym, they are good at what they do and often I see them helping each other with exercises, making me think they are just nice normal guys even if seeing them in the gym I’m tempted to stereotype them as dull and narcissistic. In a way, the gym is an entirely judgement free zone, because whatever anyone thinks of you you’re unlikely ever to hear about it. You are all strangers. I see the same people, I’m sure, but I’ve realised how little attention I pay to them, because I can never remember whether I’ve seen them before or not. As much as you may think people are watching you and laughing behind their hands, it’s in your head. It’s a natural thing to think, because that’s how we’re wired – to think people are hyperaware of our mistakes and completely oblivious to our successes. For me, that’s how I think of myself, not how other people think of me, and I need to get out of the habit of projecting those negative thoughts into other people’s minds.

So gyms may be a bit strange and a bit intimidating and some might say a little dull, but they are also fascinating and interesting and fun places to find out what your body can do. There are people doing every type of workout, and it’s entirely up to you what you work on and why. I like that freedom, and at its best it feels like you’re a child again at one of those play centres – although without the ball pit, thank goodness, because as an adult they’re impossible to get out of. People might go there for different reasons, but remember that you don’t actually have to give any of them a moment’s thought. They are all there for themselves, and you’re there for yourself too.

Advertisements

Everyday Powerful Women – Appearance

For more than a year, I’ve had this definition of power saved on my phone: ‘Power: the ability to act or produce an effect’. Lately I’ve been thinking more about the word ‘power’, and in particular what it means to be a ‘powerful woman’ in today’s world. In this brilliant article on women in power throughout history, Mary Beard suggested that one of the main problems we still have is that we don’t really know what a powerful woman looks like. Most women we think of as ‘powerful’ are adopting the clothes and style of powerful men, rather than inventing a new way for women to appear powerful.

Where does power come from, and is it different for men and women? Historically men have been physically powerful – in terms of strength – and powerful in terms of intellect. When we read the history books, the politicians and the warriors and the philosophers and the scientists and the decision-makers are overwhelmingly male. There are examples of women, and they are often passed over or forgotten, but even so the men are primarily seen as the ones with this power. Women are powerful in terms of their beauty, and their ability to bear children. The latter is a never-ending political hot potato, as the life of an unborn child is frequently seen to be more important than the life of the woman carrying it. This is the paradoxical power of being able to carry a child: it overwhelms all other purposes or needs a woman may have.

Mary Beard also wrote that women may not want political power or to stand on a soapbox, they just want to be taken seriously. I caught my breath a little at that, because it struck right to the heart of what feminism means for me. I want to be taken seriously. I want people to meet me and listen to my ideas and take them seriously as ideas coming from a person, not a sex object. Unfortunately the week after I read this article I was reminded how little women are still taken seriously, even in the middle of London. I was cat-called by a man on a bicycle while I was on the phone to my mum. I was pointlessly challenged in a pub by some idiot propping up the bar, who thought it would be funny to say ‘no you can’t!’ when I asked if I could have a pint of some beer or other. And I was threatened with bodily violence by a stranger for passing comment on a horse he’d tied in the middle of a pavement (don’t even ask).

Our appearance and our ability to bear children both give us power in myriad ways, but as a primary source of feeling powerful, they often suck. To have your ‘ability to act or produce an effect’ determined by the way you look means that your brain and personality are frequently ignored in favour of being summed up instantly as a) a woman, and b) on a sliding scale of attractiveness. This is endlessly frustrating, and is applicable to all women everywhere. In some parts of the world, it means your own will and wishes are considered to be secondary to those of others. When you are only judged on the outside, you are essentially a doll, and considered to be a second class of citizen. And even in the UK, which is apparently enlightened, and even if you are running a country, some people still won’t take you seriously – and prefer to comment on the shape of your legs rather than your ideas and your actions.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. I see women every day on the train putting on their make-up, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. The thing I hate is the system that makes women believe that they have to spend a lot of time and money on improving their appearance. All of it speaks to a notion that we are not enough as we are. We are not enough unless we spend hours removing hair and shaping brows and going on diets to get a ‘bikini body’. And this is all because the whole system still buys into the idea that women’s power, and worth, comes first and foremost from how they look.

