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Birthday

unicornbirthday

My birthday this year made me feel profoudly grateful for my wonderful friends – new and old – who sent me cards and gifts, or drew awesome pictures, or sent me messages or sang songs to my voicemail.  It all reminds me that I’m not alone, that people understand me, that people are thinking of me and care. As someone who suffers from anxiety and has struggled with depression in the past that is an incredibly powerful feeling.

I tend to see birthdays as basically an an excuse to take days off work to do absolutely nothing and act ridiculously. Well, ok, I often act ridiculously but birthdays allow you to act ridiculously without the added side-eye that you get when you’re nearly 40 and acting ridiculously on a day to day basis. Birthdays are a free pass for excessive cake eating, lie-ins, duvet fort huddling, staying-up-all-nighting and it’s a great way to get people to play silly games with you.

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Epilogues and New Adventures

wpid-wp-1420367879737.jpegJust as my last post of my booze-free year was posted  appropriately on New Year’s Eve, the first post of my new year is on the anniversary of my first ever post; where I stated my intentions for the year. My list was small, but ambitious.

I wanted to learn to sew, to learn British Sign Language, to write regularly and to see if I could ultimately go a whole year without alcohol. I’ve never stuck with any new year’s resolutions before, let alone four.

When I embarked on this scheme I had no idea where this journey would take me. I hoped perhaps I’d develop some writing skills, learn creativity, deal with a few fears, have fewer hangovers, reset my relationship with drinking so that I could go out and just have one.

As I stood on the bank of the pond at midday on New Year’s day, preparing to get into 4 degree water, replaying my year in my head and reflecting on all that has been in 2014, I was almost overwhelmed with emotion. Continue Reading

Facehooked

Image from Mashable - http://mashable.com/2014/04/01/facebook-privacy-dinosaur/As the year draws to an end I am starting to think about what my next challenge could be. Something new I can take up, perhaps. Or something old I can give up. The giving up alcohol has gone excellently – 355 days with no alcohol (so far). The giving up sugar less well; I am very much back on the sugar train but I am not eating anywhere near the level of sugar as before, and am making significantly better choices about my diet. Apart from today where I had two slices of cake. Or Friday when I pretty much ate Cadbury’s Roses all day. But it’s Christmas and everyone knows things like this don’t matter at Christmas, right?

When a large number of my friends suddenly started disappearing from Facebook, and people whose names I didn’t recognise started popping up, all victims of Facebook’s sudden and strict enforcement of their ‘real name’ policy, I got annoyed. Many of my friends don’t use their ‘real’/’given’/’birth’ name on Facebook. Some because they are social workers and don’t want to be found by families they work with. Some because they are teachers and don’t want to be found by the children they teach.  A few have different names because they have obsessive and/or violent ex partners or family members from whom they are hiding. Many just have ordinary jobs and no particular need to hide but want to keep their personal and professional life entirely separate, because, you know, that’s a perfectly normal thing that lots of people like to do.

I suspect though that the  main reason for most of my friends having a different name is because they’ve all been on the internet since the early days of the world wide web. Handles were chosen on IRC and usenet. The same handles transferred over to LiveJournal and MySpace. The names stuck. We’d all already been using the internet as our social glue for years before Facebook came along and made being friends on the internet a mass mainstream thing. My friends being mainly a big bunch of geeky goths, the internet gave us a way to make friends and social connections like never before. The vast majority of the friendships I have now were forged via the net – perhaps we met in person but the relationship largely developed and deepened online. LiveJournal was, for me, at times, quite literally a lifeline between me and the world – when I was stricken with agoraphobia and unable to leave the house it was a connection to friends – real friends – and a connection to feeling like I could live a normal life. Developing friendships in this way meant that in my friendship group a person’s internet name was in fact their real name. I have friends I have known for 20 years that I couldn’t tell you their surname. Some I couldn’t even tell you their first name.

So one by one all members of my little alternative corner (all people vanishing appear to be linked by at some point being part of the London goth scene) disappear from the internet and reappear as strangers. Angry strangers, being forced to use a name that they don’t identify with – a name they might only ever use on their passport or bank account. A name that none of their friends know them by.  But Facebook has decided that the name that everyone knows them by isn’t good enough. It’s not a ‘real’ name.

Facebook’s policy states

“The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life and as our acceptable identification forms would show.”

And here lies the key problem. For many of my friends, what their friends call them in real life is not the name on these “acceptable identification forms”. Not because they have a “lack of integrity”, as believed by the creator of Facebook, but simply because that’s how things are; for people in alternative cultures, for those of us who formed our friendships in the early days of the  net, for people who just like to have professional and personal separate.

I was upset and frustrated at seeing my friends have their identities taken away from them by a social network – but the deeper anger came from what I consider to be the transparent and abhorrent reason behind it: commerce. There’s no secret that Facebook is not the product. WE are the product. That’s why Facebook is free for us to use. We are a delicious data seam, rich for mining and selling to the highest bidder. Our tasty data, however, is flawed when they can’t sell real and identifiable people. We’re worth more when the buyer can be absolutely sure that they are going to be able to use the data to sell other stuff back to us, or track our every move. With everyone called Ian Spartacus, FairyFairy QuiteContrary and Cucumber Skimblepatch the data is worth less and therefore less profitable.

