Thursday, 31 March 2011

Day 20: Half way there

Forty days is a long time (or 46 days if we count the Sundays). Can't believe we're only half way through Lent. I'm wondering how all those people who've given up something for Lent - like chocolate for example - are getting along. I guess I think I'm doing pretty well with my Lent challenge of abstaining from negative thoughts about my body and appearance. I think the one that might need a bit more work is giving up the negative thoughts about my daily 'achievements'. But what's been so amazing about this Lent experiment and this blog has been discovering the array of women and men who are engaged, in whatever way, in this whole body image debate and in a campaign for more self-love and self-acceptance. I've linked to many of them in the past 20 days and there are so many more to mention.

Today I came across this piece on CNN Living: "Want to be happy? Stop trying to be perfect". It was posted late last year, I think, but I found it moving to read - it touched a nerve, I guess. I stumbled on it thanks to a lovely South African friend of mine, Heather Costaras, who founded the Beautiful Life Project. There are so many things to say about Heather and her amazing work that I'll have to come back to her in another post but do check out the link. I really can't do Heather and her work justice with the limited time I have today!

In the meantime, here's another great initiative: the Stop Self Hate Paper - an online collection of articles, blog posts (including this one - thank you for featuring it!), self-help tips etc - created just a few weeks ago by Kendra Sebelius, an eating disorder and body image awareness advocate. Kendra explains in this video why she started the stop self hate movement on Twitter (#StopSelfHate or @StopSelfHate). Kendra also runs Voice in Recovery, which advocates awareness about eating disorders, body image struggles, mental health issues, substance abuse and self-harm. For all the latest research, tips, articles on these topics, check out the website or follow ViR on Twitter @VoiceinRecovery.

So, I've been pondering yesterday's post about the work of Stephanie Heart and that great little prop Stephanie uses: the red rectangle marked on a glass pane with bust, waist and hip measurements and the words "One size does not fit all." In the interests of honesty and full disclosure, I felt the need to say that I'm definitely at the smaller end of the UK dress size scale these days. But I haven't always been. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I used to be larger, and only initially managed to lose the weight through an unhealthy cocktail of over-exercising, diet pills, under-eating and various other behaviours. Today, I just about maintain my shape and size through moderate eating (most of the time - I admit I don't always get it right and can slip back into old behaviours) and moderate exercise. But as I've also endeavoured to point out in this blog, for me the body was never really the problem - it was and is my mind. It never mattered how large or small I was. It was the idea that my appearance, shape or size was never ever good enough that kept me trapped in my own head. So that's what this Lent challenge is about - accepting that my body and I are good enough. I should also add that I have nothing against women who are naturally the size of your average model. It would be very unfair to hold their natural slimness against them - although I'm sure I've done it in the past!

So I've just been for a swim - the third one this week, which is pretty good for me. I've needed it. I've been doing some pretty intense desk work and if I don't have variety and some form of exercise in my day - even if it's just a walk around the park - I go a bit nuts. Exercise is good for my mind, body and soul and there's something very freeing about swimming. I'm fortunate to me a member of a nice gym where someone very clever designed the pool and spa area. At the end of the pool, there's a huge photograph of a beautiful sandy beach and crystal clear water. Every time I swim I'm reminded of the freedom I feel when I'm on a beach or swimming in the sea. I was born near water - even if it was the River Mersey in Liverpool (it's hardly St Tropez) - and feel more free and at peace near the sea than anywhere else. In the spa area of the gym, there's a giant jacuzzi where you can sit and relax in the bubbles and another area where cascades of water pour down onto your head and shoulders. So I sit under those cascades, close my eyes and remember sitting under the waterfalls in Canaima National Park in Venezuela or in Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in Goiana, central Brazil, or jumping into the cenotes on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. I've been very fortunate. I am very fortunate.

Those trips were a while back and I don't have any photos of them on my computer, so here's one of the coast of Cyprus to remind us all of the beauty of nature, the healing energy of the sun and sea - and the fact that maybe we need a good holiday soon!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Days 18 & 19: Breaking the mold

I started writing this blog yesterday (Day 18) and I really wanted to post something but I just couldn't fit it in around my other work. So I managed to respect my self-imposed boundaries around using the computer at night and leave it until today. That's good progress.

So firstly an addendum to Day 17's post on following your gut. I like to think that when I'm following my gut, instinct, intuition or heart I'm also listening to God's voice and doing God's will. But I was reminded that God doesn't speak through a windstorm, an earthquake or fire but as "a gentle whisper" or "a still small voice", depending on which Bible translation you use. I guess that's true of my intuition, it's like a little tap on the shoulder or a gentle nudge. Sometimes I really wish it was a loud clap of thunder or a massive signpost saying 'Go This Way' but it never is!

Moving back to the topic of body image, I wanted to introduce a project I came across at the Endangered Species: Preserving the Female Body women's summit in London on March 4th. The Stephanie Heart Project works with young women in London to help them see their true value, worth and beauty. Stephanie Ifill, who's just 23 or was when I met her earlier this month, founded the project after hearing a 14-year-old girl say she felt ugly without make-up. She was shocked and set out to challenge the beliefs that seem to be robbing so many young women of their youth and joy. She started working with 10 girls and has since expanded to about 100. Several of Stephanie's girls spoke at the London summit. You can hear them on this Elena Rossini video of summit highlights. The Stephanie Heart presentation begins at 4:33 on the video. For the purposes of the summit, she asked some of her girls what they liked about their natural appearance - it seems most of them really struggled to come up with an answer. Below is a powerful video put together by Stephanie ahead of the summit which reveals the insecurities so many girls, women - and men, of course - carry around. It's called "They're surely judging me!" and the accompanying text to the video reads: "Either we break the mold or young girls will mold themselves to fit".

I was particularly moved by one girl who spoke at the summit who's name, if I wrote it down correctly, is Kesia, who appears at 5:08 on Elena Rossini's video. She talked about how she'd struggled with acne and felt she couldn't leave the house without layers of foundation, but then went on to say: "Steph's project has helped me to see that it's so much better being comfortable being yourself than uncomfortable trying to be someone else." I couldn't have put it better myself. She said she'd made a conscious decision - after doing a photo shoot as part of the Stephanie Heart project - to stop wearing foundation and her skin had really improved. The following video, called Freedom, Friendship and Joy, gives a flavour of the kind of work Stephanie does with her girls. The bin bags, in case you're wondering, are to encourage the girls to be more creative with fashion.

The other good thing about this project and these videos are that they seem to show these issues affect women of varying ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. It's been pointed out to me recently and it was noted in this blog on the New York Endangered Species summit that far too often, the body image debate is monopolised by white, affluent women (and I put my hands up to being white and middle-class). It's good to hear some different voices. As an aside, I was really pleased to see the Endangered Species website now has a link to my blog. Thank you!

One of the props Stephanie uses - featured in the above video and in the photo below - is a rectangular pane of glass with the words "One size does not fit all" written on it in red letters. The measurements written on the pane are bust: 34", waist 24", hips 34". Stephanie's point is that 95 percent of women and girls are left out of the images we see in the media and on the catwalk. She encourages women to stand behind the glass and celebrate the fact that their bodies and curves don't fit into that mold.

I've included here a picture of myself standing behind the prop at the London summit. I wasn't feeling that great about myself that day - it was pre-blog and before my Lent experiment on challenging negative body thoughts - and I didn't really want to celebrate the fact that I didn't fit into the mold. But today, I think there's plenty to celebrate, even if I felt a little reluctant to post this picture.

