But I’m Not Ready!

It’s definitely a reason to be cheerful. In Devon last week, people were on the beach in actual bikinis (I was in my boyfriend’s shorts as I’d packed a little pessimistically). Flip flops were flapping well into the night, despite plummeting evening temperatures (I couldn’t feel my feet) and everywhere the glow of red faces that hadn’t seen the sun for about seven months warmed the streets. Spring has indeed sprung, with an early hint of summer.

Arriving back to London, I was brought back to earth with a bump. Underneath the exuberant smell of early barbecue smoke, something more sinister has raised its head. On my way back from a book reading (yes it’s a massive plug, click here for details) I was greeted by the sight of an enormous woman in a bright yellow bikini, not a blemish or blobby bit anywhere, and the highly accusatory tagline, “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” Fantastic. No doubt the gyms are already full of sweaty women,  images of themselves in a pretty dress or said bikini looming large in front of them (the name escapes me but I do remember another ad campaign based entirely on this premise, as if reducing your risk of heart disease or, you know, preventing early death were simply about a quest to look good). It would be so lovely if the arrival of a few days of sunshine could be greeted with a walk in the park, a glass of wine outside a cafe perhaps, rather than a mad dash for the juicer or a new gym membership.

It seems horrifying that such a blatantly sexist advert is still allowed in this day and age. And yes, it is sexist. Having recently devoured How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (If you haven’t, you should) a lot of complex issues are reduced to some wonderfully simple questions. One being, ‘are the boys doing it?’ And in this case, no, of course they aren’t. While I am aware that there are plenty of unrealistic representations of men’s bodies, the tone is rather different. I don’t see them being practically screamed at from a billboard by a giant headless woman for being a lazy cow and daring to let your figure morph into some sort of hideous slop that self-respecting people don’t want paraded in front of them while they’re trying to defend their ice cream from a marauding seagull. I don’t appreciate being told I can’t wear what I like on the beach unless I’ve substituted real and natural food for some protein powder that turns you into a fart machine. Believe me, I know.

It is ridiculous that we are still subjected to such a narrow ideal when it comes to beauty. I am aware that they have a job to do and a product to sell, but it is so all-pervasive I find myself swayed by it even when I am aware of what it is doing. I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Personally, I stare at her flat stomach and thighs, an area of personal concern, while others will look at the round boobs or the narrow top of the arms. And it gets everywhere. I restrained myself from protesting to someone on the train that I’d actually been for a run, when I overheard comments about obesity while I was eating a Mars bar on the tube (have you noticed? Women hardly ever eat chocolate in public). The impact of this stuff is too important to be understated. A frightening study recently found that being underweight could drastically increase your chances of dementia. This does not surprise me. Bouncing on and off fad diets, starving yourself, juicing, eating nothing but carrots and kale, none of these options is going to give you the right amount of nutrients in order to secure proper brain and body function. It reminds me of that bit in Bridget Jones’ Diary, where she had genuinely forgotten that calories were necessary, rather than people just being greedy and breaking their diets.

Not to mention the psychological strain it puts us all under. I was incredibly moved by a TED talk which discussed the impact body image can have. It questioned all the things that women could achieve if they weren’t worrying about how they look. I know I’d get a damn sight more useful things done if I neglected my hair removal routine, or didn’t spend twenty minutes deliberating over what to wear, or whether or not to eat a creme egg. I could have sorted out world hunger by now. Or at least learned a language. Maybe figured out how to make scones that rise. It wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t perpetuating this crap ourselves. Just this week Pink had to defend herself to abusive comments about her weight (some of them couldn’t spell which cushions it a bit) and Kelly Clarkson has also been criticised for daring to stop constantly worrying about how her body looks. All of which continues to support the notion that a woman, first and foremost, is defined by her external looks. Enough is enough.

So what is to be done? In sync with the fabulous Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet in The Guardian, I think it’s about time we stood up to these companies and made it very clear that we are sick of being bullied by their lazy excuse for advertising. Next time you see something that is encouraging you to feel ashamed of how you look, do something. Tweet about it (including the brand), mention it to a friend, put it on Facebook, take a picture on Instagram, anything that allows the message to be disseminated as widely as possible. And then the question can be turned on its head, asking them if they are ready to stop disgraceful and sexist body-shaming to make a few quid.

