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.

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

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