It made me so angry that people’s identies are being restricted in the name of profit that I thought perhaps for 2015, I will give up Facebook.

And as soon as I had the thought, I started to panic. Alcohol? Fine, I’ve gone 355 days without it and actually am not sure I want to drink it again anyway. Sugar? It’s tasty sure but I know if I just go for a few weeks without it I will stop wanting it so much. And there’s lots of other tasty stuff I can eat instead. But Facebook? Give up Facebook? Social suicide. I have one close friend who has no Facebook – she’s never had one – and I have to actually remember to invite her to things. I don’t always. My mum is on Facebook, and she lives 938423980328 miles away, it’s our primary means of communication. She told me in strict terms that under no circumstances am I allowed to give up Facebook. She even did the “I am your Mother and I am telling you…” thing.  I’ll never get invited to anything ever again. I’ll never know what’s going on. No one will come to anything I ever organise because they will all forget it’s happening. I’ll never see any nice pictures of me. Or, more likely, people will put up awful photos of me and I’ll never see them to say GOD TAKE THAT DOWN JESUS I LOOK LIKE A MANATEE TRYING TO CLIMB A TREE. I am more likely to chat to friends on Facebook than on the phone or by email. If I am feeling wobbly, I can just go “meep” and I’ll get cat pictures. If my other friends are feeling wobbly I can send them videos of dogs falling over.

I am sure it’s not just me that feels this way. Studies suggest that social media is potentially more addictive than booze or cigarettes, and Facebook is the social network that we’re all on. I was at the pub earlier today surrounded by friends and every single person around the table (including me) at some point got their phone out and checked Facebook. After my alarm goes off in the morning the first thing I do is check Facebook. The last thing I do when I go to bed is check Facebook. I have alt+tabbed at least 6 times to check Facebook while writing this blog.

Of course, there are alternatives. Ello tried, but with a vague future business model. There was a brief moment when it looked like it might have a future – I can’t speak for everyone but the largest part of my acquaintance went there to get their own username – you know, the one they’ve all been known as forever by all of their friends. Google Plus occasionally has a spike, but it still has a bit of an interface problem and hasn’t yet hit the critical mass of social circles to draw people away from Facebook.

You may think I am going a bit far with my conspiracy business at this point – but I don’t think the current aggressive ‘real’ name enforcement is a coincidence, or a tightening up of an accidentally overlooked policy. I think Facebook knows full well we’re addicted. And I think it knows how we are addicted, and how to keep us addicted. It knows full well that we loathe them and what they stand for, but that we need the service they provide in exchange for our crunchy delicious data sauce. I suspect that Facebook has spent years tweaking and twerking their systems to be just as addictive as possible. They’ve certainly not seen a problem in using us as guinea pigs without explicit consent. Facebook has us all hooked. Hooked lined and sinkered. We have Internet Stockholm Syndrome. We couldn’t leave even if we want to because they don’t just have us, they have all our friends hostage too.

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.

Nine months in – return of The List

2014-09-21 15.17.55Wednesday 1st October marks the 9 month point of my booze free experiment, and so it’s time for the regular tri-monthly debrief!

Previous installments:

When the idea for this project first began to ovulate in my brain, in between the bouts of dry retching and wishing I was dead, it seemed like the best idea I had ever had literally in the whole entire history of time ever. Of course, at that time I was both still drunk and horrendously hungover all at the same time. We all know that we make poor decisions while drunk (and sometimes have to make those decisions leave in the morning before they realise we don’t remember making them) and we make poor decisions hungover (pizza topped with paneer tikka masala, BRILLIANT) so decisions made under the influence of both at the same time must be SO terrible that they go past the point of ridiculous and cancel each other out and make some sort of sense. Right? Continue Reading

Sugar Lows

I am sure you will all be overjoyed to hear that Mission Make The Dress Less Small was successful, and without having to resort to the weird cling-film wrap treatment that my gym offers.

I admit that the day before the wedding, fearful of mission failure and in a moment of misguided panic I tried on some ‘shapewear’ in Marks and Spencer. After what felt like 10 minutes of trying to get into a ‘form flattering slip’ and subsequently deciding it did nothing for me other than reduce my capacity to move, dance or eat pudding,  I experienced what felt like hours of terror when I couldn’t get the damn thing off. It was so tight and heavily constructed that I found myself in some sort of physical catch 22 where I couldn’t raise my arms because they were caught in a lycra vice but couldn’t take the slip off without raising my arms. I wondered if I was trapped forever in the fitting room; if the staff would find me after closing writhing on the floor, both shoulders dislocated, sobbing “I just wanted the dress to fit”. I got to the point where I almost tried to press the ‘call staff’ bell with my nose thinking they would have to come and cut me out with a pair of scissors. Continue Reading