The Body Beautiful

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Some of you may know I write another blog, which has taken a bit of a back seat while I got this one up and running. Over in that corner of the web I write mainly about running and fitness stuff. Its been my way of tracking my improvement over the years. I geek out about gadgets and new running kit and get overly emotional about PBs and race reports.

What I have come to realise is that its very difficult to keep that part of my life separate from my day to day, because it has finally become my day to day. A cursory glance at my instagram lately will attest to that. R commented last week that he rarely sees me in any anything other than lycra. He got a bit of a fright when I got home from work and I was wearing A DRESS. I rarely wear heels any more and I discovered while trying to find some ‘going out’ clothes that I am woefully bereft of any clubbing attire. But I am not bothered, I realised through a fog of endorphins on Sunday post Hackney half marathon, that I am happiest when I am outdoors in the sunshine, post run, wearing short-shorts, a cut-off tee and eating pizza.

Which is why there’s a running post in the non-running blog. Six races this year and counting. I can barely believe  it myself. But its all on Facebook so it must have happened. What has happened to me indeed?

I was not a sporty child. It’s true that I came stone cold last in more than one cross-country race in primary school where running was a torturous punishment. We had to wear tiny blue culottes (or skorts as they are now known) made of  hideous fabric that was highly flammable and itched like mad. I hated swimming too. The pool  had green algae on the sides  that was slippery to the touch and to combat it, bucket loads of chlorine was liberally thrown in while we were swimming so our eyes burned and our skin crawled tight for hours afterwards. Netball was worse, I was short so was usually given Centre, but lacked the fitness to do that position any real justice. Needless to say I was not picked for teams.

Tennis was marginally better, but by then my confidence was shot and I lacked the  incentive to try. I just made a fool of myself, so what was the point? Outside of school was no better. I was useless at Ballet and Modern dance, resenting anyone who found it effortless, and spending most of my time sulking and squinting because the bun was too tight.  It wasn’t worth getting sweaty for and the girls were all horrid.

The common problem was that there was  a huge disconnect between what I WANTED my body to do (Hit ball with racquet) and what it WOULD do (hit self in head with racquet).  A combination of lacking hand-eye co-ordination, and a will to get better through practice, given how bloody awful it was, meant I gave up.  I assumed I had been given brains instead, and believed on some level (incorrectly) that you couldn’t really have both. An assumption which helped justify and fuel my hatred of sport for years, as I thought it was really just for dumb jocks. Looking back on it I was given ample opportunity and was probably more than a little lazy. But at the time I felt on some basic level that my body had just let me down and I didn’t trust it.

My teenage years did very little to help me gain any confidence in my body. It was unpredictable, in the way that teenage bodies are. It was embarrassing and marvellous and frustrating. Hormones and and boys and bra shopping, the endless debates with friends about what was and wasn’t ‘normal’. The horrendous urban myths about sex  (that are out right dangerous and traumatic) made worse by the terrible sex-education that wasn’t really anything other than a biology lesson. Then finally discovering Forever by Judy Blume (GOD BLESS JUDY BLUME).

But mostly my body never  felt like my own. It was constantly misbehaving, getting bigger in places, smaller in others and wobblier. Crippling self consciousness coupled with the fact that everyone has an opinion, made me feel like an exhibit on display. Sadly, as a teenage girl this is common. You’re either precocious or a late bloomer.  Everyone wants to know what you’re up to with who and when. Not just  parents who are entitled to know, but  friends, boyfriends, extended family members, teachers, doctors. Everyone.  And they tell you too – without prompting. You’re on the cusp and you need watching. Men comment in the street, women make passive aggressive suggestions about being ‘dateable’, shop assistants raise their eyebrows, mothers of friends ban you from visiting. Skirts are too short and you’re asking for trouble, too much make-up makes you look like a hooker, walking that way is suggestible, laughing like that is questionable.  Endless rules about what Good Girls didn’t do and what Bad Girls looked like. You certainly couldn’t be somewhere in between. Or that’s certainly what it felt like. Brains or Sport. Good or Bad. I picked Bad, because frankly it was loads more fun and I could say Fuck You to all the inappropriate questions and rules and expectations because they were (and are) total bullshit. Plus the eye-liner was amazing.

Playing at being a Bad Girl in my teens meant I learned a number of very cool tricks while Being Up To No Good. I could blow perfect smoke rings, doctor broken cigs that had been crushed in blazer pockets and was very very good at playing pool. Generally keeping active was in my repertoire (unless it was scaling a wall).  Sport was not cool, it was mainstream and conformist and reminiscent of the military regime.  Most of the party tricks were pretty bad for my health all round, but that didn’t matter because, you know, fuck getting old too. We were invincible at 16, so nothing was ever going to happen to any of us, the consequences were too far away and being young offers a limited amount of bullet proof resilience.

But somewhere along the line my body stopped feeling as though it was part of myself. I practically ignored it, unless it was being  ‘fat’, and then assaulted it with fad diets and weight loss pills. I certainly didn’t feel a lot of love for it and so I stopped feeling protective of it. Instead I continued the rebel without a cause theme into my twenties and smashed it to bits with a toxic cocktail of long working weeks, weekend-long parties, 20-a-day cigs, terrible food and very little sleep.

What was actually happening was a lot more insidious, and it was only in my mid-twenties when my world was rocked by two pretty severe heath scares that I realised something had to change. With healthy kick up the arse from a few professionals, a good dose of courage and some amazing friends, I set about doing just that.

