Testosterzone

My gym is a safari of body types. There are young bodies, old bodies, lean bodies, plump bodies, sweaty bodies, hairy bodies. There are bodies lifting barbells, bodies bent over the water fountain, bodies on the running track. I know that some gyms seem to only cater for the lithe and muscular, but my gym is a true hodgepodge – I have seen kids as young as four swinging on bars whilst their parent pumps out another set, and there is an elderly gentlemen with abs of steel and hair to match who is in almost every morning. But this collection of sweating, grunting, heaving bodies is a male safari, and it is a wilderness where the rarest creature is a woman.

It is not that a woman never enters the melee. Often they can be seen in their natural habitat, the treadmill (sorry, I’ve stretched the metaphor far enough)  or even grinding out a long, painful slog on the stepper. But on weight machines, squat racks and benches, women are a rarity. I don’t have access to the membership statistics of my gym, but from purely anecdotal evidence I am often the only woman in the weights section. I am hyper-aware of my femaleness when I enter; often I am the smallest person there, lifting the lightest weights, surrounded by men slapping each other on the back and dropping their weights with a grunt and a clang. I don’t begrudge these men their bromances or their glances in the mirror – I have never been sexually harassed in the gym, and most keep themselves to themselves, churning out their sets and respecting general gym etiquette. But it is not uncommon for women to experience sexism in the gym – between 2013 and 2016, the Everyday Sexism Project received 984 testimonies from women writing about their experiences of sexism, harassment and assault in the gym. I have a friend who has been ogled so often for so long by the man next to her that she now only goes to the gym with a friend; another who was asked if she was lost when she sat down on the bench next to a group of teenager boys.

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Photo creds – my long suffering sister

These cases of sexism are not the only reason women do not venture into the weights section. In the work place, a lack of female presence can be attributed to many factors, a crucial one being unconscious (or conscious) bias during processes such as interviews. All that is needed to enter a gym is membership – the gatekeepers have little power. But society genders exercise; there is still a vague but powerful notion that weights make you ‘bulky’, and are therefore a male domain, whilst cardiovascular exercise is the way to lose weight and is therefore an acceptable form of exercise for women. Although instagram stars such as Grace Beverley, Nikki Blackletter and Alice Liveing are encouraging more women to brave the weights section, in reality there is still a warped perception of how different exercises affect your body. Not only this, but the way in which an exercise is perceived to change your body means that it can be categorised as male of female, rather than simply good for you. There is no reason why an overweight man cannot use a treadmill to improve his cardiovascular fitness, and there should be no reason why a woman who wants to be stronger shouldn’t use dumbbells to do so. For those who are still concerned that weights will make you ‘manly’ – a tricky word in itself – women simply don’t have enough testosterone for this to occur. Will your muscles grow? Yes. Will you feel stronger? Yes. Will you look more ‘toned’? Yes, possibly. But you will not end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger (and neither will most men).

The combination of a reluctance on the part of women to enter the weights section and cases of sexism mean that women who do lift weights are often in a minority of one. To look around and see only men bigger, stronger and more numerous than you heightens anxiety, makes you hyperaware and triggers something akin to a survival instinct. This is not a conscious reaction, nor is it the fault of the surrounding men, but it is nevertheless uncomfortable, as though you have walked into a meeting and silence has immediately fallen; you don’t know they were talking about you, but the nagging paranoia and tension remains.

I will continue going into the gym and lifting weights. I feel empowered, it is cathartic and I enjoy it. But I will also continue to wear headphones, to avoid benches next to large groups of men and to feel it is not my place. When the only other woman you see is in the mirror it is difficult not to feel like this, but it is my place, it is any woman’s place and I will continue to try to make it so.

How to Overcome Procrastination

The festive season is coming to an end. The Bountys’ lie dejected in the Celebrations box. The fairy lights will soon be neatly packed away, waiting to reemerge next year in an inconceivable tangle. A sense of foreboding returns as work, school and university responsibilities shake us rudely awake from our Betwixtmas slumber. I have once again taken to idly scrolling Instagram for others’ New Year’s resolutions; such are the traditions of January.

