No drunkscuses then I know – it’s okay

Copyright Jeff Krouwel 2014I mentioned back in Summer that as the year has gone on I’ve had to face up to the fact that I’ve used alcohol as a way to drown out the anxious voices. That alcohol both gave me the courage to do things that I wanted to do (dance on tables, throw myself at that cute person I kind of fancy, wear that outfit) and also gave me an ‘out’ if those things didn’t come off well (Oh, how embarrassing? I was SO DRUNK when we got kicked out for dancing on tables; oh HOW embarrassing, did I come on to you? I don’t remember I was SO DRUNK; oh HOW EMBARRASSING can you believe I wore that? I was so drunk when I got dressed…).

But I’ve realised that actually most of the things I’ve done while drunk are things I am perfectly capable of doing sober. I’ve started to wonder whether it’s less that alcohol genuinely lowers our inhibitions, and more that culturally ‘being drunk’ becomes this wonderful catch-all get out of jail free card that can magically wipe away all transgressions. It wasn’t so much that alcohol *made* me do these things, but that if these things went wrong no one would judge me for it because DRUNK. I am not saying that every decision I’ve ever made while drunk was a good one that I would have made sober. Of course not. I have made some fucking dreadful decisions while drunk that I’ve bitterly regretted in the morning – but that’s more to do with alcohol affecting your decision making skills, not your inhibitions.

If we’re really, truly, totally honest with ourselves – how much of That Thing you did was because you were drunk? And how much of That Thing you did was something you wanted to do anyway, but you got drunk so you could do it without really having to deal with the repercussions if That Thing didn’t work out? If you can’t make drunkscuses any more, if That Thing is just A Thing you did – how would that feel?

There’s a lot of research out there that suggests this idea that alcohol lowers our inhibitions isn’t really true, and that’s it’s almost entirely culturally biased. There are many studies which suggest that alcohol itself doesn’t lower our inhibitions.  Most experiments suggest that people act drunk when they *THINK* they have been given alcoholic drinks, even when they haven’t. And ‘drunk behaviour’ is a cultural construction.  Anthropologist Kate Fox believes that “The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.

This idea that you can feel drunk while not actually being drunk at all certainly rings true for me. I have found myself this year at various events, stone cold sober, on nothing stronger than 3 soda water with fresh lime and maybe the occasional cheeky soya latte, feeling inexplicably high and full of delight and glee, engaging in such activities as dancing on the bar, having dance offs and twerk offs, interpretive dancing to Bloodhound Gang’s “Bad Touch”, flirting outrageously with people I’ve always hidden my partiality to, wearing all sorts of ridiculous outfits and generally having fun like nobody’s watching. Once you let go of the idea that you need alcohol to do these things, and that you just have to own your own behaviour as being your own, you suddenly realise that actually nothing is stopping you from having fun. There’s been nights out where I’ve actually felt no different than when I have while drunk – the same sort of delirious emotional high. The only difference is my mental decision making equipment is intact and I don’t feel like crap the next day and I have more money left in the bank at the end of the month. Or I can treat myself to a taxi home with the money I haven’t spend on buying everyone else jaegerbombs so I feel less of a shambles about drinking more and more.

It has taken me the better part of the last 11 months of not drinking to tap into this feeling, but now that I have got the hang of it I kind of don’t want to let it go. When people ask me if I am looking forward to having a drink next year, I am actually no longer sure. I’ve achieved what I set out to do, and then some. I have proved to myself I can not only Not Drink, I can also actively enjoy it. I can live a perfectly full and happy life – if not an even fuller one – without alcohol being a significant part of it. Part of me isn’t quite prepared to let that go. As the year draws to a close I am starting to think about what my new relationship with alcohol will be like. I am not sure I want one.

And it’s dawned on me. I like not drinking. I like being able to tap into an emotional high with friends without needing alcohol – by just being happy. I like how gloriously long weekends feel when 50% of them aren’t spent being hungover. And I actually like not being able to make drunkscuses. I like to have to stand on my own two feet and face up to a decision I’ve made, a dance I’ve twerked, a crush I’ve been rebuffed by, and just deal with those feelings head on. I’ve made choices, I’ve dealt with the repercussions. I’ve not shrugged, made a drunkscuse, and made the same bad decisions again a week later.

I’d already decided what my first drink would be. Back in summer, when I started swimming, I made a pact with a group of friends to do the new year’s day swim at the ponds. Apparently they were 3 degrees last year. I’ve kept up the swimming, in all weathers, and so far have managed to swim at a rather brisk 8 degrees. Mulled Wine will be supplied for the new year’s day swimmers – and to me I couldn’t think of a better or more fitting way to celebrate all I’ve learned and achieved in 2014 than for my first drink of 2015 to be that cup of mulled wine. It would represent so much more than the first alcoholic drink in 12 months. And yet, the closer I get to that day, the less important that mulled wine seems.

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Keeping up breaking it down

A few years ago I didn’t own a television. I didn’t miss it. I have little interest in reality TV shows other than Strictly Come Dancing (Because SEQUINS) and have little interest in celebrity culture. Then I moved in with a friend who owned a big TV and every channel appeared to be 24 hour coverage of something called the ‘Kardashians’. I didn’t know who they were, and the first time I heard someone at work talk about them I ended up involved in a rather awkward cross-purposed conversation which embarrassed all participants – particularly me  – where I thought we were talking about Star Trek.