This is made clear from childhood. I hated looking stupid or wrong or ugly from an extremely young age. I didn’t want to pull faces, or get dirty, because then I wouldn’t look pretty. My body was rarely praised or criticised for its abilities, only for the shape it made. I have grown up continuing to evaluate it in the same way. I hated playing sports at school because I didn’t think I could do it properly and I hated looking like a fool – I also hated wearing shorts for P.E. because I thought my legs were too skinny (this was enough of a problem that at age seven I feigned illness to get out of a school Sports Day).  It was all about how I looked doing things, and because I was so concerned with that, I was inevitably bad at things that required full concentration on, say, where the ball was, and whether I could swing a stick in time to hit it. I thought that if I tried to hit it hard, it would go a pathetic distance, so I put no effort in at all so at least it wouldn’t look as if I’d tried and failed. Clearly the only way to be good at any physical activity is to keep trying and failing until you stop failing so often, and begin to succeed, but nobody told me that. Sport seemed to me to be for boys, and I was no good at it. I didn’t take myself seriously, but did that start because nobody took me seriously? I don’t remember ever being really coached at sport, you just did the activity and then stopped. I sucked, and wasn’t told how I could get better. This creates problems throughout life because exercise is key to health and happiness.

When I was growing up, I was not popular with boys – which I shouldn’t have cared about as most of them were idiots. But somehow it seemed to be the most important thing. Getting a boyfriend seemed to be key to happiness (a problem which the media and society do nothing to assuage as you get older) and thus I needed to be more attractive to fulfil this goal. I was lucky that I had very supportive parents and I grew up before social media was really a thing, because I can’t imagine what it’s like without a good support network and with other people constantly pushing idealised images of people in your face. With Photoshop and filters used on every picture in the public eye, people judge themselves against CGI and even forget what they look like when they haven’t edited their own face. People like Kylie Jenner, who apparently had her face, boobs and arse remodelled at age 16, are truly terrifying examples of what can happen to young women who have one goal: to look perfect. When women in the news are judged on how they look every single day, young girls absorb the message from everywhere that how they look is of utmost importance.

Unfortunately, women frequently perpetuate this notion themselves. Women put down other women like pros: many magazines ‘for women’ make an industry out of criticising other women for being too fat/thin on a daily basis. We are so chronically insecure and tired from judging ourselves all the time that the only way to make ourselves feel better is to judge everyone else too. For example, many people have many issues with Lena Dunham, but the fact that people got upset because she started seeing a personal trainer and doing some exercise absolutely astounds me. This reaction proved a few things: a) that Lena is still extremely rare to be a woman in the public eye owning power in her less than “perfect” body; b) that people hate people who go to the gym; and c) that women have such serious insecurity issues that one woman taking some exercise is enough to make them very angry. It’s fairly obvious that Lena going to the gym on its own isn’t enough to annoy anybody, the problem is that she was “fat” and said she was happy being “fat,” so other women who are “fat” can also feel happy the way they are – but now Lena is betraying the tribe. She’s taking exercise because she wants to help herself with serious mental health issues and endometriosis, but she is attacked for apparently wanting to change the way she looks. Everyone thought that if she was happy the way she was, and achieved what she has looking that way, then she could be taken seriously without being thin and conventionally beautiful. And if she could do it, everyone else could stop worrying about how they looked too and think about something else. The ridiculous thing is that of course one woman doing some exercise doesn’t affect anybody else’s self-worth or power, and that there is nothing wrong with doing exercise anyway – even though many people hate it, exercise is always good for you. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with weight loss, although infuriatingly exercise and weight loss are almost always connected for women. I would love to be able to change this. The negativity surrounding exercise for women is toxic.

All these perceptions of women and their power need to be taught differently from childhood. Being a girl should not be about being pretty and looking nice all the time, about never being awkward or doing something stupid or getting into trouble. Girls should do all those things, and be encouraged to move and exercise to enjoy it, as well as be good at it. Hopefully as more girls see female sports players, politicians, writers, scientists, and decision-makers on the television and elsewhere, they will see women showing power and strength through something other than their physical attractiveness. The outcry when the media and people in top positions treat women like dolls must be louder and longer until it’s no longer acceptable. Unfortunately America just voted in someone who speaks about women as if they are not just dolls, but sex dolls, provided for his amusement. But I am hopeful that the next four years will show him just how many powerful women there are around the world who are willing to show him he is wrong and repulsive, and needs to take women seriously. We can all do our own bit by taking ourselves seriously, every day, and taking the other women around us seriously. Only then can we link by link undo the chain that stops us from being judged – by ourselves and everyone else – on our internal worth.

Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Going home

Recently, I had a worried conversation with my Canadian, reliant-on-a-work-visa partner. He works in academia, already intensely competitive, and possibly soon to be chronically under-resourced. Getting a job here if you’re from outside the EU has already become more difficult in recent years, and with the recent hateful headlines from our home secretary and PM, the situation looks like it could get significantly worse in the near future. If this government go ahead with their plans, his name will be on the list of ‘foreign workers’ his university will have to hand in. If he wanted to move on from his current position, would anybody take the risk and hassle of employing him without British citizenship? I told him I was frightened, that if things get worse, he would want to go home.

Go home. As I said the words I felt a jolt. Were we not already at home? Where would home be, if we moved to Canada? We would both likely know nobody, and have only each other. Would it be home for him again? Could it ever be home for me?

I’ve been musing on what home means for almost a year. I use the term to refer both to the flat I currently live in, and my parents’ house where I lived permanently from the ages of 4 to 18, and where I’ve stayed at various intervals since. In the last ten years I have moved house ten times. Looking back, were all those places home?

Do any of you ever have that experience of thinking, “I want to go home!” when, technically, you’re already there? Home isn’t just a place, but a feeling. I lived in a flat for three years and it never truly felt like home to me. I never settled properly there, rarely had that warm, comfy, I’m at home feeling about it. I consider this feeling to be similar to the suddenly trendy Danish idea of hygge – that warm, comfortable, safe, and entirely without stress feeling. I suppose the time I lived in that flat was full of stressors, not least a deeply unsatisfying and, In the end, mentally damaging work environment. Would anywhere have felt like home, under such circumstances?

I left there and moved home to my parents for six months. Going back to my family home is such a complicated feeling for me, in part because I’ve never fully left. This is true in a physical sense – my old bedroom is so full of stuff it looks like it is still occupied day to day, with clothes in the drawers and wardrobe, four bookcases full of books, and a dresser covered in jewellery. I go back and feel the pull of all those belongings that I still, aged 28, cannot have with me as I can’t afford somewhere with enough space. I am wondering, like many people my age, if there will ever come a time when I’m not storing some possessions with my parents.

Mentally, too, I am still deeply connected to this home. I get on very well with my parents and deeply enjoy their company, and they mine, so trips home always feel too short – even when they also feel constrictive, being back under their rules, and feeling the pain of things they do and think that I cannot change. This is one of the pains of growing up: some people find it fairly easy to start a life on their own terms, in their own space, with their own chosen people, and don’t feel much guilt at having flown the nest. For me, it is more difficult. I have never had a Christmas away from this home, and with all the emotional ties of Christmas traditions, this is one holiday when I feel I should be at home. I feel guilty for not visiting more often, and for not staying longer when I am there. Whenever I leave, it is painful on the one hand, and like getting out of an effortlessly warm and comfortable bed on the other. It is still, and always will be in some ways, my home, even though it is not without difficulties. For most people, the family home has some elements of push and pull, as all families are rarely entirely without tensions.

Recently I moved out of London after ten years, settling in Canterbury and commuting back to the city every day. Canterbury, the town, does not yet feel like home. I am too transient, spending most of my waking hours still in London, and still feel like a weekend guest here. I have joined the library, the cinema, the gym, but only know small bits of the town and have barely begun to join them together. The flat I’m in is starting to feel like home – but for the first time in a few years there is no space here that is mostly mine. My partner has the “spare room”, which really is his office as he works so much at home. I only go in there to hang laundry. It contains none of my possessions and the futon we have for guests, but also for me to sit on, is both very uncomfortable and currently facing a wall. My space to sit in is the living room, but it is a communal space, no corner to hide in, and no part of it to which I can withdraw. It feels sometimes like trying to make a nest in a corridor. It is too open and there is too much traffic to make a properly cosy, individual space.