January, for me at least, is an entire month of that anxiousness you feel before public speaking or an interview. You are stressed because of an upcoming event – in January’s case, the entire year – but bored because nothing is happening right now. It is precisely this feeling which drives me to procrasti-baking. Whilst in school, I was a procrastination connoisseur. I would miss deadline after deadline, often because I was terrified that my work would not be up to scratch, the solution to which was simply not doing the work in the first place (or so my therapist said). It is a blessing and  a curse; I am now excellent at deep cleaning my room and bullet journalling, but I do have to keep a check on it. Unfortunately, university is not so forgiving when you hand in a piece of work four weeks late alongside a beautifully crafted story about how your laptop broke and the printer ran out and your dog ate the essay entitled ‘Is Heathcliff misunderstood in Wuthering Heights?” (Spoiler: no.)

Jokes aside, procrastination is not as fun as it appears. I was frequently filled with an appalling sense of dread as deadlines approached, and my procrastination was often simply  trying to bring myself down from the edge of a panic attack in the school toilets. It was not that I did not want to do the work, but that I wanted to do it perfectly and the thought of not doing so was paralysing. But you simply cannot procrastinate at a professional level and succeed in other areas; it is a full-time job.I am not exaggerating about the therapist. It was a major talking point in our chats about eating disorders, anxiety and depression – I tried hypnosis, Cognitive Behavioural, Therapy Dialectical Behavioural Therapy,…procrastination was always in there somewhere. And from all these fun, joyous sessions I picked up a couple of tips which have made my procrastination manageable, however tempting blissful ignorance might be.

1.Write a list

I’m not going to tell you how to do it. Some people say biggest thing first; some say easiest. Some say write a ‘To Do’ list and then a ‘Done’ list; some say write one every day, week or month. However you write your list, it really does help. My dad would often describe my stress and anxiety as a wall. As one, solid, towering object it was insurmountable, but if I broke it down into individual bricks, it became scaleable. Of course, I frequently use list writing as productive procrastination – advanced procrastination where you do small ‘productive’ things to avoid a looming deadline, but lists tend not to be infinite and so this only works for a limited period of time. You really can break tasks down to the minute level if you need. Essay To Do lists , for example, often included:

  • 1. Title
  • 2. Introduction
  • 3. Google (insert complicated term)

etc, etc.

2. Do SOMETHING

It’s all fine well writing the list – now start it. It doesn’t need to be the first bullet point. It doesn’t need to be the most important task, the most terrifying one, the most urgent one. Once you make a start on the list, it seems less scary. After you’ve crossed off ‘write title and date’ you can start on ‘make bed’ and before you know it, you’ve crossed off ‘hand in history coursework.’

3. Buy the Forest app

Or any app, but this one worked for me. Each time you want to focus on a task, but your phone keeps telling you that Urban Outfitters have a sale, or that your mum has texted, or that your group whatsapp has imploded in a discussion conducted entirely though Kardashian gifs, simply tap on the app and viola. A little tree will be planted, and the longer you ignore notifications (or better yet, turn them off) the more intricate and beautiful your tree will be. If you do succumb to the call of technology before the tree is fully grown however, it will perish and you will be forced to live with the guilt of killing such a divine being. As an added bonus, as you are growing your adorable forest of lemon trees and cacti, you can also plant a real tree in a real forest, and cross ‘help the environment’ off your ‘To Do’ list as well.

4. Procrastinate efficiently 

If you can’t go cold turkey, there are some things you can do to reign your procrastination in. Find a thing that is still ‘productive’ and has a limited time period to distract yourself before you face up to the main task. My favourite is procrasti-baking, but it has to be something relatively quick, like cookies or brownies – no Bake Off showstoppers for me. At university, I’ll go for a walk or listen to a podcast. Most people have some admin shoved in a drawer that could be filed away. As long as what you are doing is at least pretending to be productive and has a short time frame – thirty minutes at most – you can start to ween yourself off the thrill of endless hours pointlessly and pointedly avoiding eye contact with that essay.

