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.

Struggles of a Feminist: how to observe women’s bodies

I went to see a French Canadian circus the other week called Barbu. There were six acrobats, four men and two women. The men all had impressive beards, which played their part in one of the first acts as they roller-skated in a circle all holding onto each other’s beards. They started the show fully dressed, in hipster steampunk style clothing of fawn shirts and trousers, with cloth wrapped around their waists in an interesting imitation of half an old-fashioned corset. One of the women was also part of a roller-skating act at the beginning, dressed in a top and a little skirt. As she spun horizontally, only attached to a man on roller skates by a strap around her neck (wow) her skirt inevitably flew up showing modest black underwear. When she was back on her feet, the man made a show of pulling her skirt back into position for her with a flick. The second woman was dressed in stockings and suspenders, and a vest in an approximation of a corset – but not a corset, as that wouldn’t have given her the flexibility to do the extraordinary things she did, weaving her body in and out of a large ring suspended six feet above the floor.

The differences in the male and female outfits gave me the familiar feminist rage of wishing that women didn’t always have to showcase their bodies even while doing something that required such elaborate skill and training. These differences can also be seen now at the Olympics, with men and women competing in the same sport given quite different outfits to wear. I’m sure that many of the decisions behind these outfits come from the women themselves, wearing things that make them feel able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. But I still wonder why most women playing tennis continue to wear little skirts when shorts would have the benefit of not flying up all the time. Or why female track athletes are often exposing their midriffs when their male counterparts aren’t. And, most famously, why female beach volleyball players are more or less in bikinis when the men are in shorts and t-shirts. Apparently the women are no longer required to wear these bikinis, but the fact that they were once is ridiculous, and unfortunately has led to a view for some of female beach volleyball being more soft porn than it is sport. I myself struggle to get past this idea, and to sit and watch them play without imagining the guffawing objectifying language I’ve heard thrown at the players in the past. ***Update: I watched the men’s Olympic diving last night, so I now feel I need to add a bit about their outfits. Were they always that tiny? On some men they literally barely covered the tops of their buttocks. I’m sure it’s for streamlining but I actually found it very disconcerting. It doesn’t affect my point in this blog, but I did want to acknowledge that the men are also sometimes in teeny tiny outfits!***

This circus and now the Olympics is making me ask a lot of questions of the way I view female bodies. I was good and ready in my irritation at this circus for having only the women semi-dressed – but then the men came out in only their underwear. What was I supposed to think now?! I could no longer be righteously feminist-ly annoyed, I had to acknowledge that there appeared to be equality here. I did still notice differences in the way the men and the women were presented, and how they held themselves. The women, who were also now in plain black crop tops and shorts underwear, acted quite differently; one woman was confident but quietly so, while the other was aggressively sexual, strutting and staring out at the crowd and, for me, feeling quite confrontational. It felt like she was looking at all the straight men in the audience, daring them to want her, and at the same time looking at all the straight women (particularly those there with a straight man) and saying well your bloke is looking at me and wanting me right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The men, by contrast, were quite playful in their nudity. There were some homoerotic jokes, and a man came on to do his act wearing a large disco ball round his body, covering from the tops of his thighs to just below his arms. On a woman I think it would have been titillating, just covering her breasts and arse and suggesting there was nothing underneath, but on the man it was mostly comical.

Watching them all and noticing my reactions, I began to feel quite uncomfortable. Some of it was plain old-fashioned jealousy, not wanting my partner to be sitting next to me and lusting after women on a stage. But then, you may ask, didn’t I find the men attractive? Wasn’t I lusting after them a little? Honestly: not really. They were fine male specimens, but they were just male bodies. I was detached from them and sitting in a crowded public space, sitting next to someone I loved: I felt no particular need or urge to find them attractive or to think about it much one way or the other. I wondered to myself if that’s the way my partner felt as well, and I struggled to believe it could be so. And I realised that I couldn’t see the women in the same way: their bodies for me were bound up with too many other thoughts and other ideas, and I couldn’t see them as non-sexual beings. Not in the sense that I wanted to sleep with them myself – this blog isn’t me not so subtly coming out as a lesbian – but because I kept seeing them as direct competition to myself. And I realised that this is a huge problem.