If I feel unsettled sometimes at the lack of a specific room I can go to to be at home and shut the door on the world, how must people feel who are home-less? The number of people unable to afford a roof over their heads is on the rise, as renting rules get more and more out of hand, combined with a still struggling economy. Many families find themselves in temporary spaces and individuals find themselves on the streets. I cannot understand how having a home isn’t a basic human right. It is the bottom of the pyramid, the base on which all wellbeing is built.

And if homeless people here are feeling desperate, imagine being one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe. The people trying to scrape a life in the camps in Calais, and those waiting to hear the verdict on whether they’ll be allowed to claim refuge. The newly settled refugees in Germany, who I’m sure are hard pressed to feel like they can build a home there, knowing how much anti-refugee sentiment is present. Even the people hoping for better in Canada, where so many have offered to take refugees in, trying to find jobs and their own ways forward.

Recently I read the news that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees will be sent back to their country, in a deal between Europe and Afghanistan. They lie and say that it is safe for them to return, even though the Taliban are now controlling more territory than they have since 2001. One of the largest cities, Kunduz, has been without electricity and water for days at a time. They are not being sent home. There is nothing akin to hygge on offer there. And what of the Syrians, whose home is being bombed out of existence? If they ever get back, what will there be? It will not be the place they remember, perhaps ever again.

Even here, in England, in this affluent and apparently civilised society, I am struggling lately to feel that this country is my home. The words and actions of this past year, from citizens and especially from politicians, have made me very afraid. I would be afraid even if I hadn’t had the audacity to fall in love with someone who wasn’t born here, but the fear of being separated or forced to make a huge decision about our futures is pressing on me. Theresa May said there is no such thing as a global citizen, that if you are a global citizen then you belong nowhere. She is telling the people who live here and have done so for years, and paid for the privilege, and contributed to this society on so many levels, that still they do not belong. This is not their home.

I don’t understand. Why is it so wrong and bad to have not been born here, and to want to live here? Why do these people want to stifle our differences, and force us all to be the same? Rudd talked of the injustice for poor English people of having no job “because of immigration”. I would like her to show her working. I do not believe this can be the case for the majority. More likely that the jobs market has shrunk as investment in infrastructure and public services has been cut.

I am frightened that this country will continue to change and no longer feel like home. I am frightened that one day in the not too dim or distant future, my partner’s work visa will be one of those ‘clamped down on’. That we will have to decide whether to keep together through money and a piece of paper, supposed to be held due to love alone, or to run across the sea together, me leaving behind everywhere and everyone that have felt like home to me.

Home is a place, and a feeling, and a sense, and sometimes a person, or a set of people. If you are very lucky, you will meet someone who immediately feels like home to you. But even then, it takes effort and love and time and peace to build a home that will last. For people without all those things, and even perhaps for some of us who are not quite settled where we are, we will still know that emotional rush and ache of wanting to go home.

Overcoming The Fear of Physical Education – Getting Women into Sport

2016 has another great summer of sport. From Euro 2016 and Wimbledon, to the London Anniversary Games going on at the moment and the Rio Olympics starting in a couple of weeks, there’s a lot of inspirational sport on the television right now. There have been lots of clips and reminders of the wonders of London 2012, and I am feeling guilty that I didn’t stick to the resolutions I had after watching so many people achieve so many amazing things four years ago. In a rush of enthusiasm I bought a load of sports gear with ‘Team GB’ emblazoned on the side, but after only a few weeks I gave up and went back to general sitting about. Why do so many of us find it so hard to keep active?

I recently read the book Eat Sweat Play by Anna Kessel, sports journalist for The Guardian and The Observer. The book is all about getting women more involved in sport, encouraging us to get active but also highlighting the issues still rampant in women’s sport today. One of her main arguments is that for women, sport and movement is usually tied to losing weight. While men and boys are encouraged to go and kick a football around for the joy of it, for women and girls it’s all too often about burning calories, losing weight, and becoming a more accepted shape. Of course, this can be true of men too. The stereotype of the shy boy who starts going to the gym and works out for confidence is a familiar one, although it’s often tainted with ideas of taking protein supplements or steroids to get really ‘ripped’, sometimes to the detriment of their overall health.