So how are we doing in challenging our negative thoughts about our bodies and appearance?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Day 17: Trusting your gut

Despite this blog being about all things body-related, this post isn't about the size or shape of the gut, or about how to hold it in or accept it just as it is. It's about what it tells us. Does anyone else struggle to listen to their gut? Or maybe the listening isn't the problem, it's the acting on it that seems to be difficult - at least for me. When I do take the time to stop and pay attention to what my gut/intuition/instinct/heart is telling me, it's sometimes - not always - pretty clear what I'm being prompted to do or say. But then why, on so many occasions, do I choose to ignore it? Fear is the answer. It's often the case that my gut is nudging me to do something a little bit different, something a bit risky, perhaps something non-conventional or out of the ordinary, something that requires a leap of faith, or maybe even just a little step of faith. And that's what's hard. It's at that moment that all the 'what ifs' start to surface, all the insecurities, be they about money, relationships, career, my abilities or whatever, and I often end up doing what my head is telling me instead of my heart, instinct or gut.

That said, part of my journey throughout this Lent period and in my life today in general is about trying to follow my heart. I did it when I started writing this blog. I did it when I left my full-time journalism job back in 2008 and I did it today when I decided I could fit in a swim as well as doing my work. Good decision. It's amazing how expending energy always gives me more and it's equally amazing that I'm often reluctant to make the effort to do the exercise, despite being fully aware of the benefits. But at least I know I'm not on my own with that one!

But back to the gut and to fear. Mark Twain said 'Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear'. I think that's spot on. In the past, I think I was under the impression that if I felt fear I shouldn't take a particular action or speak up about what was bothering me. Today, I realise that the fear, more than likely, will still be there and I'll have to do my best to walk through it.

Of course, there were certain fears I never had any problem with - jumping out of a plane with a parachute, bungy jumping, white water rafting or hitchhiking out of a Mexican canyon before dawn, on my own. Some would call that last one stupidity, and looking back, I'd be inclined to agree. Or maybe recklessness is a more gentle way of putting it. But fear really gets me when it comes to speaking my truth, to speaking up for myself - particularly when the other person is one of those strong personality types. Now, it was commented to me this weekend that I come across as just one of those strong, confident personality types. Maybe I do. It's probably something to do with the life I've led, the places I've travelled and the work I've done. But there are certain situations that really scare me, and they generally involve speaking up for myself in front of strong personality types. But that's just what I did this weekend, despite the fear. And it felt pretty good.

To finish, just to say I'm afraid I won't be as prolific over the next few weeks as I have been up until now. I have a lot of work to do this week and next (paid, thank goodness) so it's going to be tough to fit in blogging every day, but I'll do my best, not so much because I think it's expected of me but because I'm grown very attached to my blog and really want to keep it up - and I still have a lot to say!

Friday, 25 March 2011

Days 14, 15 & 16: Quick fix versus hard slog

Today's post is for days 14, 15 and 16 (that's today, yesterday and tomorrow) as I didn't post yesterday and have committed to an Internet-free weekend (hooray for good intentions!). This is all part of my search for balance and follows a realisation that, while I'm really enjoying writing this blog and am very grateful to own an iPhone, I'm not good at moderation and I really deserve a reasonable chunk of time offline. Let's just hope nobody invites me to the movies - I've forgotten how to get film times without the Internet.

So on to today's topic: the quick fix versus the long, hard slog. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've had a dodgy ankle for a few years, after falling down some stairs. Before the fall, I was a big runner. I'd trained for the London marathon, although I didn't run it in the end (my Dad died, I got very run down and it seemed a good idea to stop hardcore training). I ran a half marathon, though, and generally loved running. It gave me a great sense of freedom and oneness with nature, once I'd stopped using exercise to punish myself or burn off excess food, that is.

Unfortunately, the ankle injury put a stop to all that. Despite many visits to doctors, ankle experts and physios plus a number of X-rays and scans, nobody has been able to tell me exactly what's wrong with it. I've been running now and then but always end up with a sore foot. I was told, however, that if I consistently did the physio exercises, for a period of 3 to 6 months, the ankle would get a lot stronger and maybe I could even get back to pain-free running. So what did I do? Well, I did the exercises consistently for a number of days, then stopped. Then I'd do them again for a week or two, maybe even enough to notice a small improvement, but then I'd stop again. I've got an appointment with another physio in a few weeks and I'm promising myself I'll actually do the exercises properly this time around. I hope the NHS (National Health Service for non-British readers) isn't reading this as they'd cancel my appointment!

I remember a few years ago when my 99-year-old Grandad (he must have been about 97 back then) was given some physio exercises to strengthen his wrist and arm. He did them religiously, every day, with dogged determination and commitment. Now, I consider myself to be quite a determined person, but only in certain areas, and self-care isn't one of them. I obviously didn't get my Grandad's genes when it comes to physio. In fact, I've been holding out for a quick fix for my ankle for a few years now. I can't remember the number of times I've prayed for my ankle to be healed or asked my friends to pray for a miracle. I even allowed a rather large Indian masseur to stamp very hard on my foot after he told me he'd been known to cure people's joint problems with a localised application of brute force. Ouch. And it didn't work.

So what's the lesson behind all these musings? Well, the lesson for me is that there are rarely any quick fixes. If I want to get back to running and playing the competitive sport I wrote about the other day, then I really need to put in the hard work on a daily basis and stick with it. Of course, it's entirely possible I'll write this today, do a few ankle lifts and wobble board exercises over the next few days, and then fall back into moaning about my sore ankle but doing very little to help it. But at least I know I have absolutely no right to moan and the solution, most likely, is in my own hands - or feet in this case. After all, not being as mobile as I'd like to be really does effect the way I feel about myself and my body. And that also goes for my lower back. I've been told daily Pilates exercises would really help my back pain and posture. Where did I learn that daily meant twice monthly?

Returning to the topic of body image, I'm astounded at how much great information I've come across since I've started writing this blog and plugged into the debate on Twitter. So check out the video below by Jean Kilbourne, a feminist author, speaker and filmmaker. It's from her Killing Us Softly series and is a brilliant critique of the impact of advertising on the sexualisation of women and girls and the need for media literacy around the digital alteration of images.

I stumbled upon this video via another blog, You are Priceless, written by Liz, who describes herself on Twitter (@YouArePriceless) as "just a 20-something girl on a journey to spread confidence to girls and women". There are some other great posts on her website. My research has also taken me onto the site of Empowering Girls (also on Twitter @GirlEmpowerment) whose self-stated mission is to empower girls all over the world to grow up healthy, happy, self-assured and educated, allowing them to achieve all their dreams. If you have young daughters, I think you'll find some great resources on their site.

