There’s one pervasive element which affects my mood that I have avoided writing about for a year. This isn’t a depression thing, it’s a living in a society that values appearance over anything of actual worth and importance thing. Yeah, it’s my weight.
And I’ve avoided it, because if talking about how my body gets me down makes me want to roll my eyes as hard as I’m doing right now, imagine how you, reader, must feel. It’s tedious. It’s predictable. It’s shallow? Nobody wants to talk about it and nobody wants to hear about it. But I’ve realised this is exactly why I should probably be breaking it down, on this blog I’ve created for the purpose of uncomfortable levels of honesty.
So – I feel fat. That’s not your cue to jump in and correct me, because you can’t. You can’t tell me what I feel, and you can’t change my mind by dismissing those feelings. You know you can’t, because the same is true when you feel fat and someone tells you that you’re being ridiculous. Which they will. Because they have to. It’s this minefield of a catch-22, in which we’re constantly reassuring each other that we’re no worse a human specimen than we were before those fifteen crème eggs in a week; but the fact we have to insist on this every damn time suggests that, well, actually, we are. Heaven forbid any of us should gain a few pounds, right? Fluctuating in weight is a fact of life for most of us, but please make sure you never once fail to deny this.
I don’t know, maybe some people are talked right out of their body woes by their friends and family berating them for voicing them out loud. Maybe I actually have comparatively high body confidence if I’m able to mention in a conversation that I’ve got heavier without expecting any denials. Maybe I need to just shut up altogether if I’m not looking to be made delusional about this simple truth.
But this is what’s so sucky about feeling fat – the truth is simple; the emotions are anything but. I know that I still average out as slender just as well as I know that slender is an arbitrary standard and nothing to be proud of. I know that if I’ve gained and lost weight before, it can and probably will happen again. And I know that just because I’ve noticed it, doesn’t mean everyone else has. In short, my rational mind is aware that none of this shit matters, and yet my state of mind is taking a sizable hit over this. I would go as far as to call my relationship with my body one of the big influences on my ups and downs.
If the baseline for such neuroses wasn’t so skewed, this might qualify as a cause for concern. As it is, I doubt this comes as any surprise at all. Look at what our perceptions of our appearance can do to a person’s mental health. Anorexia is a killer. Disordered eating passes for just ‘eating’ for legions of us at some time or another. I read an article a few weeks ago that suggested chewing a tablespoon of chia seeds for breakfast on the go. No, really.
I guess it comes back to something I wrote about months ago, about how we value ourselves based on how we think other people value us. Our outward appearance is the first indicator of who we are, after all, even if it’s a poor one in a lot of ways. Granted, we choose factors like our wardrobe and the way we style our hair, and that can say a lot about how we want to be perceived. But it’s the fear of being judged on the other things – like the fact our thighs touch or the blotchiness of our skin; the things we all know full well have no bearing on how interesting, intelligent, witty and kind we are – that’s causing us to lie awake at night regretting crème eggs. This is a travesty. One should never regret a crème egg.
The hilarious and tragic thing is that the older I get, the more remote the idea of thinking a mean thought about somebody else’s body becomes – even if I notice that yes, they have in fact gained weight – so why do I imagine anyone is thinking that way about me? Through no discernible effort, I think I’m maybe getting too wise to be convinced by Instagram or a magazine that there’s one ideal body shape, and that the rest of us are all somewhere on a scale of perfection oriented around it. It’s happening slowly, and periods of low body confidence like this one set me back, but I’m starting to see a distant future in which my mood is free to flourish and wilt only in positive correlation to excessive numbers of crème eggs. By which point I’ll have wrinkles and grey hairs to agonise over instead HA.
Pop quiz: what does today – the third Monday in January; supposedly the single most depressing day of the year – have in common with Marmite? Take a second.