Sport is inherently tied up with body image for men and women. The difference seems to be that more women are put off attempting any kind of sport for fear of looking stupid or being laughed at. Anna Kessel cites a figure of 75% of women who feel this way. In a world where advertising has women looking perfect and pristine at all times, without a wrinkle or a blemish or a hair out of place, the thought of getting hot, sweaty and untidy is not appealing to many women. Especially if you’re doing something you don’t know much about at the same time and potentially getting it wrong.

For me at least, the fear of being laughed at because of my body shape or because I couldn’t do something was born at school, in PE classes. I detested PE because I had to wear shorts, and I didn’t like my legs, and I had already decided by age seven that I was terrible at everything and there wasn’t any point in trying. I hated sports days so much that one year, aged seven or eight, I got terribly upset and made myself sick, in what looking back seems suspiciously like an anxiety attack. I was allowed to sit indoors, but, as with most anxiety attacks, as soon as the threat was removed I felt much better, and then sat guiltily in the classroom feeling like a fraud for the afternoon.

PE lessons throughout high school are littered with similar memories of feeling stupid and embarrassed and unworthy: the whole class seeing how many basketball hoops they could get out of ten, or how often they could catch a ball bouncing it off the wall. On both occasions I think my score was one when nearly everyone else seemed to be saying eight or nine at least. I sat miserably wishing I could disappear and never have to do PE again. As with so much of school for me, the aim was to pass unnoticed, so during hockey or football I would run up and down the side of the pitch level with the ball, looking active but often running away if the ball came close to me. Rounders was a particular pet hate because at some point all eyes would be on you when you went up to bat. Already convinced I couldn’t hit the ball, of course I never hit the ball, so the whole thing was a total nightmare.

Kessel talks about PE classes at school and how very often the boys are given more attention than the girls, as the teachers too have an inherent attitude that the girls will be no good. This seems to be borne out in my memory of our lessons as never really involving being taught how to get better at anything. We did the same things in each class of a rotation of a particular sport, but apart from dribbling a ball in and out of cones with a hockey stick to, presumably, improve control, I don’t remember being taught how to improve. The teacher didn’t come up to me after my dismal attempts at scoring baskets or catching balls to try and teach me how to do better. I was allowed to flop in my teary state and be ignored. This was even more true when I turned 14 or 15 and someone finally noticed I didn’t do very well at PE, and I was moved down from the top set away from my friends (heaven ALONE knows how I stayed there so long- probably because I could run a bit when I first arrived at high school, proceeding to get less and less fit as the years went on). In the lower sets it was a total free-for-all, with the teacher sitting at the side gossiping or just gazing into the distance.

In recent years I have tried to get back in to some forms of exercise. I have swum periodically, very occasionally gone for a run, and went to regular dance classes for a long time which improved my tone and fitness. I have recently moved away from my place of work so I have a longer commute, making regular activity more difficult, but at the same time I have become more determined to keep fit. I have moved in with my partner who has been going to the gym regularly for six years, and credits it (as so many do) with keeping him sane and keeping his self-esteem strong. After reading countless articles about how effective exercise is for your mental health, body image, and sense of worth, I resolved to try more kinds of exercise and try to keep it up.

The idea of going for a very short (ten minutes or so) run in the mornings before catching a train at 7.15 have proved difficult to maintain. I will frequently manage 10-15 minutes of yoga, and although I don’t suppose it’s doing much for my overall fitness it is a good way to check in with the body first thing and give a sense of calm and achievement. At the weekends, we’ve tried badminton, weight training at the gym, swimming, and this weekend just gone I went horse riding for the first time in a few years. This was a prominent method of keeping fit for me when I was growing up, as I loved not just the horses themselves but being allowed to wear long trousers and boots to cover up my hated legs. Sitting on top of an animal several times your strength and weight, it’s difficult not to feel good about yourself when things go well. Plus I love speed, and nothing beats galloping a horse across a stubble field in summer.