In Defence of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’

Christmas is my favourite time of year, no question. The cold, the food, the presents…the music. But there is one song that dominates the radio waves by its absence and the thought pieces by its presence – Frank Loesser’s ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ This year, in what is being heralded as a ‘post #MeToo’ era, the song was banned by several US radio stations. Glenn Anderson, a host of the radio station Star 102, blogged that the song was ‘manipulative and wrong.’ Other critics of the song argue that it pushes the boundaries of consent, that it is outdated and that it is unfit for a 2018 Christmas.

The song, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, is a call-and-response duet written for him and his wife to bid farewell to their guests at a housewarming party. But as awareness of rape culture and toxic masculinity have developed, so too have critiques of the song as an ‘ode to statutory rape.’ The general gist of these criticisms is that the song essentially describes a man getting a woman progressively more drunk and coercing her to stay the night rather than return home, under the pretence that ‘baby, its cold outside.’

However, although it is certainly true that much of the time, context is a weak defence – 1970s television stars spring to mind here – it is relevant regarding some of the song’s more controversial lyrics. The oft cited ‘say what’s in this drink’ phrase was common in 1940s and 50s popular literature and cinema, often after a character had accidentally revealed a truth or secret. Could it still be a reference to drink spiking? Yes, obviously. But the audience at the time would have been unlikely to make this connection, and I have definitely uttered the words ‘what have you put in this?’ after a friend has mixed me a particularly strong drink.

The only singer who suggests a drink, or a cigarette, is the woman, and her concern is predominantly with the suspicions of relatives and neighbours if she were to stay over at a man’s house. The overwhelming image is a women trapped, not by her lover’s advances, but by the gendered constraints placed on her by society. The idea that she might be seen in the company of a young man and the rumours that might swirl around her if, god forbid, they committed the sin of sex before marriage, would be the ‘talk tomorrow.’ If we are to be outraged by anything, it should be the scandal and debasement female singer wold face in comparison with the oblivious, carefree approach the male singer is granted in his sexuality and flirtations.

The song is outdated, not because it encourages sexual violence, date-rape or coercion, but because it is an explicit demonstration of recent history’s gender inequality. We cannot rewrite history for modern times and simply ignore the oppressions that still exist in society. ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ should be treated as many other songs from the past are treated – as a cracking tune that can provide a insight into the era it represents. Projecting modern sensibilities onto historical events is useful and can highlight flaws and characteristics of historical periods, but it should not necessarily lead to the erasure of a song that at most highlights the gender inequalities that still exist to this day.

If we want to stamp out rape culture, we could start by eradicating the victim blaming of the lawyer who used a victim’s underwear to justify the actions of her alleged attacker. We could teach boys that they are not entitled to girls’ bodies, and we could actively investigate a judge who issues fines and probation rather than prison sentences to rapists. But we can do all this whilst enjoying a festive song to remind us of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

The Rise and Rise of the Modern Witch

As Halloween looms, the witches are rising. These witches carry placards not broomsticks, but they are following in the footsteps of women who have for years thrown off oppressive authorities and struck fear into the hearts of the ruling powers. Women have been associated with a dark magic for thousands of years – in the late nineteenth century, Chinese rebels attributed control of the wind and defensive powers to prepubescent girls called ‘the Red Lanterns’, and menstruating women were hugely powerful weapons in battle.

The patriarchy has oppressed this female power for centuries – within the West, the traditional concept of witchcraft is heavily influenced by the Christian notion of a theosophical battle between good and evil, with witchcraft generally associated with evil. This resulted in years of persecution, but modern day Christian views range from intense belief and opposition, to non-belief, to approval in some churches. Modern witchcraft has become an established branch of modern paganism and the shroud of secrecy around witchcraft is lifting. Beyond the Western world, many cultures continue to have widespread practices and cultural beliefs that in English are loosely grouped together as ‘witchcraft’. Historically, attitudes towards these beliefs wereoften heavily influenced by Western hostility towards witches, and witch hunts still occur today.