On that note, here's to a weekend of ankle exercises, outdoor activity, self-acceptance and feeling at peace with ourselves.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Day Thirteen: Gratitude, Barbie and more

It's nice to be back at home after a week away. I may not be surrounded by beautiful mountains and the sea but my flat is home, it's a little haven and I'm hugely grateful for it. So I thought I'd write a short post on gratitude. I'm particularly grateful for mistakes - the fact that I now accept it's OK to make them and that I can learn from them, even if sometimes I have to make the same mistake over and again before I learn the lesson. I'm also grateful for my Vespa that gets me anywhere in London very quickly without paying the congestion charge. I'm so grateful for it, in fact, that I'm thinking of cleaning it and maybe even checking the oil. Car or scooter maintenance isn't my forte but taking care of myself means taking care of my belongings, and my road safety for that matter. On the topic of my Vespa, I'm very grateful I haven't fallen off it over the past five years. I'm also grateful today for the Internet - for telling me how I can clean out the gunk from my washing machine without having to call in an expensive repairman. There are many more things I'm grateful for - health, family, friends etc - but I've finally realised I don't have to write down my every thought on this blog and that it'd also be a good idea to spend a little more time on my freelance journalism work to earn some cash. 

So I thought I'd dedicate the rest of this post to other people and campaigns involved in the whole body image debate. Firstly, Natasha Devon. Natasha co-runs Body Gossip - a campaign that promotes realistic, natural and healthy beauty - and regularly appears on TV, radio and in the print media, talking about body confidence, self-esteem and eating disorders. I've mentioned Body Gossip before but it's definitely worth mentioning again. Check out this blog she wrote about Barbie being an unrealistic and dangerous role model for young girls, posted after a BBC Radio 5 Live debate on the same topic. Body Gossip is also looking for stories to publish in a new book, so if you have a body-related story, poem or stream of consciousness you want to share, check out this link and send it in to them. I'll be writing my offer this week.

And finally, I've written a lot in the past few days about the Endangered Species women summits that took place this month in five cities. The aim of the summits was to challenge negative body thoughts, self-hate and the industries that propagate unrealistic standards of beauty. The London one, which I went to, was on March 4th and Elena Rossini, the documentary filmmaker I linked to yesterday, has just put together a great video, called Endangered Species London: The Film, which sums up the event, held at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank. The film features presentations by Susie Orbach, psychotherapist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, Body Gossip, members of parliament Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, Girl Guiding UK and more. It's definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Day Twelve: The key is at the core

Firstly, a quick note on yesterday's post. It was long. And there were a lot of links and no pictures, so apologies if it was a bit much to take in. I have a lot to say! Also, the link to Elena Rossini's video didn't work, so I've corrected it in yesterday's post but here it is again - if you're interested in women and body image, it's worth watching. The video is called Femmes Ideales or Ideal Women on the Vimeo link. I called it 'La femme ideale n'existe pas' yesterday, which I must have got from somewhere as I'm not in the habit of making things up, but it doesn't seem to be the correct name, so apologies again. And that's enough apologies for one day - this is a blog about self-acceptance after all and sometimes I make mistakes.

Today, I'm hoping to write a shorter blog, but we'll see how well I do with that intention. I seem to have discovered, or rediscovered, a real love of writing. 

So I've learned a few lessons in the past few days - or re-learned them, because I knew them already. I just forget very easily. They are:
  • I take myself wherever I go (in the past, I might have added 'unfortunately' to that phrase but as I'm on a journey of self-acceptance, I won't)
  • If I'm not at peace with myself, I won't find peace where I go, even if I'm sitting cross-legged on top of a Tibetan mountain
  • If I'm not at peace with myself, I'll start messing around with my eating (overeating, undereating, obsessing about food, weight and my body)
  • If I'm messing around with my eating, I won't feel comfortable in my body or with my shape or size, no matter what shape or size I am
  • In order to stay at peace with myself, I need or deserve to do what I know works for me: connect to myself and to God every morning through 20-30 minutes of prayer and meditation, do the same every evening and throughout the day, ensure I get sufficient downtime, take care of myself and go easy on myself. Taking myself a little less seriously also helps
  • I can't truly love others if I don't love myself and I can't give to others if I haven't given to myself first. I can't help others - or at least not in a way that works for them and for me - if I'm running on empty
And yes, I do feel a touch guilty writing about these issues when the Middle East is in chaos, when Japan has been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami and as people I know, and don't know, are struggling to overcome loss or make a living against the odds. But as I mentioned very early on in this blog, negative thinking about our bodies and disordered eating lead many people to very dark places and we all have our own battles to fight. Perspective is very important but dismissing our struggles doesn't make them go away.

I've also been pondering - after reading so much about the Endangered Species summit and all the related issues - what impact the media, advertising, airbrushing and so on has and had on me and my body image and eating issues. And to be honest, I'm not sure I know the answer.

What I do know is that at some stage in my early childhood, I developed the notion that I wasn't enough as I was, that I wasn't thin enough, pretty enough, clever enough etc. I don't blame anyone for this and I can't quite pinpoint when I began to feel that way. Was it around the time my Dad moved out? Was it before then? Was I trying to emulate my beautiful mother? How or why it happened doesn't actually matter. But the truth is a little chunk was knocked out of my core, a dent was made in my self-esteem, leaving a hole that I subsequently tried to fill or make up for by striving to be the thinnest, prettiest, cleverest girl in town. That striving either cost me dearly (in some ways, because in other ways it took me far) or backfired. So for me, the key is at my core. The media images feed the feelings of inadequacy but the roots go a lot deeper. So it's that core I'm trying to heal in those "small and beautiful ways" to quote Courtney E. Martin and yesterday's blog.

So I began this morning by taking fifteen minutes to drink in the view and 'centre myself' (a phrase I don't really like but one that seems fitting here) at a beautiful spot called Angel Cove in North Wales, before heading back to busy London on the train. The sun was out and the sea was incredibly still. I'm putting it out there, to God and the universe, that I'd absolutely love a little place of my own in or around this area.

PS I know some people are having difficulty posting comments on this blog, which is a shame as I'd really love to hear from you. I think the easiest way is through a Google account. But if you'd like to post a comment and aren't able to, please let me know and I'll try to help. Or email me your comment if you have my email and I'll post it under your name. You can also contact me via Twitter @Just_AsIAm40. If anyone would like to 'guest blog' here also, please get in touch. It'd be great to hear some other voices.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Day Eleven: Summits and sport

I've been doing a bit of reading around the Endangered Species women's summit that took place in New York on Friday and Saturday. More than 500 people attended, according to the summit's website, to discuss issues ranging from airbrushing and image manipulation to perfectionism and the rise of eating disorders among men. There's a short write-up on the summit's website and podcasts will be posted there in coming days for anyone who's interested. In the meantime, here's a few links to give you a flavour of the event. Activist Jamie Boschan wrote this summary after attending the event. From afar, meanwhile, Elena Rossini, a documentary filmmaker who also describes herself as a feminist, an idealist and a tree-hugging-animal-loving-vegetarian, monitored Twitter feeds (#esummit for Twitter fans) and put together a summary entitled 'On Twitter, witnessing the start of a body revolution'. Rossini also made a great video back in 2009 entitled 'La femme ideale n'existe pas' ('The perfect woman doesn't exist' - something I'd like to remind myself of every day), which was shown at the summit. And in checking out Rossini's work, I came across The Illusionists, an English language, feature-length documentary she made about the manipulation and exploitation of women’s insecurities about their bodies, for profit. That theme was well explored at the summit, it seems.

As a journalist, however, I know how important it is to present both sides of the story. It's clear there was a lot of passionate discussion and 'revolution' is a pretty powerful word but some will question whether all this talk can translate into action or change - particularly as the change has to start with ourselves, with the magazines we buy, the TV shows we watch, the culture we subscribe to and the thoughts we have about our bodies. For a slightly more critical view of the summit, check out this blog by Michelle, a New York social work student. She wasn't altogether happy with the lack of diversity on one of the panels - particularly at an event that was all about promoting diversity.

