The Naked Truth

Kat Harbourne and Jen Eells have a podcast. On that podcast, they interview women, from all walks of life about all sorts of things. Its much like several other podcasts that I listen to, except that when they interview their guest, they’re all naked.

It might sound like an odd premise for a podcast. After all, the listener can’t see Kat and Jen or their guest, there’s no live audience to ogle the naked flesh; it is easy to assume that the nudity is a gimmick designed to make The Naked Podcast stand out from the crowd. But after listening to any episode, it becomes clear that there is much more to this podcast than meets the ear. The guests bare all – flesh, stories, emotions, musings – and within a few minutes of derobing, they often sound as though they had known Kat and Jen for years. Even more interesting than the reactions of the guests is the development of the hosts throughout the series. The nerves of the first episode have long since vanished, replaced with a love and respect for their bodies that is not forced, is not artificial, is not saccharine. It is not present 100% of the time – body positivity activists are incredible people, but occasionally it can feel that if you do not love all of your body all of the time, you are not truly body positive. Kat and Jen are honest about their insecurities and open about the journey the podcast has led them on. In the first few episodes, they talk about the slimming group that Kat has joined; by the most recent episode, they are asking their guest, Mary Mutch, to be more forgiving towards her own body.

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The Naked Podcast

Each episode kicks off with the three Naked Truths. These are:

1.How would you describe your body?
2.What are you proudest of your body for achieving?
3.How do you feel about getting naked right now?

When I started thinking about this post, I wasn’t sure whether or not to answer these myself. But the very fact that I started getting uncomfortable when made to consider my own body and my relationship with it convinced me that these are important questions, not only for me, or the guests on The Naked Podcast, but for anyone who covers up in the gym changing rooms, or avoids their naked reflection in mirrors, or has ever tried a diet. So I’m going to answer the first two Naked Truths (the context of the podcast is sort of important for the last one, so I’ll save it in case I ever manage to sit naked with two lovely ladies from Sheffield.)

How would you describe your body?

There are numerous ways to describe my body. From an objective perspective, I’m about 5’6 and blondish. My knees are scarred from hockey pitches, I’ve got slightly rough skin on my arms which I am constantly being told off for messing with. I’m a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) for my height and age (although I’m undecided how much store I set by BMI.) I have a straight line of moles on my neck and a very faint birthmark on my lower back. But before any of this, when I am asked to describe my body the first word that comes to mind is deceptive. I don’t always trust my body, I can’t always accept that what I see in the mirror is a reflection of reality. Sometimes it is too large, sometimes too small, often the wrong shape. Sometimes I am happy with what I can see, sometimes I am frustrated – I am rarely at peace with it, but increasingly I can maintain a ceasefire instead of all out war.

2. What are you proudest of your body for achieving?

I find this question easier than the first. I don’t need a consistently positive relationship with my body to recognise that it has achieved a lot in the past three years, despite my best efforts. The obvious – but no less truthful – answer is that I am proud of my body for getting me through a marathon. It got me through the 26 miles, and it got me through the hundreds of miles that I did for training. It healed injuries, dealt with the Beast From the East and coped with every mistake I made, from nutrition to training to clothing. But I am also proud of my body for getting me through my eating disorder. I abused and bullied my body, I denied it the fuel it needed to function. I pinched, pulled and pummelled it, forced it to devour itself in order to exist. And yet it survived, and I will always be proud of my body for that.

Find The Naked Podcast BBC Sheffield, The Naked Podcast, or follow them on Instagram at @TheNakedPodcast and Twitter at @TheNakedPodcast

Nanette

Hannah Gadsby is not a victim. Her story has value. She has a right to tell it, to be heard and understood. And she does it spectacularly.

