Thursday, 22 October 2015

A New Era



After months of planning, designing, agonising over content and wondering whether I could actually pull it off, I have finally done it - I've made my own website.

All this year's blog content has been imported into it, and all future content will be posted primarily there, leaving this as a still-functioning but essentially old blog full of back-catalogue pieces. But, on the plus side, there's lots of new content to explore and an easier, more interactive set-up on amberinred.com.

There is a comment function for all the blog posts, and there are also creative pages, my model portfolio, and a contact page so you can email me directly.

Thank you to all of you who have read, commented, encouraged, interrogated, and generally interacted here - please, come to the new site and continue!  I look forward to seeing you over there.

amberinred.com



Saturday, 3 October 2015

Night Thoughts

It's true for me that the night is when I struggle the most to quiet my mind, and the little inner voices that want to remind me of my failings. Some of them are actual; others are imagined, or circumstances beyond my control which, tinged with blame my rational mind knows I shouldn't accept, I find myself reliving as I fight to get to sleep. It's all very well knowing you shouldn't worry about something, but it's quite another hushing those night thoughts and finding peace of mind when so many things are vying to steal it from you. 

It is often in the night that I do my soul-searching, my tackling of unspoken fears and unrealised desires. In the small hours when the world is dark and relatively quiet, while some memory or pressing thought has hauled me out of slumber, I tread through fog in search of clarity. Sometimes it's just because I want to go back to sleep; other times it's more vital than that, and I need an answer I will still remember in the morning. 

A lot of these thoughts centre on a deeply-rooted fear that I am not enough in some way. Not clever enough; not accomplished enough; not savvy enough; not attractive enough in many senses of the word; just, not enough to succeed. And what idea of success am I holding anyway? Because I've given up trying to impress those who likes me best for my academics - to them, I've done nothing impressive since I left University. I've given up trying to impress those who only ever expressed admiration for my body, because it's either too big for some or too small for others, too pale, too tall, if only I just changed X it would be perfect - there's no need for me to try and appease them. And this year I've let go of trying to have the best answer to the 'and what do you do' question at weddings/parties, because frankly I don't like the idea that people are reduced to their job status or that their value primarily sits in the activities they undertake. 

I'm far more interested in how and why people do, not so much what. I prefer to be more focused on how I feel in my body and loving it as it is than worrying about what it looks like to others. I believe academic ability is just a tool, and success in exams alone doesn't necessarily determine success in life. 

Success is a broader concept. For me, it's fulfilling the deep-seated passions I've had since childhood; creating what only I can create, and being satisfied in it; it's living a life that has a valuable impact on those I care about and the wider world, even if it doesn't look spectacular. It's overcoming obstacles with patience and determination; encouraging others; finding the purity and honesty that is possible in humanity. 
Too often I forget my perspective on success in favour of someone else's. Too often I find myself weakened by doubt, held back by anxiety, uncertain of success and therefore unwilling to try. However, I am working on finding confidence in the right places. I am grateful for friends who can pick me up, and slap me out of it if need be! I remember that I will not be the only one struggling, and therefore it would be good for me to be more outward-focused. 

I hope anyone who has read through this and connects with it will know that it's not a unique struggle, and we can be there to support one another. It's exhausting battling people's assumptions whatever state you're in, and to finally find some freedom from specific fears or pressures only to have others try and put you back in your box is a sad and demoralising experience, yet a common one. It makes me very aware of how vital it is that as I learn not to define myself by my perceived failings or weaknesses; also to unlearn any default  negative view of others, even if it's one they have encouraged. It is my sincere desire that humanity can function more on the basis of building one another up rather than pulling each other down, and that confidence is attainable and not confused with arrogance or vanity. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The F Word

It gets used a lot. We've all said it. Some of us sparingly, some with carefree ease. It gets shouted across streets, across rooms, casually thrown into conversation to make a point, sometimes in jest and sometimes out of spite. Other times it's just a plain old description.

Fat.

There, I said it. Shocked? Probably not. It's not a swear word; it's not even technically a descriptor for something inherently bad. Why then (and please pardon the pun) does it carry so much weight?

Lately I posted something on my Instagram about being a 'fat girl running'. It was just a comedic tag line to go with a comedic photo, and it was an accurate description - I am fat, and I was going running. One person immediately responded: 'you're not fat!'. Oh really? Tell that to my BMI. They then went on to list all the 'nice' things I was, presumably as a counter-measure to the F-word I had deployed. I assured them I considered it possible to be all those things as well as fat; the two states (niceness and fatness) were not mutually exclusive. They seemed to get my point and the whole exchange was really very amicable, but it highlighted something to me that I had been increasingly aware of for a while - the very obvious fact that for most people, 'fat' is a dirty word, and means a hell of a lot more than just what the dictionary will tell you.

This won't be news to anyone reading this, so I won't patronise you with definitions from said dictionary, but I'm starting at what we know: that words are capable of taking on meaning and emphasis way beyond their original purpose. Moral weight is applied; social norms are considered; much can be implied in the context of use. When I was in primary school I learned that fat was a storage method for extra energy, used by our bodies to help keep us warm, and often accumulated just before a growth spurt and puberty. I might have learnt that it wasn't healthy to have too much fat, but I can't remember that part being emphasised, to be honest. I never worried about whether I was or would become fat, I just knew what fat was. It was only when I heard others discussing fat as a thing to get rid of, to be ashamed of, and began to compare myself to the girls and women around me, that any kind of moral meaning appeared for fat. Older sisters of friends would pinch at their bellies in apparent disgust, swap diet tips, describe food as 'naughty', and call other girls fat in a tone that implied fat meant all sorts of other, worse things. Even as a pre-teen I was starting to learn the F-word and why I should so obviously fear it.

There are other, older blog posts I've published about my own body image struggles - weight loss, weight gain, self acceptance, all those sorts of things - so I don't want to go into that as much here. What I'm really interested in right now is the anatomy of fat as a term - why it has this power, whether it should, and how people are addressing it. So right off the bat, here are all the meanings I've seen ascribed to the term 'fat', and what they imply by extension.

Fat means...

Lazy (you can't be bothered to lose weight to be thin, thin equalling normalcy).
Dirty (if you can't be bothered to lose weight you're not looking after your body, therefore you can't be bothered to wash and you probably sweat more because you're fat).
Stupid (clever people would know that being fat was bad).
Slutty (you're not conventionally attractive so obviously you'd say yes to anyone).
Poor (you can't afford healthy food or a gym and you don't get good jobs when you're fat).
Unattractive (because only thin is attractive, to all people everywhere).
Unhealthy (fat people are only fat because they clearly don't exercise).

These are just the ones I've observed personally enough times to convince me it's a widespread mode of thought and not just a few people using the F-word this way. I think it's fair to say that of this bunch, the only one which a lot of people would argue was justifiable is the health argument; we live in a health-conscious society and the responsibility to maintain our health for the good of our families and society, so we don't become a burden on the health services, has been a strong feature in public discussion for some decades. I would argue this is a wider issue than fat, although fat plays a part, and that unless someone is medically qualified and familiar with a person's medical state, they probably shouldn't be making that call. Often concern for health seems a thinly-veiled excuse to call someone out on the unacceptability of their fatness, regardless of the degree of fat, whether it's under that person's control, or the fact that plenty of health problems are not fat-related and occur in non-fat people, or cannot be externally diagnosed. Fat is a factor in health: that's a fact. But it's not the only one.

When you've got all these assumptions to contend with, no wonder fat has become a dirty word. Why would anyone want to be fat, or identify as fat, when that's what people take it to mean?