New Year, Same Trousers

This was the first January I’ve managed not to feel guilty in possibly my entire adult life (the exact beginning of this is debatable, but still).

Having said that, in previous years, my guilt was always tainted with annoyance. It is grossly unfair that merely days before the very same media who were shoving cake, cream and alcohol down our necks are suddenly chastising us for being fatties. Christmas and the surrounding months are such a strange time of year – maniacal enthusiasm, sparkly tinsel and the mulling of everything (of which I am most definitely a fan) followed by complete abstinence and endless adverts for gym membership. In this most schizophrenic of seasons, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and constantly lagging behind.

But not this year. At the risk of sounding smug, I actually went for a run on Boxing Day morning. Admittedly, my good deeds didn’t go as far as restricting my cheese and wine consumption that evening, but at least I started out well. What I might finally have achieved (it has only taken 34 years) is sustainability. Because ultimately, that is the issue. I read this week that over 50% of people gave up on their healthy resolutions by this week, with another 20% predicted to fall off the wagon next week. These are not encouraging statistics, particularly given the UK’s standing in terms of obesity across Europe. The most cited reason for giving up was the lack of ‘difference’ it made. For this, part of the blame has to go to Reality TV shows like the awful Channel 4 series that pits fat people against each other, or the endless weight loss foods and programmes we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It’s all quick fixes and fad diets, many of which I’ve tried over the years. I had to stop the 5:2 fast diet because I was so irrationally grumpy on fast days. Not only were they unsustainable, they also ceased to have any effect as soon as I stopped.

My other concern is that they mostly focus on diet food. I’ve long been dissatisfied with the low-fat diet products available on the market. The fact is that if you take the fat out of something like cake or yoghurt, you have to replace it with something. Usually, it’s sugar, or artificial sweeteners. But then no-one is going to tell you not to eat processed food, because they make billions in taxes each year. The world’s healthiest diet can apparently be found in Iceland. Not because of a magic ingredient or biscuits being illegal, but simply because they mess around with their food a lot less. It’s simple – from food to mouth, the less that’s done to it, the better.

That’s not to mention the fact that the main focus is more often than not, only based on diet. Of course, what you eat makes a massive difference, but the impact exercise has on your entire body and mental health just can’t be substituted. So what’s my secret? It is beautifully summed up in a conversation a friend of mine had in the gym:

“You look great. What’s your secret?”

“I don’t eat a lot of junk food and I exercise regularly.”

“Oh.”

Exactly what people don’t want to hear. Ultimately, only a change in lifestyle will lead to any lasting effect on your body.

About seven years ago, I started running. My family was never particularly sporty, so I basically gave up all forms of exercise after PE stopped being compulsory. Also, as I’m incredibly competitive but pretty unskilled, I quickly got frustrated with squash, netball, hockey, or anything where I couldn’t quickly get to a level where I at least had a vague chance of beating someone. With running, I’m only competing against myself. Which I do. Having an app that measures distance and speed, and sends me little encouraging emails, I can easily improve on goals and set targets. Interestingly enough, I haven’t lost that much actual weight. Probably less than a stone. I’m still a size 12. I am however, very differently shaped. Much more toned, leaner and stronger. Also, FYI, going for a long run on a Saturday morning is a great way to pre-emptively avoid a hangover, and makes a Sunday roast not just appealing but necessary to replace lost calories and proteins. It’s also changing the way I see my body. I’m losing the association of lighter=thinner=better. I love that I’m able to run for the bus, play netball with my nieces and nephews and have an impromptu game of badminton without getting out of breath. I finally see what my PE teacher at school was talking about! I am able to see my body as an amazing, strong tool for achieving things, not just something to look good.

For some people, the idea of taking up regular running is about as appealing as pulling out your toenails. And hey, a few did drop off when I had shoes that were too tight. But the boring news is, a healthy, fit and fabulous you will not emerge in three weeks. Or even three months. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that it isn’t worth striving for. It’s difficult, it takes practice, but it feels pretty amazing when you get there. If you need motivation, check out this fantastic campaign: http://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk

What are the things that help you feel strong and healthy? Post below!