That was seven years ago now and it didn’t happen over night. I still drink far too much coffee and I have a very unhealthy relationship with sugar, but overall the doctor at my last health check was pleased as punch.

Discovering running was a huge part in rebuilding my health. But more importantly, what running gave me back was my mind and the will to get re-acquainted with what my body was capable of. This much neglected, battered up and hugely underrated vessel that recovered slowly at first and then bounced back , was  actually pretty spectacular. My legs  could go for long walks in winter and not get tired, cycle  through mountains in France, run around the streets of Berlin. They could still dance until way past stupid o’clock in Spain. This body that responded immediately to good food, that developed actual muscles, that got faster. Like magic.

Being active for me isn’t about controlling my weight, getting lightening fast, or collecting loads of medals (although all these things are fun). It doesn’t come naturally and I didn’t always love it, but within the structure and discipline of training,  I found something else. It was a healing process. A way to reclaim my body. A way to feel comfortable in my own skin. For every single mile I run I learn a little bit more about who I am.

Learning how to use this particular brand of magic, and to pass it on, comes down to the people I run with, most of whom I’ve met through the inimitable Run Dem Crew.  They support and challenge, they coach and celebrate.   No one is left behind, and it couldn’t be further away from my days of chaffing culottes and grass allergies. Mainly we have a laugh and take on London. But on a Tuesday evening in Shoreditch, there’s enough energy to burn away all the stress, trivial drama and worry that living in a big city can bring and to galvanise a couple of hundred people for a few mythical miles.

Which leaves me happy. In my trainers. At the heart of it I am a big nerd who likes nothing better than a skinny latte and star trek repeats

But that doesn’t give a shit if you think the shorts are too short and isn’t afraid to tell you so

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Harry, Lissy, me and Azra – South Bank June 2014

 

 

 

The Etiquette of Being Invisible

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In a city of 7 million people its preferable to try and make yourself close to non existent to move through the city relatively unscathed and keep the flow of human traffic moving seamlessly. To do this there has to be a combination of written and unwritten rules that everyone abides by. A few are obvious and clearly marked, STAND ON THE RIGHT on the escalator, touch in HERE, let passengers off the train FIRST. There are others that are less so, but enforced just as harshly. Don’t stop in the middle of Oxford Street. Move out of the way if you’re the twat that forgot to check their oyster card had credit before he got to the front of the exit gates. Don’t touch anyone with any part of your body at any time unless forced to do by sheer lack of space. Then and only then is it OK to get up in someone’s face. When reading your local free paper of non-news, don’t stretch your arms too wide and invade person next to you’s space. Turn OFF YOUR KEY PAD on your phone. And never EVER under any circumstances, choose your ring tone in public.When these rules aren’t followed it all contributes to the seething resentment and frustration you can feel jostling around, the rolled eyes, clicked tongues, exaggerated sighs. London excels at being violently passive aggressive.

To be reminded that we are all individual human beings with complex lives carrying trauma and joy within us and all experiencing this tumultuous existence at exactly the same time and practically in the same place is both sensational and devastating to consider. We need to block each other out in order to function. Each of us plays hero in our own story, preoccupied with the small day to day crises we face, all consumed with how everything affects us. And at the same time we play a tiny bit part face in the crowd in another’s. Girl in coffee shop scene 5. Man on ladder opening sequence. You are a blink in someone else’s life. I often wonder, like a true narcissist, how many times I appear in the background of random people’s pictures of touristy London. Girl running past Big Ben. Slowly.

This leads to a strange but not uncommon city paradox that you can be your loneliest in a city of millions of people. That it can be hard to make friends or meet love interests while you zoom past hundreds of people every day. And, weirdly that some behave like they’re in their dressing gowns alone in their bathroom on a rammed tube carriage (I am looking at you lady who clips, files and varnishes her nails on the central line, and you Mr nose-picker. Seriously it’s gross). The lines between public and private are blurred, while trying to be strictly upheld.

Late last year around Christmas, I watched a women try her best not to break down on the train. Sitting completely still and totally upright, twisting her cardigan between her hands. She had tears just rolling down her face. Eventually I broke the first rule of tube law and made contact by offering her a tissue. Turns out she had her heartbroken. Her partner of 9 years had decided he just didn’t feel it any more and walked out the door. She had just left the house to get some air because she couldn’t bear to be in the house they had shared, alone. All of this happening around us every day.

Finding connection is how we feel part of the world, and become more sure about our place in it. With the onslaught of artificial social and digital interaction and the sheer anonymity of the daily grind, it becomes all the more important to find it in real time. To become visible again and not just a face in the crowd or an avatar on the screen. Reaching out and re-establishing those relationships gets harder as we have more pressures on our time, and it’s the reason why my running on a Tuesday is non-negotiable. Finding my place in London again that didn’t centre around the pub or work was largely down to pounding the pavements with RDC weekly and supporting members achieving everything from their first 5km to their 10th ultra-marathon. Its about breaking those rules of unspoken etiquette and reaching out to the city, and the wonderful opportunities it offers

And I am aware of the irony of  advocating this on a blog, promoted through social media, which has me glue to the screen way more than is probably healthy. I’m hoping this trumps mindlessly arguing with random people on Twitter. It certainly beats Candy Crush.