Highlights of 2017

I’ve done this for the last couple of years – it’s a great way of looking back over the year and picking out the best bits, not just for now, but for when I look back in future years.

Swing Train

This is an exercise class based half on swing dancing, and half on cardiovascular exercise. The music is enormous fun and the moves range from Charleston kicks to squats and even, in one of my least favourite tracks, press-ups. I’m lucky enough to have a class only a few minutes’ walk away with a wonderful teacher, who is enthusiastic without being irritatingly peppy, and extremely good at judging the energy levels in the room and how to push us just enough, but not too much. Highly recommended.

New chair

Recently we bought a new Ikea armchair and footstool, which sits in the corner of our living room with bookcases on either side. It’s deliciously comfortable and my favourite place to sit and properly unwind.

Overcoming fear – twice

This time last year I’d just driven my little Renault Clio home to my parents’ house for Christmas, the first drive on motorways I’d done for years. That drive improved my driving anxiety enormously, and I kept doing more driving and feeling more and more comfortable doing so – until July, when I crashed the car on the M40. After that, I had to go back to the start. I had to deal with all the admin of the insurance for the old car, and of buying a new one; and then I had to learn to feel confident at driving again. With most things I get anxious about, there’s no real danger, but driving was always different. And once you know what it feels like to lose control on a motorway and smash into something at 70mph (like a high-powered game of dodgems) it’s very difficult to tell yourself your anxiety is unwarranted. With patience, practise, the help of Winnie the Pooh audio tapes, and some driving lessons, I am now feeling much more confident in my driving. It’s still difficult, and tiring, but I know what I need to do to feel safe now and that makes a big difference.

My birthday

It’s a cliché to say that you birthday should be one of the best days of the year, but for me, in 2017, it was. The day before I drove my partner and me down to Tarr Steps, a beautiful spot in Somerset where I’d spent many birthdays as a child. It was the longest drive I’d ever done, and when we got there the weather was hot and still and perfect. I had a cold shower to get rid of the sweat of six hours in a car with no air conditioning, on a very hot day, and then got drunk ludicrously easily on white wine sitting outside. The next day, my birthday morning, I woke up very early. When I was small my brothers and I used to get up super early, sneak out of the hotel, and walk along the river to a meadow and back before breakfast. I decided to relive the tradition. When I set out, the sun was only halfway down the trees covering the sides of the valley either side of the river, and the river itself still had patches of mist. By the time I got back to the hotel, the sun was fully up and everything was hushed and quiet but bathed in warm golden light. It was a perfect start to the morning.

Gratitude jar

Every weekend, or sometimes more often, I wrote on little pieces of paper things that had happened that had made me happy or that I was grateful for, and I kept them in a glass jar. It’s been a great way of remembering the good bits, and emptying out the jar to relive the good times on the 1st of January was hilarious and heartwarming. Many of them seemed to involve weekend trips to the pub for a drink and a heart-to-heart with my partner, although there were also many to do with books I’d read, or relief at various drives being over without any incident.

Concerts

I went to several excellent concerts (gigs? I don’t know what to call these anymore) this year, most of them with one of my brothers. We saw Radiohead in Manchester, which was phenomenal, and the band James twice (some of you may remember James from the 1990’s hits Sit Down and Laid). We saw them at Newmarket racecourse, which was a brilliant and hilarious afternoon and evening. I got quietly drunk on Pimm’s, we watched some races and then the band came on around dusk. One of my happiest and brightest memories of the year.

Learning

Last year my employers encouraged me to get some more training in bookkeeping, as much of my job involves bookkeeping tasks. I am now the proud holder of a Foundation Certificate in Bookkeeping, and I’m planning the next course to embark on now. Studying alongside work is far from easy, especially when you have a long commute, but it’s great to feel like I’m still learning something.

The laziest evening ever

I am someone who often has issues relaxing, as I always make to do lists so long that nobody could ever achieve all the stupid things I put on them. So the odd evening when I really chill out is precious. One evening in 2017, my partner was out at a conference, so I knew the evening’s choice of food and television viewing was just down to me. I got off the train, bought a bottle of wine, then went to the local chippie and bought battered sausage and chips. Battered sausage, wine, and a few episodes of Sex and the City: it was a truly glorious evening.

 

I hope you all had many wonderful memories in 2017, and here’s to making many more in 2018!

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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.