I'll just add one quote I particularly liked from the summit's opening speech, delivered by Courtney E. Martin, a writer, teacher, speaker and editor of - an online community of feminists and their allies. She said: "We are writing plays, books, making films, and creating art that repaints the world to be more inclusive of the true breathtaking diversity of bodies. And, of course, we are healing ourselves, everyday, in all kinds of small and beautiful ways."

I guess that's my focus, to heal myself everday, in small and beautiful ways. Some days I manage it, some days I don't and I slip back into negative thinking and unhealthy behaviours, but I'm glad I'm on the right path.

I'll admit, though, that I've felt a little off balance the past few days. I kind of lost my peace. My head has been extremely busy, despite supposedly getting some R&R in North Wales. There have been peaceful moments - particularly on top of the mountain in the sunshine or on the beach - but not as many as I'd hoped for. And it seems my body has been trying to tell me I was off balance, but I wasn't really listening. As soon as I slowed down a little and took my foot off the gas, I ended up with a bit of a cold and a cold sore on my lip - not a good look but I did my best to accept it! It's been a great reminder that our bodies really are miraculous things and they'll tell us when we need to slow down or stop. And they'll keep telling us, with cold sores, colds, aches and pains, tears, unhealthy behaviours around food (in my case), and even with more drastic things like car crashes. Yes, I do have a friend who had several pretty severe car crashes until she realised she really had to slow down and take it easy.

I did discover a great way today, however, to take my mind off whatever small or big thing might be occupying it: competitive sport. Ok, so it was just a little game of football in the park with my nephews but it was enough to get me back into the moment and to remind me that I always loved playing sport in teams or with other people. So I'd like to spend less time on those solitary machines in the gym or swimming lengths. I'd like to look into a team sport that's suitable for a 40-year-old woman with an ankle injury but a fierce competitive streak.

And finally, not sure if anyone noticed but in Day Ten's post, I wrote "employee" rather than "employer". I've added the correction in italics in brackets, which I think is going to be my way of correcting errors in my blog from now on. However, I then thought maybe that was a Freudian slip. Maybe my days of being employed are over and, going forward, I'm going to be the employer. We will see.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Day Ten: Take back your body

Ok, so I’m starting to wonder if honesty really is the best policy. Will I ever get a job again after being so open on this blog, or a boyfriend for that matter? So, if a potential employee (oops - meant to write employer!) ends up reading this, I’d just like to say I’m a really good worker. I'm very professional and I'm a perfectionist, which will work in your favour, even if it’s at my cost. And if you’re a potential suitor, at least you know what you're letting yourself in for, and I can safely say I'm a lot saner than I used to be!

I admit, though, that I have wandered a little off topic at times on this blog so I'm meandering back today to the subject of body image and self-acceptance. As I write, the Endangered Species women summit is going on over in New York, organised by the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute. Its catchphrase or rallying cry is 'Take back your body' and its goal is to encourage a new visual culture - in fashion, the media and elsewhere - that embraces all shapes, sizes and skin tones, instead of setting unattainable standards. I went to the London version of the summit on March 4th where I met politicians, psychotherapists, educators and campaigners who are all trying to challenge a culture that's contributing to a rise in self-hate, negative self-talk, eating disorders and other harmful behaviours. That experience was one of the things that prompted me to give up negative thoughts about my body and appearance for Lent and to write this blog. If you want to hear more about the New York summit and why it's important, watch this two-minute video of New York therapist Caren Shapiro:

I'll be writing more about the Endangered Species summits and about some of the other organisations and individuals involved in them in the coming days. While on the topic of body, though, I'll just mention a magazine I came across this week. It's called BEAUTIFUL and, to quote its website, it's "the UK's only intelligent glossy lifestyle magazine for curvy women". I love the blurb on the front cover of its latest issue: Your country needs your curves. The magazine only features images of women who are a UK size 12 or over, also known as "plus-size" models. Check out the magazine's website for more information and media articles about its launch in September last year.

To finish, an addendum to yesterday's post on loneliness. I have the impression, although I may be wrong, that everyone feels lonely now and again, even if you are in a relationship or are surrounded by children. I think it's part of the human condition (without getting too deep!). These days, I try to fill those moments of loneliness with healthy activities that nourish my soul - prayer, meditation and getting out into nature. I certainly didn't feel lonely sat on the top of Conwy Mountain in glorious sunshine on Friday morning, despite the fact there was no one else around. That was blissful solitude. So I'll end with another photo from Conwy Mountain, taken on Wednesday. The sun wasn't out that day, but the wild ponies were.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Days Eight & Nine: The law of gravity

What goes up must come down.

Now, given this blog has a focus on body image, you might imagine I'm referring here to the effect of gravity on women's bodies, but I actually wanted to write a short blog about the inevitable highs and lows of feelings. Although I don't know why I say inevitable because I'm always surprised when a high follows a low - every time!

So, unsurprisingly, a bit of a low followed the high of my 40th birthday weekend. My 40th was a lovely whirlwind of friends, cards, flowers, presents, parties, breakfasts, lunches, a new dress and a certain excitement about this blog. I was shown so much love by so many amazing friends and felt very blessed. In fact, it barely crossed my mind that I was turning 40 and was single and childless - apart from to note that I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be in my life. Fortunately, I still accept I am where I'm supposed to be - albeit reluctantly at times. It's also still true, as I wrote the other day, that I feel much stronger and happier at this age than I did when I was younger. But that doesn't mean there aren't moments of acute loneliness and sadness.

Funnily enough, I only really feel the loneliness when I stop, and that's probably why I don't stop very often. I'm generally doing, working, planning, thinking, striving, cycling, washing, and now I can add blogging to the list! I get stuck in that overdrive setting I mentioned the other day, although to be fair to myself I'll acknowledge here that I am very gradually learning to take it slow at times. But it's still scary to stop completely and let the loneliness come.

Yesterday, I did stop and, as we could have predicted, I felt pretty sad. Fortunately, though, at this stage in my life, I can accept those moments of loneliness and sadness much better than in the past, when I might have indulged in some unhealthy behaviour or other to try and make them go away. I still resist them, fight against them for a while by keeping myself ridiculously busy, but eventually I surrender to them and have a good old cry. And the great thing is that I don't have to pretend anymore. I can ring up a good friend and tell her I feel lonely and, more often than not, she'll be feeling lonely in that moment too. Or I can be open, honest and vulnerable with my Mum instead of pretending that I've got it all together and I don't need her help. That's a real gift.

And then, after the crying, the sun generally comes out and wonderful Nature does its thing.

The view from Conwy Mountain, North Wales, March 18, 2011

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Day Seven: A simple prayer

I know I was taking time off but there's a difference between feeling I ought to blog every day and feeling inspired to write. Today it's the latter and it turns out I have an Internet connection where I'm staying, which I hadn't expected.

So I came across an old poem last night that I felt compelled to share in case it helps anyone. I think it's particularly relevant to anyone who has struggled or continues to struggle with disordered eating or any other unhealthy behaviour. It's from a women's prayer book called "Prayers from a Woman's Heart" by Judith Mattison. It was first published in 1972, the year after I was born, and cost 30 pence! I opened the book at a poem entitled "I Need Self-Discipline". Some of the language is a little outdated and I don't subscribe to everything it says - plus I think the term self-discipline can sometimes sound a bit harsh. But I love the simplicity of the poem's first line, which is very easy to remember. If God doesn't work for you and your issues are different to those Mattison describes, it's quite easy to write your own version of the poem, as I've suggested below.