I had to google to find out who they were. And that search wasn’t very helpful. As best as I could work out they were famous because the Dad defended OJ Simpson then one of the daughters had a sex tape leaked onto the internet, and also they have bigwhy is bottoms. I was perplexed as to how this can make a family so meteorically famous, rich and successful, and I remain perplexed to this day. Granted, I am not the demographic. I have no interest in the faux-reality show format and cannot fathom why anyone finds them remotely interesting.

Despite this, when this weeks Big Internet Fuss (TM) broke, I looked. Of course I looked. Everyone looked. That was the point, I am sure. Whether or not the release of the photos actually #broketheinternet I don’t know – it seems to be running at around the same speed as usual and there’s just as many cats as there were before. But it certainly did get everyone talking. And even someone as resolutely uninterested in celebrity culture and families famous for being famous as I am looked.

And as I looked, I felt uncomfortable. Something about the photos bothered me, and I couldn’t work out what it was. The more I thought about it, the more tricky I found it to identify  and explain what exactly bothered me about the photos. Yes, of course, the photos are hugely problematic when it comes to the racial aspect – this has been discussed elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it,  merely direct you to this excellent article. But this wasn’t the only thing on my mind.

You all know I am a big old passionate feminist. I like to think of myself as pretty sex positive (as in, sex is awesome, and women can  and should be subjective sexual beings with their own sexual agency and sexual freedom) and body positive (as in I have a body, you have a body, our bodies are our vehicles through life and we can and should be able to feel that our bodies are beautiful and pleasurable – no matter what shape you happen to be). So, as a sex-positive and body positive feminist type, it was really really hard to discuss these pictures. And the more I thought about it, and the more I tried to put it into words, the more in a muddle I got.

I guess the first thing I noticed when I looked at the pictures, I’ll get this out of the way early on, is the oilyness. The sticky  sheen of her apparently lubed skin. It brought to mind a Krispy Kreme original glazed. But that wasn’t what was bothering me. Some people like doughnuts. If that’s your bag baby, who I am I to say otherwise.

I wasn’t bothered  by her nudity. I found her cheeky FUCK YEAH expression rather compelling. Her face expresses a confidence, a cheekiness, a YEAH-this-is-my-body-what-you-gonna-say-about-it kind of battle cry that I actually rather liked. No passive shy wallflower here, she’s in control of her sexuality. That, I liked.

It wasn’t her sheer nakedness that bothered me. I am all for it, if a woman feels confident in her being and in her sexuality if she wants to take her kit off and be naked. It’s her body, her choice.  I was bothered by much of the comment over these pictures shaming her – that she shouldn’t be showing it off, that she was a ‘slut’, that she should know better “as a mother”. As if the minute you become a mother you forfeit all right to be sexy or sexual.

And then there was her much discussed bottom. It was indeed large. Really large. Anatomically unlikely, if you will. That’s not to say that no woman ever had this figure – no T no shade no body shaming here – I have a large bottom myself, comparatively to the rest of me. But something about the proportions of the photo looked mighty strange to my eye. Curious, I googled for other pictures of Kim Kardashian and noted that  the pictures seem to have been altered to make her waist to hip to ass ratio seem significantly greater. Her ‘real’ waist is larger, her ‘real’ bottom is smaller. And thereby lies one of the key problems I have with these pictures.

Be a confident woman. Be proud of your sexy body, your huge bottom, your curves. But be proud of WHAT YOU HAVE, not what a skilled photo editor can make you look like. That’s  not really saying “HEY there, big bum girls. We’re hot. Big asses are hot right?”. It’s saying “Big assess are sexy BUT ONLY IF THE REST OF YOU CONFORMS TO THE BEAUTY STEREOTYPE.” That’s not really body positivity, is it? And this isn’t just your mate posting an altered filtered ‘skinny app’ selfie on Facebook while saying how much she loves her body. This is a woman famous for having a luscious ass and being proud of that luscious ass having that thing she’s most famous for being clearly edited, well, literally out of all proportion.

The second thing that bothered me was  less about the photographs themselves, but how these photos feed back in to a society that reinforces the harmful message at every step to young women and girls growing up that the single most important thing about them, their greatest power, their greatest asset and the only thing that matters is how they look. Kim Kardashian’s fame, and that of her family, is built solely on the foundations of their relationship to men (a father, a husband) and how they look. That’s it. Nothing more. These digitally edited pictures reflect an image to which women are meant to aspire – a body, a lifestyle, which is unattainable by 99.9% percent of the women of the world.  They reflect a society with a devotion to how women look to the exclusion of almost everything else which is bordering on the obsessive.

In 2011 in her book ‘Bossypants‘ Tina Fey wrote:

I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now.

Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.

Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful.

Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

Three years on even Kim Kardashian is unable to adhere to these beauty standards. And if she can’t, the rest of us almost certainly can’t. The goal posts of what women’s bodies should be are ever shifting, with the pressure mounting on women to Be Everything and Look Perfect while you’re doing it, with the constant pounding message that your looks matter before anything else, that what you wear matters before everything else. Even a woman with a much celebrated figure can’t just be naked without having her figure digitally morphed into something else.

Of course, none of this is Kardashian’s fault. She didn’t create this culture. But she typifies it. In stripping off and being altered, shamed, criticised, ridiculed, admired, reviled and discussed ad infinitum she may not have ‘broken the internet’ but she has inadvertently held up a  mirror to a toxic broken culture.

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Sew the end is near

As December draws close I’ve become more and more proud of what I have achieved this year.  I swim. I ‘ve lost weight and gained body confidence I never knew I could have. I’ve been writing regularly and one of my blogs reached an audience of over 2000. I’ve become single, explored my life as a single women in her late 30s, coped and survived and soberly comedy interpretive danced my way though the year. It’s actually jaw dropping to me how much in my life has changed – so much more than simply the three big resolutions: Learn BSL, give up alcohol, learn to sew.