Something that has interested me along this vein lately is the terminology used by body-positive activists, the plus-size clothing and model industry, and others involved in the broader discussion of bodies in the media. The vast majority of these are women, not because the issue doesn't apply to men or because they are excluded, but simply because women's bodies are so much more politicised in society than men's are; women are told so much more what they should or shouldn't look like. The ideal is always before us, and the ideal in the Western world is not fat. Interestingly, those groups and industries which are involved in promoting body acceptance regardless of size, or providing clothing for fat people, are often still shying away from the word 'fat'. The most popular alternative term is 'curvy'; it's innocuous, it can be applied to any woman, any human for that matter, but 'curvy' has become a loaded term as well. For some, it sums up the epitome of hourglass, full-figured yet still attractive womanhood, a code for 'acceptable fat', implying that some kinds of fat are ok, but others aren't. For others, it embraces all degrees of the female body, but shies away from the negative connotations of fat. Recently the hashtag 'curvy' was removed by Instagram due to a vast number of pornographic images which had been uploaded using the term, but was re-instated after widespread outcry that this was an example of punishing women for the appropriation of their word by others who had sexualised it. It wasn't just the loss of a word that was the issue - it was the fact that this word represented an entire community, a mindset, a collective attitude toward the female body that thousands of people felt was positive and necessary. 'Fat' has probably never had that kind of power.

And yet, it is just a word. It is just the state of having stored energy attached to your body, possibly in larger amounts than biologically necessary. It isn't a descriptor for all that a person is; it doesn't have to mean more than exactly what it is. And it doesn't have to be taboo. To take back the F-word and strip it of its negative power is simply the work of deconstructing the myths around it, challenging the assumptions, and not being afraid to call a spade a spade. To question meaning and social constructs is a healthy part of our personal development but also, in my view, a crucial action in a society which is still image-obsessed and fraught with emotional and physical dangers for those growing up into it.

I am fat, in that I have fat on me, approximately two stone more than a BMI chart tells me I should. I am fat, and I carry this fat with me, and it contributes to a shape I have learned to love and will continue to love whether it loses fat or gains it, because this is my body and I will live in it for the rest of my life, whatever size it happens to be. I am fat, and I do exercise and eat healthily most of the time, even if my physical appearance doesn't indicate it in the expected and accepted way. I am fat, and I do not believe that this makes me, or anyone else, less valuable as a person.

Monday, 7 September 2015

So Long Sweet Summer

The days of bare legs and sunshine clothes are drawing to a close, as golden leaves and bonfire smoke are hot on their trail, carrying the promise of crunchiness underfoot and visible breath clouds on crisp mornings, in which I can pretend to be a dragon blowing puffs into the sky. I've held on to the dregs of 'beach season', when I only went to the beach once and that was in the rain, but now I'm ready to surrender to slippers, scarves and raking the garden, trying not to stumble into dew-decorated spiders' webs and hoping to goodness none of the spiders get inside my house. It's a vain hope of course; they always do.

Here is my bright yellow summer swan-song, shod in flimsy dampened suede, twirling away the rest of my summer dreams into autumn realities. In the twilight space between seasons the skies are capricious, and the garden teetering between lush and dank depending on the gifts they bestow. I don't venture onto the lawn barefoot anymore, and suspect that just as it's dry enough to be mown it will cease its growth spurt anyway, as if the onset of Autumn slows nature down. In reality it can seem the briefest season, easily blinked away between late summer warmth and early winter frosts - a season of hurried fire-coloured flurries, insistent winds that tug at reluctant branches, sudden sunsets and bright blue dawns.

While nature prepares to power down, shedding summer finery and drawing us into dreams of festivities now not so far off, I'm still getting into gear for the onward push. I've spent the summer planning and learning, growing, not an overnight shoot but a season-long slow burn that's pressed through the cracks in my experience. Leaving behind the summer is like leaving a training camp, hardened by testing and a little sore, but keen for the next assignment.

Autumn to me is like a Phoenix, blazing into flame knowing full well that a glorious rise from the ashes is just around the corner in Spring's swift bud. Autumn takes the year's cycle out in magnificent style, bold and effusive, unapologetically strong. Its winds may seem destructive, but Autumn understands that the cycle demands sacrifice: that nothing new can be created without the old making way for it. It works not on decimation but on renewal, as year on year old coats are shed and fresh life reaches higher, further than before. Autumn proudly shows its colours, fierce yet stately, and of a rare day quiet and still, inviting wonder. And, in its shining crown, Autumn brings the harvest.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

People in Need of Love

Here we go then: me and my laptop and my befuddled brain, typing out whatever occurs to me and hoping to goodness it makes some sense to someone. Because if there's anything I've learned this week/month/year, or rather re-learned, it's that I haven't got the answers. I really wish I did. Sometimes I probably act like I do. But I have to be honest - as much as I want to be of significance in this world and do something or things that are worthy and useful and giving, I frankly haven't got a clue how. All I know is that I see needs that I want to fulfil, and I along with the rest of humanity just have to do the best I can to do so. If I can be brave enough; if I can stop being selfish.

My title for this blog is sappy, I know, but there's a reason for that - it's the best summation of humanity and my approach to life that I can possibly come up with. I firmly believe that is exactly what we all are: people in need of love, and not just the romantic kind. I mean filial, brother-to-brother, sister-to-sister even when we are not family, even when we are separated by national or cultural boundaries. I mean parental, in the care and guidance given by a mother, a father, someone who fulfils that role and protects. I mean agape love, love at its ultimate, the love that is willing to sacrifice whatever it must for the best of others.

There are kinds of love in this world that are so often overlooked in pursuit of the emotional eros rush, or subdued for the simple fact that we've developed an awkwardness of expression that prevents us from engaging in anything that could cause us embarrassment. That compassion and care for our fellow-man is a kind of love that should be celebrated and freely expressed is buried under fear of offence, and the very real possibility of being made uncomfortable. Countless times I've kept my mouth firmly shut when I actually knew it was right to try and say something helpful, or check if someone was okay. Also numerous are the occasions on which a well-meaning word of encouragement from someone else has been rebuffed with the lie of 'I'm fine,' because I didn't know how to accept their kindness. The prospect of acknowledging need, and thereby weakness, has our hackles up.

As far as I see it, we've got a couple of problems, and the first is that we live in a society that doesn't tolerate what it perceives as weakness. This might seem contradictory, but please hear me out. Apart from being a child, is there any state of being that doesn't come in for ridicule and judgement from one significant party or another? Those who are less physically strong or able can be left out of sports and physical activities even in school; assumptions are made that they don't try hard enough, and those assumptions follow into adulthood. Those who struggle with academics, regardless of the teaching scenario, their personality type and best methods of learning etc, are labelled 'thick', 'stupid', 'a failure'. Those who carry extra weight, for whatever reason, are vilified for a lack of self control; assumptions are made that they are lazy. The young are dismissed for a lack of experience. The old are dismissed as out-of-date. Women are told they have equality with men but are discriminated against in work and society for having children, not having children, having a career as well, staying at home with kids, wearing certain clothes... Men are assumed to be bullish, brutish, unintelligent, incapable of doing more than one things at once, not a 'proper man' if they are short/unbearded/single/etc. We have labelled our differences as weaknesses, and frankly, there just is no safe ground - some sector of society will always be pulling down another. With this to contend with, is it any wonder we have learned to put up a front of 'I'm fine', and never admit we might be struggling and in need of help? Is it any wonder that we hesitate to offer help, in case we offend someone by implying that they can't cope? Is it any wonder that our best chance of securing love of any kind may seem to be altering the way we come across, our appearance or our personality?

The second problem is the barriers created by the categories we then file ourselves into in order to cope with this dog-eat-dog approach to life. I'm no psychologist and I have no provable theory on this, only my own observations to work with. I don't think it's necessarily a deliberate effort to distance ourselves from one another, just the organic response of many hurt people, or people trying to avoid hurt, that we distance ourselves from that which could hurt us. We want to be invulnerable; to show the haters that we've risen above their hate; to prove that nobody's opinion matters except our own. It's an understandable reaction, and sometimes a necessary one, but in the pursuit of strong individuality, is something of community lost? When I put myself where people can't hurt me, I also put myself where they can't love me, either. And when I detach from a filial perspective of humanity, I can detach from compassion, too.