I bet your mind went straight to the love/hate thing, right? And you’re wrong, but you’re not wrong. What Blue Monday and Marmite have in common is a discourse that has slipped into the public consciousness, but was actually invented by a PR company. In the case of Blue Monday, it’s a thing that originally existed to sell you a holiday; preferably from Sky Travel, who claimed to have calculated the date using an equation which factored in the weather, your bank balance, the time since Christmas, and a need to take control of your situation, among other things. As for the Marmite thing? I guess they had to throw their hands up and admit you might hate it, because they had no other way of selling you a salty, black goop made from a single-cell fungus (for the record, I am #teamyeahmarmiteisokayiguess. Take that, consumerism).
But yes, it’s a difficult time of year. You’ve put on weight, you’re probably getting less sunshine than you need, and I’m sure Sky Travel weren’t wrong when they figured we were packing in our New Year’s resolutions right around now. One of mine was to practise yoga regularly, and I could count my practises so far on one hand even if I didn’t have fingers. But I take issue with today being labelled the most depressing for several reasons. Firstly – and I hope my sarcasm translates here – oh here’s a great idea, just in case there’s anyone out there doubting what a heap of trash this freezing, debt-filled, non-festive working Monday is, let’s go ahead and make a big deal about how it literally does not get worse than this. I mean, is there anything more depressing than the most depressing day of the entire year? You don’t need to answer that.
And secondly, please accept my sworn guarantee that this will not be the most depressing day of your year. Okay, you have a one in three hundred and sixty-five chance that it is, but I like those odds. Because life is going to happen to you. There’ll be tears. There’ll be bad news and awful fights and crushing disappointments. You will get ill. You will log on to Twitter and see another heartbreaking hashtag, or a news story that makes you want to punch a wall. And maybe some days, the sun will be shining, your wallet will be heavy, your summer holiday will be booked, your workload will be your bitch, and it’ll still be your Blue Monday. Because whether or not you’re in sterling mental health, the human experience is more complex than an equation about money and the weather. You are more complex than that equation.
Let’s bring this back to me being a massive New Year’s Nerd, because my third point is that this time of year gets a bad rep. I don’t want to be the loser who loves January, but I have got it’s back when people start hating. This is your clean slate, and I get it: it’s hard to swallow when you first scuff it up a bit, or when all the build-up is over you’re still just you, in the same place and the same job, with the same character flaws. But just like all this unexpected bad stuff is going to hit you over the course of 2017, so is the good. Things change – they can change in a second, like the year. Your new beginning doesn’t have to be January first.
In a few short months you’ll be wondering how the year has passed you by, so enjoy January for being the only time all the stuff you’re looking forward to is yet to come. Here, I made a list:
Your birthday, most probably
Valentine’s Day, if you’re gross
All those bank holidays crammed into May
Pink, shirtless men with muffin tops and cans of Carling the first day it’s fifteen degrees outside
Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast, out March 17. No, I’m not sponsored, I’ve just had it in my diary since 2015.
Daffodils, boys and girls. DAFFODILS!
Anyone who has ever rung in the New Year with me is probably aware of the uniquely poignant and philosophical mood it puts me in. I’m the person who asks if you have any New Year’s resolutions, despite no one ever being enthusiastic to hear that question. I’m the person who will swoop on you from the other side of the room if I hear you utter ‘I don’t really care about New Year’s Eve’ and explain in an unsolicited rant why you’re wrong. I’m always the most sober at midnight, because while everyone else at the party has taken the evening as an opportunity to be merciless with their livers, I want to be cognisant, sensitive, ready. In short, I’m a massive New Year’s Nerd (NYN).
I know January first is just another day, but that’s kind of the entire point: every day can be January first if you want it to be! New Year is just our best shot at remembering that. It infuses the lives of NYNs with fresh purpose and motivation. It gives us a dose of live-for-todayness, and if you can maintain it until New Year’s Eve rolls round again, I hear they make smiling pot-bellied statues of you a la Buddha.
This is why I’m so into New Year’s Resolutions as well. I say I’m going to do something differently almost every single day of my life, but if you embrace the New Year, you can make it mean more. Think of how you’re most careful with your belongings when they’re new. If I asked you to stop scuffing the toes on your three year old, worn out boots, it probably wouldn’t mean much to you, because what difference would it make anyway? Looking at your failings and beating yourself up over them is not the way to motivate yourself to do better. But feeling good about the fact that you’ve eaten your five a day every single day this year, even if it’s only January third, is how you become a new you!