It’s been 10 months now since this adventure started and I’ve faced most of the biggest challenges. Wedding season is over, birthday has been and gone and now my favourite ‘holiday’ of all – Halloween – has passed by totally alcohol free. Although it ended up not even being a challenge in the end, due to becoming striken with a lurgy which struck at pretty much dead on 2.30pm on the afternoon of Halloween itself. It  made itself known by a dry irritating tickle at the back of my throat, and by midnight it had developed into a full blown razor wire down the throat hacking cough lost voice monster of a lurgy. I was unable to speak at all for 5 days, and even now am able to make little more than a husky croak. Monsters and croaky voices – all so suitable for Halloween and yet so completely not fun.

Given the lurgy, you might think that the Halloween party was no true test of my alcohol free ways. However, in previous years where an eagerly anticipated occasion has arrived at along last and I find myself coming down with some sort of snot-plague, I have embraced the TOTALLY SCIENTIFIC rationalisation that:

  1. illness is caused by germs
  2. alcohol kills germs
  3. therefore alcohol cures illness

I’ve used that hypothesis for many years, and am clearly an excellent scientist because I kept repeating the experiment just to ensure that the results were to be trusted. I honestly wouldn’t recommend you try it to see if you can replicate the results as the results every time are:

  1. get really drunk
  2. get sick anyway
  3. therefore you’re hungover AND sick

Having resigned myself to being too ill to enjoy Halloween fully, I stayed out long enough so that I’d been at the party for at least 5 minutes longer than it took to get ready and headed home, rather disappointed to have missed out on the spooky fun I usually have, and somewhat annoyed that the one Halloween of my adult life where I could reasonably expect to be feeling well the following day was instead spent in bed, cancelling all my weekend plans and feeling rather hard done by.

I did have fun at the party, for the 4 hours and 5 minutes that I was there (it was a complicated costume, ok?) despite the sore throat and impending lurginess, so it still in a way achieved its aim: to prove to myself that I don’t need to drink to enjoy a celebration which is – for me at least – synonymous with epic drunkenness. I shall have to hold on to this thought for my next – and final –  big challenges: Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

As for the other two – as you know if you were here earlier I’d had rather more success with the sign language than the sewing, having passed BSL level 1 and starting level 2 in the next week. The BSL would have come in entirely handy in the week I lost my voice for 5 days, if only anyone else I knew spoke it. It certainly gave me a new perspective on how frustrating it is to communicate when you can’t just say words.

But just as I was feeling the pressure of the end of the year approaching, the pointy finger of fate jabbed me in the ribs and pointed at a sewing shop crossed with a community project hub more or less a stone’s throw from my current home which runs ‘Introduction to Sewing Machine’ courses.

I have always been a bit scared of sewing machines. From the first ever Home Economics (HE) class at school when we were encouraged to have a healthy respect for the danger of pissing about with the machines via horror stories of thumbs and fingers impaled on needles I have been wary of them. I am massively clumsy and when people say “oh, that’s very rare” what I hear is “it does happen to some people”  which is significant because *I* am the ‘some people’  to which shit  like this usually happens. I remained behind in HE for the rest of my school years due to my point-blank refusal to use one. I am the only person I know who got an ‘E’  grade for HE and had to do remedial sewing as detention as a result.

To learn to sew, properly sew, not just hand stitch the holes in my leggings that my thighs create (the only way I achieve a thigh gap is doing the splits), I have to get over this fear and use a sewing machine.

Our first task was to draw the sewing machine, to get us to really observe the20141108_155117 machine and try to note the detail, and to get our creativity flowing. An artist I am not, but I was always good at the observation round in Krypton Factor; according to the tutor  I am the first person ever in her class to have not only drawn the on switch but the power cable and foot pedal cable too.

Once we’d been given a tour of the machine and had learned how to thread it (the bobbin winding bit is, as far as I am concerned, WITCHCRAFT) she gave us all some material, showed us a drawstring bag she’d made earlier, gave us a small hint that we needed to leave a hole to thread a ribbon through and let us get on with working out how to make our bags.

Having got over the initial OMG FEAR of driving the actual machine I actually rather enjoyed it. I managed to make an entire little bag (which is now keeping all my medication nice and neat, instead of swimming around the bottom of my bag like a ransacked pharmacy) without any impaling incidents whatsoever.

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At the end of the class I proudly announced that I had got through the entire class without impaling any part of my body with a needle but because I am extraordinarily gifted when it comes to being a complete twonk it was at this exact moment I managed to stab myself on the needle hard enough to break the skin. The teacher shrugged. “It takes more than one accident to make a confident crafter”.

Ok, it’s not a dress. And I don’t think I will be whipping up my own outfits for a while yet. But as far as The List goes, it’s 2 down, 2 months to go.

Posted in Drinking, i am a disaster area, Sewing, Sign Language, The List | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

when Hello is not just Hello

Click for HollerbackLondonMy first blog about gender based street harassment was back in 2007. I’ve written about it often since, and joined in various campaigns to raise awareness of the problem. I also experience gender based street harassment on a depressingly regular basis.

So much so that if I do something perfectly ordinary, say for example walk to the shop and back, and haven’t been stared at, followed, had kissy noises made at me, had a #notjustHello (more on this later), been propositioned or asked my marital status – well, I call that a successful walk to the shop. The fact that a walk to the shop that doesn’t feature one of or a combination of these things happens LESS often than a walk that does will perhaps indicate  how often I experience unwanted attention in public places.