Here's the original:

If I really loved you, God, I would not overeat.
I would not destroy "me" - my "me" which can serve you best when I am healthy.
I would not destroy me if I really loved you.
If I really sought you, I would know that self-discipline and will power develop slowly,
Whether in diets or in faith.
I would discipline all my life if I really sought you.
I will change with your help,
Not because my clothes don't fit,
Nor because I feel uneasy when I feel uncontrolled,
But because I care about you.
Restrain me in temptation, strike down my selfish need
To acquire, to be powerful, to yield, to eat!
Give me the serenity I need to be assured that you love me
So that I will want to take the best care of myself - my offering to you.

I think I'd expand the first line to say "if I really loved and trusted you" but the poem could also be rewritten like this:

If I really loved and cherished (I like the word cherished) myself, just as I am, I would not overeat, or overwork, or overdo it, or overachieve, or overstress, or overworry, or even overblog for that matter. Easier said than done!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Day Six: Walking the walk - beyond the catwalk

I'm heading to North Wales to commune with nature, to walk on the hills, run along the beaches (long-standing ankle injury permitting) and to sit and ponder life while overlooking the sea. I can smell the sea air already. And can feel a new sense of perspective coming on. Nature always helps me to gain perspective, as does visiting my 99-year-old Grandad (or Granddad, but I've always spelt it that way) in Liverpool or playing with my young nephews, both of which I hope to do in the coming days.

I was pondering what to do with this blog during my short post-40th birthday retreat. It has become a daily affair, in a way I never quite imagined it would. However, if I'm going to walk the walk and not just talk to the talk, self-care must come first. Balance has never come easy for me. I seem to have two settings: stop or overdrive. I'm not very good at cruising in the middle, at meandering along. But since this blog is about challenging behaviours that haven't served me in the past - in a way that could potentially help others - I've decided to try and walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. So I'll be giving myself a few days off and will make up for it with a collection of musings from my days in Wales once I'm back online at the end of the week. Unless of course, I stumble across some gem or other that I can't resist writing it down and end up sending it from my iPhone! But the intention is there - the intention to let myself off the hook, to go gently and to accept that I don't have to achieve something every day. After all, I am abstaining about negative thoughts about my achievements also. Balance, balance, balance. If I say it often enough, it might go in.

I should clarify (note - I didn't go back and modify or correct yesterday's blog!) that the Bloggers Anonymous site I mentioned on Day Five isn't (unless I'm mistaken) a serious support group, as you might have guessed if you clicked on the link. And the latest posts are from 2006. However, there's definitely something in some of the comments left there from people who just couldn't stop blogging. But apologies if my flippant mention of it caused any offense.

Before I head off on my Welsh walks, I thought I'd leave behind some good reading material about body image and the whole Size Zero debate. So, here's another great movement that's challenging the stereotype of the skinny model. All Walks Beyond the Catwalk was founded by British fashion expert, stylist and TV presenter Caryn Franklin, creative consultant Debra Bourne and model Erin O’Connor and launched in September 2009 during London Fashion Week. For its first initiative, it showcased the work of eight top designers on eight professional models aged between 18-65 and size 8-16. Its aim was and is to promote more diversity of size, shape and race in the fashion industry. Take a look at their website to see All Walks' latest campaigns, including this short film about SNAPPED, a project combining the work of British portrait and fashion photographer John Rankin with top British fashion designers and a diversity of models. And if you want to know why this campaign is so valid, take a look at some of the skeletal models featured in this Daily Mail article from last month's London Fashion Week.

On that note, I'll be heading to Wales to take another look at this view:

Monday, 14 March 2011

Day Five (II): Men are welcome here

I love my blog design, the petals and the colours. I really never thought I was a "girly girl" (I hope that term isn't politically incorrect) until I went into Cath Kidston in search of an iPhone cover. When I mentioned to the shop assistant that I thought the bright pink, flowery one I'd chosen was too girly, he pointed out that all the ones I'd picked up were extremely pink and flowery and maybe I was a girly girl after all. It looks like I must have become one without me even noticing.

That said, this blog is definitely not designed exclusively for women. I'm writing from my heart and I can only write about what I know but I want to say, before we go much further, that men are most definitely welcome here too. I know a number of men who struggle with negative body image and eating disorders - bulimia, anorexia and compulsive overeating. These are by no means issues that are exclusive to women and low self-esteem is a universal problem. According to Beat, the UK Eating Disorders Association, 15 percent of the 1.15 million eating disorder sufferers in the UK today are men. Other estimates put the figure as high as 25 percent.

So I wanted to highlight here the brilliantly named organisation Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT), the first national charity dedicated to raising awareness and supporting the needs of men with eating disorders. MGEDT notes that statistics on men are likely to be underestimated because of the difficulties men face in getting help. Fortunately, awareness is growing and MGEDT will be hosting its first major event on May 19th in Brighton, a free conference for professionals from all sectors who are interested in its work. Nick Watts is a trustee for MGEDT and an eating disorders, mental health and body image campaigner. You can read Nick's musings on his blog or follow him on Twitter @nickinoxford. 

While on the topic of imminent events, the New York version of the Endangered Species women summit that was held in London on March 4th takes place this Friday and Saturday. You can check out the programme and list of speakers on their website. The site also features a video of psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, opening the London summit. The events - timed to coincide with International Women's Day last week - aim to promote a diversity of body, shape and size in fashion and the media and to give women the right to enjoy their bodies exactly as they are.

On that note, a word about airbrushing. I'm not sure if anyone clicked on the link to the dress I bought from Diva Catwalk for my 40th birthday party on Saturday. Do we think the blonde lady modelling it has been airbrushed? I asked the shop assistant at Diva if the model was wearing the same sized dress I was buying and she said she was. To my untrained eye, it seems she's either been airbrushed or someone is stood behind her pulling the dress in very tight! Here's me in the same dress at my 40th on Saturday night.

Airbrushing is a huge topic right now and a recurring theme at the Endangered Species summits. Some campaigners are in favour of compulsory labelling on airbrushed photographs but UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said at the London event that regulation in Britain was not on the cards right now because of the cost to businesses. There's lots to say on the issue of airbrushing so I'll have to come back to it another time when I've done more research, but check out this photography project by Wendy Hicks in the meantime. Wendy photographed members of the public as though they were fashion adverts and then digitally manipulated the images to create body shapes so thin that they could not exist (the head bigger than the waist, for example) and are consequently impossible to emulate. Through the project, called Fashioning Aspirations, Wendy argues that airbrushed images in the media breed body insecurity in the men and women who view them. Many say these images contribute to eating disorders, although the reasons of disordered eating are complex and varied.

And finally, having realised I was getting a little bit addicted to blogging, I googled "bloggers anonymous" for a laugh. And what do you know, I came across a Bloggers Anonymous site. The blurb says: "You are not alone. Millions of people struggle with blogging. For some it's cost them their health - for others, their families. Bloggers Anonymous is here for people like you - who want to stop but can't. We can help." Now, I thought this was all very tongue-in-cheek until I read one of the posts under anonymous stories. Leah wrote: "I have been known to leave a funny conversation mid-swing to go blog a portion of it". Surely not, I thought, until I remembered I was watching Little Women on DVD yesterday and felt like I wanted to take notes to include some of the phrases in my blog later. Oh dear. Fortunately, I'm heading to the hills of Wales tomorrow and will only be able to send small posts. Phew. Is that a sigh of relief I hear from my readers also?