It’s early days, but it’s been wonderfully enjoyable remembering, or, in some cases, discovering anew what my body and brain together can do. I found I can remember how to play badminton (roughly) and that I am still a moderately quick swimmer. When I went riding I found I could remember all the old movements and jargon; I could remember the aids for canter and bend, how to check my diagonal and what it means to change the rein from M to K. Did any of you see any of the dressage at the Olympics? It was a surprise hit, watching riders control horses so brilliantly that they could take tiny steps to the side (full pass), half to the side half moving forward (half pass), to switch leads in canter on every stride (flying changes and counter canter), and to go from halt to canter without a single stride of walk or trot in between. Well I haven’t done a lot of dressage, but when I rode at the weekend I was on a horse who used to compete at national level dressage, and knew how to do all that crazy shit. Even though it was only a half hour class and I’ve been riding on and off for nearly twenty years, I learned a great deal with that horse and that instructor. I got off feeling like I’d achieved something, similarly to when I went to the gym and found out I can do squats and lunges carrying a 20kg bar on my back (this is a significant weight for me as I am very slight, and had done nothing remotely similar before). The aches and pains over the next few days of doing any of these activities act as a reminder that you have used your body and found out something about it, instead of looking at it in a mirror with a creased forehead wishing there was a little less flesh here, a little more there.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games (pun absolutely intended). For activities involving more than one person, like badminton, it’s good fun to have someone to play against of a similar level to you in terms of skill but also fitness and strength. I was playing my partner who has a good eight inches on me in height, weighs a third as much again and is a great deal fitter than I am. AND has played badminton much more recently. We had a fraught game as we discovered he is toeing an impossible line of not playing well enough that I just feel like a twat running from one side of the court to the other or serving seventy times in a row, or playing so gently that I feel patronised and irritable. In many ways it was good because any anger is immediately released by smacking it or doing a particularly hard serve, and I did feel a smug pleasure in occasionally hitting it at him hard enough that he squeaked (I didn’t hit it directly at him on purpose, of course – no I really didn’t, basically all of my effort was going into returning it at all). But for every squeak he made I had twenty tiny tantrums of frustration, jumping up and down on the spot or sighing so heavily I’m surprised the net didn’t fall over. It takes balance, patience and acceptance that you aren’t going to be that good, at least not for a long time and possibly not ever if the person you’re playing has such gains on you in height and strength.

Overcoming the fear of being laughed at and judged is one of the most difficult things for me. That’s why I find it tough to be so much worse at badminton, because I’m worried my partner will be bored or be thinking, ‘Jesus, she’s rubbish.’ When he took me along to his gym to show me how to lift weights, it was all I could do not to sprint out of there as soon as I walked in. What was I doing in this room full of intimidating equipment, some of which I couldn’t even guess the purpose of, with all these fit people doing ten times what I could do? I felt small and weak and terribly out of place. But then I realised that nobody was playing a blind bit of attention. They are all there for themselves, and focussed on what they are trying to achieve. There were, I’m sure, glances of curiosity at the skinny girl being taught how to bench press by this 6ft 2 chap, especially when said girl climbed onto a weight counterbalancing machine where you’re meant to sink down and then pull yourself up- but I was too light for the weight it was set on and just sat there like a prune while my partner laughed at how cute I looked. But really, nobody cared about what we were doing.  I found that liberating and encouraging. And when we changed the setting on the machine I found that I could lift more with my shoulders than either of us expected. So I left already feeling the pull in my thighs, but with a feeling of achievement, of having pushed myself through and found I could take the weight (again, pun definitely intended).

So it’s not all going to be roses, but I’m going to try and keep up the exercise as much as I can, for both body and mind. It’s a sad catch-22 that so many women avoid exercise because they’re uncomfortable with their bodies, when exercise is exactly what could make them feel better about their bodies by seeing what they can do and really using them to get good and sweaty and have a lot of fun. Kessel made a sobering argument that women and girls aren’t encouraged to just ‘have fun’ that often – if they do I feel it’s usually meant to be associated with shopping or make-up (I suppose going shopping physically could be described as exercise, but who ever feels better about themselves when they come back from a shopping trip? Especially if you go into Zara or H&M or American Apparel and attempt to fit into their clothes apparently designed to fit malnourished schoolchildren).

