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.

We Need to Talk. Period.

It’s safe to say that women are far better off today than 50 years ago, but there’s nothing that reminds me more of how much further there is to go than the stigma around the time of the month when Satan – I mean, ‘mother nature’ – comes to visit. It’s amazing how many people are ‘grossed out’ and pull a face whenever someone mentions anything to do with periods. A tampon falls out of your bag and suddenly everyone is looking at it in horror. I mean I could understand if it was a used one, but when has anyone ever had a used tampon in their bag? That’s not what happens.

I went to an all-girls secondary school, so luckily was in an environment during the dreaded teen years where everyone was pretty accepting about periods. The times girls used to bring it up to male teachers to see what would happen occurred fairly often, and nine times out of ten the male teacher would pale, panic, and send the girl to matron. The only negative experience I’ve had about periods in school was when one teacher literally yelled at the class about how girls just needed to ‘man up’ (great use of language there) and stop asking to leave the class because you felt ill from your period, which was then repeated in an assembly. This was only made up by the fact that another teacher completely disagreed, explaining that when she had her period as a teenager she would often have to call in sick. It seems to me that not many people understand that, like bodies, everyone’s period is different. Some girls have light periods, some girls get heavy periods, and some girls have different kinds every cycle. Some throw up, some get cramps, some get excruciating headaches, and some barely notice their period come and go.

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So why don’t people know these sort of things? Well, despite the fact that are society is improving, the ‘period’ is still a taboo topic – and when you really think about it, it’s difficult to understand why. Those who have periods, whether they identify as women or not, are made to feel ashamed for bleeding each month like it’s disgusting, as if we can just choose not to. Is it just not common knowledge that periods are 100% natural, aren’t unhygienic, and literally happen to everyone who has a vagina? Hell, it’s still front page news when someone posts a photo of themselves with blood spotting through their jeans. There are protests and campaigns with women free bleeding that make people lose their minds. I didn’t know that everyone experiences something different when they have periods until my late teens, simply because we just don’t talk about it. It’s like we have to act like having our period is some dirty little secret, despite the fact that everyone knows about it anyway.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently due to the campaigning about the moon cup, known in some places as the diva cup depending on which brand you use. Typically there are two main ways to handle your period, which are using tampons or sanitary towels or both. Both of these aren’t good for the environment with a lot of packaging, but it’s all that was on offer. There are some other options like some birth control that stops your period all together, but who knows the long term effects that has on someone’s body – you’re literally using drugs to stop a natural cycle the body goes through.

Despite this, there have been some new products being introduced. The two that I’m aware of are the THINX underwear, which are underwear that you can wear on your period that you can just stick in the wash after wearing them for a few hours, holding as much as two tampon’s worth of blood. Reusable, completely hygienic, and far less hassle. The second is the moon cup, something that’s recently taken a real spike on social media and has won plenty of awards. Essentially it’s a cup that sits slightly lower down than a tampon does and it collects the blood. Again, it’s reusable as you can easily clean it out, and overall better for the environment. I decided to give one a try and, when I had some positive results, I talked to a few friends and family members about it. I was mildly surprised to find that some just didn’t want to know about it, the very mention of the word ‘period’ striking such horror in their hearts that they couldn’t bear to go on. The mere idea of blood leaving someone’s vagina just as bad and disgusting as discussing explosive diarrhoea. And it’s simply mad.

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Why is society still enforcing this stigma around periods? Why are we still teaching young kids that this is something you don’t discuss or talk about, that it should be kept ‘hush hush’ because people just don’t want to hear about it? Why must those who have periods have to suffer because of everyone else’s unwarranted distaste? Again, a period is 100% natural, and trust me – it is far worse for the person who actually has to have the period. When I was a young teen I became physically sick each month, and still get excruciating cramps that I have to pretend aren’t happening and just breathe through, feeling sick for a good couple of days. Why should I have to keep quiet about it? Why shouldn’t I be talking about it? Why can’t I discuss something natural about my body without worrying that someone else will be uncomfortable?

This is why we need campaigns like the moon cup and THINX. We need to normalise periods and stop tolerating those who punish us when it’s mentioned. I was going to talk about these campaigns in an application for a job answering a question about important campaigns, but was advised not to because it might put off any men looking over the application. This is not what we should have to be concerned about, and it is not a precaution I should have to take just to protect someone’s sensitive ears from talking about what so many of us have to experience. We should be making a move to stop this kind of behaviour. We need to march up to them, sit them down and say:

“We need to talk. Period”.