So much so that if I walk past a lone man on the street at night, or a group of male youths hanging around, I am practically holding my breath, on edge, trying to look nonchalant, trying to look confident,  and I don’t relax until I am past them; because I am expecting them to say something. If they don’t say anything at all I am surprised, relieved and impressed. This, alas, doesn’t happen often.

So when this video, of a woman receiving more than 100 cat calls in a 10 hour walk – which averages out at 10 per hour – went viral this week, I wasn’t shocked by the content, but I was surprised by some of the reactions I saw, and some of the most common comments I saw made about it.

But this is in New York. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in London.

Yes. It. Does. ALL THE FUCKING TIME. New York isn’t some sort of magical badlands full of crazy street corner mad men whooping and hollering while London is a sparkly unicorn mecca of impeccable gentlemanly manners. This isn’t even limited to big cities. This happens everywhere. All over the world. To almost every woman who ever walked in a public place ever.

Some of those guys were just saying ‘hello’, that’s not really harassment.

Other people have already dealt with this eloquently, so I will be relatively brief here. Sometimes ‘hello’ is not actually ‘just hello’. It depends ENTIRELY on context, tone and intention, and to try to imply otherwise is disingenuous at best. You are working in a shop, A woman walks up to the counter. You say ‘Hello’. congratulations, that’s appropriate. You are in a pub. You have made eye contact with the same woman on multiple occasions. She has smiled at you. You go up and say Hello. This is appropriate –  as long as if it turns out she’s not actually interested you back off.  However, at night, a man saying ‘Hello’ in a suggestive tone to a lone woman? #notjustHello. A group of guys yelling ‘HELLO’ at a lone woman walking past? #notjustHello. If you get pissed off with a woman you’ve said ‘hello’ to because she didn’t respond favourably? #notjustHello. No one owes you a reply just because you said ‘hello’ to them and if you in any way feel entitled to a response then it’s #notjustfuckinghelloisit.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. Before you say ‘Hello’ to a woman you don’t know when there is no obvious context for your ‘hello’, consider this question: “would I say ‘Hello’ to this person if this person was a man?” If the answer is no, then it’s probably #notjustHello. So don’t say it.

Holy shit, this is terrible! It must be so tiring having that happen all the time! I had no idea it was so bad. Does this really happen? Woah!

Forgive me, I need a few minutes to metaphorically kick a few chairs over while I roll my eyes and scream into the void. Really? REALLY? REALLY????

Street Harassment is something women have been talking about and trying to raise awareness of for years. There are countless articles, blogs, features in newspapers. Your female friends have been telling you about their experiences. FOR YEARS. And it took this video for you to realise what it’s like? The relentless, every day, constant, draining ENDLESS parade of men trying to get our attention because somehow they feel entitled to it? This grinding, wearing every day experience that we have been telling you about for years and NOW you get it? Forgive me if that doesn’t exactly make me want to give you a fucking cookie.

I have had too many arguments with men over the years (#notallmen, sure, but then I haven’t met them all) telling me that my subjective experience must somehow be wrong, because it is not the same as their experience. It turns out that to get people to truly understand what I experience nearly every time I leave the house I would have had to get someone to walk around in front of me with a video camera recording it all. Because the words of women was not enough. You needed proof.

Well, now you have it.  You’ve seen the proof. And don’t get me wrong, even though I am clearly frustrated that you didn’t believe us before, I am really glad that some of you are now on our side.  Because we need you. We need male allies here, because this is not a women’s problem. Because it’s only some of you that get it. Those that don’t get it, the quibblers, who think a #notjustHello is perfectly reasonable, who think “nice tits” is a compliment – they might not actually be out there harassing women themselves but they are certainly allowing it to continue by their tacit reinforcement that this behaviour is ok.

On Friday night, in the space of 7 minutes, I experienced 4 incidents of street harassment. I received 2 #notjustHellos, I was followed silently for several minutes by a man who kept standing slightly too close to me, wherever I moved to. And then three young men walked past and one shouted “You look niiiice.” I didn’t respond, because there were 3 of them, and because no one had come to help me with the previous 3 incidents. I felt extremely vulnerable. But my lack of response angered them.  “Hey. Hey. You. What, no thank you? Nothing? Fine bitch, you look bad. Fat slut. Fuck you bitch”.

For a women experiencing street harassment there’s no safe way to respond. Ignoring them isn’t safe. Retaliating isn’t safe. Saying anything positive or even neutral at all in reply invites further exchange and implies their behaviour is in some way acceptable or ok. Telling them to ‘fuck off’ is just plain dangerous – given the reaction to doing nothing. Some initiatives do exist to try to combat the situation, for example Cards Against Harassment  or catcaller forms, but these  also run the risk of retaliation. I did once, ONCE, have a guy who, when I firmly said “sorry, but I don’t want to talk to you”, just walked away and said nothing else. It was so unusual that it was worthy of note.  So what are we meant to do? We can’t ‘keep ourselves safe’ short of never leaving the house.

We can’t solve this problem by putting pressure on women to modify our behaviour or act in a certain way to prevent it or mitigate it because this isn’t a ‘women’s problem.’ It doesn’t stop by changing the way we dress or walk or act.  This is an issue with MEN, and how some men, #NotAllMen but still #FarTooManyMen, feel entitled to women’s attention, feel entitled to pass comment on women’s bodies in public, feel powerful when they treat women like objects and seem to believe that women should be somehow thankful for all this unwanted attention.