‘Nanette’, Hannah’s Netflix special, is stand-up at its best, but it breaks all the rules of comedy as we understand it. It is a beautifully crafted tirade, a brutally honest lesson and a brilliantly funny show. Seamlessly weaving gender, sexuality and childhood trauma with art history and laughter, Hannah takes the audience through her story – the whole story, not one that has been sacrificed for a punchline – and uses it to demonstrate and rail against the abuse that she and others have faced. Growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997, meant Hannah was a gay woman who had been raised on homophobia. The internalisation of this hatred led to an adolescence “soaked in shame” and it is Hannah’s journey from this confused childhood to her mother’s apology in the middle of Target that forms the basis of ‘Nanette’.

A story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, but a joke, Hannah says, only has a beginning and a middle. The fact that she and her mother now have a fantastic relationship is no use to a joke that focuses on her mother comparing being gay to being a murderer – “well, you would hope it was a phase.” Breaking down the anatomy of a joke, Hannah describes how the comedian creates tension, and then saves the audience from the tension with a punchline. The best comedians are excellent tension diffusers, and Hannah has been diffusing tension all her life as a survival tactic. The story she tells of nearly being beaten up at a bus stop does not end where she leaves it, the potential threat dismissed in a funny quip. Later in the show she describes how the man came back to assault her, and the tension she creates is no longer diffused by cutting the story short with a punchline. She leaves it in the air, allowing the audience to sit with that tension as she has done all her life, refusing to save them from it. Stories, not laughter, is the best medicine, but only when told and heard in full. For years Hannah’s story has been frozen at its trauma point, the tension repeated every time she tells that story on stage – “you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In ‘Nanette’ there is no manufactured relief through laughter, but instead, an overwhelming sense of catharsis that can only come when a story is told in its entirety.

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Photo credit: Marie Curie

Hannah has been performing stand up comedy for a decade, creating a career based on self-deprecation. ‘Nanette’ is a declaration of her refusal to do so anymore. For those “existing in the margins” self-deprecation is not a show of humility, but a necessity to seek permission to speak, a required humiliation. Occasionally, Hannah is mistaken for a man, and is amused by those who frantically apologise after calling her ‘sir.’ Instead, she points out that the mistake allows her to briefly be “top-shelf normal, king of the humans…a straight white man.” And it is straight white men who are at the centre of Hannah’s anger. For the first time in history, men are a “sub category of human.” Campaigns such as #MeToo and podcasts such as The Guilty Feminist mean that they are no longer neutral category creators, but are a category themselves. The show ends on a piece she addresses directly to the white straight men in the audience. She doesn’t believe women are better than men; they are just as fallible, just as corruptible. But power is in male hands, and those hands are not up to the task of wielding such a weapon. When Hannah says “I am not a man-hater, but I am afraid of men” she summarises how many women feel. Being afraid when you are the only women in a room of men, or walking home, or waiting at a bus stop – it is not tangible and it is not hatred, but it is omnipresent and oppressive.

There is so much more to Nanette than I have explored here. Hannah makes her art history degree both hilarious and poignant, talks openly about how mental illness is ‘not a ticket to genius’ but a ticket to nowhere and brutally dissects the gendered boxes we create from day dot. If she does quit comedy it will be a monumental loss, but she is a sparkling addition to humanity. If you haven’t yet watched it I can only demand that you do; if you have already, I can only hope that you look at Van Gogh’s sunflowers in a new light.

Recovery

Almost two years ago, I found myself in a toilet stall in Malaysia, on the phone to my parents back at home, verbalising for the first time that my mind no longer felt like my own. After a month away from home, the Anorexia that had been controlling me through much of my final school year had grown into spitting, skeletal monster that had wrapped itself around my brain, distorting my perception of everything around me. The relief I felt when I finally said the words out loud was unparalleled, and in the weeks following my return home I felt like progress was being made. I had accepted I had a problem. I was receiving the counselling and nutritional guidance I needed. University still seemed like a sensible goal come October. Surely, the gap from diagnosis to full recovery would be a matter of months?