I have found something very similar with the Olympics. While I can watch the men play and appreciate their form and see that yes, they are attractive, it gives me no pause for thought at all. I am far more interested in what they can do and how skilled they are at whatever sport they are participating in. But with the women, I struggle. I judge. I compare. I frequently feel wanting. I feel the urge to make comments on their prettiness, how much make-up they are wearing; I assess the size of different parts of their bodies and how well-balanced they are. I am very envious of their power and strength, but at the same time I feel slightly relieved if I don’t see them as being objectively sexually attractive. I hate myself for this because I know it is entirely irrelevant, and something that these women themselves are probably worried about people thinking and I don’t want to be somebody else adding to that. Most of them are very attractive, in their looks and their bodies and their abilities, and then I hate myself again for feeling worn down and a little sad after watching some Olympic events. I’ll sit next to my partner and fret about whether he is judging me against what he’s seeing on the screen. I find myself seeking reassurance and getting needy and being a bit of a pain in the ass.

I also realised when I was watching the circus that I will downplay the women’s abilities, just as so many people do to women, often without even realising it. The woman was spinning in the air hanging on a hoop with her ankle casually by her ear and I found myself thinking, well that’s not that difficult. OF COURSE IT FUCKING IS. But I felt angry and threatened by her because she was wearing stocking and suspenders and I couldn’t disconnect my admiration of her performance from thinking that men would be watching her and wanting her. It is toxic, this feeling of needing to be admired and approved of to the extent that if another woman at that moment is being looked at with awe and, perhaps, some desire, that that automatically lessens our own attractiveness and our own worth. This is particularly true of situations when your partner might be the one looking at someone else, but I can remember instances of it being true even when the men weren’t even people I would want to sleep with. There was a boy at school when I was about 17 who was a friend of a friend of mine. He was a bit strange and he frequently made me uncomfortable with various remarks. I had absolutely no desire to be with him at all. But he had a habit of putting his hands up our jumpers at the back to warm them when it was cold, and I would feel jealous if he always did it to my friends and not to me. Even though I simultaneously hated him doing it to me because his hands were fucking cold and he freaked me out more than a little bit. What the hell was that? Why did I feel that competition even with someone I wasn’t interested in?

Happily I think it’s something I’ve grown out of to some extent. But I still see it in this need to be always found attractive, and not just attractive but the MOST attractive. Which is understandable to some extent but it’s also pretty ridiculous. It’s impossible to go through life only finding one person attractive all the time, and it doesn’t have to be threatening if your partner looks at someone on a stage or on a screen and thinks they’re beautiful. It doesn’t even have to be threatening if they’re someone who they know personally. Obviously there are lines here and if your partner finds other people so attractive that they can’t help themselves sleeping with them, then that’s a whole different story. But all I’m talking about is looking at a person and thinking they are nice to look at. We all do it and I hate that I feel this competitive, insecure, poisonous feeling when I judge myself against someone and feel less attractive and crap as a result.

So I am trying to work on seeing women’s bodies as just that, bodies, there to do a job and achieve some incredible things and not just something for people to have sex with. Of course, I’ve had a lot of help seeing women’s bodies this way, from all advertising and many films and music videos, and everywhere else that women are presented as props, sexual props, without personalities and voices and abilities beyond being sexual. I just didn’t realise how much I had internalised it myself, with other women. And that makes me really wonder about how I look at myself. I know that I am not always happy with my figure because it doesn’t balance out the way that the women’s bodies do on the posters – if I want a proper hourglass, I need a padded bra (and SO WHAT) – but I never thought so baldly about how that was connected to me thinking of myself as just a sexual being. Just a thing for people to have sex with. Which is crazy, when you think about it, because the majority of my time is and always will be spent not having sex. So why should I have to be judging myself on that all the time? On being attractive and being found attractive and on looking as close to the women in advertising and on the screen as possible?

So I am fighting it. I wrote recently about getting more into sport. God damn it’s hard to keep up when you work full-time, commute two hours a day and often sleep poorly but I started again this morning after a week or so off, and I will push harder to continue it as it makes such a difference to my mood. Feeling the strength in your body is so much fun. I’ve had a recurrent dream since I was young about being powerless – physically powerless; I’ll try to punch someone who has made me angry or who is threatening me in the dream and there will be no strength in my arm. I try but I make no impact. I feel like that can carry over into my day sometimes, and exercising and feeling the power running through my muscles makes me feel more powerful in other areas too. Power: the ability to act or produce an effect. It’s what is often denied to women in all kinds of public spaces; they are without agency and without power, unable to produce an effect except to make men want to possess their bodies. I am going to try very hard to uncouple my automatic thoughts of viewing women in this way, as competition, and to see them as more, to see them as what they are: powerful and strong and not trying to be a threat to me. They’re just human bodies, just women, not a yardstick I need to measure myself against.