The only thing that will cause a big enough shift in society for those that don’t get  it is for those that DO get it to stand up against it. Listen to women when they tell you about their experiences. Believe them. Don’t let your mates engage in this sort of behaviour. Don’t stand by and let women be subject to this behaviour. Don’t let your silence be taken as approval.

I know this can be scary – after all intervening in a situation where a guy is clearly causing a woman to feel harassed could get you punched in the face. But think on this. Women who have stood up to their OWN harassers get punched in the face. The woman who recorded the New York street harassment video received rape threats for highlighting the problem of street harassment. There is no safe way for a woman to stand up to her own harassers. 

I know lots of wonderful men that would never even consider harassing a woman, and who would put themselves at risk to help a woman being harassed the way I was on Friday night; but there’s not enough guys like that. There’s too many shouters and too many quibblers. If you’re not a shouter, and you’re not a quibbler, then stand up for us, and with us, against gender based street harassment.

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Self-esteem and 100 spiders

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had some issues in the past with my mental health. One of the ways in which this manifested was in seriously poor low self-esteem – bordering on the obsessive. I wasn’t able to say anything good about myself. I wasn’t able to even *think* good things about myself. At my worst I felt that something really bad would happen if I ever did say, or think, anything that was even close to being good about myself and so to forestall the really bad thing happening I would have to immediately say something bad about myself to balance it out, or pull an ugly face – or even worse sometimes I physically hurt myself to punish myself for daring to think well of myself.

At one point, I couldn’t even capitalise the letter ‘I’ when referring to myself in a written sentence, because I had somehow got the idea that I didn’t ‘deserve’ a capital letter, and I didn’t want people to think I was so above myself that I would dare to use a capital letter. Of course all it did was irritate my friends who are sticklers for correct grammar who couldn’t understand why I was able to correctly punctuate and spell all other words. I wasn’t able to explain to people why it was so difficult to capitalise the ‘I’.

Compliments were like kryptonite. I couldn’t accept them. I didn’t know how to. I craved them and feared them in equal measure. On the one hand compliments from other people were validation – wonderful validation – that maybe I *was* ok, that I looked alright. On the other hand I wasn’t able to believe the compliment, because that would be to think well of myself and I can’t do that or BAD THINGS will happen, and the other person will think I think I look ok and that would be being vain and there is nothing worse in the world than vanity. Of course, this just made people pissed off that I would never accept a compliment. One friend once just said “you know, when someone compliments you, you should just say ‘thank you’ and move on. Don’t tell them why they are wrong”. It hadn’t occurred to me that rejecting their compliments in the name of my own obsessive low self-esteem could actually push people further away.

It did drive one significant other away. He became increasingly upset by my difficulty in being nice to or about myself, and with my constant putting myself down. “How would you feel,” he asked me, “if someone who looked and acted exactly like me came into this room and started saying really horrible things about me? You wouldn’t put up with it, would you? Well that what it’s like when you put yourself down. It’s like someone who looks like someone I love, being needlessly mean about them. Why do you do it?”

I don’t know quite how I came to develop the conclusion that to be seen to be vain is the worst thing you could ever do, and that thinking or saying nice things about yourself or allowing others to say nice things about you is the path to extreme vanity and friendlessness. I remember Mother RDP telling me that when people complimented her on what a beautiful child I was she used to say things like ‘shame about her ears’ so that I ‘wouldn’t grow up vain’. I suspect that’s part of it. But perhaps the wider context for it is built right into our culture. As was pointed out in the feminism event I went to, women find it extremely hard to be proud of their achievements. Even when those achievements are real and tangible, many women find it hard to say, “YES, I did that. I did it well. That makes me pretty awesome.” So many aspects of our society, our upbringing, the media around us, tell us that you’re not meant to be like that. You must be meek, you must bashfully and modestly accept your compliments, but never compliment yourself.

It seems strange to look back at those times and remember how I thought. Of course, as low self-esteem goes, this was a pretty extreme case. But I am not alone in having felt this way, and the more I talk about it, the more shocked I am to discover how many of us have gone through similar thought patterns as we’ve grown up – if perhaps not taken to such extent as self-harm and refusal to follow a rule of punctuation. We’ve assimilated messages that say be confident, but be modest. Be pretty, but don’t know it. Be strong, but gentle. Be smart, but don’t let people know. It’s so confusing trying to learn to enjoy being yourself when there are so many conflicting messages out there which simultaneously tell you that you are both fine just as you are and that you are inadequate.

There’s an  episode of My Little Pony’s ‘friendship is magic’ all about this exact theme – where Twilight Sparkle becomes terrified of revealing how talented she is to her friends in case they reject her for it, because boasting is bad. Being Friendship is Magic it actually deals with this theme rather well, by drawing a line between making shit up to get people to admire you and just actually being good at something and being proud of that. But I couldn’t help identifying with the message that it can be scary to put yourself and your talents out there, and that sometimes it’s hard to find that line between positive self-affirmation and something that looks like boasting.

All of this has come to mind because of a Halloween costume I put together for a club night last weekend. Regular readers will have been following my body positive journey over the months that I gave up sugar, lost some weight and gained some confidence. I still surprise myself sometimes when I put something on and look in the mirror and am able to go ‘hey, I look good’, even though the days of (literally) beating myself up about thinking I look good are long past. So I surprised myself with this Halloween outfit, which was part Zatanna, part witch, mostly covered in spiders. The outfit pretty much consisted of lingerie with a tight jacket and a top hat. And about 100 spiders.