Unfortunately, this was not the case. I spent large parts of my recovery being told that I was brave for talking about my illness, and that I had overcome the biggest hurdle by accepting that I was unwell. But for several months after my first counselling session, I continued to feel that surge of euphoria when I stepped on the scales and the number dropped. I continued to weigh out my food, count my steps and calories, continued to overexercise. Recovery is not the neat, brief process I had imagined it to be, and accepting I was unwell was not the most difficult part. In fact, it became a new tool for the Anorexia to use; if I had accomplished this step, there was no need to try new foods or gain the weight back. As long as I was talking to people about the fact that I was unwell, I didn’t actually need to do anything to address the problem. I ended up in a bizarre situation where I could openly discuss my plans for recovery whilst edging closer to hospitalisation; I took a twisted pride in my manipulation of the situation, kidding myself that I was fooling those around me into believing I was engaging in recovery even whilst I faded into a bruised and delusional skeleton.

 

Recovery is not a smooth process, and it does not take mere months. I took an enforced gap year and when I finally reached university just over a year after my original diagnosis, it was not the experience I had been led expect from friends and the media. How to manage freshers’ week when you can’t bring yourself to drink alcohol for fear of ‘wasted’ calories? How to talk to someone you like when you are internally assessing every physical flaw you possess? How to deal with deadlines when you are too depressed to get out of bed? I made some fantastic friends, have a hugely supportive family and have medication to manage my depression, but first year has been a struggle. I have recently returned to counselling after verging on a relapse during exam season, and have been booked in for a bone density because I have not had a period in over two years. The fantasy of the rapid recovery I had talked about with my parents over the phone in Malaysia is laughable now, but not an uncommon perception. Mental health recovery is not smooth, it is not a journey of self discovery, it is not glamourous. I am still on antidepressants, still obsessed with food, still capable of spending hours at a time in front of a mirror dissecting my body. The body that may not be able to bear children because of what I have put it through, the body that I continue to berate and critique on a daily basis. 

Recovery is the best thing I have ever done, but let no one tell you that it is not brutal. It is necessary. It is the only option, but it may take years and it will not be without struggle. Do not be cosseted by the notion that talking is enough; it is crucial, but you have to act on your words. I have to act every day to prevent the monster feeding on my hunger, and it is empowering, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. But it is a battle I am proud of and a battle that is happening in every country, city and home every day. You are more than your illness, more than your recovery and every action you take creates a new identity that is not defined by these things.

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Previously posted on https://foodfitnessflora.blog

An Italian Love Affair

Before I begin, it is important to note that I am not a seasoned traveller and have been to Italy only twice in my life. I am not a natural in hot climates and I despise olives, anchovies and driving on the right. But as I sit here drinking my cappuccino and my insalate miste (pretty much fluent, I know), I can proudly say that I am of Italian persuasion. I adore the country, the people, the food…I am essentially a groupie for Italy.

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A trattoria in Corniglia

My parents first took my sister and I to Italy three years ago, taking us to the Amalfi Coast, Rome and Venice. On our second day, we were sat on a beautiful square, hands sticky with gelato, when an impossibly glamourous group arrived at the church opposite. Swathes of floral silks and gaudy linen filled the square until the church steps were heaving with beautiful young things, the air full of rapid Italian. Men with heavy gold watches and sky-blue shoes paraded across the piazza, women in red-bottomed heels postured on the steps and after an hour of blatant gawking it became clear that we were watching the most surreally beautiful wedding between two Roman gods. I was the captive audience to the unwitting performers, bewitched by the clash of cultures and beguiled by the grandeur taking place in this tiny village by the coast.But though the glamour of the coastal marriage gave me butterflies, what convinced me that this was more than a fling was arriving in Venice. Rome was beautiful, earthy, and baking hot, and we hiked from monument to monument, finding relief in the shade of gelaterias. But if Rome was a scorching summer romance, then Venice was my soulmate. It has a Dior store next to a shop that sells only theatre masks. It has tiny alleyways that require a deep intake of breath to squeeze through, only for that breath to be released in a quiet exclamation as you alight upon another beautiful, hidden piazza. There are artists on every corner and every snap even the most amateur of photographers captures is exquisite. Venice is a paradise, it is manna for the soul. You leave thinking that there must be something in the water, and that whatever it is has soaked from the canals into the very walls of the place, into the blood of the Venetians.