The truth is that often I am so focused on my own life and on myself that I find it all too easy to overlook the needs of others, just like I ignore my own needs so that I don't have to open up and be vulnerable. I hate people knowing I can't handle something. I hate letting them see a weakness. But without acknowledging that weakness, after a while I can believe my own lie and start to act like I'm superior in some way, and this is what I find so dangerous, because to my mind a superiority complex breeds abuse of power. Gone is the understanding that we are all in this together, and in its place all sorts of uninformed judgements, finely nuanced and maybe never openly expressed, but influencing every action, and every choice not to act. When I let myself think I'm better, I lose my sense of place in humanity, and I fail to be of any use to anyone around me. I become a worse person. And I forget how to love.

I'm not saying all this because I'm trying to morally condemn society or individuals, or imply that my experience is the case for everyone. Like I said at the beginning, I really wish I had the answers but clearly I don't! I'm just hoping that my honest thoughts on this subject might be of interest to some people, and as always with anything I write, that it may spark some constructive discussion on the subject. Personally I don't think that mankind is capable of perfect expressions of love in and of itself; I believe we need some help, and that the best form of love is divinely modelled. Plenty of you will disagree with me on that, I'm sure, but that's what I see as truth. However, I also think that the potential for that perfect love lies within each one of us - the potential for thoughts and acts of respect, of genuine care, of compassion, of encouragement, and even of sacrifice. The acknowledgement of our shared humanity comes hand-in-hand with our responsibility to one another to attempt this love, even if we may fail. It is my sincere hope that I will learn to put this goal above that of my own comfort, realising that strength does not equal invulnerability, but the ability to overcome in spite of vulnerability.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

An Impossible Perfect

I feel like I have to present this with an explanatory note: this post is about body image. I'm well aware that some people will consider it irrelevant to them, and/or I may be seen to have harped on about this a lot lately. I also know from experience that a lot of men think this is an exclusively female subject. If you are one of the lovely people who take the time to read my blog, and you consider that you fall into one of these categories/views I've just mentioned, can I appeal to you to please be open-minded and carry on reading anyway? I know I can only write from my own perspective and experience, but this is a subject transcendent, I believe, of gender and political views. I really hope it can spark some discussion amongst those who may not have actively considered it before.

Nobody warns you how completely impossible physical perfection is. The idea of perfection you learn, through observation/osmosis, is just a complete misunderstanding of reality - there is no one 'perfect'. It doesn't exist.

You may get 'lucky' genetically, and avoid predisposition to stretch marks, cellulite, acne, 'excessive' body hair (whatever that means), weight retention, whatever else may be in our genetic code that is considered below the impossible standard. You may work incredibly hard as an athlete, dancer, something else that physically alters your body. You might not bruise or scar easily. You might not frown so much that it lines your face. You might have the perfect collagen balance in your skin. You might discipline your eating habits to improve your health. You might do or have all or none of the above.

Still nothing prepares you - well, prepared me - for waking some days, looking down at your body and wondering how the hell it ended up the way it did. Why no one ever tells you that you don't have to carry a baby to have stretch marks; that your adolescent growth spurts and then weight gain in your twenties will do that for you. That you'll have them in places that you're not strictly 'fat' - the backs of your knees, your breasts. That men get them too.

Nothing prepares you for the afternoon as a teenager that you cut your leg climbing a fence, and the nurse while she steri-strips it jokes that your modelling career will be scuppered by the scar. You're not planning on a modelling career, but it's tantamount to telling you that this mark will make you less beautiful, less desirable in the eyes of others. And because you've learned that beauty and desirability are the standard, you're ashamed of it. Some days you put make up on it to make it less obvious.

Nothing prepares you for the first out-of-place hair you find on your body, somewhere that hair apparently isn't meant to grow.

The bingo wings that won't completely disappear however many toning exercises you do.

The blue shadows under your eyes that one sleepless night bring out in the morning, however well hydrated you are, whatever creams you use.

The way your stomach folds softly when you sit, even when you're at your thinnest and fittest, in spite of all your sit-ups.

There are many things we can change about ourselves, if we want to. But there are so many we can't. And our physical selves perplex and frustrate us, because they won't conform to the perfection standard, even if we are 'lucky' or we work our hardest. I can lie in bed and try to count my marks and flaws and wonder how my skin has done this to me, but where does that leave me? Afraid? Ashamed? Insecure? And for what - for something I can't control, for a standard I can't achieve. Moreover, a standard that fails to allow for the natural differences of humanity, or the beauty of the mind and spirit.

Here's a radical idea. It's not new and it's certainly not original. And by radical I mean affecting the fundamental nature of something - I don't mean scary, off the wall and unsustainable. Let's love our bodies. Let's be grateful for them - all the things they can do; all the things they are; the living that our scars and marks represent; the fights we have won; the ones we are still fighting. Let's accept and celebrate their uniqueness, their diversity, their strength and their softness. Let's remember they are vessels for our life and not our life itself. And let's not hold onto an impossible perfect anymore.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Indomitable

It was turning into Budleigh Salterton all over again.

My mother took me for a weekend when I was twelve. It rained the entire time; the sea was rough; the wind buffeted and forced us to squint as we struggled along the coastal path. I couldn't get near the water. It was supposed to be special, but I only remember the distance between the experience and the ideal.

Now here I was on a Sunday afternoon on the north Devon coast, eyes straining against an unforgiving gale, hair in my face defiant of a dozen hairpins, alone and trying not to fall over. Inappropriately dressed in skirt and heeled boots, laughing grimly at my absurd romantic notion that a day at the seaside would reinvigorate me somehow.



I feel small by the sea. It has always brought me a calm and grounding sense of place - not insignificance, but something like reverence. In the salt air and drowned out by the constant grumbling roar of Atlantic waves, I am centred, as if it knows me and I know it and the roles we play.


But not today. Today it isn't loud enough; today I cannot lose my petty unease, my navel-gazing. I hunker down in view of sand and sea and pebbles, soft grey boulders reaching into the mist and ringed in white, and I am miserable somehow. My own vitality is not replenished by the life around me, not as I expected and hoped.

 
Then of course I realise that my problem is bigger than the sea, to me - it's a problem of perspective. The ocean is no sticking plaster to the troubled soul. It demands nothing of me and therefore I do not give. I am used to feeling put-upon, in some way like I have to yield and that is how I reach a remedy. Without the demand for me to give myself up, I remain passive.


I now know what it is that I am here for - I want to be obliterated. To fight is to tire, but to surrender is to rest. I have come to the sea to surrender, but she won't accept my terms; I have no choice but to keep fighting, and I'm tired.


The cold, steel-blue waves; the soft green land; the milky pebbles and the unrelentingly grey skies, so vast and yet my spirit is indomitable. And do I want to be indomitable? Today, it seems I do not have a choice. And as I fight my way up the harsh incline of the pebble ridge I remember - what do I remember?

I remember that when I fight, I conquer and I laugh.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

BIG

BIG

I am the big one.
The big sister.
The tallest.
The towerer-over, still insisting on wearing heels.
The one you tell to sit down
So you don't feel intimidated.

I am the big one.
Big hips.
Jeans-filling.
Swaying, walking, dancing.
The one you can't lend your dress
Because I'll stretch it.

I am the big one.
Big thighs.
Long legs.
Can't fold elegantly into the back of the car,
The one that makes you budge up on the sofa.

I am the big one.
Big ideas.
Talking, laughing, singing.
Asking questions, wanting to know.
The one you think might be more chat than substance.

I am the big one.
Big dreams.
Ambitious.
Up at night writing.
The one who may be better at the theory than the practice.

Big.
I always have been.
I don't mind it.
I don't mind taking up space,
Physical, mental, philosophical.
I don't want to diminish.
I don't want to cower.
I have no plans to apologise.
I have no plans to stop.
This is what I was made to be -
Big.