Day Five: Kryptonite, corrections and cherry blossom

Before we get started, a confession or two. I made a few modifications early this morning to last night's post "From forty with love", which has prompted me to do a bit of research into blogging ethics. As you might imagine, regulation and the blogosphere don't really go together and there seems to be a big debate going on out there on this topic. Numerous bloggers have come up with suggested codes of practice while others propose that each blogger publish their own code. As a novice, it would have been a good idea to do my research into the dos and don'ts of blogging before I started but better late than never. So after modifying last night's blog (thinking it was posted so late that noone would have read it, but then forgetting that not all my readers live in my time zone) I realised that wasn't ethical or transparent. I was about to go back to try and reinstate what I'd removed or change back what I'd changed but I was getting into a tizz trying to remember the exact wording so I thought I'd just come clean here about what I changed, forgive myself and hope my readers will accept my apologies. Of course, as a perfectionist and a pedant when it comes to spelling and grammar, this is all a little disconcerting. I guess it's not Ok either to go back and correct grammatical errors once they're posted , which means I'm either going to have to go through my writing with the eyes of a hawk or live with a grammatical error or spelling mistake associated with my name! It's so easy to make little errors, even with a spell check. But I guess, in line with the title and purpose of this blog, I'm going to have to live with imperfection. This topic reminds me of that sinking feeling I would sometimes get when working as a journalist at Reuters when I'd read back through a story that had just been posted on the global wire and find a spelling mistake or a factual error. It was so tempting to plead with the editor to resend the story as a 'rewrite' and try to disguise the mistake but, more often than not, it had to be sent out again as a correction, with CORRECTION in glaring capital letters tagged to the headline. Oh how humiliating that was. But just like the process of coming to accept the way I look, the practice of accepting grammatical imperfections, however painful, is going to be good for me.

So to my corrections. Firstly, I renamed yesterday's blog 'Birthday blog' rather than Day Five. As I noted yesterday, Lent has 46 days but the six Sundays aren't counted because they are feast days, each representing a mini Easter. So if I'd counted yesterday as Day Five and continued to count the Sundays, my final entry would be Day 46. That would have left me a little bemused and perhaps some of my readers too. I'd be asking, 'whatever happened to the 40 days of Lent?' And I might even have to change my Twitter name again to '@Just_AsIAm46' and I really couldn't cope with that! It would add six years to my life. So I won't be counting the Sundays from now on, and probably won't be blogging on the Sundays either. It'll be my day of rest. I wish I'd thought of that last night when I decided I really ought to post something on my birthday! Hindsight is a wonderful and sometimes very annoying thing.

So the other correction is rather amusing. I included in yesterday's post a quote by writer Kathy Lette that a friend had written in a birthday card: 'Age to women is like Kryptonite to Superman' adding that, in which case, I'm really looking forward to the next decade. Now, maybe to some that sounds like my Liverpudlian sarcasm but at the time I wrote it, I was actually thinking that Kryptonite was something that empowers Superman, a sort of Gatorade or goji berry for super heroes. This morning, however, it came to me in a flash that Kryptonite - mineral debris from the planet Krypton - has the opposite effect on Superman. To quote Wikipedia, it nullifies Superman's powers and immobilises him with pain and nausea. Prolonged exposure will eventually kill him.

So this morning I removed (apologies again!) those few lines from yesterday's blog after realising that I really didn't agree with the sentiment of that quote. And I've just checked with my friend who wrote it in the card - she also thought Kryptonite empowered Superman and had thought the quote was uplifting. We had a good laugh about that. Looks like we both need to read up on our super heroes! Now, while I accept that prolonged exposure to age will eventually kill us, I don't agree that age - at least in moderation - nullifies women's powers. In fact, I feel so much stronger - mentally and emotionally that is - at 40 than I ever did before. I feel so much more empowered and so much happier with myself today than in my 20s or 30s. In fact, spending time this weekend with friends I met at university 22 years ago brought back memories of some of the good and bad times of that era of my life - most of the bad times associated with my weight, looks or self esteem.

Recently, I discovered some old photos in a box in my brother's garage. I found one very difficult to look at. I was rowing in a women's college race, pulling hard on the oar. I must have been almost two stone heavier than I am now - that's about 13 kilos for our metric friends - and in my opinion, I wasn't a pretty sight. In fact, I find that photo very painful to look at. Now, I think it's fabulous that there are women (and men) out there who can love themselves whatever size or shape they are and that's my endeavour over this Lent period. But looking at that photo, I'm reminded how unhappy I was with the way I looked back then and how I had got to that size: through binge-eating and binge-drinking. Some of my girlfriends were also larger at university than they are today and we certainly did consume a lot of beer (how did I ever drink seven pints of lager?) but much of the time I was at uni, I was overeating and mostly in secret. While I had fabulous friends, my layer of fat kept me away from boyfriends pretty much until my final year when I had slimmed down a little. But the obsession had not gone away. I remember getting on the scales every morning of my final exams despite having been up most of the night studying. And I probably got on them more than once, hoping that if I hopped off and hopped back on again I'd be a pound lighter. I'm pondering right now whether I'll have the courage to post any photos from my larger days during the course of this blog. Maybe. Maybe it'd help someone to see them. That would be the ultimate challenge to my obsession with only publicising photos of me in which I think I look thin.

I'm pleased to say that, although I still own bathroom scales (I think it might be time to throw them out - again), I didn't go on them yesterday, despite the temptation to record my weight on my 40th birthday. Is this sounding like Bridget Jones again? 

So confession over. I think I'll be back later with another little blog as I had other topics in mind for today, but I wanted to confess my corrections as soon as I could. 

Before I sign off here, a quick note on flowers. I wandered through my local park yesterday on the way back from a lovely lunch. I felt drawn to photograph some of the flowers. Now, stopping to observe natural beauty might be normal practice for most people but I feel there was a large period of my life when I was moving at such a pace that I didn't even glance at flowers, never mind stop to smell them. This has changed in the past few years and I'm pleased to say the cherry blossom smelt lovely yesterday.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Birthday blog: From forty with love

There was a moment early yesterday evening when I stopped for a second to look around at the faces of a few close girlfriends gathered in my flat, all beaming at me as I opened their beautiful birthday gifts. I wish I'd captured it on video but the image is still pretty clear in my head. I felt very loved, very appreciated and very encouraged. Not only did they show up and bring gorgeous, thoughtful presents but they cooked the chilli, poured the drinks, did the washing up and adjusted my spectacular (if I do say so myself) party dress. They even reassured me when I found a mark on that spectacular dress just before we left for the party - and believe me this recovering perfectionist needed a lot of reassuring. The other beautiful thing that occurred to me last night about friendship at this stage in our lives is that everyone is so real and natural. It was fine for one of my friends to arrive and lie down on the floor with her feet in the air to ease her aching back, despite never having met the other two girls in the room. And it was perfectly acceptable - and hilarious in fact - that the first drink we all wanted at six o'clock was a cup of tea! So a big thank you here to all my amazing friends - you know who you are.