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The harbour in Porto Fino

As I type this I am again in Italy, having spent the day hiking through the Italian Riviera. I have wobbled up the Tower of Pisa, I have wandered through the beautiful hotchpotch that is Genoa and I have eaten slices of watermelon larger than my head. I have gazed through shop windows at Gucci bags and handmade postcards, chatted to a beautiful waiter and and a lady who was was so old and plump that she resembled a beaming walnut. I have been bitten by a horsefly, given myself wonky tan-lines and walked until I had blisters. But I have loved every minute and I intend to continue to do so. This is no fling – I am having a red blooded, full bodied Italian love affair.

Freshers’ ain’t all that

Looking back over the first eight months of university, I can count on my fingers the number of times my experience as a fresher matched up with the stories I had been told. The archetypal first year – alternating between blackout drunk and hungover, scraping the 40% at the end of the year and having casual sex whilst making ‘friends for life’ with the girlies – is something I am sure lots of people experience, and more power to them. But I am equally sure that I am not the only person who stepped out of their last exam and felt an overwhelming sense of not having done first year ‘right’, or a distinct feeling of relief that it was all over.

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Revision break views

A quick google of the threads in Student forums shows that whilst you may think everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, we’re all just fumbling through. ‘How to lose your virginity? How to deal with anxiety? What to do as a teetotaller? How to deal with binge drinking?’ Everyone is trying to conform to the university experience they have been sold for years by friends, family and the media. But I would say around a third of my friends have told me they cried almost daily during Freshers’ Week, and getting drunk with a group of strangers in a foreign place is rarely everyone’s idea of fun. There is much discussion about the sensibility of millennials. A 2017 Telegraph article  noted that 40% of under-25s are teetotal, quoting one student from Kings London who commented that he only really goes out once every 2-3 weeks. I don’t doubt that there are people who limit themselves and enjoy exercising self-control on a night out, but they were few and far between in my experience. There are two clashing images of a millennial university experience; it is either a raucous, drunken, rebellious three years, or a period dedicated to study and tutting at those who didn’t get the memo that we’re a ‘sensible’ generation. The last eight months were neither of these things. Some bits were hugely enjoyable, some bits were emotionally draining – to be honest, it was much like most of life.

There is an element of Fresher’s Week that is grin-and-bear-it. I had taken a gap year, and several of my friends from school had confided that Fresher’s Week was not all that, but that first year in general was a total blast. So I gritted my teeth for the first week, joined in the forced fun, dressed up as Harley Quinn, a pick-and-mix bag, a stuffed olive. I made some of my closest friends, and I also rang my parents probably twice a day. I had lovely nights out full of silent discos and dancing, and I had days where I felt hopelessly lost. But I felt comforted by the fact that several of my friends had experienced a similar first couple of weeks and that they had finished first year proclaiming that it was the best time of their lives. Instead, for much of first term I felt that I was learning constantly in every part of my life and it was exhausting. Constantly being open, friendly and enthusiastic was draining when sometimes all I wanted to do was spend the evening curled up with Netflix.

Like 1 in 4 people, I struggle with my mental health, which undoubtably didn’t help. Being prone to anxiety is unhelpful on a night out; depressive tendencies are never fun, but I have friends who have never dealt with either and who also found first year hard work. It isn’t that its more challenging than the rest of life, but it is sold as the time of your life – free from parents, no real academic pressure, surrounded by other hedonistic, interesting people. All of these things are true, but there are also times when you are cramming for an exam, deep into an overdraft and scrolling through instagram seeing what seems to be the entirety of your timeline on one big night out. You might be homesick, you might be stressed, you might simply be a bit lonely. Freshers’ is not one big high, its not one big low – it is a middle ground, it is fine, it is sometimes even good, but it is not all that.