Friday, 26 June 2015

That's Not You

A while ago I wrote a post under the title 'The Real Me', in which I posited that I wanted to lead what I guess I would term a more authentic or honest life. I also discussed how easy it is to even subconsciously create a public image/personality, and how we structure this to protect ourselves or project an ideal of what we want to be.

Further to that, something I've been thinking about lately is a phrase I've had thrown at me at various points in life, and have definitely heard levelled at others around me: 'that's not you'. From a throwaway comment in the fitting rooms to a statement of surprise in response to an outburst, it's an immediate contradiction that often comes from those closest to us, if it comes at all.

I distinctly remember a number of occasions upon which this little phrase, or words to that effect, caused me to question myself or to feel uncertain. A few times it was wardrobe-related, as inevitably teenage self-expression led to some unusual outfit choices. I would swan into the room in something bright or fitted only to be greeted with a quizzical look and a 'hmmm... that's just not you', quickly followed by me sloping off deflated to get changed. Chances are the people in question felt they were doing me a favour by preventing me from being ridiculous, but I always felt like I had been denied a moment of bravery, and I needed to fit back into whatever mould 'me' was actually supposed to take. As I got older I learned that women used 'that's not you' as code for a lot of things - when they really meant, 'that's not flattering'; 'that's not appropriate'; 'that's too outlandish', they would couch their judgements in the softer tones of 'I don't know, it's just not you, you know?'. I worked in a women's fashion store for two years on and off while I was a student and I saw it so many times, always with the same look of disappointment on the face of the woman in question. Now I'm not saying that it wasn't well-meant or indeed helpful at times, but the primary thing it taught me was, your body doesn't fit, and you can't wear this or this because of it. And if my body didn't fit, then what else about me was in error? How else was I expressing 'me' incorrectly?

'That's not you' isn't just a body-related phenomenon. I was probably more affected by a letter I received just before I got married, from an old friend with whom I had fallen out of touch. They wrote to me out of the blue and I can't recall the full content, but what cut me deeply was this little sentence: 'you're not really that sophisticated, are you?'. I had no idea what they meant. Was I pretending to be sophisticated? Was I coming off as acting out my life, rather than actually living it? I didn't understand. I had no concept of pretence in the way I carried myself at that time; I had developed more confidence and made some different friends, but I hadn't abandoned old friends or principles. Here was this person whom I had known so well and trusted for so long, back in my life after a hiatus in which clearly we had both changed, and their first thought was basically to say to me: 'that's not you.' I didn't get it and I certainly didn't know how to turn around and say, 'actually, yes it is.'

Who decides what is or isn't us? What defines it? Those who know us best ought to be able to tell what is 'normal' for us; when something abnormal happens, the person's behaviour is often described as 'out of character' - it's not a recognisable part of their usual modus operandi. It's been helpful for me at times to be gently contradicted when I've been getting carried away with some behaviour that's actually destructive for me or for those I care about. But on the day-to-day, is there no room for movement, for change? For those of us who sometimes feel like we have to justify or explain any new development in ourselves, it can be exhausting and frankly not always feel worthwhile.

I therefore find myself asking, why do these things get said? It could be just that people find it hard to countenance the new in contrast to the familiar, and that projects itself onto their friends and family as well as their surroundings. Personally I think it's a deeper issue, and it has to do with how we define self in the modern world. In this society we are increasingly free to make wider choices, and the emphasis is so much more on the individual than on community that our understanding of how we function together and inter-relate is constantly tested. I often find myself unsure whether it's right in a given situation to pursue my own good or subdue it for the good of someone else or of a group, when historically a community mindset was the only way civilisations grew and survived. Is it any wonder that when self can be so fluid and so many decisions justified that in the past would have been considered self-indulgent, we face a challenge to who we are? Because it's often easier and clearer to be defined by our differences than by more complex qualities, but those differences can make people uncomfortable.

For me, I know I'm still finding out who I am. It's probably a life-long journey. Some aspects will always be the same and others will change, and I'll do my best to find a balance and hold to the life principles I believe to be important. But when the 'that's not you' challenge gets thrown up and I feel threatened, how do I counter it? Hopefully, with enough grace to keep my friends but enough confidence to keep my individuality. 


Monday, 15 June 2015

All the Things I Thought I Would Have Done

A couple of months ago I made a list of 25 things I wanted to achieve before I turned 27. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering I am definitely a bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew kind of person, I didn't succeed in getting through them all! There were some extenuating circumstances, but still, I should probably be disappointed with myself, right? I mean what kind of person sets goals and then just completely fails to reach them? Oh wait, that would be me.

The trouble with getting older/growing up, for me anyway, is that I'm still trying to figure out that boundary between flexibility and self-discipline. I know I'm capable of doing a lot, but somehow I still manage to scrape in at the last minute, and it's not a recent development. I was always the last to finish my drawings in art class, taking them home to be completed most of the time; I vividly recall sewing buttons for a craft competition (homeschooler alert!) the night it was due to be handed in for judging, despite having had two months to work on it. My essays were always in on time at uni, but I was forever behind with my reading, cramming my brain full on the train on the way back into Oxford for tutorials. It's like I have all these ideas and no clue how to manage my time around them, or allow for the inevitable interruptions, also known as Life Happening. I make schedules and plans and I can organise to a minute detail; I can pull off a huge party, or food for thirty people in a morning, or a corporate seminar. But when it comes to personal life goals, I always seem to be behind. And what is this self-imposed timetable I am trying to keep up with?

My 27th birthday was last Saturday, the 6th of June. I was discussing this blog post with the husband who cheekily pointed out that it was funny I would be writing about growing up when I'd had a Neverland-themed birthday party, i.e. a celebration based around a boy who never grows up. I hadn't really thought of it that way - I just wanted a pirate ship and bonfire and to be a mermaid, and clearly don't see those why those things should be exclusively for children! - but I had to acknowledge a degree of incidental irony. There I was, swanning around in an elaborate homemade costume and blue wig, garden littered with little bamboo-framed tepees and plastic bows and arrows and glass jars with candles in them, my own personal Neverland - and my list ignored, my goals unreached, and as yet no job to go to the following Monday.

It sounds so irresponsible, so careless when I read it back. I like to think those are terms most people I know would not apply to me. But sometimes you can't control all the cards you're dealt, or you don't know how to play them, or quite simply you get it wrong, and the best you can do is have a few parties along the way while you're figuring it out. It doesn't mean I'm not going to try to improve myself, or hit some of those targets, even if they're late. But at the same time, I've realised there's a lot we hold onto that may not be good for us, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. And that's where I was at when I wrote this.

All the things I thought I would have done
Live in a box
Which I take out and browse sometimes.
It's stored where no one else can find it
Although I let a few close friends have a peek
Once in a while.

Regret sits proudly in one corner,
Relief in another;
Ambivalence and forgetfulness
Can be found at the bottom
If I rummage.

There's a lot of junk
But some things I'm not ready to throw away yet.
It's difficult to detach ambition from sentiment
As they have become tangled over the years,
Mainly with my childhood memorabilia.

Notes from adults who no longer feature in my life,
Opinions lettered in bold ink,
Awaiting trial.
Bright-coloured thoughts wrapped around University papers
And daydreams hurriedly scrawled
In endless notebooks,
None of them full from cover to cover.

I think I keep the box because
I don't know whether I've finished with it.
Whether something I can work with
Will surface from amidst the dross.
Whether my vain hopes
Are extinguished sufficiently
For me to move on,
Find new ones. 

The fact is, I've spent the last few years sifting through those hopes, opinions, daydreams, plans. And I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who finds themselves looking backwards almost as much as they look forwards, because sometimes it's really hard to tell what's worth holding onto and what isn't.The one thing I am set on is finding a way to prioritise the goals I definitely know are important, because those are the ones I don't want to fail on. As for the rest, I may have to wait and see.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Fear

For a while I have wanted to post about something very personal, something which makes me feel vulnerable. I've considered backing out, but my blog is about honesty and is supposed to be a place for me to say what I really think and feel, to discuss things I think need to be said. I hope it encourages others to do the same, so sometimes I have to be brave. And that's why I've decided to write about the fear and doubt I experience in life, and how I (try to) handle it.