There are so many options to try, and there’s something to suit everyone – as evidenced by the Olympics. You see the full range of body types competing in different Olympic events, all at the peak of their game and taking so much joy from seeing what they can do with their wonderful bodies. Even in a line-up for the same race, you’ll see so many different body types, for both men and women. Some have slim hips, some wider, some have more muscle tone, others are very slender. If ever there was a snapshot to show that trying to get all people to be the same size and shape was total balls, looking at these people would be it. Sadly even among these top athletes there is body image pressure, with Jess Ennis-Hill famously being declared ‘fat’ (WHERE?!) and others speaking out about pressures to make their bodies look a certain way. We are not all the same, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all go out and have fun and feel better about ourselves. Jess Ennis-Hill is a particularly good example of a woman dropkicking society’s expectations over the trees – winning gold in a heptathlon thirteen months after giving birth. We are so powerful – we just need to give ourselves a chance to experience it.

Introvert, Depressive, Anxious, Female – Normal?

As is probably true of us all, I’ve been pretty down this week. I’ve been struggling with concentration, sleep, and general irritability. Although I would no longer classify myself as depressed, I am aware that my moods fluctuate quite a lot, and I do what I can to keep them in check and generally don’t feel like I do too badly. So I was a little surprised yesterday when one of my best friends said she thought I should see a psychiatrist.

I’ve been thinking it over ever since and it has made me aware of several things. Even people who have experienced mental illness, talk about it a lot, seek treatment for it, and understand what it’s about, do not always like being told that they need help. I don’t want to be one of those people who refuse treatment when people around them think it is needed. But it is a horrible feeling, perhaps even more so if you have had treatment before and improved, because it makes you feel you have failed by being ill again.

In my case, there is also apprehension and scepticism over what a psychiatrist can do for me, and how that would work in practical terms. In the past four years I have had two years of counselling, six months of antidepressants, six sessions of CBT and a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs (I only took one, which made me feel so ill I could hardly sleep, work or eat for 24 hours. Apparently this is common and can last up to six weeks, and as I have very little excess body fat, I thought it was better to be mildly anxious than starve). I do not really want any more talking therapy. I know the background of why I am anxious, and sometimes low, and I don’t really feel that talking about it any more will make it any better. I don’t really want to try pills again – my main issue is low self-esteem and sadly there isn’t a pill for that. The side effects when I have taken them before were also rather troubling and off-putting.

The conversation with my friend focussed my mind on what I’ve been wondering on and off for the last couple of years, or even longer than that. Am I ill, or am I just me? There are so many ways of interpreting our behaviour and thought patterns these days, with so much more knowledge of mental illness freely available, that it all too easy to label someone as one thing or another. Here’s a good example of what I mean: when I was at school, I used to hate being asked to answer a question unless I was 100% sure of the answer, and that was rare. I was terrified of getting it wrong. Various books I have read over the last few years have included examples of this and attributed it to a different ‘label’. Quiet by Susan Cain says this is introversion. Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says this is common among females, because we are socialised not to consider our answers important and to be quiet and shy and let the boys speak. Or you could say this is the beginnings of anxiety, a deep-based fear of being found not good enough that requires therapy or pills to solve. Or is it just me? Just the way I am, that I don’t like talking about things I don’t know much about? I don’t know. It could be any of those things, or none, or all. So how do we know when we are mentally ill?

When I was at school or doing my BA, the label ‘anxiety’ was not that common amongst teachers so you just had to get on with it and do the best you could. I know that universities are far more aware now and some make special provisions for students who experience anxiety, particularly for presentations (I don’t know about schools; I’d be interested to learn). This is good in some ways, because people can get help and support, but it can also reinforce negative behaviours. Using the example of presentations, if my teachers at university had known that I was so nervous I thought I was going to be sick before each public speaking effort, and so anxious during those five minutes that I couldn’t breathe properly, maybe they would have let me off. I would have been so relieved, and I am a little envious of the students who are let off now. But: avoiding what makes you anxious in this way does not do you any favours. If you never try, you never learn that it doesn’t kill you, and you never improve. By the end of my BA degree I could do a presentation with far less nerves, and my audience would be more or less unaware that I was anxious at all. It is still a problem for me, but I learnt that I could do it. Not facing these anxieties is called negative reinforcement: the immediate relief of being let off is so marvellous that you keep doing it again and again, and you never get any better.

