Reflections on women, exercise, and body image

I’ve recently started reading Anna Kessel’s Eat, Sweat, Play, and even though I’m not even halfway through it’s already had such an impact on me that I knew I wanted to write about it. The comments and observations she’s made in just a few chapters have been so striking that it’s made me want to take a step back and re-evaluate.

Recently I joined my local gym, and in the past few weeks I’ve been going at least twice a week. This week is the first week where I’ve settled into a routine, doing spinning classes twice during the week after work and going to an intensive workout class on the weekend. My main motivation for joining was guilt and shame; guilt because I knew that I didn’t exercise enough whatsoever, and shame because I don’t like how my body looks.

I’ve felt better after going to the gym, mainly because after I’ve gone to the gym I feel like I’ve reassured my turbulent mind that flips between lusting after sweet things and insulting every ounce of my skin. At the beginning of this week I picked up Anna Kessel’s book, and every time I read another few pages I’ve felt like telling myself off, even as those feelings of guilt and shame still riddle my mind. Eat, Sweat, Play firstly makes the very clear point that women and sport are not often portrayed in media as things that go together. Women playing sport – playing’ being a key word in that sentence – aren’t often shown, and instead women are told about exercising. The difference in a media standpoint is that sport is a competitive environment reserved for men or a fun one reserved for young children, whereas exercise is a realm where women can participate in order to make their bodies better. Whereas sport is fun, exercise is about getting in shape – something that women are told they need to constantly do.

Sport, as Anna Kessel describes it, is meant to be fun. It’s not meant to be a chore or something that you dread doing, it’s something that you choose to do as you enjoy it. Exercise is prescribed, sport is willingly committed. In my experience, they have been one and the same thing – something that I’m not very good at and something that I don’t look good doing. From sweat patches to flabby pieces of my body to stretch marks to short breaths, exercise and sport are words that I have mostly avoided. I always claimed that I liked exercise when I didn’t think of it as exercise – such as rock climbing or kick boxing – as those activities I saw as being more enjoyable. Those activities, I now realise, are sports. Maybe a rather simple realisation, some may think, but this revelation is one that does not come lightly to me.

The war between getting fit and enjoying myself has been something that I’ve felt constantly going on in my head. On the one hand, I can just live my life and have that piece of chocolate, or I can be attractive and slim and fit. Yet, there is an in-between – a stage that I have always hated, and have never actually gotten out of. It’s the stage where you get out of breath after a rather simple exercise, the stage where there are bits of your body that you still can’t stand to look at. It’s the reason why I always hated the thought of going to the gym.

Whilst reading, there have been comments about women’s bodies in sporting environments that have made me want to throw my book across the tube carriage. Women’s bodies are constantly being criticised or sexualised or both. Either your body looks incredible in sport, so you’re sexualised to the point that you feel you cannot participate on an equal level, or your body maybe isn’t up to standards so you’re criticised so much that you’re too embarrassed to participate. Either way, women have been excluded from the world of exercise and sport – a world that there is no reason why they should be.

Embarrassment is an emotion that I feel often when I’m at the gym, and usually I push it so far back to the edge of my sub conscience that I just pretend it isn’t there. When I’m in the changing rooms, I take such pains and care to make sure that I show the least amount of skin as possible. In the gym itself, I feel like everyone is watching me and judging me for how out of breath I get or how unattractive I am when I exercise. After working out I try to cover any sweat patches I have, feeling them like brands on my skin that tell the world that I’m disgusting, ugly, unworthy, repulsive.

But why? Why is my brain programmed to think that I need to keep my body hidden in a changing room? Why does my mind immediately jump to the conclusion that people are watching and judging me? Why do I instantly think that evidence of sweat will make anyone think anything other than ‘she must have worked out’?

Self-consciousness plays a part, yes, but it’s obvious that I’m not the only one that goes through these awful cycles of thought. Clearly women all over the world have the same feelings, and they’re powerful and damaging enough that they exclude so many women from doing something as simple as going for a run.

I’ve set myself a lot of goals recently, and going to the gym regularly is one of them. Now, however, it’s a combined goal – I want to go to the gym regularly and see it as a fun thing I’m doing, and not a chore or prescription. I want to go to the gym not because I think i’m fat and ugly and deserve a punishment, but because I want to be fit and healthy, and this is one way that I can achieve that.

Eat, Sweat, Play is such an important book, and it’s one that I wish I could give to my teenage self so I could come to these conclusions – or, at least make progress on changing my mindset – so much sooner. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the author is going to show me about sport and exercise, and I’m also looking forward to getting up and going to work out – not because I hate my body, but because I love it.