Every day is a battle of wills. Each morning when I wake up there's a little voice in the back of my mind saying, 'why bother?' - telling me, 'nothing will happen today. Nothing valuable will come of this. You're not cut out for it, you can't handle it; you never were good enough, clever enough, strong enough, liked enough.' On lots of days I don't even hear the voice, or it's whispering faintly and is silent by the time I get to the shower. Other mornings I am not so fortunate, and it's the loudest thing in my head, making me want to retreat back under the covers.

Because no matter how certain I am of my value and abilities the majority of the time, in those vulnerable moments where my subconscious seems to rule me, I can really be brought down. Especially if I am foolish enough to feed those insecurities, to interpret the success of others as my own failure.

So I have two choices - I can succumb, or I can fight. I can lie there feeling miserable and accept these thoughts of my insignificance and incompetence, or I can get up and prove them wrong. Not with unfounded bravado but steadily, reminding myself that other people's lives are not the measure by which I should be judging my own.

Everyone has a different path and different battles. Some things take longer to achieve, but I choose to focus on the process almost more than the end-goal, knowing I can learn from every step, every challenge. When my heart and head are so full and I'm never done with all the things I want to create and see and explore and give, and I'm never done with loving, then I know there's enough in there that's positive and worth fighting to hold onto. I also know for certain that I don't have to do it alone, and that gives me courage - the knowledge that wonderful people in my life will remind me of what I can do more than of what I can't.

Overall I'm reminded that none of us is designed to function completely solo. Humanity is meant to create these support networks of those we love and trust - we are supposed to uphold and promote one another, and while that doesn't shut out all fear or anxiety or pressure, it makes it easier to handle. Beyond that, I also know I need to address my mindset and what feeds it, which is a whole other challenge. It's one I plan to intentionally pursue in the coming months, and I hope if you ever feel this way too, that you will as well.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Mantra

Lately I've been thinking about mantra. It's on the long list of things on which I can't claim to be an expert... Honestly I've been in two minds about whether to write anything on this subject at all, because my first draft really was more like an essay (seriously, it even had references). But then I remembered this is a blog and not an academic exercise, and the whole point is that I write about things that actually mean something to me, and this does. So here goes.

My very basic understanding is that mantra is the use of words and phrases which are supposed to have sacred meaning or power; to aid concentration; to psychologically influence. Those who use it in a spiritual sense believe it can create an awareness which connects us to our inner self, although there seems to be some argument as to whether this is down to the specific words used or simply the thoughts behind them, but either way there is a very natural association with the practice of meditation.

I hadn't considered myself the meditating kind, but really anyone who has stopped to contemplate the beauty of life and nature and has found some peace through that contemplation - isn't that exactly what we were doing, in one way or another? It's just not that not everyone has a spiritual context for it.

I was recently in the Lake District and until I climbed some of those hills, until I looked out upon the vast rugged terrain and breathed in the fresh sea air, I had forgotten. I had forgotten how much I needed these moments of elation, this quiet but overwhelming glory. To find that actually, for someone so naturally verbose, I was out of words. For once I didn't actually want to describe, to quantify what was in front of me; I just wanted to take it in. I wanted to be part of it.

I think that mantra in the modern age for those of us without the cultural-historical references of its history has become equivalent to lifestyle wisdom, a proverb or a catchphrase. From 'lean in' to 'yes we can', a few well-intended words can easily become trite when too often used or without sufficient thought to their meaning - YOLO is a pretty classic example. You do only live once as far as science and most streams of philosophy go, but somewhere between being the modern-day 'carpe diem' and the life-endangering disasters that have filled up YouTube, clearly something was lost in translation. For this reason I have been trepidatious, bordering on cynical when it comes to the concept of mantra, because not only am I not sold on the spiritual element of it, but I feel like even if that does hold water, it's been hyped up and hijacked by diet programmes and politicians, and I just don't have time for words that have no meaning.

The thing is, I do believe that words have power. We've all heard 'the pen is mightier than the sword', and for those who would argue the toss think of how the philosophies which inspired the sword (i.e. all conflict) were disseminated: in writing, by word of mouth, through popular song and story. History, literature and religion are full of discussions of the influence words can have, for good or bad; it makes sense that humanity naturally accumulates these phrases, whatever we choose to call them, to help us make sense of our world and delineate our outlook on it. I suppose I've always been drawn to language because of the power of it, the way it can draw us from ourselves, can break apart or solidify our thoughts, feelings, decisions. In the same way those Lake District views stopped and centred me, the right words can bring to the surface the strength and resolve I need to tackle a challenge, while the wrong ones can reinforce negative patterns that make me self-destructive.

The important thing to remember is that we make the decision as to which words we allow to affect us; we choose what we accept as truth. Plenty of what we take in is subconscious and even instilled in childhood, so as an adult I am finding myself constantly in need of re-conditioning, as I become aware of what I've accepted that I shouldn't, or what I've misinterpreted. The key to this re-conditioning is awareness - I can't change something I don't recognise is wrong. And then of course there is the uncomfortable fact that actually, I probably can't change it by myself. Miss independent needs some help.

This is where my personal concept of mantra comes in, because I don't believe that I can simply be emptied of the negative. We fill ourselves up with whatever is around us; naturally like sponges we absorb from the people we know and the life we live and what we hear and watch and read. It's a deliberate and conscious effort therefore to pick and choose what to hold onto, but I know I need to if I'm going to become a better person, if I'm going to succeed at anything. So I look for what inspires and positively challenges me, and what I think is true, and I hold onto that - I repeat it, I have it on my phone or on my wall. I teach myself what I need to know, my mantra, and I try to live these. More posts to follow on what they are...


Saturday, 21 March 2015

25 Before 27

I have entirely and unashamedly stolen the premise of this post from my friend Sarah - you can find her blog, Not Found, at 52weeksof.blogspot.co.uk - as it ties in nicely with my recent 'Oh No She Didn't' post where I confessed to terrible procrastination and laziness. In light of how this year is already running away with me, I have taken my sad little 2013 list and added to it, creating:

25 Before 27 - 25 things to do before my 27th birthday last updated 20th April

I am 27 on the 6th of June. So yeah, I haven't given myself that much time...

Some of these things are already in progress and others have yet to be started, so I will try to update the post every so often to indicate how I'm doing. Feel free to chivvy me along, or join me for any enterprise that takes your fancy!


1. Take a Pilates class
Already doing this, most Saturday mornings. I get the giggles during some moves and I'm pretty sure the teacher thinks I'm a weirdo as a result. 

2. Hang the paintings in my house
One of them is up! Five or so to go...

3. Finish knitting my scarf
Some progress, it's over halfway now!

4. Finish knitting Stan's jumper
I got too scared to carry on with this when I dug it out and realised I couldn't remember all the pattern alterations I had made. But there are only the sleeves and sewing together to go - what could possible go wrong? - LOTS. LOTS COULD GO WRONG. STILL TOO SCARED.

5. Lose a stone
Now 6lb down :)

6. Run 5k
Yeah this might be the trickiest. I managed 4k about two months ago and it nearly killed me. Latest run was 2k with several stops :( still a run is better than nothing.

7. Learn to make cheesecake

8. Finish my children's story
I started this when I was at University so it's been a long time coming!

9. Party with my sisters

10. Send six letters (or more)
I've sent two!

11. Become Mac-literate
My sister has volunteered on this one, just need to book a session.

12. Learn to use ExCel properly
Still winging it and my toolbars keep screwing around :(

13. Take or at least book a marketing class

14. Mend at least three broken items of clothing

15. Get my wedding ring mended or replaced
Even my grandma is onto me about this so I am booking a date with the husband to go choose one.