I would like to thank the Guilty Feminist podcast and my fellow Guilty Feminists on the facebook page for helping me to think through these things, to see them for what they are and also to write this blog explaining how much this affects me, when as a feminist I shouldn’t be thinking these things (although I will try not to beat myself up about it if I do, because society has taught me to think this way). If you haven’t yet listened to the Guilty Feminist, you absolutely should. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking and marvellous. And the facebook page is one of the best things on the internet.

 

 

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.

“Wasting” time and “changing” thoughts

Apologies in advance for the overuse of inverted commas in this blog post!

It is 8.20am at King’s Cross Underground Station. Rush hour. People stream from train to platform, platform to escalator, escalator to barrier, barrier to stairs. I am always struck by the uniformity of colour. Everyone is wearing black or navy, with only infrequent splashes of anything brighter or lighter (for years I refused to buy a coat in either black or navy, insisting on red, pink, blue. Recently I gave in as, while being prettier, they also require far more frequent washing). Being on the tube at this time of day is often dead time. With neither enough free hands nor enough space to hold a book, and with too much noise to be able to comfortably listen to anything, I mostly choose to just stand. The only entertainment I can get is reading the headlines in the free newspapers people carry, or the adverts above people’s heads, both of which make me wish I had a pair of glasses which could remove my ability to read.

I have been awake for two hours and on the move for one, but this is the first time I feel like I’m participating in a rush hour commute. The early train can hardly be described as “rushed”; nearly everyone has a seat and it is usually completely quiet, without even gossiping colleagues to break the silence. Everyone is in their own worlds, passing this parcel of time in whichever way they prefer. People watch films or write notes, start work and read books (physical and electronic). Others take advantage of the well-cushioned seats and headrests to return to sleep.

I have choices in how I use this time. I cannot work as the trains do not have internet. There is enough intermittent connection on my phone to talk to friends, sometimes discussing in that early morning time urgent happenings from the night before, and I’m sure many would use this time on various forms of social media, catching up on tweets and news feeds and photographs. I am restricted in what I can do in this area. I chose some time ago to remove social media apps from my phone, so I cannot scroll the endless facebook news feed as I used to – I found I had got into the habit of doing it as soon as I woke up in the morning, which, even when there was nothing in particular going on, gave the morning a greyish tinge and a flatness which I decided to do without.

We are given so much advice these days on how to spend our time, but so much of it passes without our conscious thought. I have seen endless articles lately about the “busyness epidemic”, that we are all rushed off our feet and don’t have time to do – what, exactly? I know many people have jobs that take up most of their non 9-5 time, but I also know – from my own experience and these constant articles – that we are also “wasting” time on websites or doing “nothing.” But what are we doing when we do nothing? This is what I’ve been thinking about recently, since I moved and put an hour’s train ride between me and my job. I now have two hours every day, ten hours a week, which at the end of a year I will be able to look at as a distinct and separate area of time and think: what did I do with it?

The cultural feeling around long commutes is overwhelmingly negative, and I was nervous about how it would affect me. While getting up so early is not my favourite thing to do, I am finding some deep comfort in this neatly packaged and wrapped slice of time I have, every day, morning and evening, to use as I will. There is nobody to interrupt me or to tell me what they would rather I be doing. I am finding it interesting seeing how doing different things affect my mental state for the working day or resting evening ahead. There is some kind of expectation we should do something profound with this amount of time, seen in a block – learn a language, read heavy non-fiction, “improve” ourselves in some way. In some ways this is appealing, although there needs to be a balance between relaxation and personal improvement. And there are ways to pass the time and enjoy it without feeling at the end of the journey, week or month, that it was “wasted.”

One thing I am getting back into is listening to books. Audiobooks require a fantastic amount of mindful concentration. We are so used to paying attention to what is in front of our eyes, that attending fully and completely with our ears is a surprisingly difficult task. Your mind will wander and you’ll realise you’ve missed a few pages. You are conscious of every moment of daydreaming in a way you are not while you are reading, when I for one will frequently skip explanations, descriptions, and chapter headings without even noticing (it is only with books like The Time Traveller’s Wife that I realise how much I do this, when you need to read each chapter heading and fully process it to know whose past or present you are about to be in). Similarly, when we are speaking to other people, our mind is often not consciously engaged with what they are saying, but attaching extra meaning, processing an emotional reaction, thinking ahead to what we are going to say, or thinking about something completely different. Listening to an audiobook for an hour I am very aware of the time passing, but I arrive at King’s Cross into the swell and sway of commuters feeling very tranquil, very aware. I have been taken out of my own headspace for a full hour, unable to follow the often pointless and petty meanderings of my brain, and it is a deeply welcome break.