And thanks to the people who are reading this blog and have encouraged me to carry on writing it. It feels right and it feels like it somehow helped me to challenge my negative body thoughts ahead of my 40th birthday party and gave me the courage to wear that lovely dress. I also sense this blog and the experience of writing it is going to be a big part of my future, in whatever shape or form. I was watching the film Little Women on DVD this evening with a good friend - a fabulous thing to do when recovering from a late night out - and it really resonated with me when Professor Friedrich Bhaer said to Jo March: "You must write from life, from the depths of your soul!" I guess that's why this writing flows better than any I've done in my 15-year journalism career - although not so much tonight after not enough sleep! 

Going back to the topic of love, I have to mention my favourite song from last night and one of my favourite songs of all time. It brings back great memories of dancing with a dear friend at university. Fittingly, it's "You've got the love" by Candi Staton and, for those who don't know it, it goes like this: "Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air. I know I can count on you. Sometimes I feel like saying, 'Lord, I just don't care'. But you've got the love I need to see me through." And it goes on: "Every once in a while I say Lord I can't go on. Every once in a while I get to feeling blue. Every once in a while it seems like I am all alone. But you got the love I need to see me through."

And finally, I was reminded this week that Lent is 46 days, not 40, but the six Sundays are feast days when we can stop abstaining from whatever we've chosen to abstain from. So if you've given up chocolate for Lent and you're reading this late on Sunday evening - now's your chance! However, I've decided not to take the feast days off and to continue to try to abstain from negative thoughts about my body and appearance on the Sundays, which includes today, my birthday. On the one hand, it's been easy today not to think those negative thoughts because I've felt so loved, had such a great party and felt pretty good in my fabulous dress. On the other hand, it hasn't been so easy because I've never liked seeing myself in photos. I've only ever managed to look at what I see as the flaws and those flaws have always been so unacceptable to me. Which reminds me of the time I was sitting in a passport photo booth at Bond Street tube station in London. The machine kept saying, "If you're not happy with this picture, press the green (or was it red?) button, to try again". I must have pressed that button about five or six times until it dawned on me that I was never going to be happy with the picture so I was just going to have to accept it as it was and stop wasting precious minutes of my life sat in a photo booth at Bond Street.

So in the spirit of this blog, I will sign off with a photo that I do like and one I think sums up the evening. Happy birthday to me!

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Day Four: I surrender

Today's blog will be brief. A 40th birthday celebration awaits and, true to form, I have a long list of things to do before I can relax and enjoy it. Maybe next year, on the eve of my birthday, I'll be having a massage or be sitting with my feet up but this year I'm running around doing all the preparations, including cycling for 10 minutes with 5 brightly coloured helium birthday balloons attached to my wrist. There were only four when I got to my destination. So one of those balloons is now free, it's been released into the sky, which is rather fitting for the theme of this short blog. 

Since yesterday, I've remembered that self acceptance means accepting all of myself, including those crazy thought patterns that sometimes keep me awake at night or drive me to distraction. So I'm going to accept those too, as part of me, and then I'm going to surrender them or at least try to. Challenging the thought patterns when they arrive is a really good discipline but battling against them, trying to wrestle them to the ground, doesn't seem to be getting me very far. So acceptance and surrender is today's mantra. I'm going to try to accept them and then give them to God, release them into the sky, send them off into the wind. So maybe we'll see them up there, floating around with my birthday balloon.

Now back to the party preparations. Goodbye 39, hello 40. I've decided 40 is my new favourite number!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Day Three: What has your body done for you today?

Ask not what you can do to your body but what your body can do for you. That's the theme of today's blog but before we go there, I feel the need, despite a touch of embarrassment, to wander off on a tangent. I had a fracas with Twitter last night, and Twitter came out on top. In trying to shorten my Twitter username @JustAsIAm40Days to @JustAsIAm40, I managed to delete both those accounts. I'm now reinstated at @Just_AsIAm40. So why is this relevant to this blog? It's actually highly relevant. Why was I messing around on Twitter at 10 o'clock at night in the first place? Well, precisely because I'm a perfectionist and nothing is ever good enough. Not content with having managed to overcome my technophobia to set up a blog, Twitter account and Facebook page on Wednesday in time for the first day of Lent, I felt the need to 'perfect' the whole package. But in striving for what I'd deemed to be 'perfection', I tied myself in knots and deprived myself of sleep. And now I'm going to have to live with the imperfection of that pesky underscore in my Twitter name! Yes, this really is how my mind works. Now perfectionism can get us a long way in our lives and careers and I'd say it's taken me pretty far, but at what cost? So I'm doing my utmost to accept my underscore in the same way I'm trying to accept other things I've disliked about myself in the past. After all, I entitled this blog 'Abstaining for 40 days from negative thinking about body, appearance and achievements' for a reason. That 'nothing is ever good enough' voice is very damaging.

It's become clear, however, that this self-acceptance business is going to require a herculean effort. It's not just about positive thinking, I need a total renewing of my mind, a rewiring of my brain. I know prayer and meditation help but stilling my mind is a bit like trying to stop the washing machine from shaking when it's on the spin cycle. So I'd welcome any more suggestions on overcoming negative and obsessive thought patterns.

Of course, the critical voice in my head thinks one of those suggestions should be 'Get a life!' but my more accepting self feels that might be a little harsh. I did ask myself this morning - when I saw the news about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan - whether all this talk of healthy body thoughts and positive self image wasn't a little trivial and somewhat indulgent. But the eating disorder statistics quoted in yesterday's blog say otherwise. I've wondered before whether I needed some sort of personal tragedy to jolt me out of negative body obsession but then I lost my Dad to cancer 4 years ago and that didn't stop the cycle. I've also seen enough misery, devastation and destruction in my journalism career - from the Asian tsunami to the Haitian earthquake - to develop a better sense of perspective. But that perspective never lasted. I guess the truth is we all have our personal battles, irrespective of what's going on out there in the world, and they're all valid. They're part of us and tragedy won't necessarily change that. What might, however, is a daily effort to challenge the negative thoughts, to practice gratitude and self acceptance and to turn away from behaviours that have done us harm in the past. So in my case, I've learned - once again and the hard way - that once I've made a decision I deserve to embrace it fully, that once I've set out on a path, I deserve to keep my eyes firmly focused on what's ahead and not look left or right or back the way I came.

On that note, back to the topic. What has your body done for you today? Focusing on what my body can do rather than what it looks or doesn't look like is part of my journey to greater self acceptance. Today, my body took me on a cycle around the park. Now, I truly love exercise. I love feeling fit and healthy. Self acceptance for me is definitely not about sitting around on the sofa (or at least not for very long). I've never been much of a coach potato. In fact, I'm probably more of a hot potato, constantly on the move. Today, though, I treat exercise as a way to renew my body and mind and to get in touch with nature, rather than a self-punishing calorie-counting regime. I love how my body heats up as I exercise, how my heart rate rises, my cheeks turn rosy and how I sweat or perspire (the latter perhaps more in keeping with my very feminine-looking blog). Our bodies really are miracles. But how many times do I stop to appreciate that my limbs are all in good working order rather than groaning about the aches and pains and the niggling injuries or my body's shape or size? Today, I'm also appreciating my  sense of balance. I'm good on two wheels - scooter or bicycle - and I'm really grateful for that. I feel mobile and free. If this sounds like I'm blowing my own trumpet, it really isn't meant to. It's novel for me to note down some good things about my body. It's just sad it's taken me so long. I've been a healthy body weight for many years now but despite that have been ashamed to show my arms, legs or curves. Two days off my 40th birthday, it's really time for that kind of thinking to stop.