So is it useful to give yourself a label and use it as an excuse? For things that make everyone anxious (public speaking is one of the most common phobias) maybe it isn’t. And I can’t say I’m generally anxious because a lot of things that some people loathe I have no issues with. I adore flying, for example. I get anxious before some big social occasions where I’m not going to know many people, but who doesn’t? I now get anxious when I drive because I haven’t done it much lately, but again, isn’t that normal?

Another example I read about was a girl who lost both her parents very early in life. After the death of her mother when she was only about 20, leaving her an orphan, she went to see a counsellor. The counsellor told her she was ‘ordinarily unhappy’ and for a long time the girl was livid. But the counsellor meant: of COURSE you are unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? And in some cases this is a useful way of looking at things. You’re nervous of talking in front of 30 other people you hardly know? Fair enough. It’s not unusual. It doesn’t need a label.

My friend is worried that I may still be suffering from a form of depression, which may have been misdiagnosed by a GP without the time or expertise to look into the problem fully. By the standard definition of feeling down and hopeless and plagued by negative thoughts for two weeks or more, I am not depressed. I have been low this last week, and anxious, but again with all the news this past week or two, WHO HASN’T been feeling down and anxious?!

I do know that there are some things that are not perhaps ‘normal’ for me to worry about as much as I do. And I could call that anxiety, as they can get into self-reinforcing and self-inflicted spirals. But most of them are to do with self-esteem: am I good enough at this? Do people like me? Am I important? Am I pretty enough? Am I clever enough? It’s exhausting. But it’s not constant. So is it an illness, or is it just something people suffer from – particularly women?

I have been listening to the Guilty Feminist podcast a lot lately – highly recommended – and listened to one yesterday on Worth. They discussed how much they felt they were worth, both in monetary terms for their jobs but also in terms of standing up for what was important to them, and measuring their own worth by different standards. Sarah Millican was the guest, and she said it had taken her a long time to work out that she needed to judge her own worth herself, without taking on anyone else’s assessment. She read out a review she had had after appearing on a television show where the reviewer essentially pronounced her worthless because she was not young and sexy, but neither was she a wife and a mother. Too often women have their worth judged in these ways, rather than on anything else. It’s a huge problem, because when women judge their own worth in this way, even if they wouldn’t judge their friends like that, it’s easy to feel worthless. Oh, my boyfriend didn’t want to sleep with me this evening therefore I’m not sexy therefore I am worthless. I am single and in my thirties and don’t think I want children therefore I’m worthless. I’m in my fifties and have been at home raising my children for thirty years, but now my children have all left home and don’t need me every day anymore therefore I’m worthless.

I am well aware that I have issues assessing my own worth, and believing that I am not worth much leads to problems all over the place. If I don’t think I’m worth much, I don’t understand why my partner would think so, so I think he’s going to leave. I get irritable and needy, and then he gets upset, and then I feel even more worthless because I’m being a pain in the arse, and the cycle keeps going. This, I think, is what my friend thinks I need a psychiatrist for, and probably because she’s heard stories of these kind of issues with my partner too often for too long, and there’s nothing much she can say, or anyone can say – except perhaps a professional. Maybe she’s right. I know what the psychiatrist will say, but is that a reason not to go? Do I need a label? Or can I cope with this on my own? Is it an illness that requires treatment, or is it because I’ve grown up as a slightly introverted woman and these are common tropes in many women’s lives? I really don’t know.

I am considering going purely for the guidance of a professional opinion. At the same time I am aware that my best friend in all this is probably myself. If the worst problem I have is negative thought spirals, the best thing I can do is practise mindfulness. When I did it actively for a few weeks, I procrastinated less at work, I got into less idiotic thought patterns about my partner’s ex-girlfriends (of ALL the pointless things to think about, that’s got to be one of the worst) and I felt much better and more confident in myself. We have been told time and time again that exercise is effective as medication for some mental illnesses. So even if a professional would give me an anxiety or depression label, does that also mean I need psychiatric treatment? If I don’t think I need it, odds on it won’t work. So ultimately, my opinion is the one that’s worth the most.