One thing I have been more conscious of lately, and which led to the deleting of facebook from my phone and the installation of an app on my laptop which allows me only five minutes on there a day, is how much social media can affect my mood. It is, for me, a deeply unmindful way of passing the time. Although I think in some areas restricting time on facebook is me using avoidance tactics on things which make me anxious, which I would do better to address head on, in other ways it removed a way for me to “waste” a lot of time. “Wasting” in the sense that I am not aware of what I am doing, I am glazing over and mindlessly absorbing what I see, which is only the falsely positive, overwhelmingly negative or lists of pointless platitudinous quotations. Into this gap I moved the reading of more articles (which led to more blog writing) and also participation in some online courses. I have signed up to far more of them than I have actually ritually participated in, but three have proven very useful in this ongoing quest I and everyone else seems to be on to “improve,” find some balance, feel happier, and (in my case) add tools to my arsenal to fight ongoing mental health issues.

The first (this and the others were on the free FutureLearn website) was on Literature and Mental Health, looking at the way poetry, novels and plays have addressed mental health problems or might be used by people to help them in times of stress or pain. As a result of it I have memorised several poems that are useful in calming me down and making me focus when I am having anxiety attacks (Yeats “The Lake Isle of Innsifree”, Oliver “Wild Geese”, Auden “Funeral Blues”). The second was on Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance. I won’t bore you by reiterating that mindfulness is very popular at the moment, but I will say that the course was extremely helpful day to day in helping me slow down my thoughts and feel more at one with myself. Sadly since the course ended I have struggled to keep this up, so I am now enrolled on it for a second time.

Mindfulness is all about the avoidance of wasting time, in this sense I am using of wasting time by being unaware of where you are and what you are doing. Mindfulness teaches you to concentrate on the present moment, accepting it for what it is if it is unpleasant, and enjoying it fully without past doubts or future worries if it is pleasant. It is all very well and good but, of course, extremely difficult. I also read an article once against it and in defence of daydreaming – the author quite rightly pointed out that it is only the daydreams about the fool you made of yourself in science class at school that are bad for our mental health; if we are cheerfully daydreaming about winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or galloping along a beach on a chestnut horse, we are more likely to be happy at the end of the commute than if we were sat there concentrating hard on the exact shade of blue of the chair in front. However, mindfulness is very useful for combating negative thoughts, simply because it makes you focus on them and see them for what they are, whereas in “default mode” (or perhaps “toxic thought world” as Adriene, online yoga instructor, has termed a similar way of thinking) we allow the narratives of self-criticism and worry to run unchecked. I had a silly horoscope on an email newsletter the other day (Lenny, co-run by Lena Dunham) which told me that there wasn’t a real problem, the only issue was the ‘troubling narrative’ I had built up around whatever it was I was worrying about. Like all horoscopes it trod that beautiful line of being totally specific, and yet entirely vague, so that it could neatly apply to absolutely everybody. But for me it did give me pause for thought, and pushed me to try a more mindful way of thinking.

The third course, which for me builds on the mindful aspects of not “wasting” time and of “changing” your thought patterns (I am as yet deeply sceptical of things which tell me I can change how I think, which I hope isn’t the biggest obstacle to it actually working), is about Anxiety, Depression and CBT. As someone who has experienced anxiety, depression, and undergone a course of CBT, you might think this course would be rather in the way of teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (heaven alone knows where that saying comes from). But examining it all from the outside in has been remarkably helpful. The course spells out for those who have never suffered from either anxiety or depression how it affects the brain and the way sufferers interpret things. To cut a long story short, and oversimplifying wildly, people with these issues focus on the negative. They see neutral situations as negative, remember negative things far more easily and with greater depth than positive ones, and thereby encase themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of shrinking worlds and increasing mental anguish. It is in many ways a form of unchosen self-torture. CBT teaches people to break the cycles of negativity which influence thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and behaviours, by interpreting situations more realistically, and adjusting behaviour ahead of changes in mood to try and kickstart adjustments in thinking, then feeling, then living. It is, like mindfulness, far easier said than done. The four or five sessions of CBT I had were very good, but like the mindfulness course, without weekly guidance I have fallen back into old ways of thinking. This course, together with the mindfulness course, is helping to reiterate to me how much of what I think and feel is not real.