So ends my late night Saturday rambles.

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My Relationship with Makeup

For as long as I can remember, I have had a weird relationship with makeup. This is a post that I’ve written many times, and a subject that I talk on and off about, but I wanted to revisit it now. As someone who now wears light makeup everyday to work and has now come to view my face as looking messy and unattractive without it, I needed to revisit it – more for myself, rather than anyone else. The mindset that is starting to develop around my use of makeup today worries me, because after years of rarely using makeup as I a) couldn’t be bothered to spend so much time and money on it and b) not thinking it necessary, I’m now struggling to figure out how I feel about it all.

When I was a teenager, I had incredibly bad acne which in turn made me extremely self-conscious. Part of me thinks that a lot of my problems might have been solved if someone had shown me how to use makeup to cover up all the flaws and insecurities that branded my face. If I had known that it would only take a few dabs of concealer to cover up the worst of it, I like to think that I would have been far more confident in my day-to-day life.

The other part of me is grateful that I didn’t wear makeup, as I’m certain the reason my skin is good most days now is because I didn’t clog up my pores with foundation every day during puberty. I’m very much of the belief that makeup is yet another commodity sold by the media to women in a society where still women are made to feel that their best asset is their beauty. Businesses manipulate women into buying makeup by playing off those insecurities that are practically bred into every little girl to think that to be beautiful is what is most important.

I suppose that’s one reason that has been in the background of my thoughts toward makeup. Not wearing makeup was as much as a declaration as wearing makeup was, and by deciding for myself that I wasn’t going to wear any made me feel stronger and confident in a way that makeup didn’t. Makeup was a crutch, in my mind, and a crutch that society was telling me that I needed.

But just because I had made my mind up about this by no means meant that others had the same approach. Whilst in my head I was telling myself that makeup was a means of expression and should be optional, not mandatory, others may well have been looking at me thinking that I didn’t look polished or pretty. Or, better yet, thinking that I could be pretty if only I put some effort into it. And how damaging is that? Beauty is a standard set, one that we can never truly obtain – once you use makeup, you’re encouraged to use more and more until you leave the house wearing a different layer of skin.

Family members would tell me before interviews, all meaning well, that I should definitely wear some makeup to look more ‘professional’. They were essentially telling me that if I didn’t wear makeup, I would look like a slob. As if makeup was no longer a choice, but an expectation that I was meant to fulfil in order to get a job. And once I got the job? I felt so much pressure to keep up a good appearance that I started wearing makeup everyday, which brings me to now. Whilst I don’t wear a lot of makeup, everyday I make time to put on concealer and powder, to wear some mascara and blush to make myself look better. Whereas in my last job I rarely used makeup, not at all concerned about not wearing it, I now look at my skin and think that it doesn’t look nice without it.

This was the mindset and outlook that I was scared shitless of obtaining, like it was some sort of plague sweeping across the nation which I had somehow managed to avoid. Is it not outdated, believing that women have to wear makeup in formal situations? If you saw a man and a woman with pimples on their chins, would you only think that the woman looked bad as she wasn’t even trying to cover them in makeup? Would she look sloppy, whereas he maintained a professional appearance? Would a man be judged for having bags under his eyes?

I stand by my belief that makeup should be something for the individual, something you choose to wear to express yourself, to show off your creativity and flair. It shouldn’t be a requirement, and nobody should make you feel like it is. I shouldn’t be viewed as seeming sickly, lazy, or untidy simply because I didn’t want to spend time that morning caking my face in products for other people’s benefit.

So now I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Stop wearing makeup and feel insecure again, or continue wearing it saying that I personally prefer having it? It’s a statement either way, and I’m so terrified of making the wrong one. After years of feeling like not wearing makeup was part of my identity, am I now betraying my past self by caving to its appeal? Am I caving to the societal pressure and belief that makeup will make me look far better? That my own skin is just not enough?

It’s a maze I have been unable to navigate thus far. My feelings and emotions are conflicted, feeling attacked when people tell me I should wear makeup, as if they are saying I’m ugly instead. As if they’re saying that nobody would want me, be it to hire me in a job or to date me romantically, if I didn’t wear makeup. It’s a conversation and discussion that seems to have been going on for so long, that there can’t possibly be any sort of end in sight. It’s a conversation I’m sure I’ll be participating in for many more years, one where I wish I knew what the conclusion will be.