But enough. I will probably spend most of January blogging about my renewed enthusiasm. I’m here to talk about this year. 2016. The year that, if the internet is to be believed, literally murdered David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, and a whole load more of your faves. The year of nightclub shootings and [more] bombings in France. The year of Brexit and The Donald FFS. The world at large had a pretty terrible 2016, and almost as if my stars wanted to make a show of solidarity, mine will also not be making any best-of lists when I buy the farm.
Exhibit A: my 2016 New Year’s resolutions, annotated:
Give up alcohol and sugar for all of January.
Get a job.
Here’s the thing: I’ve filled out more applications for part-time work than I’ve admitted to anyone. Things I’m in no way qualified for, things I’m overqualified for, and things awfully similar to what I was doing in my last job. Someone has deemed me unsuitable for every single one. Can they tell my heart’s not in it? Erm, I write a heckin’ exceptional supporting statement, so absolutely not. And besides, some of them I’ve been truly excited about. Are they put off by the long stint of unemployment? It’s highly likely. But whatever. There’s nothing I can do about that other than continue to believe that when the perfect job comes along, I’ll be the perfect candidate.
Publish my novel as an ebook.
Check! This was a big’un and I did it. Could I have done it better? Yes. In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to promote it more in advance of putting it on sale, but I’m not losing sleep over it. Getting it out there and having people I’ve never even met read it has been beyond exciting – and the work that went into it gave me real purpose for a few exciting weeks – but this was never meant to be my big break.
Don’t get ill. All year.
Aim high, right? No, I did not achieve this.
Finish current novel.
There was this schedule, this time last year. This beautiful, colour-coded, thoughtfully planned timeframe for a first draft of book #2. It expired seven months ago, and no, I have not finished my novel. I might have if I’d worked harder, or managed my time differently, or not made that beautiful schedule in the first place, and approached the project without as much pressure. The thing about New Year is that I get to leave the ifs and buts in the past. No, I didn’t finish my novel. Yes, I’m frustrated by that. But it’s not going to stop be putting this one back of my list of resolutions this year.
In the end, I’ve realised it’s not the resolutions that matter when I look back and pass judgement on the year. Or it is, but not in the way I’m valuing them. I pick a list of things I think will help me grow and change, and it’s the growing and changing that makes for a successful year, whether I planned for the specifics last December or not. The problem this year wasn’t that I didn’t finish my novel, it’s that I didn’t finish anything, or start anything either. 2016 never gained momentum. The story arc was lacking. The star did her best with the source material, which was promising in parts, but repeatedly failed to deliver. While 2016 improved on the jarring pacing and frankly atrocious first half of its predecessor, it was probably, in retrospect, damaged by the hype. It was no way near as good as it promised to be.
That’s not to say there haven’t been flashes of brilliance. I visited Barcelona. I started learning Spanish so I can go back. I saw two of my closest friends get married. I started a blog, and the reactions of people who see echoes of their own stories in mine has been more than I could have hoped for. I made my first paycheck as a writer, and I even won an award for the same piece. Yes! I won an award. I taught my dog to high-five; IT’S THE EFFING CUTEST THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN. I’m hashtag blessed, but I’m also living in this agonising stasis, at perhaps the most important juncture of my career (aka the one which dictates whether I will ever have one) – and it’s giving me déjà vu. This New Year looks uncannily like the last one.
Here’s one thing about 2016 though: it’s over. It’s time to try again. I’m still a diehard NYN, and the New Year spirit is already bubbling inside me (not a euphemism for I have been drunk off champagne for the entire festive period, but that too). It might look like I’m Groundhog-Daying this thing, but only Bill Murray gets to live his mistakes again, and I swear on a pair of novelty 2017 glasses, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My name’s Hannah, and I’m an introvert. You may have already got that impression if you’ve read my blog before, or met me, or had in your head a picture of someone who calls themselves ‘a writer’. I can’t imagine I’d have made myself one if I swung the other way. Or, in fact, made many of the decisions I have in the last few years. If I was an extrovert, I think this long stretch of unemployment would have driven me mad with boredom and loneliness. Introversion is an advantage in my case, but a lot of the time, it’s not, and that’s what I’m here to gripe about today – oh, the prejudice!