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But as modern day witchcraft emerges from the shadows, the movement is stoking the fire of feminism. In the 1960s, several US groups campaigned under the acronym ‘WITCH’, from the Women’s International Terrorism Conspiracy from Hell to Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harassment. More recently, the rise of the#MeToo campaign has been mirrored by a rise in the number of women identifying as witches and several witchcraft traditions are increasingly focussed on sexual assault and right-wing politics – a coven recently met to hex Brett Kavanaugh, and mass hexing followed Trump’s presidential inauguration. Against a US administration quick to brand any criticism as a witch-hunt, the so-called ‘nasty women’ have reclaimed the name and the movement to turned the tables on the president.

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However cynical you might be about the magic or power of witches and their hexes, there is no doubting the community building power of such rituals. The term witch has been used for centuries to signify fear and empowerment, often at the same time. The contradictions that modern witches embody – sexually empowered but psychologically mystical,possessing hidden knowledge but led by instinct, eccentric and haggard but intensely seductive – allow for the intricacies that are innate to all people, but often denied to women by the madonna/whore dichotomy. Modern witches are complex, varied and powerful. They are the nasty women the patriarchy fears and they are rising.

Shake Your Woolly Pom-poms: Winter’s Coming

As Noddy Holder once nearly said, ‘Its WIINNTTEERRR.’ I am, according to one friend, ‘a bit weird about winter.’ But although  I might be in a minority when it comes to the cold, as a nation, we can get quite emotional about the changing seasons. One in fifteen of us are affected by Seasonal Affected Depression, and the excitement that consumes us (and can grind us to a halt) during a surprise heatwave or snowstorm, although often mocked, is genuine nonetheless. We are obsessed with weather and the rituals that comes with the changing of the seasons, such as my family’s refusal to eat porridge before September 1st. My family in particular has quite visceral reactions to the shift in seasons. There are already complaints about the chilly mornings, the early nights and the mounds of leaves along the pavement – I truly believe that my mum in particular is only in England as a result of some terrible mix-up. Somewhere in Southern France, there is a sunburnt woman who dreams of the persistent drizzle of Manchester and a good stew.

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Frosty uni, toasty Lauren

Since the age of four, most of us have had our annual schedule set by school holidays, so it’s not surprising that as summer approaches, many of us are taken over by a child-like joy. We stroll around, happy in the knowledge that there is no maths homework looming, no presentations to prepare for. Instead we can wander aimlessly, spending our pocket money in Claire’s and slurping ice cream. Of course, the reality for anyone who has long since left education behind is that everything is exactly the same as it was two months ago, except that day drinking is now acceptable and it becomes clear that no jacket is the right weight for a British summer. But whilst we greet summer with open arms, winter is regarded with distinct distain. My mum has been campaigning for a christmas in the sun for years, and she’s not the only one who awaits the long nights and frosty mornings with a sense of impending doom.

I think its time, then, that somebody stood up for winter. The accepted rhetoric that November to February is a barren wasteland of drizzle and cynical christmas marketing means that you do have to search a little deeper for the joy of a cold day, but it is there. I find winter simply delicious. To be able to step outside onto a crunchy carpet of frost and see trails of mist rising off a river whilst wrapped up in an oversized jumper, or to cradle a hot cup of coffee and feel the warmth emanate through you; summer might be one long lazy dream, but winter is full of gorgeous snapshots like these. There is no better feeling than entering a warm building when your fingertips and nose are tickled pink by the cold, unless it is being curled up in front of Harry Potter with a toppling pile of lasagne perched on your knee.

