The Beauty Myth

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about putting on a little weight. Although the blog ended on an upbeat note, I’ve been struggling to view myself positively. I tried to decide what I needed to do if I did want to lose the weight I’ve gained, and thought of some ideas – cutting out alcohol, no snacking on biscuits, more physical exercise. All these are easier said than done, especially the last couple of weeks as I’ve had a shin splint and even a little walking has been painful. The negativity around my appearance, compounded by a few other things happening in my life that made me feel a little inadequate, culminated in a few occurrences where I found myself thinking: I’m hungry. That’s good. I should stay hungry, because I want to lose weight. Immediately after I thought this I thought, uh oh. That’s not good at all. That’s the opposite of good. I need to tell somebody about that.

I’m part of a body positivity group on facebook so I wrote a little note about those thoughts, and said I was ordering a couple of books around self compassion and changing attitudes to food, but did anyone have any advice. A couple of people replied, and although they were very supportive, I felt so ashamed and silly that I took the post down. I thought people weren’t replying either because I’m too slim, and they were thinking, what does she know about it? Or thinking, Jesus, she needs to see a doctor, I’m staying well out of this one. I’ve found over the years that some of these groups on facebook are remarkably helpful for my self-esteem and general mood, so when you cry for help and are met with silence, it feels even more painful. Better to say nothing than to hear nothing in return.

I decided to try to tackle the problem myself, firstly by eating properly and trying not to worry about it. In general this went okay, although I did get a bemused and, to my overwrought brain, smirking glance from someone in Sainsbury’s when I wandered between the snacks and baked goods for some minutes trying to decide which, if any, to purchase. I always get hungry in the afternoon at work and as I leave work at 5 and get home at 7, eating something is imperative if I’m not to get home in the worst possible mood and be a complete pain to my poor partner. But everything I looked at that looked tasty had so many of those horrible red labels on, telling you it ALONE was 25% of this and 29% of the other, that I gave up. In the spirit of eating properly, though, I did go to a Portuguese café and get a custard tart. So I achieved 1) eating, but not really 2) not worrying about it.

Secondly, to help me, I bought several books. I bought Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh, who some may remember as a Bake Off finalist from a few years back. I’ve read some of her articles and she talks a lot of sense. As a former anorexic I thought her opinion on changing your attitude to food would be useful. I also bought Self Compassion by Kristin Neff – I suck at self compassion. I am extremely hard on myself. Lastly I bought Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka @bodyposipanda. I’ve loved her facebook page for some time, she always has something appropriate and encouraging to say. But having started her book, I realised that really, first I should read the bible: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. This book is simply essential reading.

I actually started The Beauty Myth a few months ago, but the statistics on rape and attitudes towards rape were so depressing I had to take a break. It was written in 1990, only two years after I was born, so sometimes when you’re reading it you think CHRIST this is horrific- but it’s nearly 30 years ago, things must be better now, right? But the fact that so much of it is so resonant to me, and is shocking and not shocking at the same time, suggests that not as much has changed as you might hope.

What her research does show is what a completely bullshit, half-baked, cruel, ludicrous thing the idea of the “ideal woman” is. It’s simply an invention. The ideal of women’s body shape has changed numerous times in the last hundred years alone, never mind the rest of history. Today, we are expected to be curvy in the right places, and toned all over. As someone says in the book, nature does not make women like this. For nearly all women, it’s simply impossible to achieve. Which makes it perfect as a tool for keeping women focussed on their appearance instead of breaking through glass ceilings.

Women in the 1960s and 1970s were working to change the status quo. They were no longer confined to the house, and amongst other things, were no longer so responsive to ads and articles about how to clean the oven perfectly. So advertisers needed something else to sell women, and they struck on our appearance. The number of articles on dieting increased by 60% between 1979 and 1980. Women’s dieting wasn’t a huge deal, and then suddenly, it was. Anti-aging products were flung into the marketplace despite not being properly tested and doing absolutely fuck all- something that was eventually noticed and the advertisers got a slap on the wrist, but judging by the number of anti-aging products my mum keeps buying, the slap wasn’t big enough. Cosmetic surgery became massive business, despite going against the fundamental Hippocratic oath of: first, do no harm. The very concept of cutting up healthy people, and overwhelmingly women, to “improve” some part of their appearance which is only wrong because the media wills it so, is enough to make my blood boil. When Wolf was writing, she tried to get statistics on death rates from cosmetic surgery, and was told no such records were being kept. Today I did a little googling, and there is now some information – but it’s not exactly easy to come by and some studies are hugely out of date (the most popular one for liposuction was from the 1990s, and the results showed a higher risk of death from liposuction than from ordinary surgery).