Another Year Bites the Dust

It seems crazy, to be back here again – at the start of January, having welcomed the start of a new year at the beginning of the week. I’ve never really liked the atmosphere around January, something I discussed this time last year, with how we try so hard to cleanse ourselves of the year before that it makes us almost miserable. The constant dieting, the determined weeks of sticking to resolutions with the knowledge that it won’t last. I always felt a sense of defeat whenever I tried to set resolutions in the past, because I knew they wouldn’t come to fruition. I’ve thought of saying I’ll exercise more, that I’ll be healthier, that I won’t eat as much sugar, and every year I last a good month before binging in whatever way I had tried to restrict myself.

But what if I don’t want to cleanse myself of the year before? What if I don’t want a new start, and am happy that I’m in the middle of my journey? I don’t want to wash my hands of 2017, or the year before that, and the year before that, and so on. Each of those years has brought me to where I am now, and I can say with hand on heart that I couldn’t be happier with where I currently am.

Of course, it hasn’t always been like that, and I’m so incredibly lucky to be where I am now. Still, despite all of this talk of hating resolutions, I still like to set goals and markers – albeit, very vague ones that are more like a continuing goal that doesn’t really have an end goal.

Maybe I should stop this rambling, and get down to the nitty gritty of it.

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Last year I set myself three goals. They were to prioritise self care, to speak up and not sit quiet, and to ‘get out there’. The first was meant to be my take on the January Cleanse, but a more long-term effort. Like with all of these resolutions, I don’t have a plain ‘I succeeded’ or ‘I failed’ answer. I definitely improved on my self-care, that’s for certain, but there’s still a long way to go. I think I want to work even more on it, to set aside dedicated times of self-care instead of doing bits every now and then. I think it would be good to have one evening set aside to just pamper and relax, be that running a bath and luxuriating in bubbles or just climbing into bed and reading with a cup of tea and biscuits.

This leads to my first goal/resolution/whatever you want to call it, which is to be more self aware of my mental state. I’m so incredibly lucky and privileged not to suffer from a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that I can mistreat my mental health like one would mistreat a body. I need to be more aware of when I’m in a low moment and feeling a lot of anxiety, and make an effort to combat that. Instead of feeling so low and depressed that it’s like I’m sinking, I need to get up and do something to help myself. The latter half of 2017 was filled with rejections for me, from jobs to love to plans that I had been looking forward to, and each rejection was like another blow to knock me down. I struggled a lot to stay positive and to pick myself up each time, but looking back I know that there were things I should have done. Instead of wallowing and wasting days to sadness, I should have tried some of that self care stuff I yammered on about. I should have gone out, tried to walk and breathe in fresh air, even go shopping for books or clothes or lush products (my current obsession). So that’s my first goal for this year: to look after my mental health.

For the second goal of to not sit quiet and speak up, I’m really not sure how to answer how I did. I definitely opened up more to my close friends about I felt, but I suppose a more accurate goal would be not to be so concerned with the thoughts of others. To just be, and not overthink how others see me – to not try to change myself to please someone else. I definitely learned how important that was in 2017; that it didn’t matter what other people thought, and really it’s down to me to decide how to act and live. Whether it’s on what other people think you should do with your career, or what they think about the people you surround yourself with – the important thing is to make sure that you’re happy, because the thoughts of strangers and of those you don’t care about really don’t matter.  So my second long goal of 2018 is to continue that – to work on what makes me happy.

The third goal was to ‘get out there’. I interpreted that vague cliche as pursuing my career-centred goals, from writing more to getting ahead in publishing. Well, I can say that this was successful. In terms of writing, I once more participated in NaNoWriMo and won, and in terms of publishing I not only made more contacts which led to some work experience in a large publishing house, but I also got a job in a large publishing house – and not just any job, but my dream job in my dream department. Yes, I’ve been successful, and the end of 2017 was like a dream come true for me.

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So my third goal for 2018 is less of a goal, and more of a mantra – and that is to keep going. Keep striving forwards, keep trying my best to be the best I can be, and don’t let that determination to move forwards settle. I want to maintain that drive and motivation to just keep going.

So that’s me for 2018. I don’t know exactly where I’ll be this time next year, but I definitely have some ideas and dreams of where I’d like to be next year. So, whether you’re the kind of person who loves those pesky resolutions or whether you’re more like me and prefer more open-ended goals (the vaguer the better), I wish you all the luck for 2018.

Let’s smash it.

December Blues

It’s always this time of the year when I, and I’m sure most of the population, get reflective. The strand days of limbo in between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, where we cling onto the end of one year whilst anticipating the start of a new one. For me, 2017 has been pretty crazy, with ups and downs alike – but, dare I say it, maybe a few more ups. I’ve had my final year of university, I graduated, I turned 21, successfully got through university whilst having a part-time job on the side, and at the end of the year I started a new job, which just happened to be my dream job.