Since I opened the leotard floodgates I seem to be getting more and more comfortable leaving the house with my body actually visible, and feeling pretty confident that I look ok. That no one is going to point and go ‘fat chick in a leotard’ or ‘your bum is too big for that’ or ‘put it away love’. And even if they do, I have the self-esteem to go “meh, your opinion, my body. I win.” I made a point of telling other curvy women at the club in equally revealing outfits how wonderful they looked, and what a great body they had. It meant a lot to me when people said it to me.

When I saw some pictures of me from the weekend, I had a weird moment. Whereas previously I would have been picking over the picture picking where the jacket was crumpled, my shorts askew, my thighs chunky, my spiders in the wrong place – this time I thought ‘wow. I look great. Look at my waist! It’s so small! I look like I am wearing a corset, but that’s just me. I’ve never had a reaction like that looking at a photo of myself before. Briefly, I wanted someone to ask me if I was wearing a corset, so I could be all NO. THAT’S ME. MEEEEEEE. Then I realised – I don’t need someone to ask me. I am proud of this. Proud of not only looking but feeling good. I can just SAY IT.

Sometimes, saying something good about ourselves can actually make us feel better. We all should be allowed to give ourselves a boost. To say “I did this thing. I am proud of this thing. I did it WELL” without fearing that others will think we’re Boasty McBoasterson from Vainville.

I wonder if we’ve not got a twisted idea of what ‘vanity’ means. We use phrases like “god, she really loves herself doesn’t she” or “he’s good looking, but he knows it” as insults. But surely loving yourself is a good thing? We should celebrate people loving themselves, and allow people to talk about their achievements, or things that make them happy, and celebrate that they are able to do so. As Rupal says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”.

Give it a go. Every day, give yourself a compliment. In the mirror, or to a significant other,  or out there in the world as a tweet or a facebook status. Celebrate yourself. When a friend compliments you,  believe it. Smile and say thank you.  It’s ok to say nice things about yourself, it doesn’t make you a bad person and might make you feel good.

And never underestimate the power of 100 plastic spiders.

Posted in feminism, Me Me Me, my opinions let me show you them, Sugar | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Living in a binary world and I am not a binary girl

I am going to reveal something about myself that you might find it difficult to understand. It something that I’ve known my whole life, but have hidden at times because of the reaction I’ve had when I tell people. Sometimes people react with confusion, sometimes irritation, sometimes downright anger. People tell me I am kidding myself, that I need to just pick a side, that I MUST like one more than the other.

But it’s true: I like both cats AND dogs.

I am neither a cat-person, not a dog-person. I am both.

Yes, both of them. No, I don’t really like one more than the other. I’ve owned more cats over the years, but that’s just been circumstance. If I could, I would love to own a dog.

I am not ‘greedy’, as some people would put it. I am not sure I’d want a dog AND a cat, I think that sounds like hard work. But I would be equally happy with a dog or a cat.

It’s surprising how often people are confused and rejecting of this idea that someone could like both equally. But at times I’ve been in conversations where someone is pressing me really hard – “but you MUST like one more than the other? NO ONE really likes BOTH equally”. Occasionally people have even been quite angry about it and have insisted that I MUST CHOOSE WHICH I LIKE so that they can stick that little ‘dog person’ or ‘cat person’ label on me for their own comfort and convenience. People like to know what you are. And what you are must be specific.

We live in a binary world. A society which really likes people to be either/or, so that we can neatly fit into the world and be understood. You’re a cat person, you’re a dog person. You’re male, you’re female. You’re gay, you’re straight. You’re trans, you’re cis. Transgressions to these easily understood binaries are rejected, feared, and misunderstood; particularly by people who comfortably find themselves occupying the ends of these binaries.

In my opinion, the only thing that truly is a binary is fucking binary. People are not simple computers. While technically our bodies operate like machines made out of meat, we are so much more complex than a computer or a machine. We operate on deep and flexible complexities. We have so many different drivers, backgrounds, responses, emotions, beliefs. And yet we insist on driving down the whole of human experience and desires into rigid opposing boxes that people MUST SIT WITHIN or they are other and weird and strange.

Well, I reject society’s binary obsession. I won’t ‘pick a side’ so that I fit comfortably within someone’s box, or wearing a helpful ‘dog person’ label. It’s not me that needs to pick a side. It’s society that needs to learn to live with grey areas. To accept that perhaps the people that live between the far ends of these spectrums are not unusual or other but in fact make up the vast myriad of beautiful difference in this world.

From a pretty young age I knew I liked both boys and girls. Hitting my teens in the 90s, and being somewhat inclined to the rock/goth/alt side this never really seemed a problem. All of my immediate friendship group seemed to be gender/sexually flexible. We admired Brett Anderson and Skin from Skunk Anansie. I remember when Placebo’s first album came out and I listened to it obsessively and thought that it was oh, so very meaningful and oh, so very me, and oh, only me, no one else can understand – in the way only a confused teenager trying to navigate the horror of adolescence can manage. There was never really a ‘coming out’ moment, unless you count a very drunken house party at the house of a girl called Liz, whose parents never seemed to be home, where almost everyone at the party announced that they were bi, and we all had a good cry, then someone played Nirvana’s ‘Come as you are’ on the guitar and we all passed out on the floor.

For most of my adult life it’s just been an aspect of my life that has been there, in the background. Culture makes it easy to be straight, and when you have no gender preference for a partner it’s easier to just fall in with that. But just because I’ve been in long term relationships with mostly male-identifying men doesn’t take away that fact that actually I do fancy people that aren’t male-identifying. And this is sometimes hard for people to get their heads around.