When I hear other introverts describe themselves – their tendencies to prefer solitude and working alone; their fear of large groups and public speaking; the antisocial/weird/old person inside them who calls a good book and a cup of tea (read: eight cups of tea) a pretty heckin’ perfect Friday night – I’m always sad to hear how defensive or apologetic they are. But I don’t blame them. We’re living in an extrovert world. One of open-plan offices, ceaseless communication and group projects (someone take this spider-chart we made together, crumple it into a ball and choke me with it please).
To 50-60% of you, I probably sound like that closeted misanthrope we all know, jokingly bemoaning being forced to leave the house, or socialise, or God forbid talk to somebody. Because that’s the role you’re forced to play as an introvert. You probably ham it up on occasion, just to be sure everyone knows that you know you’re weird. But you’re not.
I know I’m not. I don’t hate people. I’m not even shy. I am just – by popular definition of the word – a person who prefers to focus their attention on the inner world of ideas and impression, rather than the outer world of people and things. Your point on the introversion-extroversion spectrum is about how you take in information, make decisions, and interact with your surroundings, and it dictates your comfort levels for various stimuli and situations i.e. a crowded dancefloor, a deserted beach, a spotlight on a stage. We all find ways to process and appreciate experiences that suit those on all points of the spectrum, but if you’re not comfortable talking about yourself in front of thirty people on the first day of training at your new job, that’s not a failing on your part; it’s just who you are. Maybe your new boss should have considered a one-on-one exercise as an alternative. Did he even think about that? No, he only thinks about himself.
Whether you’re super introverted, on the cusp of ambiversion (somewhere in the middle), or just questioning, maybe read Quiet by Susan Cain, and allow it to make you feel more secure about yourself. Because everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and yours aren’t worse, they’re just thrown into stark relief in a society that doesn’t appreciate you. Yes, extroverts are better conversationalists, but introverts are more cerebral. Yes, extroverts make better leaders, but introverts are innovators. We need each other, and we need room for our differences.
So embrace being soft-spoken, observant, conflict-averse, solitary, or whatever you are that marks you as an introvert. You’re allowed to have only one or two close friends and be fine with it. You’re allowed to think you work best by yourself. You’re allowed to be wiped out after a weekend of socialising, even when you’ve enjoyed yourself. Raise your tiny, shaking voice and stand up for who you are. Or don’t, because that’s scary.
Remember the other day when we went for a walk, and we found that field of wild poppies and Queen Anne’s lace, and you just lost your shit because it was so amazing? And I just stood there kinda grumpy (because menzies), while you literally frolicked through a field of wild flowers without a care in the world?
You don’t remember? Of course you don’t. You’re not one to dwell on the past. You’re so busy shredding the Vote Leave flyer I gave you to chew on and completely loving it that those flowers don’t even exist to you anymore.
What I’m trying to say, little man, is that you are GOALS. You’re like my life coach. You’re always reminding me to live in the now; to get excited by how amazing everything is; to NAP FREELY. It gets me thinking about how much better we’d all be if we were just like you. And then you start licking your balls and I think maybe not just like you.
You know what else I admire about you? The way you love. Human’s talk about unconditional love and selfless love and sure, we’re capable of those things, I think, but they’re not easy. They take work, and sacrifice, and sometimes that can lead to resentment. Our kind of love is so seldom perfect, but you met mum’s priest that one time and ever since it’s like Christmas morning for you whenever he walks through the door.
I don’t know if you know this about me, Teddy, but I’m really hard on myself sometimes. When I don’t do my best, and when I don’t accomplish my goals, and when I’m not the person I want to be, I feel worthless. And sometimes I try and talk about it with another human. And I’ll be honest with you, little man, most of them are smarter than you. They can have a lot of wisdom when I’m awash with sadness, and they can see me clearly when maybe I can’t.