It is now 6pm, and I am on the train heading home. After a day at work I may not have the mental concentration for an audiobook, or an online course, or even a book, depending on what it is. Sometimes I will daydream but the time passes slowly. Fortunately my partner gave me a straight out of left field gift for my birthday: a Nintendo 3DS. As a teenager I spent a lot of time watching my two brothers, and later boyfriends, play various computer games. It seems to be a fairly typical experience for females, which is interesting. What is it that makes us observers rather than players? Is it cultural gender stereotyping, that girls are not allowed to play these games or will automatically be bad at them? In some cases I’m sure it’s a genuine lack of interest, but for me I think often it was informed by an idea that I wouldn’t be any good. This was reinforced as my brothers, having a ready-made two player game, would play each other very often and far more frequently than I would want to join in (you see, I had a stable of model ponies to look after). They were then far more proficient than I was, and I didn’t like to lose constantly or make them feel like they were being held back by me. But my partner thought this was a shame, and that a Nintendo 3DS might be a way for me to try my hand at games – single player, straightforward, and just about me. I was sceptical. But time never passes faster on the train than when I’m playing Pokemon. I’m sure some people will think this is time “wasted”, but I disagree. For a start, as I have said elsewhere, time enjoyed is never time wasted. Also, there is a strange sense of achievement that comes from playing these games. And, it is a mindful practice, as you are totally in the moment, unaware of the people around you or the worries of the day you’ve spent. It is a fun and easy way to switch my mind off. Why wouldn’t training a high-level Charmander be a positive way of evaluating how I’ve spent some of my hours on the train? Especially if, at the same time, it is stopping me from focussing on negatives or getting stuck in tedious, grey spirals of thought. And the less time I spend on that, the “better” I think I will be.

 

The self-esteem and female body image problem

It’s no secret that women and girls often struggle with the way they look. Magazines, television, film, adverts, magazines, and any other kind of visual media always have a lot to say about how women look and what’s right and wrong. Even the places that you’d think would be supportive, like magazines aimed at women, tend to show perfect pictures or airbrushed women and then spend a lot of space and column inches telling you how to spend money so you can look the same. Most of the time, discussions of women’s insecurity focusses on being slim and losing weight, particularly as the fashion industry continue to use often unhealthily thin women to promote their often unwearable clothes. As someone who is more than averagely slim, I think people sometimes assume that I must not be so affected by this constant push for perfection. On the contrary. I have had issues with the way I look since I was eleven years old, and I’ve realised lately that even though I’m much more conscious of the social rules that have made me feel this way, that hasn’t actually helped me see myself in a more realistic light.

When I was growing up, people were always telling me I was too thin. I got called names: stick insect, twiglet, twiggy, and so on, and people would ask me in the lunch queue if I was anorexic. Whenever I went to the doctor they would ask me unsubtle questions to try and find out if I had an eating disorder –  I never did, not even close, I ate loads, but had my father’s fast metabolism and never put on any weight. My mum got used to doctor appointments always ending with me in tears because I was so tired of people looking at me and assuming I had a serious mental illness. Looking back, I do look unhealthily thin. I hated it but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Boys would snigger at me and make jokes behind their hands and friends were whispering between themselves about my eating habits right into university. To this day I hate eating in front of people because I think they’re judging how much I’m eating and whether I go straight to the bathroom when I’ve finished.

I remember when I was in my early teens I saw a quote from Jennifer Aniston in a magazine which I cut out and kept for years: “You’re damned if you’re thin and you’re damned if you’re too fat. It’s impossible to please everyone and I suggest we all stop trying.” It was one of the first times I saw someone acknowledge that this was a thing, that people who were considered too thin were ostracised too. As I grew up I kept hearing things that made me feel worse. That men only like curvy women, and that nobody finds models attractive because they’re too skinny. For me, it all focussed on one area in particular: breasts.

This is a topic I’ve felt such deep shame about that I’ve barely ever spoken to anybody about it: I don’t talk to friends about it, I never mentioned it to a therapist I saw for two years despite it being a huge source of low self-esteem. I always felt like people were laughing at me about it, but now I realise how much of the problem has been feeding and growing on its own in my head all this time.