I set myself a lot of goals for 2017, from reading and writing to university and other life achievements. In January I tried to set myself more personal goals; goals that were more internally focussed, concentrating on mental wellbeing. More specifically, how I think of and how I view myself, which ties in with my ‘On Being Happy’ series. With starting a new job, and especially with the festive season of parties and social atmospheres, it is something that is at the forefront of my mind.

I’ve spoken in the past about my ‘eternal anxiety of being liked’, and I think that’s something that I’m still dealing with every day. Of course, it wasn’t going to disappear after I blogged about it, and a part of me tries to keep things fresh here and not rehash old topics, but it’s an important one for me – which of course means that I feel like I should talk about it more. I constantly worry about whether people like me, often changing parts of my outward personality to fit the scenario and appeal to that audience. There’s always been a voice in my head that tells me that at my core I’m not likeable, which as a statement for anyone isn’t true at all, but nevertheless it’s a voice that stays within me. It’s like I’m trying to convince people that they can like me, and I worry that they will then discover they don’t actually like me. It so means that with a large portion of my friends I’m never able to be completely vulnerable, probably due to the fear that if I showed every part of me, they would turn me away.

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Again, I’m well aware that they would never, but it’s still something that plagues my mind. And this fear always surges up at this time of the year. Instead of a festive, jolly post, I thought it important to voice the fears and anxieties that plague my mind, in the hope that if anyone else has the same concerns, it might be of some comfort.

And so as we approach 2018, I once more try to make that goal to improve how my mind works – if such a thing can be achieved. It’s far easier to turn to the negative than the positive, and whilst it isn’t something that will be achieved in a day, week, month or even year, it’s something that I want to continue to work on.

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NanoWriMo ‘Wrap Up’

So. I won.

Yes, you heard me, I actually ‘won’ NaNoWriMo and managed to write 50,000 words in a single month. For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, please check out my previous posts including this one here.

I first participated in NaNo two years ago, in which I reached 30k words (something I was very proud about). I started off really strong and kept to the word count every day, but it tapered off halfway through the month. After stressing out last year with dissertation and various essays, I decided to skip out doing NaNo and instead just tried to write a little more in that month. Ever since I’ve been itching to do it again, needing that extra drive and excuse to write write write. So, this year, I started off NaNo in high spirits with twitching fingers reading to write like I was running out of time (which I was) Hamilton style.

Like two years ago, I started out very strong and stuck to my word count, even going above it on some days. Feeling pretty smug about it, I was rather chuffed with how it was all working out. Instead of reading on the tube, I’d be typing away on my phone. On my breaks at work, I’d jot down some ideas, and my time at home was spent writing away. It’s very freeing writing for NaNo, knowing that it doesn’t matter whether it’s perfect or not, you just write as much as you can every single day. I know the vast majority of what I wrote will need serious editing, but I equally know that there are a few gems there. It helped me work out the plot of a story I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a year, and it’s the first time I’ve found that I didn’t need to forcibly stretch my plot to reach 50k. Instead, I feel like I’m only two thirds of the way through the book, and think it could easily reach 70,000 or even 80,000 words if I put my mind to it.

I talk a little about the benefits of NaNo over on my reading blog (which you can read here), mainly about how I’d been in such a reading slump and the break from reading meant that I felt revitalised when I could finally go back to it. NaNo showed me that it’s not about finding time to do something you love, but making time – something which I now know I can do, and really there are no excuses.

About mid-November, I was thrown way off track with NaNo due to some exciting things going on in my work life, which has resulted in me getting a new job! All very exciting, but it meant that on my day off I wrote something crazy like 5000 words just to get back on track.

Towards the end of November, I managed to keep up and even keep ahead at times, until finally on the last day I reached that elusive 50k, and couldn’t have felt prouder of myself. It was a great goal that I didn’t for a second think I’d reach, which only made the win even sweeter.

So even though I know what I wrote is mostly tripe, and may never see the light of day outside of my computer, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

NaNoWriMo Midway Update

Up until a few days ago, I have been right on track with writing for NaNo (National Novel Writing Month, see here for more details). Unfortunately the last few days have been unbelievably hectic, so whilst I have been writing everyday I have fallen a bit behind with the goal of hitting 1167 words every day. Still, I think I’ve been doing pretty damn well (especially compared to the first time I took on the challenge a couple of years ago), and currently my word count is at 24,000 words. To be ‘on track’ I would have to be at 28,333 words, something which I don’t think will happen today.