16. Plant flowers
DONE! Senetti, lavender and sweet peas.

17. Enter a writing competition

18. Complete and send my modeling portfolio
Had a shoot, still waiting on the photos.

19. Book my MA graduation

20. Get a good magazine subscription like a grown-up
Suggestions welcome!

21. Have another tennis lesson with Stan
DONE! I have improved, apparently. And nobody cried which is a bonus.

22. Watch Stan play a match

23. Finish reading six books
I've got three on the go at once, it's confusing. And people keep lending me more.

24. Re-connect with my great-grandmothers
Both are over ninety and wonderful women, full of love and stories - I really should have made more of an effort in the last few years to have them as part of my life.

25. Make something creative for my home
I have no idea what, at the moment. I can paint, sort-of, and I can sew, sort-of, and I can glue things. Wish me luck... 

I do actually need to get myself into gear if this is going to be realistic, but I know I do better with targets than without them, so as long as I'm not punishing myself over anything that is genuinely not possible, it should be fine.

Do you have any goals set at the moment?

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Real Me

The real me. I wanted to take this statement and start with a very simple question - what does that mean?

Is it a slogan? A confession? An affirmation?

When we speak about 'me' and prefix it with 'real', we recognise a degree of constructed identity in our public and perhaps even private lives. By emphasising that something is real, we acknowledge that it must have an unreal alternative, a false twin. The actuality of the core being throws its shadow into relief, and maybe for a few seconds we realise that the shadow was masquerading as the whole.

It's easier than ever to create the personal reality we want to. We have so many freedoms - our education, our friends, our politics, our clothes, what we read, where we go, how and what we speak. Text, photos, sound, all are editable, malleable tools for self-projection, for image-creation. But whether what we create is indicative of our reality is up for debate. Naturally I pick and choose the parts of my life and myself I'm willing to publicly share - I don't mind people knowing what parties I go to or when I've been on holiday; I'm more cautious of letting them in on how many times I wear my jeans before washing them, or the rants I have when I'm by myself in the car. I'm using what may seem like trivial examples but this is how simply the charade can start - because I know once I begin worrying too much about how people see me, I stop remembering who I actually am. I can even believe my own construction for a while. My created reality is liable to run away with me, and like Peter Pan I'm left slumped on the floor imploring my shadow to come back and behave itself.

Of course the shadow metaphor has its limitations. Humanity is not two-dimensional; it is possible to be multi-faceted, to be complex, to be 'real' yet still changeable and diverse. I believe that the centre of 'real' in this human complexity is honesty with ourselves and others. What we acknowledge to be the truth is the starting point for all our decisions, be they moral, ethical, emotional, practical. When we centre ourselves honestly, we are better placed to relate to others and to our own selves. So why is it that I find this so difficult?

The main measures I used for myself when I was young were academic and moral. I wanted to be top of my class, and I also wanted to be the best-behaved; I craved the pat on the head, the gold star stickers, the sense of moral superiority (and I know some of you are nodding because you remember this about me!). Clearly wanting to succeed at school and wanting to do the right thing are perfectly good objectives, but it was easy for it to become about performance and perception just as much as it was about content. When I fell short of those standards in any way I didn't feel I could acknowledge my weakness; I wanted to maintain an image of a perfect reality that simply wasn't possible. 

The trouble with reality in our society is that it never comes up to our standards. On a global level there are wars we don't understand and poverty we may feel helpless to fight. On a community level there are prejudices and injustices of which we can't fathom the roots. On a personal level, we struggle for a degree of success that is so often judged by external measures which have gained huge influence in the public consciousness, but which can constrict our viewpoint and cause us to feel that failure is our only option. These measures filter into our mindsets so easily from such a young age that it can seem impossible to extricate ourselves, to decide which are valid and which are not.

I think this is why it's so important to make 'the real me' something to be unafraid of. More often than not we can think of it in terms of exposure - we think of our negative attributes, what people are going to judge us for. Well guess what? That's going to happen anyway. How about we decide to go for honesty that flies in the face of a perfection-obsessed culture, and work to some standards we really believe in? How about we give ourselves the chance to breathe and let down the facade? I'm not suggesting we forgo all privacy, which is a very necessary safeguard, but I am suggesting that seeing as we are imperfect we might as well acknowledge it, and realise that it's okay. We have value anyway. We are loved anyway. And when you consider that 'perfect' actually means 'complete', not flawless, it doesn't look so bad.

I readily acknowledge that I've a lot to learn, but what I do know about the real me is that too often I have let shame destroy my confidence and freedom. I would much rather celebrate the value of honesty in a world of unattainable expectations, and set some goals for myself that I can reach for without having to hide behind shadows that don't represent who I truly am. Improvement is always on the cards, but so too should be love and acceptance.

This is Project The Real Me, and I invite you all to join.




Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Oh No She Didn't

I'm a list girl. Need to shop? I write a list, ensuring I don't have to painfully drag six heaving bags to the front door, plastic handles threatening to cut off circulation to half my fingers, only to realise I forgot something vital like toothpaste. Need to remember work assignments? Calendar list. Need to write letters to relatives to thank them for gifts I've temporarily misplaced? Post-it list. Need to plan a surprise party without leaving hints around the house? Phone list. It soothes me to know that anything significant in my life is likely to be recorded somewhere, waiting for me to notice it and take action.

Today I found a list from November 2013 of things I felt would be valuable enterprises in my life. Some of them were pretty basic, others fairly long-term aspirational. The thing that immediately struck me was that out of thirteen things, I've only done two and started working on another two - so that's what, about a 30% success rate? (Don't be mean, maths isn't my strong suit). Here's the list:

Re-learn French.

Latin dance classes.

Paris.

New Zealand.

Write a book.

Finish knitting Stan's jumper.

Join a choir.

Become healthier/fitter.

Write to friends more often.

Move house.

Graduate.

Study something new.

Do a life drawing class.

I didn't write these in order of importance or intended achievement; it was more a case of as they occurred to me, and I'm sure there were - and definitely are - other items worth including. I don't realistically expect some of them to occur for a good few years, if even this decade. The ones I have achieved are graduating (four years late, that's another story) and moving house, while I'm currently working on my fitness and writing to people more frequently, so I can count some successes. But it made me sad to see how many of them should have been at least started by now and in reality hadn't been given more than a second thought since that list was penned. I just haven't got around to it.

There's an adage I could readily apply here: 'procrastination is the thief of time'. It was originally written by Edward Young in his poem 'Night-Thoughts', published in the 1740s, but it was probably Dickens who brought it more into common parlance when he had Mr Micawber reference it in David Copperfield. He added what I always thought was a valuable exhortation:

'Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!' 

It's a great Dickensian image - some grubby slip of a boy in a dirty shirt, dipping his slim hands into pockets and suddenly, we've lost an hour, a day, a month. Collar him indeed - that sly spoiler of our best intentions! Only when I move away from the imagery and really think about it, how do I collar procrastination? It's myself I need to grab by the scruff of the neck and march off to be disciplined - my own failure to manage my time that needs addressing.

My family and close friends will know I'm terrible for biting off more than I can chew. It's not actually that I'm incapable of achieving what I commit to, necessarily, just that I fail to plan properly to achieve it. I never allow enough time for the things that matter, either because I underestimate what is required or because I allow myself to be distracted by less important things, but things that shout louder. 'Pick me, I'm urgent, you need to do this NOW!' they squeal, and sometimes they're right but often, more often than I would like to admit, they're just the boggarts on the tasklist. I'm afraid that if I don't deal with them straight away terrible things will happen - they appeal to my lack of confidence, a victim mentality, the idea that all this is happening to me. The only way I can take control is to face those fears head-on, and stop shifting the blame onto external circumstances.