But I look at you, and you have as much adoration in your eyes as you do when I’m feeling on top of the world. You don’t care about my successes and my failures. You don’t care if I’ve gained weight or haven’t washed my hair. You, too, see me clearly, and you never, ever judge. You don’t even know how to. Just imagine a world in which all we humans were as free from judgement as dogs. Is that the paradise you dream of when you bark in your sleep?
And there’s more. You never lie. You never hide who you are. You never hold your stomach in for a photo or pretend to agree with someone just to fit in. You are your complete, honest self, all the time, and you have never once worried about what the other dogs think of you. You know you don’t have to, because the other dogs are just like you. Just as wise to the simple rules for happiness and the best way to live: authentically, for today, with an open heart and endless wonder.
I think maybe, Teddy, you’re a human’s best friend because you’re so damn good for us. You remind us of our flaws and show us a better way. You’re generous with your joy. You bring us into the moment. You love us no matter what.
So thanks, for knowing how to relax; for being just so crazy excited to see me; for loving the outdoors and nature; for being fascinated by everything; for reminding me to live more like you.
I’ve been keeping a journal for close to a decade now. Why? Because it’s therapy I can do without getting out of bed, and I can recommend it to anyone that appeals to i.e. all of you.
I started when I was seventeen. I had always tried to put the things in my head on paper – either through writing or drawing – and had even tried to keep a journal several times before. But in the middle of sixth form, things started to go south for me, and depression set in. My subject matter went from I had a really great sandwich today to why is this happening to me, and for the first time journaling became a vital outlet for a hella lot of confusion and angst.
I try not to look back on those entries. I don’t think I ever will. When I started writing it was as a record, because I thought that’s what a journal was for, but if I wasn’t such a hoarder I might even throw the old ones away. They’ve served their purpose.
It’s almost like a mental cleansing ritual. I’ve never been much of a sharer, and even though I spill my guts to my friends and my mum way more than I used to, it’s still not always comfortable. Being vulnerable is hard, and sharing yourself with the outside world is scary. From the way you dress to your opinion on that movie you loved that everyone else hated, self-expression comes with the risk of judgement and consequence, and that can make us feel like we have to censor ourselves.
But in a journal you don’t have to. It’s an outlet for all your most brutally honest thoughts and feelings, whether they’re too dark, or too mean, or just incomprehensible to anyone else. There are things in my journal I’ve never said out loud; the only place they exist outside my head is on pages nobody else has seen. I don’t know why it helps to ‘get it out’, but it does, the same way it would to share it with someone, minus the complications that brings.
But more than just sifting through my emotional life, it helps me make sense of it. Something about the act of assigning words to intangible thoughts and feelings brings clarity. I don’t know how it works in your head, but if it’s anything like my noggin, your thoughts don’t come to you in the complete sentences you use to recount them to the next person. They probably don’t involve many words at all. For some, the drawback to keeping a journal might be the difficulty of getting the words out; of actually translating what you’re thinking into English. But that’s just the benefit. It forces you to think more clearly and slowly about what’s burdening you.
I don’t write every day, just when I need to, and I’ve filled more pages in the last year than I did in the previous three combined. In fact, I’ve been relying so heavily on writing down how I’m feeling that I started this blog as an extension of my journal, edited to include only the thoughts I think will most resonate with and help others. Maybe when my journal is filling up more slowly again, I’ll know I’ve turned a corner, but I’ll be sure to keeping blogging.
This morning I made a list of things I like about myself.
If that sounds as ridiculous to you as it did to me at first, then consider why. Having the people who love you compile such a list, and then reading it, would be a boost like no other. But my first reaction when the idea appeared in my mind out of nowhere – as if the self-confidence fairies had planted it there – was that it was a totally pointless exercise. As if it didn’t even matter what I thought.