The Beauty Myth made me cry tears of frustration but in the end left me feeling powerful and motivated to change. Because what I see is that in the time since she wrote the book, not enough has changed. One of the things she said we needed was a third wave of feminism, and here we are, right in the middle of it. But we have a long way to go. She talks about breaking down the barriers of competition between women, saying we need to become advocates for each other and band together instead of seeing beauty as a finite resource – if she’s pretty, that must mean I am less so. Although I do have friends who I support and they are very supportive of me, that competitive element certainly hasn’t disappeared. I struggled to connect with a colleague very recently because I was so envious of her appearance – when I did finally talk to her properly, I found she was sweet and lovely and as happily touched by a compliment on her appearance as any woman.

Wolf wanted us to learn to roll our eyes at the adverts and the “beauty pornography” plastered all over magazines and television, but I haven’t managed to do that much. Magazine editors say girls are smart enough to tell when a picture is photoshopped, but I’m not. Or I assume that everything is photoshopped but I don’t know which parts or how much or what. And even if I try to rationalise an image like that, it’s too late. The instinctive judgement and comparison has already happened, and I have come up wanting.

But I am, as I said, determined to change this attitude to myself, and do my part to help overthrow this ridiculous set of impossible standards. I am tired of seeing all my female colleagues, regardless of size and shape, sit down to lunches of salads and carrot sticks. I am sick of hearing everyone say ‘oh, no, I’m trying to be good’ when birthday cake is offered round. Our attitude to food is MISERABLE. Of course we should eat healthily as much as possible, but if their thought processes on these occasions are anything like mine, it’s far from fucking healthy. When you think about it rationally it’s insane that we’re all trying as hard as we can to look the same – especially now, when the person we are aiming for is at best surgically altered, at worst a computer-generated image.

People struggle with the body positivity movement, and some mistake it for a rallying cry for all women to put on as much weight as possible. It’s not about that. The point is that no matter what size you are, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Your size should not be a “bad” thing. We are all “good” bodies. Maybe you want to lose weight, and that’s okay. But it shouldn’t be a source of pain and hatred towards yourself. Instead, our bodies should be sources of joy, pleasure and happiness. This is one of my favourite passages from the book, and one I may have to print out and put up somewhere: ‘The pleasure to be had from turning oneself into a living art object, the roaring in the ears and the fine jetspray of regard on the surface of the skin, is some kind of power, where power is in short supply. But it is not much compared to the pleasures of getting back forever inside the body; the pleasure of discovering sexual pride, a delight in a common female sexuality that overwhelms the divisions of “beauty”; the pleasure of shedding self-consciousness and narcissism and guilt like a chainmail gown; the pleasure of the freedom to forget all about it.’

We are all works in progress with this. I fully expect to have plenty of bad days. But I hope not to have that thought again that I should keep myself hungry, that feeling empty is “good” because the way I look and am is “bad”. I am well aware that that is the first step towards a couple of very destructive illnesses. With the help of Naomi Wolf, and the other books I’ve bought, as well as the confused but steadfast support of partner and friends and family, I want to feel beautiful and strong and capable regardless of whether my shape changes. Fingers crossed the world will change more too to make it all just a little easier for me, and everyone else, to achieve.

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Change

This year, as I am entering my fourth decade, I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learnt and achieved. How does it compare with where I thought I would be? Turning 30 is a manmade phenomenon, a landmark where none really exists, but just because something is all in our heads doesn’t mean it feels less real and tangible. I thought by now I would have learned to eat chocolate without getting it on my trousers, but I haven’t. I rather hoped I would have worked out what I want to be when I grow up, but it seems I’m still wondering.

It’s a strange feeling when we have a solid idea of who we are and what we’re about, and then suddenly find we’ve changed without our noticing. I was bemused the other day to realise something I’d known for a long time – that I work in the finance department of a technology company. That certainly wasn’t something I or probably anybody else would have predicted for me. It doesn’t mean it’s bad – far from it – but it’s unsettling when you realise something about you or your path has changed.