Right from age ten or eleven, I could see how important big breasts were. My crush in primary school had pictures of Lara Croft pasted all over his workbooks, and he used to obsess over the curvy drawings like a man (boy) possessed. He also fancied my best friend, who developed far earlier than I did. Boys passed around magazines full of women with big breasts in RE, and men on buses were staring openly at page 3 models. Girls in teenage novels I read were constantly trying to improve their busts to attract boys, and everywhere I looked were films and TV programmes saying the bigger the boobs, the better. As I hit puberty and started to develop in some limited way, I looked around in vain for someone who looked the same as me. The only people who looked similar were models, and everyone had told me they weren’t attractive because they were too thin.

Keira Knightley was one of the first famous women I saw who had very small breasts, and who also gave very few fucks about the fact. Her producers did, and over the years I’ve read many interviews with her complaining about being “enhanced” in adverts and film posters and magazine covers. One great quote from her after a Chanel advert was: “I don’t know whose those are, but they aren’t mine.” When I was about seventeen she was voted the sexiest actress of the year by Empire, and I felt a bit more hopeful. But it was still a drop in a bucket against the constant comments and cultural references to the fact that only big breasts were sexy.

At my lowest points, I considered surgery. Even websites advertising clothes showed this perfect curvy silhouette you were meant to achieve, and all I could see was that I didn’t look like that. I watched some godawful daytime TV programme where a woman had a breast enhancement and she was grinning all over the shop. I felt miserable and alone. I was always too afraid to do anything about it but I did believe it would make me happier. Boyfriends had to deal with me constantly putting myself down: compliments rolled off me like water off a duck’s back. I realised recently that in over ten years of dating, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times men have complimented me on my breasts and I’ve genuinely believed them. 99% of them I’ve immediately discounted what they’ve said as them trying to make me feel better, firmly convinced that actually they would much rather I had bigger, bouncier breasts for them to- do I don’t really know what with. Use as a pillow maybe.

The psychological block on my own breasts was so strong that for a few years I wore totally the wrong size bra. Bra shopping was always a mental torment, usually utterly dispiriting and frequently also ended in tears (and no purchases). I was a 32A for years and then they became uncomfortable in my early 20’s. Convinced I couldn’t be anything other than an A, I switched to a 34A for a few more years before finally becoming too irritated with none of them bloody fitting and getting someone to measure me. Turned out I needed a 32C. I was amazed and overjoyed; emotions immediately punctured by my mother when I told her what the woman had said: “Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t possibly be a C.” I felt two inches tall, and never completely recovered that joyful feeling, despite the evidence clearly showing me that my mother was wrong and I was (and am) a 32C, based on the fact that they fucking fit (well, as well as one size ever fits, am I right ladies? It’s never a certainty, like sizes in jeans. That’s why bra and jeans shopping are THE ABSOLUTE WORST).

Despite my new size and the small increase in confidence it brought, I still felt like I wasn’t good enough. This was reinforced every time I went bra shopping, a) by the pictures of stunningly curvy (yet slim) women plastered over the walls and b) by the fact that half the bras are extra padded and many of them scream things like “INCREASES BREAST SIZE BY UP TO THREE CUP SIZES!!” I once tried on one of these apparently magic bras only to discover that there was no room for any breast tissue. Literally, none. I actually got horribly embarrassed and triple checked the label, thinking I’d picked up a bra for women who’d had a mastectomy by mistake. Although I thought that one was a bit extreme, I still believed that wearing bras that showed me au naturel were not attractive, not pleasing to the eye, and that people would be judging me for it. I kept looking worriedly at the “BOOST YOUR BOOBS!!” bras until very recently, when my partner and I were browsing bras and I pointed out one of these bras saying that it looked pretty uncomfortable because there was no room for you. He said: “Well yeah, plus if you’re wearing something like that, I can’t feel you- I’m just feeling this padding.” He said it softly, almost delicately, and it suddenly dawned on me that I might have been totally misjudging the whole thing for years. I have always been going on looks, big equalling good, because that’s what I’ve been taught. But just as important, perhaps, is feel. I had barely even considered this from the man’s perspective like that, assuming that seeing massive boobs and lots of cleavage was the one and only important thing.