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Winter bonus

Winter smells of gingerbread, pine trees and a the embers of a dying pub fire. Any and all clothing is allowed to be glittery, fluffy and knitted. The build up to Christmas is truly joyous – I dare anyone not to delight in a town sparkling with lights or the sincerity with which Father Christmas letters are written. And it’s not just the festive cheer that I adore. Winter brings people together. They check on their elderly neighbours, bake for the halloween/bonfire/christmas themed cake sale, meet up with far-flung family and friends. Like penguins in the Arctic, winter makes us huddle, sharing our warmth and protecting the vulnerable. Summer is fun, but winter is glorious, and it’s about time we donned a woolly jumper, grabbed a hot chocolate and embraced our inner penguin.

Puppy lovin’

I recently carried out a very brief experiment to see how many times in a day I could give my money or time a cause. On my walk to university, I passed four charity shops, all of which permanently need money and volunteers; I received an average of two emails a day asking me to donate or sign a petition; Facebook and Twitter were full of individuals doing incredible fundraising events with links to a JustGiving page. I have been one of those trying desperately to find the happy medium of raising as much money as possible while not annoying those around me – it is an infuriating and rewarding process that was almost as tricky as the marathon itself (#humblebrag).

With so many opportunities to give to good causes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. As a nation, we are pretty good at giving money to charity, but less generous with our time. According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), the amount of money donated in 2017 increased, but the number of people giving has fallen, and generally less than 20% of us have volunteered at some point in the last 12 months. In our online world, it is easy to donate online or sign a quick petition. This online activism, or clicktivism, is often scoffed at but it is a crucial part of modern activism – Gina Martin’s upskirting campaign is a brilliant demonstration of how effective it can be. But there is still a need for good, old-fashioned volunteering. A donation cannot lobby MPs. A petition cannot run a shop. A hashtag cannot train as a coastguard.

Apart from a brief stint at the National Trust to get my Bronze DofE – which I am still yet to complete – I am as idle as the next woman when it comes to volunteering. But five months ago, a tiny bundle arrived in my life which convinced me that I can no longer get away with signing the occasional petition. After a bout of Multiple Sclerosis that led to substantial sight loss, my mum has always been interested in training guide dogs. This April that abstract interest materialised into a very real black and gold ball of fluff called Zoe, who collects dirty socks, can never refuse a puddle and patiently waits at the top of stairs. She bops smaller dogs on the nose, inhales her food and is learning to guide someone along a street. My mum walks her every day in her very important blue coat and we all take great delight in explaining that she is a guide dog puppy, and can therefore go wherever she damn well pleases.

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Zoe at eight weeks

For a whole year, the Woodhead world will be controlled by the demands of a creature who barks at her own reflection, before she hopefully goes to continue her training at Guide Dog school. Of course we will miss her more than I ever thought possible. Of course there is a chance that she won’t make it – guide dogs fail for all sorts of reasons. The hours of work that my mum has spent teaching her, worrying about her and loving her may result instead in a gorgeous therapy dog or even just an adoring addition to another family. But a couple of months ago, a partially sighted little boy and his mum stopped us in the street to enquire about the process and say hello to Zoe. Tiny hands followed the curve of her spine, prodded her oversized paws and brushed her mad-professor eyebrows, building a picture of Zoe through touch instead of sight. As they left, his mum explained to him that one day, he would get a dog like that. A dog who could lead him through life, explore countless opportunities with him and anchor him in a world that is constantly unfamiliar and hostile to those without sight.

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Zoe’s ‘Guide Dog Puppy in Training’ coat

It is encounters like this that have convinced me that by helping to train Zoe, my mum is contributing something immeasurable to society. Volunteering takes time, it can be boring and unrewarding. It is easy to feel that a day spent behind the counter of a charity shop, a weekend spent sweeping leaves, or a year spent walking a dog is only a drop in an enormous pond. We are constantly asking ourselves ‘what about x cause, what about y cause’ and it can stop us from committing to anything. But by committing to Zoe we have made a definitive impact. We are all able to make a difference, and Zoe has shown me that however small the drop is, you are still a part of that pond.

You can help support Guide Dogs UK here or search for other volunteering opportunities near you on the Do-it Database

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