I’ve had another revelation this week. For the last two or three years, I haven’t owned a full-length mirror. I didn’t think it was particularly important, and in some ways it was rather nice – if I couldn’t see whether or not an outfit worked together, then I could just assume that it did and roll on with it. But at the same time I realised I wasn’t entirely sure what I looked like anymore. So I bought a mirror. And it turns out I’ve changed rather.

When I was younger I was very thin, so thin that people always accused me of being anorexic and called me names. I didn’t like it at all, but as I got older I changed a little and people started telling me I was slim in a nice way, rather than a mean one. When I was 24 my hips suddenly realised I was no longer prepubescent and they expanded somewhat, which I also rather liked. I’ve always been insecure about my breasts being too small but overall I thought I was rather a nice shape.

I’m still more or less the same shape, I think, but I’m certainly no longer the waif I was growing up. My hips have decided they didn’t do a good enough job when I was 24 and seem to have expanded again; I’ve grown a bit of a tummy – a pouch to hold my extra cookies, as Jess says to Nick on New Girl – and my thighs have changed shape too. The last may partly be muscle as I’ve been going to the gym and doing squats and deadlifts, which are bound to add on some muscle, but I’m not sure, maybe some of it is fat too. I’m aware that I’ve put on a bit of fat the last two years, mainly I think from having a commute which means I’m sitting down for an extra two hours a day, which makes quite a difference.

Anyway, rightly or wrongly, I was surprised by how I looked. It wasn’t the image I had of myself in my head, and it’s a very odd feeling to find that the body you’re walking around in doesn’t look the same as you thought it did. How can you possibly miss it, I thought, it’s there all the time! I wasn’t sure I trusted the mirror, and my friend said mirrors lie, so I decided to have a wardrobe clearout to see how much had changed.

Well, oh dear. Several dresses that used to be sleek and flattering now make me look like a sausage in a very tight casing. A pair of trousers I rather like and thought looked nice now look decidedly strained. A couple of skirts now no longer fit neatly round the hips but sit up round the waist in an extremely unflattering fashion. Determined not to be annoyed or shamed by these clothes that no longer serve me, I now have three large bags of clothes for the charity shop.

Well, who cares, you might ask. So I’ve changed shape a little – what does it matter? It’s an excuse to go shopping! New clothes! Hurrah! But unfortunately it isn’t quite that straightforward, at least not for me. There’s such a degrading feeling to having to throw out clothes because you’ve put on weight at the best of times, and for me it’s compounded by not really knowing how I fit into my own idea of myself as being very thin and slender. This may sound ridiculous to a lot of people who’ve seen me lately. I am still by most sane measures a very slim person. Some would say I’m now a “better” weight – for the first time in my life I’m designated at as a ‘healthy weight’ by the BMI index, whereas previously I’ve been classed as ‘underweight’ or even ‘emaciated’. But I’m still feeling a bit despondent, a bit unattractive, and, most strangely, a bit less worthy than I used to. In today’s society women are held up to an impossible list of physical ideals, but I do know that putting on weight is almost never seen as a Good Thing. It’s the butt of so many jokes on sitcoms and TV programmes: running into an ex when you’ve put on weight is about on a par with smacking someone over the head with a golf club. There is a definite feeling that you’ve lost, or failed, by changing shape in that direction.

Of course, the whole idea that who we are should be interpreted or judged by what we look like is absurd. It doesn’t make any difference. Or rather, it shouldn’t  make any difference. I’m no longer the super skinny girl who would get called Twiglet or gently asked by a doctor if she has any trouble eating. While that isn’t a huge part of my identity it is still a part, and one that I now need to adjust. Right now I’m in danger of adjusting too far the other way, so I’ll be careful of that. It’s good to have a realistic sense of what you look like, but also to hold that idea gently, and to try not to make it a focus of your thinking. Being a touch heavier doesn’t mean I’m less clever, or smart, or interesting as a person. And I need to keep reminding myself that seeming attractive to others is only partly to do with what you physically look like – it’s more about how you see yourself. If you feel good, people will respond to that.

So I’m going to buy some new clothes that make me feel pretty, and keep chucking out any old clothes I find that make me feel crap. And put in some practise at thinking of myself as a fairly slim, reasonably toned woman, with a bit of a tummy – and a great arse.

Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

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.

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.

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.