I can’t say these days that I am entirely comfortable with the term ‘bi-sexual’ for the direct connotation that indicates that I accept there is a ‘bi’ to be sexual about in the first place. My attraction towards people has always depended more on their personality, confidence and sense of humour than to how they identify gender-or-sex wise. That aspect is just significantly less important to me when having a crush on someone. At one point I did so some research, trying to work out a label to give myself, and found ‘pansexual’ which just made me think of 70s dance troupe Pan’s People. So I decided not to have a label.

I am not a cat person, or a dog person. I like both. I can never pass by a cat or a dog on the street without stopping to say “aww, HELLO” in that weird voice that animal people have for talking to animals that they can’t replicate unless talking to an animal. And I am not a boy person or a girl person. If they are funny, cute, interesting, smart and confident I can fall for them however they identify, or whatever body they might be using as their vehicle through life. And if that makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem, not mine.

A good friend of mine, who experienced the ‘so are you straight again now or what?’ when dating a guy after a long and serious relationship with a woman, has a saying. “Labels are for jam jars.” she says. And people are not jam.

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Head Squirrels and Hypermobility (2012)

Another ‘one from the vaults’ – sort of – this week. I have been stricken with migraines (fun) this weekend and am having problems staring at the computer screen. So I’ve gone back to my old blog for this week, with a post I wrote about my HMS and the London Olympics. It has been a little edited for sense/length but otherwise remains intact!


 

Head squirrels are invisible creatures that gnaw on your niggly brain thoughts at night and make it hard for you to sleep. Tonight I have appear to have a veritable infestation of them, so I decided to give up on trying to sleep and try to do something else for a little while so that the head squirrels get bored and go and nibble on someone else. The best way to make them bored, I decided, was to try to get all the brain thoughts out of my head and onto a page and then maybe there’ll be no niggly brain thoughts circulating, and thus nothing to attract the brain squirrels.

A number of events have precipitated the niggly brain thoughts of this evening are, mainly,  some broken bones, lack of exercise, the opening ceremony of the Olympics & the Paralympics themselves. My thoughts are still niggly, and somewhat chewed-upon by the afore-mentioned sneaky fluffy rodents of the mind, so please bear with me if this comes out jumbled or even completely nonsensical.

I fractured my hand in February (playing roller derby) and 8 weeks later in April, a week after coming back to practice, I fractured my rib (playing roller derby) which put me out for another 10 weeks. During this time I ate ALL OF THE FOOD and did no gym. This meant that not only did I put on a whole bunch of weight, but I also started to experience more pain and difficulties with my joints & muscles.

I am not sure if I’ve mentioned this much – it’s not something I talk about a lot because I am never really sure how to. I always worry that I sound like I am making excuses, and it’s a complicated thing to explain. I have a condition called HMS which stands for Hypermobility Syndrome. It’s not the same thing as being hypermobile (or double jointed, as it’s more commonly known.) If you’re hypermobile, you have (for whatever reason) very flexible joints. If you have Hypermobility Syndrome, that flexibility has started to cause pain or problems in your joints, muscles and/or internal organs. It’s not very useful as a descriptor, to be honest. You could fill 10 football pitches with HMS sufferers and all of them could have completely different problems, symptoms, difficulties and variations on how it affects them. Some people have occasional pain and twinges, managed by painkillers or careful exercise. Other people can barely move, walk or sit and stand without serious dislocations. It’s a condition as varied as the British weather.

When I talk about what hurts, or what I’ve injured, people often go “oh what is it THIS time? You’re always doing something to yourself”. Well, the vast majority of the time, my problems are related to HMS. For me, personally, my affected areas are:

- My shoulder-blades. They can slide in an out and hurt a lot if I don’t keep the muscles around them strong.
– My hands, wrists & carpal tunnel. I have difficulty gripping things, I drop things a lot because I lose grip. I can’t place my hand flat on the floor or rest my bodyweight on my hands. On very bad days, I can’t hold a mouse, or type, or hold a toothbrush or hairdryer. Thankfully it’s been a while since I’ve had a day as bad as that.
– My hips. My hips & pelvis sit slightly in the wrong position, so it can get painful if I walk much, and if I get very tired my posture goes and I start walking funny.
– My shins. The fascia between my shin bone and shin muscle is so completely damaged I have permanent shin splints. This means I can’t run or jump much and sometimes the muscle gets stuck on the bone which hurts like a mofo, and I have to have a horrible painful massage to get it unstuck.
– My ankles & feet. This is probably the one that gives me most trouble! MY ankles are very weak & over mobile, they are really unstable and give way easily. They roll in when I walk. My feet have no instep and I overpronate when I walk to the extend the outside of my feet don’t touch the floor. I have bunions on both feet over the toejoint. The ball of my foot and the large toe joint have fused in a weird way which means my toes don’t bend backwards – I can’t stand on tiptoe. This means when I walk my ankles twist round.

All of my joints are prone to “subluxing”, which means they don’t stay in the socket well, and can slip out. When I walk long distances, even in my NHS orthotics, the walking action can make my big toes sublux, which is incredibly painful. I can’t wear heeled shoes for more than about an hour, even low heels, before the toes start to sublux.

What has happened is that my muscles are all working overtime to stabilise the joints; but they aren’t working in the direction or in the way that muscles are strictly meant to. This means that in addition to my joints being a dislocation risk some of my muscles are overdeveloped, and thus weak and prone to injury. My muscles are tense all the time, and I find it hard to relax them.