My second reaction, as shocking as it is, was that it’s somehow kind of icky or classless to feed my own ego like that. Crazy, right? Why do I feel like I’m meant to put myself down? Is it just my own insecurity? Is it something about being a woman? Is it that we’re all trying to straddle an impossible line when it comes to what we appear to think of ourselves? We’re supposed to know how to take a compliment, but be suitably flattered, and somehow appear both confident and humble at the same time. It all means that ego gets a bad rep. It’s become synonymous with how you are branded if you fall too far over the line. But that’s bullshit. As long as you don’t let your ego impact the way you judge or treat others, and as long as it doesn’t make you blind to your privileges and your flaws, then I say feed it up.
Because if Beyoncé has taught me anything (and you know she has) it’s that the one person who should be championing me is me. My opinion of myself is what matters most, and yet I give it so little thought. Worse, even: I actually shy away from scrutinising it. I’m not sure if I’ve just been trained into snobbery about the idea, or if I’m also scared of what I’ll learn. As it stands, the latter could be true. I’m still suffering something like acute writer’s block, and my harshest critic is not being very kind about it (that’s me by the way). It’s got me wondering if I’m ever fair on myself, or if I even know how to be.
I said in a previous post that when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy, but I want to revoke my position. Because I think maybe we’re not always the best judges of our own self-esteem. Unfortunately, there are a lot of exterior forces that thrive on bringing yours down – the beauty industry; Instagram; anything within thirty feet of a Vogue magazine; every clickbait article entitled ‘10 habits of [the type of person you’re not]’; other victims of their own insecurities – so many in fact that we let this milieu of judgement and arbitrary ideals dictate to us our own value, without even really noticing that it happens. Whether or not you think you’re beautiful shouldn’t depend on how you compare to Gigi Hadid, but it probably does. Whether or not you think you’re interesting shouldn’t be influenced by that stupid thing you said three months ago and can’t stop thinking about, but it might. Which is why it’s important to stop and recognise how little it all means, and why the only thing that matters – the only thing that can actually make you happy – is that you like yourself.
And do you? Do you even know? When I tried to answer this question for myself, I kind of came up short. I mean, I think I have a pretty good grasp of my strengths and shortcomings, but that’s not an answer. I know what makes me proud of myself, but I’m not sure that’s an answer either. And I don’t get the impression I’m hard to be around, but that one’s totally beside the point, because I’m not interested in seeing myself the way others see me. I just want my own opinion, unadulterated by anyone else’s. So, I wrote a list.
I came up with six things. I don’t really know what to make of that number – is it very many? Not enough? – but the process was uncomfortably illuminating. I couldn’t help editing myself; I omitted various traits and qualities for being unattractive, or unimportant, or only sometimes true. I found myself pillaging my memory for evidence of my good qualities, mainly in the form of praise. I really struggled to separate my honest evaluation from how I think others perceive me, and it’s kind of blown my mind. I’ve always thought of myself as introspective, and I’m pretty chill about whether people like me, so why can’t I judge myself without them? Can anyone? How easy it must be to get lost in making others like us so we can like ourselves. It’s made me realise how much harder I have to work to be happy with myself; to notice the unkind thoughts and the unfair standards, and to steel myself against influences that make me want to change for the wrong reasons.
So I think you should write your own list. A real, physical, ink and paper list, so you can see for yourself what you really think – or catch a glimpse of it at least. It might not be pretty. Maybe you’ve never really questioned what your self-esteem is doing to you, and this exercise will be a head-trip. Maybe you agonise over what others thinks, but will find you can rattle off fifty things you like about yourself. And maybe you’ll start recognising some things you don’t like – but I think that’s okay. You are flawed and incomplete, and if you can take the good with the bad without tearing yourself down, you’re probably better equipped to deal with everyone else’s opinions too.
I don’t know what to do with my list now I have it. My first instinct is always to turn everything into a competition with myself – how many more things can I add? What can I work on that I don’t like? – but that’s not what this was about. All I want right now is to find the guts to own the things I don’t want to change about myself, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I want to like myself even when I can’t change, when I can’t write, and not in spite of all my flaws, but because of them.
As a final note on the subject, if you can’t seem to boost your own opinion of yourself, then at least breathe easier about everyone else’s, with one of my all-time favourite quotes, from David Foster Wallace:
“– you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”