I'm going to re-write that list this week, and I'm going to find a way to make some of them reality in the coming months. I'm sure there will always be other important or urgent things to deal with, but the fact is that we need to make space for recreation, for relationship, for bettering ourselves, if we are ever going to be of any use in life. Please feel free to challenge me on this if you see me or write to me - I always need the reminder! I'll aim to post progress on the blog periodically as a little victory record, so I can turn my oh no she didn'ts into oh yes she did.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Working It Out

There's no obvious starting point for this one. I don't remember a moment of epiphany one way or the other, only brief glimpses of triumph and panic which have fed into this neurosis I'm forcibly shifting. Maybe it's in part the obsessive nature of my early relationship with it that has made the last few years such a challenge.

I'm talking of course about the gym - that hallowed realm of sweat, anxiety, and the smell of metal that you can't get off your hands. I still have to take a deep breath before walking in sometimes, like I'm heading to an interview and need to take a moment to put my game face on. There's something about exercising publicly that makes me more uncomfortable than most uncomfortable things I can think of (and I have a good imagination). 

Reasons? So many. It's the performance anxiety; people can see what I'm doing, what if I do it wrong? It's the music; why do they give you the option of plugging headphones into all the equipment and choosing a radio station when they're going to pump something loudly over the house speakers? It's the constant presence of the opportunity for self-criticism. And it's the mirrors - what is with the excessive number of mirrors?! I'm not weight-lifting, I don't need to check my form from three different angles. I definitely don't want to spend half an hour observing my own sweaty face bob up and down as I battle through the cross-trainer moderate aerobic program, trying not to accidentally make eye contact with other gym-goers. Maybe they're just as paranoid as I am that everyone else is judging them, but probably not. Inexplicably, in the back of my mind I am always fighting the idea that at any given moment someone might realise that I don't belong, that I don't actually know how to use some of this equipment, that I'm making it up as I go along. At least that's how it feels, even though I have actually been inducted and regularly working out for over two years now.

I remember when I first went to the gym it seemed like a very exciting grown-up thing to do. I was seventeen; my parents were in charge of a boys' boarding house at a school and we lived on site, so automatically had access to the school gym. Not being a natural athlete and with no one to force me into it, there wasn't really a sport or exercise routine I had got into in my teens other than netball. I only took up running at sixteen out of boredom while camping, when I would jog barefoot around the field in the drizzle and enjoy the visceral blood-pumping experience of it, reveling in my solitude. The gym in contrast was a big shiny adventure, full of challenges and companionship - I tended to go with my mum or new friends from one of the girls' boarding houses.

It was a different story once I actually joined the sixth form there. It quickly became apparent that the gym was a battlefield of adolescent posturing and perfection-obsessed youth, as time and again I heard gorgeous specimens bemoan physical faults I couldn't even spot, discussing diet plans while burning off as many calories as possible in a session. I was there to try and get fit (at this stage I was always at the back on my D of E expeditions) and while I had been losing weight, it wasn't my primary objective when it came to the gym. In fact I honestly can't remember ever consciously thinking that I was at the gym to lose weight, but steadily it became more than a healthy habit and more of a necessity. I wanted to go every evening, and if I couldn't there would be this latent frustration bubbling under the surface. The weight kept falling off and I felt powerful, like I had mastered my own body, but even while my gym obsession continued I caught the glances of my peers bouncing off the mirrors. What was wrong with me now, now that I was thin? What were they looking at? I never lost the paranoia.

Getting back into the gym after three years of university and the corresponding three stone weight gain took a lot of courage. It helped that the one I joined was usually empty of other people, and the staff there were the sweetest and didn't make me feel like an idiot, but now I've had to move to a busy gym it's almost like starting all over again. The fact is I might never feel entirely comfortable with it however much I learn to love the skin I'm in, or however many times I tell myself that it doesn't matter what other people think. My continued mantra of 'this is for me and my body's good only' might need to be on my lips every time I step in, every time I take that deep breath to walk through the door. But that's okay, as long as I don't give up.

In conclusion, I'd like to share a very short creative piece I published on my old blog last November when I was tackling running again. It sums up my recent feeling and experience of exercise, and I hope anyone undertaking the same challenge can find the sense of triumph and overcoming that results from facing our demons. 

Just Watch Me

A dull yellow stain was spreading through the cloud over the hill. Birds trilled their matins into damp air and their music hung in the vapour, exhorting the expanse, laudate. Dew seeped through the webbing of her trainers.

Heartbeat in time with her feet, the ground gave way to each footfall like sponge. She was heavy; she felt her weight in each stride yet she didn't slow. She was a force, a power. Her weight was behind her, not against - this wasn't about diminution, this was about strength.

The constant grey was breaking into slivers above and the trees were pulling themselves upright. Skyward was the aim of each living thing pushing out of the earth and she wouldn't look down, wouldn't give her detractors the satisfaction.

They might not understand the complexity of it, the duality. That it is possible both to accept and to improve; to be and to do things considered mutually exclusive.

Her breath came sharp as the hill rose to meet her, demanding a tribute of pain which she gave gladly, and laughing inside she hit the crest and made herself its conqueror. She planted her feet and her flag.

I can do this. Just watch me.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Parlez-vous Franglais?

'Franglais' is my dad's term for that curious mix of French and English we always managed to get by on whenever we headed across the Channel, so seemed appropriate for my next outfit - a French-inspired look in British brands.


Stripes are a trend set to continue into spring and summer and while it may not be the most adventurous example, I think this New Look bardot top is a perfect staple - it's thick jersey fabric with a good degree of stretch, and a nice on-the-hip length. New Look seem to have loads of striped basics at the moment; I'm tempted by the bardot-top minidress but I'd have to try it on to ensure it wasn't too mini for me!


 Cobalt Blue makes a bold pairing whatever you put it with - personally I favour a coral pink or crisp white shirt, but these Red Herring jeans are so versatile and I've worn them easily two or three times a month since I bought them last spring. It doesn't look like they make them anymore, sadly, but Asos have plenty of options and I rather like the look of this Evans blue skinny jean. Jeans are the one thing I never mail order as I'm really fussy about the fit on my hips and the length, especially if they're a bright colour and there's nowhere to hide!


Accessories above are a soft beige vintage 50s handbag that I got from a fair last year, black cat-eyes style sunglasses (which have never really suited me but I will eventually find some that work), and a multi-chain pendant necklace from Accessorize in soft gold.


 If I want to give this outfit a bit more punch I reach for orange which is of course blue's complementary colour, plus I have sunglasses with blue on the frame that tie it all together. I've kept the shoes a neutral colour and low heel; these are a StylistPick pair and they go with probably 50% of my wardrobe!

So this is my Franglais spring outfit - what clothes are you getting out when the frost finally disappears?





Sunday, 1 February 2015

Winter Wardrobe - Weekend & Work

Ever since I decided my body shape and size didn't have to be factors that worked against me when it comes to dressing myself, I've been having a lot more fun with what I wear. Curves are now hugged instead of covered, and skinny jeans are not just for the skinny. This weekend I thought it would be fun to take some photos of a few favourite looks, starting with winter warmth and working my way into spring (seriously wishful thinking considering I was freezing when these pics were taken!). Outfits one and two  - separate ways with jeggings (yes really).

Weekend

These Dorothy Perkins Eden jeggings in Merlot (find them here) are an absolute staple, even though I hated the very thought of jeggings when they first appeared. They're such good thick fabric that apart from the lack of front pockets you wouldn't really notice that you weren't wearing regular trousers. Usually I have to buy tall/long jeans - I'm a touch under 5'9" - but the standard length are right down to the ankle and unlike some skinny jeans they are actually tight enough to fit comfortably under my boots. Speaking of which, these beauties are from JustFab online. I always feel a bit like a pirate when I wear them, they've just got that swashbuckling vibe! 


 The blue jacket is from Everything 5 Pounds, a cheeky bargain site my blogger friend Leah recommended. It can be hit and miss in terms of sizing and quality but this is decent, if not perhaps the warmest for the current weather! I love the double-breasted design and the fact that the belt is long enough for me to tie a nice bow rather than just about getting it round me and reminding myself that I did in fact eat all the pies...


The tan leather gloves and faux fur neck wrap add some nice warm colours, not to mention keeping me snug. They were from tiny independent stores but H&M do similar gloves and the fluffy things are all over eBay. 