This reminded me of a moment in Sex and the City, when the topic of the episode is whether honesty is the best policy. A guy says: “My wife’s recently had a boob job. They look fantastic – they feel like shit. I keep that information to myself.” And of course it’s not just feel for your partner – it’s feel for you too. One of the reasons I never got beyond fretful worrying about having a breast enhancement was because you lose the sensitivity in your breasts and nipples. I was deeply saddened to hear recently that many girls not yet out of their teens are having breast surgery: their breasts haven’t even stopped growing, and they’ll never get a chance to fully appreciate how sexually sensitive their breasts might be. Another reason this is so sad is because a study I read about recently showed that women with low self-esteem who have boob jobs generally do not feel an increase in their self-esteem afterwards. They have had serious surgery, and will need more in years to come so that the implants don’t cause serious issues as the plastic starts to decay, and they still have the same mental issues that they had before. This all goes to prove for me: it’s all in my head. Especially as another study said that self-esteem is lower in women with big breasts than small ones. I was absolutely astonished when I read that. Here was I assuming that if I had some other size boobs then everything would be glorious, and there are these women wishing to god they didn’t have what I thought I wanted. What I’d never really thought about were the cultural perceptions there are of women with large breasts – that they’re easy, or stupid, or something else equally ridiculous.

I hear every day from somewhere that you need to accept the way you look if you ever want to be happy.  For a long time I thought I felt better about my breasts because I realised that never wanting to take your top off because you’re too shy is definitely not sexy. I tried to fake confidence to get over the problem, and quite often it works. But it’s still not quite the same as genuine confidence. Blimey, if they sold that stuff by the bottle, I’d set up a subscription. But the problem can only really be solved by less faking. Less fake bras, fake boobs, faked pictures. Stop making everyone assume that they have to make whatever they have bigger. And that’s just for my particular bugbear, I’m sure other people have different ones: thighs, stomach, legs, whatever it is. It’s exhausting constantly comparing yourself to other people, real or elsewhere, and finding yourself wanting. It’s every day, so many times a day, and all the time I have to remind myself that I have a set of deeply ingrained standards in my head that are not real. I’m quite sure I have a body dysmorphia issue where most of the time I look in the mirror I don’t see what’s really there. Maybe I still see myself as I was when I was a teenager, and my brain hasn’t refreshed the image properly.

We need help not getting into these mental traps to begin with, by not being given the same repeated message over and over again about what is and isn’t attractive. Websites like Beauty Redefined are doing amazing work in this area, challenging full stop the notion that women should be judged first and foremost on how they look – which is, sadly, still the case a large proportion of the time. It needs to change as soon as can be, as so many girls and young women these days are going on diets, or considering surgery, and generally building up a bank of negative self-esteem to make them feel shit about themselves well into their twenties, and beyond. There is a great quote from Tina Fey on body image, showing how utterly impossible it is for anyone to ever achieve “perfection”: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.” As Jennifer Aniston said all those years ago: it’s impossible to please everyone. We need to stop trying, and stop being told to try.

I’ve focussed on female body image in this post, because that’s what I know best, but it should be noted that men can really struggle with this too. The media push the idea that men need to be incredibly muscular to be attractive to women, which is patently untrue. Although it is easier for men in some ways in that there are plenty of examples in the news and popular culture of less attractive males being with beautiful women, it is still a big issue that prompts many men to develop eating disorders or take ridiculous numbers of protein shakes. It’s odd that although I was well aware of this when I was growing up, and whenever a male friend mentioned it to me I assured him that women wanting men to look like an Action Man was a myth, I never turned it around to think that the standards women were aspiring to were possibly false too. It goes to show how internalised these messages are, that we apply these standards to ourselves when we don’t push them on to other people.

 

“What do you do?” Careers and Labels

Careers are such strange things. When we’re children people ask us what we want to be and it’s always these clearly identifiable jobs, ones that carry an identity with them: teacher, fireman, policeman, actress, doctor, etc. When you get older you realise that there are so many jobs that don’t have a name, which you can’t aim for because you don’t know they exist, and where telling people what you do requires a paragraph of explanation. In some cases, this can make you feel like your job is worth less than the jobs that have a title, and less than the people who’ve been aiming for the same vocation their whole lives.