So I can proudly announce that today I successfully challenged my negative body image issues and bought a figure-flattering, feminine dress for my 40th birthday party on Saturday night. Quite an achievement. My dear friend Anne will be proud of me.

One final thought for today: I learned something else from last night's Twitter debacle to prove that no experience goes to waste. I learned what I'll call from now on the three Bs: blogging, boundaries and balance. I deserve to set some time boundaries around my work, be that blogging or other work, and around when I log on to Twitter and Facebook. This endeavour could easily take up the space that's being freed up in my mind by renouncing negative body thoughts and that would be counterproductive. While I'm passionate about writing this blog, balance and self-care have to come first.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Day Two: Body politics, body gossip and some top tips

So, enough talk of Bridget Jones. Negative thinking about our bodies has serious consequences. Thoughts lead to behaviours and, from my own experience and those of others I've met, the behaviours we're talking about here are dieting, bingeing, starving, pinching, poking, purging, over-exercising, pill-taking, cosmetic surgery, stomach surgery and many many more. Is there anyone out there who hasn't tried at least one of the above? Does that list make you angry? Does it make you sad? Do our beautiful bodies really deserve such abuse? Anger prompted me to start this blog. I went to bed angry on International Women's Day and woke up angry on the first day of Lent. Angry about the minutes, hours, days and years I've wasted thinking the way I looked wasn't good enough.

TV presenter Penny Smith says in the Mail today she wants Darcy Bussell's body. She wants a "weeny bottom, skinny arms and long legs". Yes, I can relate to those thoughts - but are they helpful? I was never meant to look like Darcy Bussell and neither was Penny Smith. While the causes of eating disorders are multiple and varied, I know from my own experience of disordered eating that the constant striving for an unattainable goal, for my idea of 'perfection' was a major contributor - especially because once I reached what I'd thought was my goal size, I still wasn't thin enough.

There are 1.15 million eating disorder sufferers in the UK, 15 percent of them male, according to Beat, the UK Eating Disorders Association. Binge eating disorder and bulimia are more common than the better-known anorexia, although one fifth of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from health consequences. A recent survey by Girl Guiding UK found that 47 percent of girls thought the pressure to look attractive was the most negative part of being female. It also found that half of young women aged 16-21 would consider cosmetic surgery and over 1 in 10 girls aged 11-16 would consider going under the knife. That doesn't sound like a nice way to grow up.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people out there who are worried about these statistics and I'll be featuring many of them here over the next 39 days. In the UK today, the issue of negative body image has entered the mainstream political debate. Lib-Dem MP Jo Swinson and Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone launched the Campaign for Body Confidence last year and it's gaining traction. Now, as a former political correspondent, I'm supposed to put my cynical hat on when politicians get involved but this blog is about building people up, not about knocking them down. Both MPs spoke passionately last Friday at the Endangered Species Summit in London about the need to challenge negative body thoughts and promote diversity of shape and form in the media and fashion industries and in schools.

So now to an organisation that's doing an amazing job to challenge negative body image: Body Gossip. Founded by Ruth Rogers, Body Gossip invites the public to write in with stories about their bodies and then a selection of them are performed live on stage or in short films by celebrities. Natalie Cassidy, Anne Diamond and Nikki Grahame are all onboard, amongst other celebs. To get a taste of how powerful this can be, please check out this video: This One is For You.

That video certainly brought a tear to my eye and it might have the same effect on anyone who's struggled with similar issues. We really weren't meant to live in such a prison.

So, instead of thinking about what are bodies look like or don't look like, why not celebrate them for what they can do? More on that later, but in the meantime, here's three simple tips I've come up with over the past 24 hours as I've tried to abstain from negative body thoughts:
  • If you find yourself frowning at your face in the mirror, SMILE
  • When you look in the mirror first thing in the morning, hair disshevelled, face pale, say "You're beautiful" instead of groaning
  • Find a life-affirming book to read or say positive affirmations while sitting on the loo instead of trying to work out if your thighs are thinner or fatter today (too much information?!)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

End of Day One

It's the end of Day One and this is already proving harder than I thought! I've lost count of the number of times I've had to say 'sorry' to myself for almost slipping back into what we'll call that 'stinking thinking'. After all, it's not easy to admire the way my hair looks after wearing a helmet for 45 mins to ride my Vespa. But at least I'm now aware of how those thought patterns creep back in, which gives me a better chance of changing them.

It also occurred to me a little earlier that despite Mark Darcy telling Bridget Jones that he liked her 'just as she was', it wasn't enough for her - she still went back to Daniel Cleaver! I guess you have to believe it yourself first.

More tomorrow on body politics, body gossip and celebrating the body for what it can do rather than for what it looks like.

Day One

Today is the first day of Lent - a 40-day period of sacrifice, abstinence and self-denial. Yesterday, as I contemplated what to give up for Lent, I decided to forego Starbucks soya milk decaf coffees for the next 40 days and give the money to a good cause. I also thought about giving up bread or sweet stuff. But as the world celebrated International Women's Day, I decided there was something else I needed to give up - something much more unhealthy and far more costly than coffee or chocolate: negative thinking about my body and appearance.

So I am challenging myself - for this period of Lent - to give up those nasty thoughts about my shape, size, form, skin tone, complexion, hair etc etc etc - that go through my head numerous times a day. This isn't going to be easy. As I realised this morning as I showered and got dressed, self criticism is deeply ingrained in my psyche. But the best I can do is to challenge those thoughts - so every time I'm tempted to pinch at my waist, look critically at my legs or tut or groan when I look in the mirror, I'm going to try not to. And every time I look at another woman and am tempted to think I want her figure, hair, face etc, I'm going to celebrate her beauty and also celebrate mine. I'm going to smile and say 'Thank you God for creating me just as I am'.

Now, I know this may sound a bit like a Bridget Jones moment and I admit I've stolen the line 'just as I am' from that romantic scene when Mark Darcy tells Bridget he likes her 'just as she is'. I also admit I'm approaching a milestone birthday which may make me contemplate my life in a Bridget Jones fashion. But this is rather more serious.

Over the past few days, as I attended events to mark International Women's Day, listened to speakers and read a lot, it dawned on me that all the struggles for women's rights and equality over the years are worth precious little if I continue to put myself down. I have been my own worst enemy. And it seems I'm not alone - in a Glamour Magazine survey, women admitted to having 13 negative body thoughts daily. Imagine how much extra thinking time we'd have if we didn't have those negative thoughts, or imagine how great we might feel if we replace every one with a positive thought!

I hope this blog will track my progress as I try to do that, but also that it will record the experiences, suggestions and tips of other women and men who'd like to join me on this journey. If you can relate to the above and you'd like to take up the challenge, I'd love to hear from you. You can write to me via this blog, check out the Just As I Am Facebook page , contact me on Twitter @Just_AsIAm40, or join the debate on Twitter using #JustAsIAm

I'd also like to highlight on this blog some of the amazing women and organisations I've come across who are trying to fight back against negative body image. For starters, check out this video by Emma Thompson for the Endangered Species Summit, which I went to in London last Friday.

So it's midday on Day One. I can't say I haven't been on the cusp of having negative thoughts or comparing myself with others, but I've challenged those thoughts and behaviours every time. Maybe a good habit can replace a bad one after all.