Many HMS sufferers (and I am no exception here) also have problems with migraines, IBS and proprioception (spatial awareness). That last one means I walk into door frames a lot and often have weird shaped bruises on my shoulders. In addition, because HMS sufferers muscles are all working so hard all the time, we can get fatigued more easily.

It’s a condition not an illness. There’s not a cure and due to its very nature it is degenerative, getting worse as you get older, unless you really look after yourself.

So, in short; I injure easily, am in pain most of the time, and if I eat ALL OF THE FOOD and don’t exercise safely & regularly, everything goes to shit.

Ironically, if I hadn’t started to try to get fit in the first place, I might not have discovered all of this. In around 2006 I went on a health kick. I started going to the gym and cycling loads, something I’d never really done before. After a few months of yoga & street dance I started to get really bad pain in my hands and legs. This started years of tests & diagnoses and re-diagnoses, via RSI to arthritis through ME/CFS & fibromyalgia, finally arriving at the not-very-descriptive “HMS”.

Suddenly so much clicked into place. The difficulties I had at school with any sport that involved holding things (tennis) or running (long distance). My hatred and fear of “long family walks”. I just assumed as a child that everyone was in as much pain as I was, just that I was the only one complaining about it, and I was therefore rubbish. When the diagnosis finally came it was a revelation. I actually cried at an early physiotherapy appointment at the realisation that I’d been living with this pain all the time and it *ISN’T* that everyone else feels like this all the time and doesn’t complain, and I am NOT rubbish.

Fast forward to July 2012. I was in the opening ceremony for the Olympics. The Danny Boyle one, which was pretty much universally acclaimed as pretty bloody good. I was in the NHS section, as a roller skating nurse. You never actually saw me, but I was there. The rehearsals and the skates they gave us were pretty hard on my feet – I spent most of the rehearsals in pain but just trying to bear it as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was icing my feet when I got home as sometimes the balls of my feet were so swollen I could barely get my shoes on. I was fine until we got to rehearsing in the stadium for real, when we found our cast holding area was a mile and a half walk away. Not wanting to make a fuss (at first) I tried to do the walk. However after doing it twice, and spending 5 hours in the skates, I was in agony, and was worried I wouldn’t be able to walk back to the station. I cried at the cast co-ordinator, and explained about my subluxy toes and foot & ankle problems. He was very understanding, and arranged to add me to the list of people who could use the little transport carts that could take people with mobility issues between the stadium and the cast area.

This helped a great deal – but felt like a fraud. There were other people who I thought were much more in need than me. And I was a SKATER. What sort of a fraud was I, wearing skates and skating around, but unable to walk a couple of miles? I play roller derby for goodness sake. I can walk (albeit not far!) I can sit and stand. I can go to the gym. Ok, I can’t wear heels or do plyo or play squash, but loads of people every day don’t do those things. What business do I have saying I am disabled when I can do most things that I need to do to get by?

And there’s the rub; the word disabled. The baggage it carries. It’s a label. An albatross. A dis-ability. It’s something I’ve rejected ever since I was first diagnosed. As my condition gets worse though (and despite getting new orthotics which are even more corrective than my old ones, my feet in particular insist on getting worse) it’s something I’ve had to face more and more lately. I still can’t bring myself to tick that box “do you consider yourself to have a disability?” when filling in forms. It feels like too big a thing to say yes to.

Compared to other people I know of with HMS, I am actually bloody lucky to be able to do as much as I can, and so while I can do all of the things, I will keep doing all of the things. My feet/shins could stay as they are for years, or they could deteriorate. I don’t know. But then a perfectly healthy person could be hit by a bus tomorrow. You just don’t know what will happen to you.

I can’t give you an answer to that “do you consider yourself to have a disability” box. It’s not something I’ve let myself think about, and it wasn’t until the opening ceremony that I realised how there really are some every day normal things – like walking a mile, or holding on when standing on the tube – that I really struggle to so. If I am honest, the answer to the “do you consider yourself to have a disability” question is “sometimes”.

I have been watching the Paralympics with awe. The Olympics were impressive, sure. Watching anyone compete in an event they’ve been training for for 4 years, being in their peak condition, achieving amazing things – it’s been inspirational. But the Paralympics somehow mean something else to me. These are all people that have technically ticked that disability box. And they’ve all had to go through rigorous testing for the classification system that determines exactly how “impaired” they are in their event. Some of them can’t hold a toothbrush, or use a tube without an elevator. But, just as with Ennis, Bolt et al, they are achieving incredible things. Cockroft, Simmonds, Weir; these are people in top physical condition, who are able in ways that many able bodied people aren’t. And they all, technically, tick that box. Do they consider themselves disabled? Perhaps their answer is also “sometimes”.


 

I was reminded of this post today by a conversation with lovely flatmate, who is experiencing very similar symptoms to mine. It made me realise how much I have started to accept my difficulties over the last two years, and accept that they are irrevocably a part of me which I need to work with, not fight against. So many things have become second nature which reduces the daily pain I am in, whereas in the earlier days I kept trying to do things I probably shouldn’t have done. I’ve adapted the way I live on a day to day basis which has resulted in me finding it easier to accept that ‘dis’ label, whilst also being much less affected by it. Perhaps this is all part of my journey this year – becoming a more ‘whole being’ and not a collection of – slightly broken – parts.

Posted in From The Vaults, Me Me Me, Roller Derby | Tagged , , | 1 Comment