For example, my boyfriend is an academic, many of his friends are academics, some of his exes are academics. Before we met, after a period in publishing I decided to go back to university for a Master’s degree, with a thought that I might carry it on this time and become a lecturer. Talking it over with a teacher who knew me well he gently warned me that academia might not be right for me because there is so much time spent alone, doing research or marking or writing lectures, and the rest of the time you have to be in some way an extrovert, engaging the attention and motivating the minds of dozens of students. In the past I’ve heaped a whole load of contradictory labels onto myself – introvert (needs to spend time alone), history of depression (shouldn’t spend too much time alone), anxious (should steer clear of stressful situations). And then I wondered if I was limiting myself with these labels from a career that I could enjoy. So I kept aiming for the PhD, until I found out other, innate qualities about myself that don’t have labels but which do mean that being a lecturer wouldn’t be the best path for me. I don’t enjoy working on one thing for long periods of time, I find it tedious and frustrating. Although I enjoyed what I was researching in my MA I didn’t have that all-consuming desire to get to the bottom of a topic and do everything required – learn new languages, travel – to find out everything about it. Although I’m a competent public speaker it makes me extremely stressed. For these reasons amongst others (expense, lack of job opportunities on the other side) I decided not to carry on with my studies.

As someone who defined themselves for a long time by their grades (see other blog) I’m still coming to terms with this decision, and struggling not to feel inadequate and intellectually a lesser being next to these academics. And maybe I am, in some ways, if you judge by particular criteria. I don’t have the kind of memory that holds on to thousands of historical facts. I seem to have filled up my brain by age 16 with information about different horse breeds and the plots of hundreds of books – there’s not much space left. I’m not one of those people who can expostulate at length on various topics when I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about (introvert trait?) unless I’m drunk (or just shy?) so being a lecturer probably wouldn’t work out so well. If a student threw me a curveball question I’d either need to have a hip flask of gin to let me bullshit about it or tell them to ask again next week once I’d read up on it. Although it’s been a difficult process, I’m glad to have done the MA so I could find out these things about myself, about my differences. Essentially, I believe that’s what university is all about.

The company I work for has recently been approached by a group working to encourage students to take STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. As a mapping company and technology company you’d assume we’d be a good fit for a slightly ‘think outside the box’ example of what you can do with STEM subjects. But the people in the office mostly didn’t do science and maths. Of the people who did further education, we have an assortment including English, History, Architecture, and Music. Some didn’t go to university at all, and their A Levels weren’t in the right ball park either – Latin, Greek, etc. We are, in fact, an advert for Arts and Humanities subjects as passports to whatever the hell you like. While I understand that we need to show children what they can do with maths and science and encourage them to carry it on if they enjoy it, I think we should also be teaching children that they can keep changing their minds, over and over again. What they do at university does not need to define them for the rest of their lives. Neither does their first job. Or their second job.

As you get older your ideas of yourself can change – they might not, you might carry out your childhood dream – but if, like me, your ‘childhood dream’ changed monthly and was remarkably similar to what your best friend’s ‘childhood dream’ was, or the occupation of the protagonist of the latest book you’d read, then don’t panic. You don’t have to have had a dream, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You have the freedom to just see what comes up, see what sounds interesting, and see what opportunities come from people that you know. Do not underestimate the advantages of going for something that isn’t what you ever imagined, if the people are nice and the job keeps your mind busy. I love working at the job I’m in now because I get to do so many different things every day. I have an obscure job title which nobody has ever thought up as their dream job while they’re at school (we invented it) and which tells you virtually nothing about what I do every day, but it suits me with my preference for short jobs I can chop and change between.

The film Good Will Hunting made me laugh in this respect (spoilers!). There’s so much debate about what Will should do, what job he should go for with this fantastic brain that was going to change the world. But why did he need to decide right then? He was what, 20? He could do one thing for a bit, then something else. He could go be in love with the girl for a while, sort his head out after some pretty serious and life-changing therapy, then think about what he wanted to do. We shouldn’t keep pushing young people to think of a career by an expiry date, especially when people are putting down that expiry date as 17, when you’re picking your university subjects. Hardly anybody knows themselves at 17 – that’s why most of us have relationships at that age which are, in retrospect, such monumentally bad ideas. People change their minds about their passions and careers at 28, 35, 50, 65, whenever. Talking the issue over with a colleague recently, he said he thought the best advice would be: whatever you’re doing, do it well. Do the best at it that you can. Which is why I believe it’s so important not to assign career paths to students and imply that their subjects and university degrees will be labels that define them for life. They need to be doing the topics that interest them, because it’s so much harder to do well at a subject that you don’t enjoy. Also, although we can encourage children to think of the big dream jobs, we could also try to explain that there are many jobs that they won’t be able to think of yet, but which will suit their qualities and differences just right. And they’ll find out those qualities and differences through experience, and little else.