Workday

Jeggings again! I style these for work with a smart blouse and jacket:

Navy is always a safe option for a shirt and I used to think it was pretty boring, but I'm coming around to the view that it's quite a classy way to do dark without always opting for black, and it helps that there are some beautiful styles around (see here for Dorothy Perkins, here for H&M, and one I've got on my 'yes please' list from Asos). My jacket is from a Savile Row Company set so it's a beautifully tailored cut, which is a must for me with jackets because my waist-to-hip ratio is unusual and I find a lot of jackets too boxy.

My black suede New Look shoes with crossover detail make a change from a regular court, and if I'm not rocking massive earrings then this pendant necklace tends to come out - £3 in Peacocks, you can't say no to a bargain. 

I love these outfits for their combination of smart-casual chic, and how versatile the pieces are, especially for work when I'm seeing clients four days out of five and can't really have a bad wardrobe day. Having said that, I will be glad when I can finally get my dresses out again!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

I'm told this is a Polish proverb, and as I always am when it comes to language, I was pretty intrigued when I first heard it. Pithy sayings are two a penny on the internet; between WikiQuotes, Instagram and Memebase a body could get away with never having to express an original thought in their lives - which is not to say the re-drafting and sharing of other people's ideas necessarily denotes a lack of imagination. After all, the whole history of language is about appropriation, words and phrases finding their way from culture to culture through migration, education, politics, popular song, myth and legend. The languages which have survived have had to endure a certain degree of osmosis, and perhaps now more than ever our cultural understanding is deepened by this shared linguistic heritage.

But I digress. Quite simply, the circus/monkey idiom is just a clever way to say 'not my problem', which is something I've historically not been much good at. It's a mix of typical British politeness and the genuine desire to solve problems and make/keep people happy, and consequently I find myself in some ridiculous pickles (not an idiom I'm covering this week). You've probably been there: saying yes to a favour for a colleague when you've had a long week and should really take some downtime; volunteering to get a friend out of a mess and winding up doing more of the work than them; casually wandering into a situation you didn't realise was horribly complicated and before you know it, you've had a whole load of the proverbial hit the fan and you don't even know what you're doing involved in the first place.

My problem is that I always feel it's selfish to say no to anything I'm technically capable of, if it will help someone out. I was brought up to be a helpful person and somehow that translated into a chronic inability to say no, which I've had to unlearn or at the very least suppress. It was university that taught me finally that saying yes and being helpful were not always the same thing; there was so much to be involved with, at points I found myself rushing from pillar to post contributing barely anything but stress-led efforts that left me exhausted and didn't actually bring much value to anyone. When you fail to get out of bed for an 8am meeting you are hosting, because you've been up most of the night proofreading someone else's essay at the last minute, it's time to re-think the strategy. Because you might be one of those uber-organised, barely needs to sleep, inspired all the time people, but me? I'm only useful to others if I've sorted myself out first.

 This is now my approach to other people's monkeys: I stop to think through a few points before saying yes. It's fundamentally important to establish boundaries that protect your peace of mind. How many things are going to be worth upsetting it? Am I realistically able to take this on, and why am I getting involved? Is this a genuine need or am I being taken advantage of? I'm not the most pragmatic of people and I hate to let anyone down, but for the sake of my own sanity I have to go through this process, because frankly some things are just not a good use of time and abilities.

I also learned from being the eldest of five siblings that actually, my 'helping' them with some things was an unwanted interference that came off as a lack of trust in their own capability to deal with situations in their lives. As much as I like to be needed, as I've got older I've had to let go of it, because they're all grown-ups now. If my family or friends need me they can come to me, but it's not fair on them or healthy for me to even partly measure my value by how well I can deal with other people's monkeys.


I'm always going to be a pitch-in kind of person, and that doesn't bother me - there are plenty of good reasons to do it. But sometimes it's chaos and I just have to remember: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Hush Your Mouth

I'm not a big tea drinker outside of work, but somehow in the office I almost always say yes, and I almost always get given this mug:



I smile a wry smile and glances are exchanged, and I drink my tea and shut up for a few minutes. It's just the way I am - I'm a verbal processer. My parents have hours of video footage and hundreds of photos from my childhood and there I am, rabbiting away, bossing around my younger siblings or holding forth very seriously with the nearest adult. I always wanted to join in the 'grown up' conversation, so much so that my mum regularly had to shoo me out of the room when the subject turned to less than child-friendly topics, and if she didn't I was bound to loudly ask awkward questions.

To my parents' credit I never thought there was anything wrong with this, although I have several distinct memories of being shut down by less understanding adults and feeling rather small and sorry for myself as a result. I suppose I must have cut an odd figure to the average grown-up, especially if they didn't have children - this bobbed beanpole with a very earnest face, full of loud opinions and overusing my favourite adjective of the week (I once told my grandma that a trip to the cinema had been 'absolutely horizontal!', which is still a go-to anecdote when they want to embarrass me).

I will always be grateful that I was given the opportunity to channel my love of language in creative and engaging ways. My family let me story-tell to my heart's content, and my primary school teacher got me onto a creative writing weekend course aged eight, from which I came back with a whole book of poems and the firm resolution that I would become a journalist. I don't know why I didn't plump for novelist but I was getting into politics at this stage; also aged eight, I had marched across the road from my school to volunteer my opinion to the news crew who were reporting on the fact that local residents had prevented the school from buying the field immediately behind the playground, which meant that we had to be walked half a mile on country lanes to the common for sports. I just remember being propelled by a very strong sense of injustice, and while I'm sure there were plenty of people who understood the situation better than I did, I was the one who wanted to articulate it.

Out of necessity I have of course learned to dial it down - my mum lived the example of a good listener and I watched her, learning to think before speaking and to make what I had to say count. 'Precis!' she would tell me repeatedly as I wriggled my way through long-winded explanations, or, in later years, homework essays. I never liked having to brutally cut out so much of what I thought was valuable description, but as I was told I couldn't always live in 'fairy land' (and I was insulted when it was implied I had no sense of practicality because I was always dreaming) I started to shut my mouth.

Maybe I shut it a bit too much. In fact I know I did. It's such a fine line between effective communication and overshare, between creativity and pigs-may-fly, between what people will accept as whimsy and what makes them think you're just plain odd. I wanted to make people happy, that was all. I wanted them to like me. And slowly but surely that meant keeping my lips firmly pressed together, pretending I hadn't seen what someone had done, pretending I didn't have an opinion that needed airing, pretending it didn't matter when it really, really did. Because their eyes were judgemental and they would look at me as if to say, I dare you. What they were really saying was 'hush your mouth!'.

You might be reading this thinking, 'well clearly she's given in to some kind of paranoia, and no one actually cares what she thinks/says.' I'll freely admit you might be right, and I am probably far more afraid of being considered irrelevant than opinionated or strange. Nobody likes to be ignored. But I'm willing to hazard a guess that some of this rings a bell for you, because you too have experienced that strange sensation of suffocation, second-guessing yourself and the value of what you want to say. We believe in free speech, we've seen people die defending it even this week, and it's not a straightforward situation at all. There are so many questions that need to be asked, but there's still so much fear of asking them. How will we know what's important and what we can impact if we're afraid to open our mouths?

I don't tend to make New Year's resolutions, mainly because I'm making resolutions all year around; I need a kick up the backside more than once every twelve months! It just so happens that a lot of things in my life seem to be coming to a head in January; I'll call it serendipity. I guess what I want to say now is, if anything I've experienced and written here resonates with you, please join me in refusing to shut up. In your job; in your study; in your home; when you have something valuable to contribute; when you have truth to convey; when someone needs kindness; when something needs correcting; when the awkward questions have to be asked; when someone deserves congratulation and encouragement; when someone needs to be called out; when justice is lacking; when to bite your tongue would be to diminish your very essence - speak up. If I have a 2015 mantra it's this: I won't let fear be my master.