NaNo is such an interesting challenge to be taking part in, because part of me is itching to go back over everything – checking names, small information, edit sentences, craft a few beautiful similes I’ve thought of – but that’s not in the spirit of NaNo. It’s difficult to remind yourself that this isn’t about being perfect, because at least for me I want to just go over it again and again to fix things I think read badly or don’t work. Then I remind myself that you’re not meant to stress over these things, and really it’s far better to save your stress for your word count.

It’s amazing really, how much you can do when you change your priorities, as usually in my spare time I’m dedicated fully to reading. As I’m participating in NaNo this month, my reading for this month has been so terrible I can’t even think about it without feeling guilty and slightly sad. Every spare moment has been filled with writing, and whereas I spent a lot of my time on the tube or waiting around or on my lunch breaks reading, now I’ve had my phone out typing away. Whilst in a normal scenario I’d rather read on the tube and save writing for sitting at home with my computer and a cup of tea, it’s been fun to try it out this month.

And that’s my mid-way update for NaNo 2017. A little bit behind, but still enjoying it and having fun with the story.

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Is this the real life?

There are sometimes moments where I think to myself ‘this only ever happens in movies’. Of course there are great moments in life – incredible holidays, brilliant friendships, fun romances – but the big moments? No. They’re few and far between, but they do come around every now and then – and when they do, they always throw me off-guard and leave me questioning whether or not this is the real life (or if it’s just fantasy).

Queen really knew what they were talking about.

In my life, I can think of four big moments where I’ve thought ‘is this really happening’, where it seems like my perspective shifts to above and I’m looking down at myself, blinking as if I’m staring at what’s occurring on a television screen rather than experiencing it myself. One of these moments happened today.

Of each of my four mad experiences, two are about my dog (go figure) – the first of which, if we’re going chronologically, is when I first got Pete, our older dog (who now has a companion in the rescue dog Minnie). My parents had kept Pete as a secret, and when we drove to pick him up I was under the assumption that we were picking up a leather jacket, which was to be my big Christmas present. Then we pulled up outside a kennels, I was led in and a puppy was dumped into my arms. I was in shock for a good few days after that.

The second moment, again with Pete, was when I was recovering from having my gallbladder removed at home. My Mum was upstairs and I downstairs resting on the sofa, when I needed to go to the bathroom. I managed to make my way there, but feeling woozy and disorientated I collapsed to the floor and cried out. Luckily my Dad was downstairs, so he heard me calling out after a few minutes. Yet Pete went upstairs and stood in the doorway to my parent’s room, and after refusing to come to my Mum’s beckoning, she went toward him to investigate. He headed straight downstairs, to which she followed to find me – just as my Dad had got me off the ground. Whilst you could easily argue that Pete had no idea what was going on, it definitely felt like a movie moment with him literally fetching my Mum when I needed her.

The next moment, which was to be expected, was when I graduated. The surreal 8 seconds I spent walking across the stage and shaking the hand of the Dean of the university felt stretched out, and I remember every moment of it very clearly.

Which brings us to today. I had sat down to write a blog post (this one, actually) about my Grandma. She passed away July last year, and in a few days time we are spreading her ashes. I had wanted to write about her, as she had been on my mind a lot recently, about her positivity and spirit and overall personality, how close we had been, when I remembered something I’d written on my old computer – one I hadn’t removed from its case since before she passed away. I went to get it, only to hear something clink, and turning the case upside down the ring she gave me fell out.

You see, she’d left me one of her rings after she died, which I of course cherished and adored. I had never wanted to speak about it online because I didn’t want certain members of my family to discover and be upset or disappointed or angry, but in February of this year it went missing. I had left the flat in the cold weather, but as I went to answer my phone I took off my glove. I had been certain the ring had been on my finger when I left, but after the phone call I realised it was gone. Rushing back, I ran up and down the pavement searching to no avail. My best friend came to look with me and we teared apart my room, still to no luck – this was a ring I had worn every single day since my Grandma had died, and the only time I took it off was to shower.

Yet if I had taken it off I would have left it on my desk – but between then and now, it had somehow made it’s way into the closed drawer of my wardrobe and into the sealed laptop case.

Many people will scoff with disbelief, but for me today it felt like an incredible movie moment – so much so that I called my Mum and cried on the phone whilst laughing. It felt like my Grandma was there, wanting me to have her ring for when we spread her ashes in a few days time. It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable, but that’s what happened.

I’m sure we could try and think of some kind of explanation, but for me it felt like my Grandma had been watching over me, and after a particularly awful week, this was something I needed desperately. So whether it’s something as universal as graduating, as classically cute as a getting a puppy, as touching as a dog looking after you, or as unbelievable as discovering a ring you’d thought you lost on the streets of Lambeth – these moments happen. I treasure each of them and will do for the rest of my life, and I can only hope that there are more to come.